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 Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)

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Barking Agatha
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PostSubject: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Jul 25 2013, 07:20

This is the first part of something I've been writing in my head off and on for some time. I'm awfully insecure about it, so please be kind if you can, or at least, don't be too unkind.

Objectionable Content Warnings::
 


Anyway...

ASCENT
CHAPTER ONE - THE CROSSROADS BENEATH THE MOON

What is your life worth to you? The question was the life’s breath of the City, in this place that was not a place, carried on the wings of invisible cackling imps. It permeated the city’s cruel chambers, wafted down its joyless halls, hovered on its jagged spires, echoed from its obsidian walls, was swallowed up by its maddening angles and seeped up again from the depths of its gruesome pits. It was always there, unacknowledged but deep-rooted in the marrow of every soul, from the Archon lords in their towers of black glass to the wych gladiators in their blood-stained arenas, the twisted Haemonculi in their laboratories of pain, the howling gangs of Hellions on their swooping skyboards, the fantastical aliens from the regions beyond, and the pitiful captives of the slave pens.

What is your life worth to you?, the City asked, mocking. What price are you willing to pay for the drawing of just one more breath, when every breath is agony? What is it worth to take just one more step, when every step is deeper into madness?  For the poor, unfortunate souls taken captive and enslaved by the dark eldar, the fey and cruel people that inhabited and ruled over the City, the answer came readily: Not this much. Not at this cost. Not with this much pain and horror. The one cry that could most often be made out from the ever-present echoes of sobs and wails was a desperate plea: ‘Please, kill me! Please, just let me die!’

For the young human captive whose name had once been Meeran, the answer came even more readily.  She had heard the City’s mocking song from the moment she had crossed over in chains from Realspace, as the eldar called the realm of physical matter. She had instinctively known what lay before her, and she had given the City her answer, the only answer. Anything.

Anything?, the City had mocked. Anything, she had said, almost eagerly. Everything. There was no agony she would not endure, no horror she would not bear, no indignity she would not suffer, no atrocity she would not descend to, no shred of her soul that she would not leave behind.

It was incomprehensible to her that anyone would answer otherwise.

We shall see, said the City, skeptical, marking her as one to watch.

It was the simplest, yet most difficult of tasks. Take one breath, and then another; one step, and then the next. Discard everything else. There was no pride, no love, no hope, no name. There was suffering. Her flesh was abused and mortified, and she howled equally in pain and glee, because she was alive. There was derangement, and she gibbered with abandon. There was debasement, and she wallowed in it.  Her fellow slaves recoiled from her in terror, and she laughed at their distress, knowing they were lost.

Time either passed or froze to a standstill. It was meaningless here. The faces of the tormented came and went. Her prison was a mirrored terrace beneath the black sun, overlooking an endless lake of still, black waters, and surrounded by a fence of razors. Occasionally a prisoner would succumb to the despair and attempt to climb the fence, cutting themselves to ribbons, to the laughter of the guards, their mangled remains left hanging to rot as grisly ornaments. One had made it to the top and cast himself into the lake, only to be caught in mid-air by winged eldar with talons for feet, and torn apart, screaming, his blood spattering like a warm rain upon the upturned faces below.

The girl sighed with delight. It was horrible. It was beautiful. It was madness.

Two others had also remained. One was an eight-foot giant, grotesquely muscled, who was always kept tightly bound with chains. The girl knew what he was: a genetically enhanced super warrior of the Adeptus Astartes, a space marine. A man turned into a monster that cared not for fear, or pain, or death, fanatically dedicated to a single purpose.  He would not allow himself to die until that purpose had been fulfilled. The hatred that sustained him fell often upon her, and she knew that, if he were to get loose, he would gladly crush her skull within a single massive fist.

It also fell upon the other, an eldar woman. The girl was not surprised. Why would the eldar be any less cruel to their own? She had an otherworldly beauty, delicate and graceful, and once she might have been radiant to look upon. Now, she was sorrow. Every agony, every despair that the humans felt, she felt a hundredfold. The girl regarded her with longing. Sometimes their eyes would meet, and something like a kinship would almost pass between them, but the alien woman was different. She clung to life, not from a passion for it, with all of its pain and awfulness, but from an abject terror of death. There was no torment, no matter how unbearable, that did not pale before the paralyzing dread of the unthinkable horror that lay waiting for her beyond death.

All three were left alone, the space marine in his hatred, the eldar woman in her terror, the girl in her delirium.

Then the woman approached the girl, and spoke: ‘Do you know where we are, mon-keigh?’

The girl politely bowed her head. ‘Mistress, we are at the crossroads, between the dog, and the wolf, and the thing that rises from below.’

The woman said, ‘I am not your mistress. You think that I am one of them, but I am not, though I am, and I am not. It is difficult to express in your too-simple language. I am S’hlee, a seer of the eldarith. Our captors are eldarith ynneas.’

The girl laughed. ‘You are not you when you are here, but you are you when you are there? Language indeed, Mistress!  You are always you.’

S’hlee was stunned. This was not madness, it was pure intuition. Knowledge without understanding. ‘Who are you? What are you?’

‘Mistress, I am no one. I am nothing. Only a mad, wild thing.’

S’hlee searched the girl with desperate intent, using her psychic sight in an attempt to read her mind. Potent symbols whirled and danced, sights and sensations fraught with inexpressible meanings, merging into each other, overwhelming every thought with the rush of the whole. ‘Where do you come from? What road led you here?’ she asked.

The girl snarled with frustration. She wanted to help her mistress, but how could she explain when the alien woman wouldn’t understand? S’hlee wanted words, but words were meaningless. Instead, the girl let memories rise, and as they rose, she let them go. She did not need them any more.

Memories of the underhive slums on the world of concrete and steel where a girl named Meeran had been born, among the poorest of the poor, the outcast and unwanted, abandoned by humanity to scrabble out their lives as best they could amidst the rubbish of countless centuries. Memories of the mild but damning deformity with which she had been born, six fingers on each hand, marking her as impure, unclean, an outcast among outcasts. Memories of surviving against all odds in that unforgiving place, through skill, and wits, and ruthlessness, and will.

A memory of being captured at age thirteen by a cult of fanatical redemptionists, who named her an abomination in the sight of their holy Emperor. The bright look of righteous zeal in their eyes, as they beat, and cut, and burned her. She had prayed to the Emperor then, for the first and last time. In the end, she had escaped. She had surprised her captors with her fierceness. She had murdered. She had lived.

Weeks of running to escape the cultists’ vengeful wrath. An opportunity, and she was sneaking aboard a spaceship as a stowaway, not knowing where it was bound, or when it would get there, or how she would survive. A fool’s leap.

Discovery. Imprisonment. Then, a mutiny. Slaughter, murder, and freedom. The end of Meeran, the gutter runaway, and the start of Meeran the pirate, raiding and pillaging across the stars. A measure of respect, even admiration, but always the sidelong glances, the whispering behind her back. An outcast among outcasts.

Captured by the Imperial Navy. Thrown into the brig of a prison ship. For the pirates, conscription into the penal legions, to fight the Empire’s wars under the worst of conditions until they died. For Meeran, death, because she had six fingers on each hand.

And then the fiends had come.

They had appeared like a nightmare out of nowhere. Howling and cackling maniacally as they slaughtered and maimed and inflicted pain on prisoner and guard alike, with careless grace and unrestrained delight. Dancing and laughing like the shadows of children under fountains of spurting blood and severed entrails. She had heard stories in her brief life as a pirate, but never could she have imagined such beings. They filled her with terror, and awe, and a longing for something that she had never known. How she envied them, their joy, their innocent malice!

And that had been the end. Those memories were gone, lost. They belonged to a girl who had died in that brig, in a moment of perfect wonder. There was something else, something small, and dark, and precious, kept hidden beyond a desert, in the middle of an ocean, on the side of a cliff, deep within a cave, at the bottom of a well. But I will not look, she thought. Nothing can make me look.

S’hlee stared in wonderment. What a marvel to find, here of all places, and in a mon-keigh animal, of all things! If only she could return to her craftworld, the insights she could bring them, the knowledge to be learned! But that path was closed to her now. All futures had collapsed around her.

‘Do you know why we yet live?’, she asked the girl.

‘I live!’, declared the girl, the one unalterable truth of the universe.

S’hlee was undeterred. ‘We live because we are special, because we are valuable. You intrigue our captors; they don’t know what to make of you. Him,’ she gestured at the space marine, ‘because he is a rare prize. And me, the rarest prize of all, because I am a seer of the true eldarith. I do not fear an end – I would welcome it! – but the fate that they have planned for me…’ She faltered. Even to put it into words was to give it substance.

She took the girl’s hands. ‘Only you can save me. I will give you everything in return. Everything, do you understand? But you must accept. I beg you, mon-keigh!’

‘Everything,’ said the girl, tenderly, understanding. ‘A fool’s leap.’

S’hlee bowed her head in gratitude. ‘Thank you,’ she said. Her path chosen, she walked to the wall and cut her wrist on one of the sharp razors, letting the red blood flow. Upon the glassy surface of the terrace, using her own blood, she began to inscribe a pattern of runes, forming a triangle within a circle; runes that were wrong, that should never be inscribed. If her people could see her now, she knew, they would recoil in disgust. They would consign her soul to She-Who-Thirsts, and strike out every memory of her name. The mon-keigh girl was right; she was no longer one of the eldar. Perhaps she was one of them, a dark eldar. Perhaps she was something much worse. I am most like the girl, she thought. We both follow our paths where we must, no matter how deep into the abyss, because the alternative is no alternative at all.

She and the girl sat cross-legged within the pattern. ‘Read the runes with me,’ she said, pointing them out. ‘That one is craft. There is dilemma. Speech… maturity… leaving things behind…’ To her surprise, the girl took up the chant, pouring her own meaning into the runes. ‘Wishes and sins… gaining by giving… tricks and deception… victory in surrender…’

‘Life-in-death…’

‘Death-in-life…’

The girl grasped her by the throat, and S’hlee found herself trembling, tears welling up in her eyes. ‘Gods, I am so afraid! Please, do it quickly, I…’

The girl sprang upon her with a tigerish ferocity, throwing her down on her back and straddling her body with a feathery weight, but a grip like a vise. S’hlee panicked and flailed, trying to fight her off, but it was too late. Her arms were pinned beneath the girl’s knees, her windpipe crushed by her wiry fingers. Soon she saw stars, little pinpricks of flashing white light, as the last of her strength left her. Then it faded into black, and she knew nothing more.

Still the girl squeezed, and as the life fled from S’hlee’s body, tendrils of black rune light emerged from her eyes and mouth, entering the girl, joining them together and letting her share S’hlee’s dying agonies even as she strangled her.

And then it was done. The girl Meeran stared in wonder at the gracefully obscene corpse that she straddled, with its swollen blue face, bloodshot, bulging eyes, black, protruding tongue, flecks of bloodstained foam upon the lips and nostrils. ‘Is that me?’, she wondered aloud.

A voice within her said, ‘Yes. No. I never expected this! I am everything. I am S’hlee, and I am Meeran. I am truth, and beauty. I am finished, and I have only just begun.’

‘We are water and we are wine. We are one.’

‘We are alive.’


Last edited by Barking Agatha on Sun Jun 01 2014, 05:13; edited 11 times in total
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sat Aug 03 2013, 09:17

CHAPTER 2  - THE CASTLE OF GALLOWS

Of course Meeran was punished for depriving the slavers of their most valuable slave. Two of them came for her with prods, and kicks, and angry shouting; they attached a leash to her collar and dragged her inside, out of the terrace, down a black corridor barely illuminated by a shimmering phosphorescence, and into a small alcove, where they kept a battered and much-used device which they called the Bell of Pain.

They stretched her out on it, and at the touch of a rune, its hooks emerged and sank into her flesh, holding her fast. Another rune, and the bell came to life with a low, bone-rattling hum, and every nerve ending in her body twisted with ice and fire.

Meeran owned the pain, accepting it as hers. The part of her that was S’hlee could see into her various futures, almost as clearly as the part of her that was Meeran could remember her various pasts. Admittedly, not too clearly, but one thing was for certain: there was pain before her and pain behind her. She did not fear it. She embodied it.

The worried look on the faces of the two dark eldar amused her, and she could not help laughing at them, even through the pain. Her suffering did not nourish them. In fact, they were beginning to feel a bit drained. ‘Shut it off!’ said the foppish one with the black dreadlocks.

‘Has this ever happened before?’ asked the bald one with the ornamental scars.

‘Not in my experience. I almost heard a story from a mandrake once, but I refused to listen to it.’ He had been wise to do so. Those who listen to the mandrakes’ tales often find themselves lost in them, and most of their stories are deadly.

‘She ought to be destroyed,’ said the bald one. They spoke their own variety of the eldarith language. It never would have occurred to them that Meeran could understand them, but she did, every word.

‘Don’t even think it. I have lost far too much already, and this one is already sold, to one of the haemonculi.’

‘Which one?’

‘Which one do you think?’

‘The old mad one?’ The slaver leered cruelly. ‘I almost pity the wretched thing. Better for her if we killed her now, and sold her for parts.’

‘I’ve warned you, not one more word of that. We have to deliver her intact, or else it’s but a step to the slave block for ourselves. Do you understand me?’ He spat on Meeran’s face. ‘Leave her on the hooks, at least, until they come for her. She’ll suffer that much, for all that she has cost me.’

Meeran slept. When she awoke, they came for her. There were three eldar men, bare-chested and heavily scarred, wearing their black leather robes around their waists. They had metal claws grafted onto their limbs, and racks of bone growing out of their spines, and wore black iron masks which were riveted onto their faces. One of them moved to release Meeran from the hooks, but another one, the burly one, grabbed her by the throat and ripped her off of them with a tearing of flesh, throwing her onto the floor.

‘Are you mad, Qlip?’ said the third one. ‘You’ve damaged our master’s new toy. He will have our hides for this!’

The one named Qlip snorted. ‘Our master is old and foolish. He could have bought two dozen slaves with what he paid for this one, and look at it! We could bring him any female mon-keigh, and he would never know the difference.’

‘He would know,’ said the first. ‘Foolish he may be, but I have no wish to be liquefied. We are lucky that I came prepared.’

Needles sprang from the knuckles of his gauntlet and he sank them into Meeran’s side, injecting her with a glowing ichor from vials on the back of his hand. It burned like acid, but the flesh began to knit together, well enough for her to stand, though every step felt like razor blades.

Qlip yanked on her leash. Wordlessly, they led her out of the building and down into the city. They walked through streets whose lines conformed to no rational perspective, past structures grown from single pieces of black and rainbow obsidian and chalcedony, shop fronts and street sellers hawking dark wonders and minor atrocities. And the people! There were eldar everywhere, some walking as proudly as kings and queens, some flying low on many-coloured wings like ravens or bats, some with sharpened teeth, or altered limbs. There were demons of shadow and fire, rodent people with hoods over their heads, translucent floating jellyfish trailing long tendrils, tall snake men wielding enormous halberds. Meeran absorbed everything, feeling slightly embarrassed to be such a tourist.

They ascended a curving ramp toward a palace made of dark green glass. Its entrance was a tunnel, leading to a high vaulted hall. Beyond that was a dining room, with an enormous candelabrum hanging from the ceiling and a mirrored wall at the far end. There was a long table of black glass, set with an abundance of fruits, meats, pastries, bottles, and vials, and before it stood an eldar man.

Qlip and the other two wracks bowed to the man and left her there. He looked old, and brittle. His skin stretched like parchment over his bones. His hair was grey, long, and matted. His eyes were marbles of solid black. He wore his ribcage on the outside of his skin, enameled in onyx, and elegant purple robes made of flayed, screaming faces, sewn together. He had a growth of bone protruding from his jaw, delicately sculpted to resemble a pointed beard, though it was now tarnished and pitted with age.

‘Come closer,’ he said to Meeran, in a voice like the wind over dry sand. ‘Don’t be frightened. What is your name? What do you like to eat, to drink, to wear? Do you like drugs? We have them, in abundance.’

When Meeran did not answer, he made an expression of theatrical dismay. ‘Please, don’t pretend that you don’t understand me. I can see the soul of the eldarith seer within you, like two serpents joined together. It is very beautiful. What is your name?’

Meeran hesitated. It was a big decision, after all. ‘Master… my name is Meeran S’hlee.’

‘Then Meeran-S’hlee I name you. I am Vermipox. Now, sit. You must be hungry, and thirsty. Eat. Drink. Enjoy. Take anything that is to your liking.’

Meeran did as she was told. She tasted of fruits that were sweet, tart, and delicious, and wines that were spicy, and perfumed, and full. She was indeed hungry and thirsty, but she ate and drank only a bit from each, savouring the slow quenching of her hunger and her thirst, as much as the lingering flavours, aromas, and sensations. She took a puff from a water pipe and let it fill her lungs, and was given visions of invisible spirits that could only be perceived out of the corner of the eye. ‘Master,’ she said, ‘why are you showing me this kindness?’

Vermipox bared his long teeth in a grimace that was meant to be a smile. ‘Why? Because I will show you everything, my clay. I will show you kindness and cruelty, joy and despair, comfort and terror. What is the point of one without the other? You are fortunate, to have been bought by me. My cohorts would have wasted you, with the banal brutalities of mere craftsmen and mechanics. I, on the other hand, am an artist. I see you as you are, a block of raw and unspoiled pain, and I shall bring forth from you a pain sculpture of terrifying beauty. Does this appeal to you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Why should clay not wish to be fired, or a canvas to be painted upon? I believe you will surprise me. Come, I shall escort you to your cell.’

He led her down a spiraling corridor decorated with sublime atrocities. On a plinth there was a woman’s severed head with its lungs still hanging from it, intact; as they passed, the eyes opened, the lungs inflated, and the head sang a haunting and heartbreaking song. There was a man encased in a water tank, caught forever in the moment of drowning. There was a table made of flesh and bone that still breathed, with eyes that blinked. There was a mirror framed with the remains of a still living man, filled with mists that shifted constantly in disturbing patterns.

Seeing her interest, Vermipox said, ‘They are all former works of mine. They inspired me, once, but alas, I have lived for more ages than I remember, and I inevitably became bored with them, so I turned them into useful and amusing ornaments.’

‘Is that to be my fate?’ asked Meeran.

‘I fear so. But why concern yourself with that? It does not matter what happens to you, or to me. All that matters is what we create here and now; to reach perfection, to be complete. I do not wish to force it upon you. I want you to sacrifice yourself, willingly, to me, to yourself, to our work.’

‘With all my heart,’ said Meeran. ‘With all my soul.’
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Mon Aug 05 2013, 03:17

I found this very atmospheric, and an interestingly sophisticated take on the Fleshcrafters. You have a style that I enjoy; it is descriptive but not too full of description, if that makes sense Smile I like the way Meeran's madness is consistent; this makes it ring truer than if she just 'acted crazy'. It has its own internal logic.

Quote :
Those who listen to the mandrakes’ tales often find themselves lost in them, and most of their stories are deadly.

This just struck me particularly. Not only is it nicely phrased, it underlines just how strange the Mandrakes are to the rest of Dark Eldar society.

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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Tue Aug 06 2013, 04:43

Thank you very, very kindly! Struggling a bit with Ch 3.
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Tue Aug 06 2013, 12:46

In my experience stories have a gestation period; it'll come when it's ready Very Happy There's no doubt you have the language skills.

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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Wed Aug 07 2013, 19:20

You were absolutely right. Anyway, here's Ch 3.

CHAPTER 3 – THE FORGE OF MORTIFICATION

Meeran posed before a mirror in the Hall of Reflections, admiring her nakedness. She had no skin anywhere on her body, except on her face, hands, and feet; everywhere else, she was glistening meat, cartilage, and sinew. Even now the skin grew over her, ever so slowly, at the edges, like moss, up her legs and arms and down her neck. It had to be lovingly tended, like an ornamental garden, with oils and acids, to keep it growing evenly, neither too fast nor too slowly. One day it would cover her completely, softer than velvet and stronger than spiderweb, but her reflection in the mirror would always be like this, wantonly displaying the full measure of her lewdness.

Vermipox had gifted and cursed her with a surfeit of sensation. The slightest breeze felt like paper cuts; her every breath seared her lungs; the beating of her own pulse was like an earthquake in her eardrums; the faintest of smells overwhelmed her to the point of nausea. And there was sight. Even in near darkness she could see geographies in the cracks of an old vase, galaxies in the glass walls. It was all too much; except, how could it ever be too much?

She moved with the careless elegance of a spider under a strobe light, appearing to shift closer and closer without moving in between. There was something of both Meeran and S’hlee in her; she was the fears of both the eldar and humanity. She was pain, and terror, and beauty incarnate. Vermipox was a true artist; he had brought out what had been in her all along.

She moved to another mirror, to where it had all begun. In that reflection, Vermipox was making incisions in her skin with the sharpest of scalpels, transversal and longitudinal; under her chin, down her back, down her sides, down the inside of her legs; creating seams, as if her skin were a suit to be disassembled from her body. He worked patiently, painstakingly, careful not to cut too deep or stray from the pattern. Then he peeled off the sections with the aid of a rounded knife, slowly and with even greater care, so as not to damage the muscle and cartilage underneath. When he became exhausted, he slept, to begin again after a few hours’ rest.

While she was flayed, Meeran stood perfectly straight, arms held down or straight out to the sides, legs held together or apart, as directed. She neither flinched nor cried out. A good canvas did not move. A good canvas did not speak.

Another mirror: She lay on the slab, and he was reaching inside her, pulling apart the muscle and exposing the bone. He held it apart with silver retractors, while he cut into the bone at the joints with a small whirring, shrieking, circular saw; again, with an artist’s meticulous precision. Then he removed the bone and left her there, boneless as a meat jelly, while he worked on it at his lathe, bending, twisting, strengthening, altering, until hours later it was ready and he reconnected it into her body with needle and welding torch.  

Wiping the sweat from his brow, he said, ‘You may scream now.’ And Meeran screamed, tears of pain burning down her skinless cheeks, and screamed and screamed until her lungs gave out, and Vermipox laughed, and then she laughed too.

In the mirror next to that, she was catching a look of uncertainty in Vermipox’s glance. ‘What troubles you, my Master?’ she asked.

Vermipox said, ‘I confess, I am not entirely pleased with the curve of your left humerus.’

‘Then you must do it again, Vermipox.’

He was weary. ‘If I change it again, then I must also alter the scapula, the ulna, and the radius, and then I shall have to balance it again on the other side.’

She was gentle, but firm. ‘Again, Vermipox.’

He nodded and set to work. The canvas made demands of him, and he had no choice but to submit.

Her reflections surrounded her on every side. Veins and arteries drawn between steady fingers; intestines wound unto a spool; organs melted like wax under a torch, and reconfigurated. The mirror that would have shown her when her eyes had been removed was red and dark.

One mirror caught her attention. She was not there; instead, there was Qlip, the wrack servant of Vermipox who had first brought her to the palace. Pathetic, contemptible Qlip, who desperately coveted the name of Haemonculus Master, without the faintest understanding of what it meant. He often stalked her around the corridors when Vermipox was away, driven by envy and frustration, with agony prod in hand, to beat and hurt her, although careful not to mar his master’s work. She had humored him, until her patience finally gave out.

‘You can not hurt me, Qlip,’ she had told him. ‘Can you burn fire? Can you make the ocean wet? Beware the depths of the abyss, Qlip. One day they will swallow your soul.’

And here he was, in her reflection! He stood in the great hall, announcing visitors, affecting a voice of grandiloquence and an air of self-importance . ‘Lady Pleghanie, of the Kabal of Deceitful Smiles; Succubus Etain, of the Cult of the Garrote; Master Antharos, of the Coven of Tortured Alterations; Master Finghul, of the Slaver’s Guild; their guards and attendants!’

Vermipox descended from the gallery. ‘I see them Qlip, no need for introductions; I know these worthies of old. Welcome, guests, to the Palace of Fulsome Waters. To what do I owe this pleasure?’

A small crowd was gathered in the hall. A certain tension filled the room. This looked interesting. Meeran stepped into the mirror.

The Lady Pleghanie, a dark-haired, cruel beauty, and Archon of the Deceitful Smiles, was the leader of the party. The others were sycophants, and hangers-on. They wore their cynical smirks openly, enjoying their lark: their humiliation of an ancient fool, full of antiquated notions, who had drifted far away from their society.

‘Greetings, Vermipox,’ she said. ‘It has been too long since we last saw you, and we are curious to see what you’ve been getting up to. Master Antharos has created a new type of grotesque, and his stable dominates the arenas. None of our creatures can stand against them. It’s becoming dull, quite frankly, and we hoped perhaps you had produced something to rival his creations. May we see some of your recent work?’

Vermipox gestured grandly toward Meeran. ‘She stands before you. Indeed, she has been here all along. Is that not right, my treasure?’

A collective gasp of shock and admiration gushed from them as Meeran stepped forward and displayed herself. Of course she had been there all along; how else could she have seen it in her own reflection?

Etain, the succubus, licked her lips. ‘Verrry pretty,’ she purred. ‘But what does it do?’

‘Do, my lady?’ said Vermipox. ‘She does not do; she simply is.’

‘In other words, nothing!’ spat Antharos, the rival Hemonculus, not hiding his contempt. ‘You waste your efforts on useless trivialities!’

Meeran felt her anger rising. They were mocking her, mocking her master, mocking the work! She could have held her tongue, but she knew that she would not. She knew that she would speak the words, and where they would lead. ‘You would be wiser to speak with more respect, when you stand before your better,’ she said.

Lady Pleghanie was aghast. ‘Vermipox! It spoke to us!’

Vermipox chuckled to himself. ‘Indeed, my lady. That is what art does: it speaks to us.’

Meeran did not stop there. ‘Shall I dance for you, ladies and lords?’ She did not wait for a response. She clapped her hands, and an eerie, whistling tune rang from the walls, and she danced. She danced the flaying of her skin, and she danced the breaking of her bones, and she danced the tearing of her flesh. She danced of things lost forever, and lies told, and truths too painful to be seen in the cold light. She was gratified to see their gorges rising with horror, their chests heaving with emotion, their eyes welling up with tears; these jaded creatures, who thought themselves beyond shocking, beyond hurting, and yet could not bear to face themselves.

Tears of rage and shame ran down Lady Pleghanie’s cheeks. ‘Tear her to shreds!’ she commanded, and two Incubi warriors moved to obey.

Vermipox’s voice thundered in the hall. ‘YOU WILL DO NO SUCH THING!’

His wracks and creatures interposed themselves. At a gesture from his hand, strands of sticky filaments shot out from the walls, entangling and immobilising the guards. ‘Lady Pleghanie,’ he said, ‘do you forget your manners?’

For a moment it seemed as if the Lady Pleghanie would break into violence, and the mask of civility be cast off; but she collected herself. ‘My apologies, Vermipox,’ she said. ‘The performance quite overwhelmed me. It did something to us, did it not?’

‘It was but a mirror, my lady; there was nothing there, but what we saw within ourselves. But this is unseemly; you are my guests. Will you not stay for supper? Will you not join me for tea?’

‘Apologies again, Vermipox, but we can not stay. I fear that we must cut our visit short. We have pressing engagements elsewhere, that require our attention, and I think we have seen what we came to see. I thank you for your hospitality.’ She looked him in the eyes and smiled like a reptile. ‘You must allow me to repay it. Soon.’

When they had gone, Qlip raised his voice to Vermipox. ‘Master! You have made enemies today, and for what? For a mad animal! An insignificant mon-keigh slave!’

Vermipox spoke very quietly. ‘Leave me Qlip, quickly, if you value your soul.’

Qlip seemed about to say something else, then thought better of it, and hurried to obey. Then Meeran stood fearlessly before Vermipox. ‘Master,’ she said, ‘have I displeased you?’

‘Displeased me? You have spoken for me, as you were created to do. Surprised me, perhaps. I could not have known that you would speak so… eloquently. But I am angry. How dare they! Who do they think they are? They do not see because they will not see. They think me weak, and it is true that I am much diminished, but do they think that they can come here, and beard me in my own house? Mock my work, threaten to break my things? A lesson is in order, I believe.’

Meeran said, ‘Five enemies, five wounds, five regrets, five disappointments. Drums, smoke, and serpents of fire.’

‘Indeed, that is where we stand.’

‘Then you must defeat them, Master. Take their pride from them, take everything from them. Show them how small they are, and how little they mean. I could rip their tawdry creatures to pieces in the arena. I could do it dancing. If you make me strong enough. If you make me fast enough. If you burn away everything that is not pure.’

The light of excitement shone in the blackness of Vermipox’s eyes. ‘It would mean starting the work anew. It would mean going even further. The torments you have suffered will seem as nothing, compared to the agonies that I will put you through. Every nerve ending will fray and scream; your soul will burn. Can you do it, my treasure? Can you pass through the fires without cracking?’

‘You know I can, Vermipox. It is what I am. In fact, we are already there.’
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Wed Aug 07 2013, 21:46

Quote :
Lady Pleghanie was aghast. ‘Vermipox! It spoke to us!’

Vermipox chuckled to himself. ‘Indeed, my lady. That is what art does: it speaks to us.’

The way you have characterised your Haemonculus - and his creation - is fantastic. And the degree to which the creation drives the master is familiar to anyone who has a creative side. It makes demands. Very nicely done.

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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sat Aug 10 2013, 19:53

CHAPTER 4 – THE DAUGHTER OF FLAME

The portcullis was raised with a whirring of chains and a shrieking of gears, and Meeran stepped from darkness into the blinding light of the arena, and the tidal roaring of the crowd.

She was clad only in loincloth and halter. Her only weapon was herself. A wychsuit and falchion were not for such as her; she was a thing, not a person. This was a contest between two flesh-crafters: Antharos, the overwhelming favourite, sitting smugly in the gaudiest and most luxurious of the baronial boxes, at the side of Lady Pleghanie and the rest of her clique; and Meeran’s master, Vermipox, aloof by himself in the shadows of his own modest booth in the galleries.

Antharos’ creation tore into the arena roaring and convulsing with injected stimulants, and Meeran knew that this would be no fight. The creature was twice her height, and as wide as she was tall; swollen with distorted muscle, pierced through with long spikes of bone growing out of it, grafted with tubes and vials and droning engines. Its face was hidden behind a black iron mask. One hand was a heavy hooked scissor blade; the other a pair of twin nozzles connected to exposed veins of the creature’s own black blood.

It charged at her like an avalanche, slashing before it with the massive blade. At the last moment, Meeran avoided its path with a single, insolent step, quicksilver fast, but unhurried. On the backhand swing, she sat daintily, ducking under it, rolling her legs first one way, then the other, then over her head into a backwards somersault and standing up again, as the creature’s weapon smashed uselessly into the ground, trying to cleave her apart.

She danced around the grotesque, almost ignoring it, her choreography allowing the blade to come within inches of slicing her, and then turning the move into a turn or a pirouette. When it was almost upon her, she leapfrogged over the creature, then glissaded away backwards with lively, petite steps.

The crowd broke into laughter at the unexpected comedy of the monster, this construct of destruction, made into an ineffective fool. Only a handful of the most perceptive in the audience began to worry, gnawed by the suspicion that it was not only the grotesque and its creator, Antharos, who were being mocked, but they as well.

With every pass, Meeran cut and hurt, cut and hurt, with nails of diamond sharper than lasers, and six fingers on each hand, stronger than pistons, driving the creature into a maddened frenzy. Here, a vein sliced; there, a tendon cut. At the apex of its impotent fury, the creature leaped upon her, and with one hand, she grabbed it by the foot, twisting, and sending it crashing, even as her other hand cut it deeply into the groin. Again she twisted, harder, and wrenched, snapping the bone and ripping the flesh, and tearing off the creature’s leg at the hip.

The grotesque howled in agony from behind a mouth that could not open. Lying on its side, it raised the nozzles of its left arm and shot a spray of foul, corrosive ichor in a wide arc toward her. Meeran danced playfully beneath the stream, danced around the drops. Balancing upon its torso, she grabbed its arm and stabbed at the joints where metal was spliced into flesh, tearing the weapon free. Black fluid spurted wildly from the stump, spilling over the creature’s body, burning smoking ridges where it landed.

The mutilated grotesque attempted to stand, and toppled. It writhed and flailed helplessly on the sand, bemoaning its misery with desperate whimpers. And that was enough. Meeran was filled with an overwhelming compassion for this child. It had not chosen to be here; it had not chosen to be. Hush, little brother, she said to it. No more hurt, I promise. Only peace. Be nothing. Sleep.

Something in the creature understood. There might have been a sense of gratitude behind its black iron mask. There might have been love. And Meeran fulfilled her promise.

If a moment of silence was called for, it was not to be. Cheers filled the stadium; jeers, and laughter, and shrieking vulgarities. Still, she had an audience to please, a master to serve, and his enemies to be brought low. She picked up her brother’s head and threw it blind, over her shoulder, into the audience as a trophy, making it seem like an accident that it flew straight into Lady Pleghanie’s box, landing on Antharos’ lap, to the riotous delight and approval of the crowd.

A dutiful servant, she prostrated herself before her master’s seat. Vermipox stood and gave a polite bow, acknowledging the applause. The crowd chanted, ‘Vermipox! Vermipox!’

As the next show began, Vermipox made a discreet exit, avoiding flatteries and congratulations. He collected Meeran from the gladiatorial pens, and quietly left the coliseum. Outside, they climbed into a hansom, and returned to the Palace of Fulsome Waters in serene silence. They were greeted by an assembly of the palace servants at the gate, walking with a pride and arrogance that had not been in them for a very long time. Qlip, as always, was the first to speak.

‘We won, Master! Your name is spoken on every street!’

Vermipox was solemn. ‘Of course we won, Qlip, don’t be ridiculous. Vermipox! Vermipox!’ he mimicked. ‘What an abundance of fools! Calling for the author, and ignoring the play.’

Meeran said, ‘Your hidden hand, my Master.’

‘No… my hidden heart. I hid it myself, and now I have found it myself, but did I want to?’ His black eyes searched into the depths of time. ‘Leave me, all of you. I wish to be alone.’

That had been the day of the first fight. There were many others after that. Antharos applied every measure of his craft into creating a grotesque that could best Meeran, always in predictably unimaginative ways. Sleeker, faster, smaller, bigger, better armoured, equipped with deadlier weapons; she took them all apart, singly and in groups. With every loss, Antharos toppled further from his social heights. He would always be feared, as a haemonculus, by all but the most foolish, but the mob scorned him behind his back. He lost his seat in Lady Pleghanie’s box, and she ceased to be seen with him in public. Soon, he ceased to be seen in public at all, retreating into his lair to fester, and to plot.

That was when they brought out wych gladiators to fight her.

Her first challenger was a male, no doubt eager for any chance to gain prestige in the female-dominated world of the wych cults. As the duel began, Meeran felt eyes upon her and turned to see Etain, the succubus who led the wych cult of the Garrote, watching her intently from Lady Pleghanie’s box, with her lascivious eyes and secret smile.

Meeran spoke to the succubus with her eyes: I know, my lady. I know that you have sent this fool to me as a sacrifice. You want him to die. You want me to kill him, and all the time you will be watching, weighing, measuring, learning, will you not?

Etain’s smile answered back: I know that you know, my pretty, but what will you do about it?

Meeran’s aspect was hard and cruel. I do not pity him. This death will be unkind.

For the first few minutes of the duel, it seemed as if Meeran and the gladiator were evenly matched, dancing with each other in a murderous choreography. He was fast, but she was faster; his razorflails slashing and slicing always a beat too late, a step behind, easily side-stepped or dodged. And yet he remained beyond her reach. He anticipated her movements as well as she did his, keeping her at bay with the longer-reach weapons, snapping the blades at her maneouvres and forcing her to take a step back. One step forward, one step back.

Then Meeran altered the dance. She scorned grace, she shattered harmony. She found a bestial, primal rhythm, jumping, leaping, and then standing still. A grisly dance, an anti-dance. Her movements split and multiplied and reformed, like microscopic jellies in the primeval sea, and exploded into splinters like holographic images of insects. Silence fell upon the stadium. Some began to scream.

The wych staggered, trying to keep up. Suddenly, the nightmare was at his back. He turned and parried and escaped, but not without a blow that shattered the bones of his left shoulder. Before he could recover, there she was again, smashing his nose with a delicate fist.

Disoriented and terrified, he whirled the razorflail in his remaining useful arm in all directions, creating around himself a circle of murder. Exhaustion made him stop, and there was Meeran, stabbing with her hand into his side, grabbing a rib, and tearing it from of his body.

In the midst of his agony, he fell back upon his forms, his mind and body attempting to restore order to the madness. But his will was broken. Meeran emerged from the dance with a grand horizontal leap and a half turn, smashing his right leg with a vicious kick and taking the razorflail from him with careless ease.

Victorious, she danced around him, twirling, pirouetting, and describing arabesques, whipping and slashing cruel cuts on his broken body with the flail. Soon, he fell upon his knees and cringed, not even trying to avoid the blades any more. ‘End it!’ he begged, and still she would not.

She would have gone on beating the bloody, quivering mess, but it was going too far. The crowd had gorged itself on his torment and despair, but the spectacle was losing its appeal. She was only a flesh-sculptor’s creation, after all, fashioned from the clay of a lesser race. There were mutterings. This was not the time, not yet. Very well, then. She straddled the prone ruin of the wych’s body, dug her nails into his throat, and pulled.

When it was over, amidst the cheers of the crowd, none applauded more loudly than Etain, the succubus, standing at the edge of the baronial box and jumping up and down as happily as a little girl on her birthday. As Meeran watched, Etain performed a little mime for her, striking an exquisite pose. It might have seemed like frolicking, but Meeran recognised it: it was the first key to her movements, the first key to her dance.

Etain blew her a soft kiss. I am coming for you, sweetness. Soon.
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Barking Agatha
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Aug 15 2013, 22:18

@Lady Malys wrote:
I like the way Meeran's madness is consistent; this makes it ring truer than if she just 'acted crazy'. It has its own internal logic.
I probably should have mentioned that I don't think Meeran is mad, exactly. It's just such lovely praise that I didn't want to say anything! As I see it, Meeran has altered her perception so that she perceives reality as a manifestation of archetypes, making her suitably adapted to life on the Veil, and by extension Commorragh, which is neither in the physical reality of Realspace nor in the archetypal realm of the Warp.

I certainly didn't mean to suggest that she was using madness as an escape. On the contrary, at that point she has fully embraced her reality and is willingly diving down into the utmost depths of suffering, because that is what she archetypically needs. She is Inanna descending into Hell. The more suffering they inflict on her, the more they are helping her along her path. Then of course, she joins with S'hlee, who has reached the same level of consciousness from the opposite direction.

Ahem. Long-winded justifications aside: In our next chapter, the secret origin of Commorragh's most powerful foe is revealed leading to the ultimate battle for the fate of the galaxy and our heroes will never be the same! ... well, okay, no. Actually, Meeran goes shopping and sees a theatre play.
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Fri Aug 16 2013, 01:17

I shall look forward to more Very Happy

It is clear that she hasn't chosen to run away into madness, and this comes across; I see it more as a door opening. That she has embraced her worldview willingly but not as a means of escape. Where it takes her next should be interesting indeed ...

Shopping you say? Very Happy

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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sun Aug 18 2013, 02:37

Chapter 5 kind of got away from me in the word count, so I've split it up into two parts, in order to spare the patience of those of you kind enough to be reading this story. But it's really only one chapter, okay? The management appreciates your kind understanding! Smile 

Here follows Chapter 5.
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sun Aug 18 2013, 02:51

CHAPTER 5 – THE KING OF AIR AND CHAINS

PART ONE – THE MANDRAKE’S TALE

When she was not fighting in the arena, or attending upon Vermipox in the Palace of Fulsome Waters, Meeran went out into the city. Her city: a city of nightmares, of fears and dreams, and she belonged to them now, to fears and to dreams. The heart of the city was the market; it was her delight to wander through the stalls, browsing the jewelry, the clothes, the trinkets, running errands for her master and, at his indulgence, even purchasing a few small but necessary things.

From a rogue trader’s man who smiled at her, she bought a sunflower wine, and for Vermipox, green olives and latakia. From a cultured lady vampire of the lhamaean sisterhood, she bought two tiny golden fish, swimming within an iridescent pearl. From a rodent-headed, chittering hrud, she bought a scent of red poppies, a jar of frankincense and honey, and a cat’s eye.

She strolled confidently through the market, keeping a tight grip on her pack, but unafraid of any danger. Casual murders and horrible fates were a fact of everyday life in Commorragh, and she had less to fear than most, for only the most foolish or desperate of predators would dare to harm her, marked as the property of a haemonculus, let alone one as ancient and feared as Vermipox. Besides, Meeran was a monster. Predators sensed this, and passed her by, searching for weaker, easier prey.

Of course, there were many kinds of predators. As she walked past a stall, the merchant cried after her. ‘Come buy, come buy! Cast your eye upon my wondrous wares! A ring of eternal life, for but a single lock of your hair! A demon’s heart full of dreaming sand, for only the tip of the fifth finger on your left hand! Come buy!’

Smirking, Meeran raised her left hand and showed him her six fingers. The merchant quickly looked away, realising his mistake, and pretended to busy himself rearranging the wares on his shelves, until she had gone.

Behind the stalls, on a step, within the shadows of two buttresses, given a wide berth by all the passers-by, there sat a mandrake, himself made of shadows within which cold, blue-green fires burned. He signaled Meeran to approach, and she did, not knowing any better and feeling brashly sure of herself.

He bade her sit beside him. ‘This is the story,’ he began, his voice an icy breath, ‘of the mandrakes that live in your shadow…

‘Everything that lives cast a shadow, and in every shadow there lives a mandrake. You do not see it, lurking within your shadow, but it sees you, always. It does not sleep, it does not dream. It lies there waiting, expectantly, always alert, eager for the moment, the opportunity, when you let your guard down, when you are alone, when you forget yourself. Then the mandrake emerges; its freezing fingers wrap themselves around your face, and it drags you down, down into the shadow, where you will stay. The mandrake then takes over; it steals everything that you are; it steals your body, your memories, your loves and hatreds. Soon the mandrake forgets that it was ever a mandrake. It believes that it is you, and who is to say that it is not? Who is to say that the usurpation ever really took place? Only sometimes, in the dead of night, when doubts take form that cannot be dispelled by the distractions of the day, the you that was a mandrake lies awake uneasily, wondering whatever happened to its former self. And all the while you remain trapped, pounding against the walls of shadow, screaming to be released.

‘This was not your case. In your shadow, two mandrakes lived. They each waited for that moment, when you would let one of them out, but when that moment came they fought, both eager to be the one to take over, and soon the moment passed. This happened again and again, with neither mandrake being able to get the upper hand. To pass the time, they wrestled, they made love, and they made wagers. They wagered on you, on whether you would smile or weep, on whether you would show kindness or cruelty, on when you would rise and when you would sleep. They became so engrossed in their games that they forgot themselves, and so they were quite unprepared when the unthinkable happened, and you entered the shadow yourself.

‘You do not remember it, but it happened so. When they got over their shock of this unheard-of occurrence, they both asked, ‘Which one of us will leave the shadow, and take over your soul?’ To which you replied, ‘Let us make a mirror. Whichever one of us the mirror shows, they will be the one to leave.’ And so, together, you fashioned a mirror, a shadow-mirror. The first mandrake looked in the mirror, confident that it would show its reflection, but whatever it saw in there instantly drove it mad. It fled to the furthest corner of your shadow and cringed there, gibbering and weeping. The second mandrake, seeing this, refused to look in the mirror, saying to you, ‘You first.’

‘And so, you looked in the mirror, and you smiled. You said, ‘It’s me.’ Then you stepped through the mirror and into the light, leaving behind the two mandrakes, one sane, one mad.

‘I am one of those two mandrakes. Perhaps I am the sane one, and perhaps I am the mad one. But you have listened to my tale, and I am free.’

Meeran looked into the cold flame of the mandrake’s eyes. ‘Is all of that true?’ she asked.

‘It is now,’ said the mandrake, rising, and walking away into the walls. It seemed to get smaller and smaller, as it walked further and further away, dissipating into the darkness as it walked; but of course, when Meeran touched it, it was only a shadow upon cold glass.

Further up the street, was that a glint of the mandrake’s blue-green flame, within the shadows of that doorway? She followed, but it was gone. Did she see its silhouette, in the shadow of that awning? She wandered the streets in a mad haze, following shadows, until the last trace of it was lost. Creatures born of nightmares steered clear of her, alarmed.

She had arrived to where the streets opened into a courtyard, where a temporary amphitheatre had been set up. The pews had been grown out of violet crystals, in a semi-circle around a raised platform, upon which painted eldar actors and jesters in colourful costumes capered, and sang, and posed.

Fascinated, Meeran took a seat. The aspect of her that had been S’hlee said, ‘This is the masque of the Harlequins. I have seen it before, many times, and yet I see it for the first time. How strange!’ The stage became the galaxy; the players became shepherds, herding the stars. ‘See the eldar race at the height of their power; beyond death, beyond life, beyond all realms to travel, beyond all mysteries to unfold.’

Mimes entered, beguiling the shepherds, their movements seductive to begin with, then increasingly violent and obscene. ‘Having conquered time itself, with no more left to strive for, they fall into decadence. Eternity grows dull. They crave sensation, and then more, ever more intense, cruel, depraved.’

A sinister figure appeared in the background, barely glimpsed at first, appearing and disappearing with the strobe light, then becoming more apparent with every wanton thrust, every vicious beat of the dance, until it leaped into full view. Its face was a mask of naked lust. Meeran gasped, and the audience collectively gasped along with her. ‘She-who-thirsts. We do not name her. She is born beyond the veil, given form by their lusts, and their cruelties.’  A psychic scream echoed through the audience. ‘She devours their souls alive, she kills the gods, all but the Laughing One, and thus the eldar fall, victim to their own desires.’

‘But no, that is only the surface, the mask. Look deeper, look: see the true face beneath, see the true heart of the dance.’

‘Oh! What is this? I never saw this!’ She was seeing a new side of the harlequins’ dance, a hidden aspect that had always been there. Right before her eyes, the dance revealed the mystery, the secret truth behind the so-called Fall of the Eldar. ‘It is not a reenactment. It is happening, right now; always happening. It is awful, and perfect, and necessary! Is this true?’

‘It is now. Why doesn’t everyone know?’

‘The harlequins know. Look: they are telling everyone. It isn’t a secret, it’s just that no one sees. They tour the craftworlds, the exodites, the young races, and here, and no one sees, but why?’

‘Because the language is lost; because they have forgotten how to dance. Look, the performance draws to a close.’

The audience trembled as the psychic scream rose to a sickening crescendo, mutating into a desolating laugh of corruption and depravity… but inlaid with the other laugh, the Trickster’s laugh, almost inaudible at first, then rising higher and higher in defiance and counterpoint; and the troupe master, the ardathair, entered the stage as the Laughing God, and danced with the corrupt solitaire, as She-Who-Thirsts, around and around in a never ending circle, a snake eating its own tail.

Here the play ended. The audience rose to their feet and applauded with sincerity and respect, then broke up into groups that drifted away, back to the streets of the market district, to their dealings and predations. Meeran was about to leave when she felt a hand upon her shoulder, and turned to see Death looming over her; or rather, one of the harlequins, dressed in the part of Death. It was all the same thing. If the stage contained the universe, then this jester was Death.

‘You have seen,’ he said. ‘You know.’

‘Yes,’ she answered.

‘You follow the beggar, but the path is lost. Come with me.’
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sun Aug 18 2013, 03:04

CHAPTER 5 – THE KING OF AIR AND CHAINS

PART TWO – THE MYSTERY PLAY

The Death Jester loomed over Meeran, searching her with his empty eyes from behind the mask of Death.

‘You have seen,’ he said to her. ‘You know.’

‘Yes,’ she answered.

‘You follow the beggar, but the path is lost. Come with me.’

He led her down and up onto the stage. The harlequin company observed her with curiosity, surrounding her in two concentric circles, miming elaborate poses and then freezing in mid-pose, as still as statues. The troupe master stood before her, a sleek and agile eldar woman wearing the laughing mask of comedy, dressed in a bodysuit of quilted colours; indigo, emerald, purple, and rose.

‘To see the dance is to join the dance,’ said the troupe master, holding Meeran by the hands. ‘Be guided by me, twin-heart.’

She started Meeran off with a series of simple arm movements, soon letting go of her hands. Meeran followed easily at first, then with more difficulty, as the movements became more elaborate and exactingly precise. Then one step, a single step, and another, and a turn. The company took up the dance, encircling her in a languid sarabande. The steps became more and more difficult, the dance more sophisticated and demanding.  Meeran followed as best she could. She could not match their discipline, the complex precision of their motions, but she did not need to; they led, and she allowed herself to be led. When she came close to missing her mark, they nudged her forward. When she nearly missed a beat, they held her lovingly, behind and in front, moving her arms and legs for her, playing her like a doll.

She was dragged into the dance, as if she were falling into an infinite void. The floor of the stage lengthened in an impossible direction. Her feet carried her away, marking the rhythm in an incomprehensible time, and she realised that she was somewhere else, and she had left the dancers behind.

She was in a marble gallery high above an ancient palace, with opulent fittings but corroded by time. Bits of masonry had fallen and lay in dust on the floor. On the wall hung the frayed remains of tapestries, their images long faded, only hinting at bizarre designs. The oblong windows overlooked a black lake, covered in a fine haze, beneath the light of a red star. There was a city by the lake, but it seemed like a mirage, either on the far shore or reflected upon its still waters.

There was a pale door at the end of the gallery, but a familiar figure barred her way. It was S’hlee, bruised, bedraggled, and dressed in rags, watching her with an accusation of fear and loathing in the red glare of her eyes.

‘Sister-self?’ asked Meeran.

‘I am Shame,’ said S’hlee. ‘To think that I have fallen so low. Look at you, a filthy mon-keigh animal! A common beast! No, worse than that… a freak of nature! An unclean monstrosity even in the eyes of your own wretched race! And a whore… a vile, disgraceful whore. You could not resist the suffering, like those who broke upon it, could you? Oh no, you wallowed in it, you loved every moment of it! Is there an inch of your wet meat that has not gaped wide for the corruption of beasts? Repulsive, swollen whore!’

Meeran fell to her knees and hunched over in pain, covering her ears and screaming. ‘Stop it!’

‘Oh, now you want to stop it? Did you ask them to stop when they whipped you? When they pierced your flesh? When they opened you up like a carcass and juiced you like a ripe fig?’

‘You are killing me…’ squeaked Meeran in a tiny voice. She was going to die. She wanted to die.

Then someone took her by the hand and raised her up, and a soft hand caressed her cheek. It was S’hlee, as Meeran had never seen her in the flesh; beautiful, glorious, and smiling, with hair like the light of suns and eyes that shone like stars. ‘Sister-self,’ said S’hlee.

The S’hlee that was Shame turned her attention to the real S’hlee. ‘Traitor! Fallen dreg! Unworthy of your ancestors!’

S’hlee said, ‘No. You are nothing. You are an echo, resonating in an empty shell.’

The false S’hlee faded and receded, her raving voice dissolving into the echo of a whisper, her shape vanishing into an outline on the grimy walls; then nothing.

‘Who was she?’ asked Meeran.

‘She was a shell,’ said S’hlee. ‘Like a fragment of the cocoon that is left when the butterfly is gone. The mandrake tried to warn us, remember?’

‘I remember now. We are water, and we are wine.’

‘We are all. Now, let us see what awaits us behind the door.’

The pale door opened into a long abandoned ballroom. Chairs were overturned and broken; cushions had blackened and split, spilling dirty, crumbling feathers on the floor; tables lay askew, still bearing what was left of food that had long ago rotted and mummified; black streamers hung from the ceiling, their ends trailing on the dust.

In the center of the ballroom, a tray floated in mid-air, bearing three cups, and next to it stood a stranger. She looked like a woman, but unnaturally tall and gaunt, covered from head to toe in the tatters of a yellow robe, and wearing a pale mask, void of all expression.

‘You are too late,’ she said. ‘The party is over. The revelers have all gone, beyond the lake, behind the stars.’

‘I know you, don’t I?’ said S’hlee.

‘Yes. You know me sometimes as Cegorach, the Laughing God, the Great Fool, and also by another, very different name... but I will spare you that, for now. Here, you see me as I am; here, all masks are cast off, and our true faces are revealed.’

‘Why have you brought us here?’

‘You brought yourself here, on the path of revelation. Shall I remind you? You came from horror and despair; you passed through the gates of death and iniquity, and rose up to beauty. Through sacrifice, you gained power; from strength, you found mercy. You danced into mystery, and so you came here. But you are incomplete; there is heart, and virtue, but wisdom is missing, and as I said, you are much too late. Let us drink, together; I will stand in for the third.’

They each took a cup from the tray, and drank the frothy wine. ‘If you did not bring us here, then what was your role on our path?’ S’hlee asked.

The woman shrugged. ‘A small part. My influence is subtle, and I am patient. Perhaps I nudge a pebble here, high up on a mountain, and many centuries later an avalanche buries the city that was built beneath it. Or perhaps I trouble the mind of a young eldar on the path of the seer, filling her with doubts, questions, and fears. Or perhaps I meddle in the birth of a human girl, ever so slightly, so that she is born with six fingers on each hand.’

Meeran and S’hlee reeled from the blow. ‘You? All along, from the beginning? Our entire lives!’ Meeran spoke accusingly. ‘Is that all that we are then, pawns in your game?’

‘My game?’ said the woman, and she laughed, and it was the Trickster’s laugh, but it was also the other laugh, the laugh of the Harlot. ‘I am only the tail of the snake. Ask yourself, whose will was it that moved my hand? Think: who brought you here?’

S’hlee screamed and dropped her cup, clinging to Meeran for solace. ‘No! It cannot be!’

Meeran comforted S’hlee, hugging her close, running her fingers through her hair. ‘We knew,’ she said. ‘Deep down, we always knew.’

‘Yes,’ said the woman. ‘It was always you. Who else? But you are incomplete, and can go no further. This palace is now yours. I’m afraid it lies in ruins, as you see; it is a poor bequeathal, but it shall remain open to you. When the time comes for you to leave Commorragh, it will serve as your escape.’

Meeran was dismayed. Leave Commorragh? Leave her streets of murder, the smell of blood and offal from her overflowing gutters? The walking horrors of her avenues, the tortured spires of her hellish labyrinths, the shrill screams of despair that echoed in the evening from the breaking cloud-waves in the violet sky?

Leave her master?

S’hlee wiped away a tear. ‘It will be all right,’ she said to Meeran. ‘When the time comes. There are more sights in the galaxy than we can imagine. There are more wonders and terrors in the Veil than we can dream of.’

‘You will know when the time comes,’ said the woman. ‘You will know what to do. You have always known.’

Meeran left the palace through the front gate. When she stepped back into the streets of Commorragh, she and S’hlee were again one, as they always had been.


Last edited by Barking Agatha on Mon Aug 19 2013, 07:42; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sun Aug 18 2013, 20:03

A very fascinating read so far! I will keep an eye out for more.

The appearance of Cegorach itself was a little surprise though.
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Mon Aug 19 2013, 07:40

@Mngwa wrote:
The appearance of Cegorach itself was a little surprise though.
Well, it's Cegorach and it isn't. I actually see now that I bungled that line; it's supposed to be ominous, but instead it sounds as if the stranger is just being pompous. I think instead of 'You know me as...' she should probably say, 'You know me sometimes as..., and also..., but'. In fact, I think I'll just change it. There. Done. Smile
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Aug 22 2013, 23:09

CHAPTER 6 – THE SCARLET PRINCESS

The Lady Alva Pleghanie sat alone in her room, high up on her black tower, resignedly making the final adjustments to the positions of the pieces on her game board. The game and the board were her own invention, almost as old as she was old, although of course, she never aged; she was always young, and beautiful, and perfect, too perfect, so beautiful that it crossed a line and became unsettling; a monstrous beauty.

The board was elegantly carved in human bone; the pieces were gemstones. The names might change, but the game, and the pieces, were always the same. Here, this tiny jade courtesan was the Vestal Rapae, Archon of the Coldheart Curse; and that little obsidian hierophant was Vermipox of the Fulsome Waters; and that aquamarine bird of prey was Set’keem, High Solarite of the scourges of the Reeking Eyrie; and that sleek amethyst panther was the Succubus Etain; and so on. And of course, the final piece, the exquisite ruby queen, that was herself, Pleghanie, as much a piece in the game as any of the others, as much a prisoner in the trap of its inevitable configurations, perhaps more so.

The irony was that she always revealed her intentions from the start. She wore no disguise. It was in the name: she was the Archon of Deceitful Smiles. She was not, for example, the Archon of Bloody Victories, or say, the Archon of Skillful Poisonings – although that certainly was fun and a good way to pass the time. None of them were innocents, there was not a virtuous soul among them; they knew, or ought to have known; was she not long of hair, and light of foot, and were her eyes not wild? And still they lined up to take their place as pieces on her board, conspirators in their own defeats.

She picked up a minor piece, a tiny coral poppy, for the girl, Vermipox’s creature, the one that had made her cry – and Pleghanie would not forget that in a hurry, oh no, they had placed themselves on her board, she and her master. She would have liked to blame the girl for the sense of disappointment she was feeling, but the truth was that Pleghanie always got like this when the game drew to an end, when her web collapsed under the weight of its own complexity, and the score resolved into any of its inevitable outcomes, always in her favour.

If anything, the girl had added something new to the game, an element of uncertainty, a bit of excitement. Pleghanie really could not guess where the poppy would move. She had placed the panther next to her – it was the obvious move – but would they attack each other, or move forward, or sideways, or down? Wherever they went, the board would burn. She hoped the girl would not kill Etain, she was rather fond of her. It was possible, but she did not think so. Of course, Etain wanted the girl. Etain wanted everything.

It would be interesting to see, although it would hardly affect the final score. The girl was a child; she thought it was all about her. As if the Archon of Deceitful Smiles would not have a score and more puppets caught in her strings at all times. Perhaps… yes, perhaps, if the girl survived the coming catastrophe, she might make Pleghanie cry again. Pleghanie would hate her for it, of course, but it would be a compelling hatred, a new feeling, a novel form of pain.

Novelty? Pleghanie searched the compositions on the board, looking for something that she knew would not be there, could not be there; a way out, a move that would allow her to escape the unavoidable. She wished she were the poppy, the wild piece that could move here, or there, or anywhere. They could not know how fortunate they were, all those other pieces, those emeralds, garnets, opals, topazes, sapphires, peridots, and citrines. Yes, some of them would die, and most of them would suffer. Pleghanie could not suffer; she was condemned to the centre of the board. They all wanted her, loved her, hated her, despised her, but she herself was not allowed to love, or hate, not properly.  All the desire on the board poured into her, never from her.

The worst of it was that she had done this to herself. It was her board, her cage of human bone, with its intricate traceries of seductive lies. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

At least, she thought, she would put on a good show, a deadly spectacle. She must prepare herself. She was dark eldar, and she needed to feed. She touched her finger to her communicator gem. ‘Send up the slave,’ she said.

Minutes later, the slave timidly entered, quivering with both terror and eagerness. He was a man, or what remained of a man. He arrived unescorted; that was part of the credo of the Kabal of Deceitful Smiles: a slave that you must force to obey was not truly a slave. This man had once been a warrior, and a leader of men, strong, proud, arrogant, and virile; now his clothes hung on him as if from a scarecrow; his hair had fallen out, leaving only a few seedy-looking strands; the colour had withered from his face, and his haunted eyes were sunken in his skull.

He was one of Pleghanie’s special slaves. No whip or blade had touched him, no agoniser or pain machine had electrified his nerve endings, not even a hand had been raised against him. Certain drugs had been fed to him – not injected, no needle had pierced his skin either – but it was not the drugs that had brought him to this state. He had done it to himself, a willing dupe in the plot of his own slow murder.

He knelt before Pleghanie. She stood brutally close to him, her musk oppressively hot, the sway of her hips a voluptuous torture. ‘Do you want me?’ she asked, cruelly, her voice a sultry promise.

‘Yes…’ he croaked, a death rattle.

‘The softness of my skin? My sweet breath upon your lips?’

‘Please…’

She laughed at him, with a cold-blooded and musical laugh. ‘Does it hurt, that you can never have me? Does it eat away at your insides like a cancer? Does it burn?’

‘Have mercy!’ he wailed, tearing at his scalp, raking at his cheeks, leaving deep gouges upon his own flesh.

The pain he felt was physical. It was quicklime in his chest, and chlorine in his throat, and acid in his eyes. This was Pleghanie’s favoured delicacy, the excruciating cruelty of suffering that could not be torn from the body, because it was rooted in despair.

Pleghanie basked in his agony, and her already uncanny beauty became even more intensified, glowing, further inflaming his desire, and therefore aggravating his torment. It was an ever-increasing feedback loop of torture that would end only when his body was strained beyond endurance, and Pleghanie had plenty of time.

She teased, she mocked, she exposed her flesh to him. He thrashed and squirmed like a worm upon a hook, beating his head against the floor, his self-inflicted wounds leaving dark stains on Pleghanie’s ruby carpet. At last, the carnal sight of her became too much to bear, and he succeeded in gouging out his eyes.

Pleghanie crouched beside his prone body, still whispering in his ear. ‘I do not want you,’ she breathed.

‘No…’

‘I do not love you.’

‘No more… please.’

‘I do not even know your name, and I don’t care.’

‘No more… no more….’

He was dying. Pleghanie could stop him, but there was no point; she had drained the last bit of him, there was nothing of him left to feed upon. It was no matter, she had others, many more. She did not have long to wait for the moment of his death, for the last dry breath to escape croaking from his throat; and as it did, she indulged one final humiliation, one last twist of the knife, squeezing the last delicious drop from his empty wineskin.

‘Stupid man,’ she whispered. ‘You never knew my name either, and it never occurred to you to ask.’
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Mon Aug 26 2013, 23:31

So, Chapter 7 is also turning out to be way too long, so I'm splitting it up in two parts, for convenience. Here is the first part.
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Mon Aug 26 2013, 23:51

CHAPTER 7 – THE SCATTERING

PART ONE – THE LADY AND THE TIGER

Alone in the dingy near-darkness, caged behind familiar iron bars, Meeran sat cross-legged on the dirty floor of the gladiatorial pen, waiting patiently, as she had waited so often before, for the portcullis to slide open and let her out into the lights and applause of the circus of the arena, to play her role, and dance her dance, and do an amusing murder for the show. Meeran performed this duty matter-of-factly, with neither regret nor glee; she was there not to glorify the arena, but to mock it, to deflate their pretensions and expose the banality of their aspirations. Her method was to lay bare the essentialist arithmetic of the arena: two characters adding up to a necessary murder, leaving only the choice of murderer or victim; her performance was an attack upon the crowd, to strip from them their self-deceptions, and then hold up a mirror to their need. She was the vengeance of Vermipox, the vengeance of the artist.

This was the gift that Vermipox had given her; unrelenting pain, unbearable sensation, and meaning. None of them could know, not even the eldarith, the most sublime of creatures of the flesh, they could not know the joy of being a work of art, the apotheosis of an idealistic purpose, to be both angel and dust. This was why the dreams of Vermipox were everything to her. She was grateful, but it was not gratitude, it was the consummation of her being.

This time it would be different. She could sense it in the undertow; a dozen themes were approaching their conclusion, and this time the spotlight would not all belong to her. It was like riding on a venom speeder, among a multitude of venom speeders, all accelerating and converging toward a single intersection. Oh, not yet, it was too soon! But nothing could stop the speeders; all she could do was to brace herself for the inevitable impact.

She felt a presence in the corridor behind her. Etain, the succubus, turned a corner and approached, casually, with the smug and sensuous movements of a panther. She was completely naked, and unarmed, her pale skin glistening with oil and sweat, her glossy, red-black hair clinging tightly to her skull and neck like the pelt of a leopard, her bright green eyes shining like glass marbles in the dark.

She paced outside the cage, like a predator, drawing her fingers across the iron bars. Then she grabbed two of the bars and thrust her face between them, as if she were the one imprisoned behind them. She greeted Meeran with a nightmare smile. ‘Hello, my pretty.’

Meeran stood, alert. ‘Greetings, Mistress. Why are you here?’

Etain raised an eyebrow. ‘Why should I not be? This is my arena, it is part of my home. Why should I not come and go as I please?’

Meeran was mortified. ‘Your pardon, Mistress! I only meant… I mean, I am sorry… to what do I owe the honour of your presence?’

Etain giggled at her, not ungently. ‘Oh, don’t worry, my juicy, you have not been impolite. I am only teasing. Tell me, are you afraid of me? Do you think that I have come here to kill you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh no, my sweet, no!’ Etain was genuinely dismayed. ‘Of course I want to kill you, but not here, not like this! No, I want to climb you like a tree. I want to burrrn you, yes, I want to feel you burn. I want to break every bone in your little body. I want to crush you beneath me, crush you to jelly, want to grind you into the mud, and I want… unh! … want…’

Meeran melted in the heat of her intensity; it was a tempting offer, oh, so alluring! Would it not be divine? To burn together like charred meat on a bed of white-hot fire? To tear each other to gory chunks with naked teeth and claws? To smear their faces with each other’s steaming, syrupy blood? Meeran wept at the beauty of it, but it could not be; not while she was incomplete, not while she still had her purpose.

Etain, too, wept, and drooled, showing teeth that were as sharp as shards of glass and as white as sugar icing. ‘Not here, not now, but I will have you, oh yes… I will chew you up; but not now. I have come to tell you that Pleghanie is planning something. You must be very careful, and quick, my sweet, if you are to survive.’

Meeran had already known that, but this was a surprise. ‘Do you betray Pleghanie?’ she asked.

Etain wiped her mouth with the fastidiousness of a cat. ‘I would never betray Pleghanie. I want her. But she knows that, and she knows that I want you, too. We all have our cages, our own fairy tales.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Meeran, unconvinced.

Etain tensed suspiciously, looking more dangerous than ever. ‘I stand naked before you, bearing no weapons, showing you my true and innermost nature; will you scorn me?’

‘No. I accept. And I want to burn with you, but…’

‘Not now, no.’ Etain relaxed and stretched her neck, another feline motion. ‘I will enter the arena with you. I will even help you, a little, but you have to promise not to bite, okay? If you do, it will go very badly for both of us.’

‘I promise.’

Etain opened the cage, which responded to her touch, and joined Meeran inside. It was like sharing the cage with a tiger. A short time later, the portcullis opened, and the two of them emerged together into the light and the sand.  The roar of the crowd fell into shocked silence as they realised that the Succubus herself had entered the arena, naked, and side by side with the slave. There were paranoid mutterings. Many factions in the audience had laid plans and plotted betrayals for this very moment; it was not a good time for mysterious surprises.

Another portcullis opened at the opposite end of the arena, and Meeran’s opponent walked out. She recognised him instantly: it was the space marine, the one who had shared the black terrace with Meeran and S’hlee, when they were first brought as prisoners to Commorragh; the one who had strained at his chains in his eagerness to kill them both with his bare hands. He was not in chains now, and they had given him back his armour. He was even armed with a chainsword. Great.

Meeran gave Etain a look of accusation and alarm; Etain smiled condescendingly. ‘I know, my juicy,’ she said, ‘but don’t kill him. You will see. Trust me.’

Meeran faced off against the space marine. Don’t kill him? If it were up to her she would kill him instantly and decisively, as she would kill an infection before it could spread. Did the dark eldar not know? Could they not see how dangerous he was? Could they not understand the depravity of a man without desire?

She circled around him with small, staccato steps and snaps, carefully just beyond reach of the whirring chainsword. Don’t kill him? He was strong, and fast, and clever, and neither fear nor pain meant anything to him. He was hellbent on killing her, a heretic, a mutant, an abomination. She was faster, she needed to be faster; one good hit from that sword could easily cut her in half. She had to keep him turning, constantly turning, always behind him, slash and retreat, dodge and run. Her nails left deep scratches on the ceramite plates of his armour, but failed to draw blood or slow him down. Don’t kill him? She supposed it was flattering.

It was going to turn into a test of endurance, and she was going to lose. He knew it, too. He could afford to miss a thousand times; all he needed was for her to make just one mistake, to be just a little bit too slow, just once, and that would be that. He could afford to wait. He was taking it slow, making the minimum effort to tire her out, conserving his strength. She could guess why; the moment he was done with her, he would turn the sword on the nearest dark eldar, killing as many of them as he could before they cut him down. His own life did not matter to him, only to die in the morbid service of his frigid Emperor.

She needed to find a weakness, a chink in the armour. His exposed face was tempting, but she knew better; he was waiting for her to try it, daring her to do it; then all he had to do was to grab hold of her, and that would be that.

Etain watched from a safe distance, finding it all entirely too amusing. I get it, thought Meeran; she is telling me that I’m not the only one who can have her little jokes. Then Etain relented; she pounced, close to the fighting, not too close, but close enough to seem like a threat, distracting the space marine’s attention for a fraction of a second. There, at the joints of his groin! Meeran ducked behind him and raked her nails across the fold between his legs, quickly rolling away to the side as the chainsword swung down upon her. The space marine barely winced, but there was blood; she had drawn blood. That was something.

They were interrupted by one of the portcullises blasting open from the sides with a massive detonation, and half a dozen shapes in the same ponderous armour as the space marine emerging from the cloud of smoke and dust. More of them? Unbelievably, yes. They must have escaped from somewhere, or been allowed to escape. They spread out into well-rehearsed positions, shooting into the audience with their unwieldy and unspeakably loud bolter guns. ‘Brother-Captain!’ one of them called out.

Would he turn? Yes! Meeran pounced onto his chest, wrapping her legs around his waist for support and grabbing on to his ears, and she drove her thumbnails deep into his eye sockets, rupturing the eyeballs. She did it in an instant, then pushed away with a kick before he could react, somersaulting backwards in the air and landing gracefully on her feet at a safe distance.

The space marine howled with rage, slicing uselessly with his chainsword. He was still extremely dangerous, even blinded, but he had been considerably crippled. There, thought Meeran, I did not kill him. She hoped that the succubus was happy.

Deadly bolter shells exploded around her, and she had to dance to avoid them. The other space marines wanted revenge on her, but fortunately they were busy;  a contingent of kabalite warriors had come together in the stands and were shooting at them from behind the barricade, almost as if they had been expecting them. In the confusion, or so they would no doubt claim, the kabalite warriors were also shooting into another section near the terraces; it would have been a massacre, save that the other section had also been prepared, and were shooting back.

Factions coalesced in the stands; knives were drawn, splinter carbines brought out from concealment under the seats, and turned on their neighbours. The show became an all-out battle, with the space marines in the middle, shooting at everyone. A few lone stragglers desperately tried to get away, either hoping to reach safety or in search of reinforcements.

Dozens of chiropterous and corvidous shapes rose up in the air like dark stars from behind the walls, as the flying scourges and hellions descended upon the stadium, raining down splinter fire from their carbines and pods. Meeran was forced to dodge and weave. One of the scourges came too close to her, and Meeran reached up and grabbed her by her bird-like foot, slamming her hard on the ground, breaking her delicate bones. ‘It’s a shame about your lovely wings,’ said Meeran, ripping them off the scourge’s back at the same time as she crushed her neck beneath her foot.

Well, this performance was ruined, thought Meeran. There was no way that she could get her point across while the audience was preoccupied with these festivities. She supposed that she should join in, but on which side? If she chose wrongly…  She looked around for Etain. The succubus had joined her wyches near one of the exits, and they were cutting a swath of carnage through the crowd, leaving a trail of dead and mutilated bodies and apparently not caring who they slaughtered. Somewhere, Etain had obtained a murderous glaive, and her naked body was splattered with a coat of wet blood. She spared a glance for Meeran and gave her a conspiratorial grin.

No, it was time for Meeran to leave. Time for her to return to her own palace, the dead palace on the shores of the black lake. Goodbye, Commorragh; goodbye, sweet city of agony and ecstasy. I shall miss you.

She strode with determination toward the nearest exit. One of the space marines tried to block her path, but she knew how to deal with him now. She used his own strength to raise up his arm, ducked under it, turned, stabbed with her fingernails into the juncture of his armpit, mauling, twisting, and wrenching; the bone did not break, but the flesh tore, leaving the arm hanging limply from the shoulder, bleeding. The space marine screamed; so, they did feel pain. Good.

She left him behind. A bit further, she decapitated someone, she did not know who, and took his splinter pistol. After that, it became easier, and quite a few of them sensibly just got out of her way.
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Aug 29 2013, 05:00

CHAPTER 7 – THE SCATTERING

PART TWO – JUDGEMENT

Outside, the riot had broken out into the streets. Everywhere there was bloodshed and debauchery. Gangs of armed warriors, wyches, wracks, mercenaries, even the odd grotesque or incubus, all trotted here and there to bolster the ranks of their comrades in some nearby clash, getting in each other’s way, and starting fresh conflicts as a consequence. Single combats broke out everywhere, as old rivalries and remembered insults were reawakened; cocktails of sophisticated drugs were freely handed out, driving everyone into a diversity of refined frenzies; reaver jetbikes swooped into the crowds at breakneck speed, their bladed vanes mutilating anyone not quick or fortunate enough to get out of the way.

Meeran was enthralled. Perhaps she need not leave the city right away?  The day had turned into a special occasion for the city, a festival of violence, a lethal orgy of murder and lust, and she did not want to miss it. For a moment, she entertained the vanity that the city had thrown this celebration just for her, as a farewell party. The city laughed full in her face. Fine, it was silly; still, it was a lovely thought.

A gang of overeager bullies attacked her, and Meeran disemboweled them with pleasure, happy to participate, regaling the few onlookers with a theatrical curtsey; but it was over all too quickly. Most of the revelers ignored her, since she wore no colours and they all had their own sides to fight for.

The streets of Commorragh, always bloodstained even in orderly times, were now slippery and sticky with the stuff, and choked in places with the bodies of the dead. A group of ingenious youngsters had been inspired to take off all their clothes and climb the biggest pile, to engage in inventive and blasphemous fornications atop a hill of corpses. Meeran cheered them, and they waved.

If this was to be her last day in Commorragh, at least it was turning out to be a memorable one. She took several detours, avoiding major clashes – she knew these streets – and was going through a narrow alley when she saw them, a group of armoured warriors wearing familiar colours; they were the colours of the Coven of Tortured Alterations, Antharos’s troops, and they were joining up with a column wearing the same uniform, among which she could see scores of warriors, wracks, grotesques, a few incubi, and even one or two towering pain engines, all marching determinedly in a familiar direction.

Vermipox! Meeran cursed herself for an idiot. How could she have been so stupid? Gawping at the sights like a fledgling rube! Of course this was the time for the settling of old scores, and of course they would go after her master, and here she was, loafing around like a bystander, instead of at his side where she was supposed to be! Curse her for a fool! Vermipox!

She ran up through the twisted streets, with a breakneck speed that startled even the eldarith; ran alongside the column, and through it, and if any of them noticed her or tried to get in her way, it was the last thing they ever did; or so she assumed, but she did not stop to see if they really were dead, or wait for their companions to react; if a commotion was raised, she had already left it far behind, she had no time to spare.

When she arrived at the Palace of Fulsome Waters, she found it besieged by a multitude. The curving ramps were packed tight with a throng of warriors and wracks trying to push through to the gates, while a few defenders rained fire down upon them with their splinter cannons from the emplacements up in the towers. Why were there not more of them? There was no time to find out. Meeran dove into the mass of invaders, slashing and stabbing with abandon; her passage up the ramp was marked by a tossing of heads and limbs and spurts of arterial blood, and bodies flung off both sides of the ramp, falling to their deaths below.

The gates were open, and the courtyard was a crush of bodies trying to push past the beleaguered palace defenders blocking the narrow passage. Meeran did not stop; she climbed onto the backs of the invaders and slew everything in reach, carving her way through. The defenders made use of the brief respite to push the line back; when they met with her in the middle, they recognised her and parted to let her through, which was just as well; she had been quite prepared to carve her way through them too, if she had to.

She ran through the tunnel and into the great glass hall. There had been fighting within the palace; several bodies lay strewn here and there, where they had fallen. ‘Master!’ she called into the empty hall, but the only answer was the maddening reverberation of a dozen resonating glass walls, filling her ears with agony.

She bounded up the stairs of volcanic glass, into the gallery of ice, into the maze of souls. She knew the maze well, its twists and turns, its dead ends, and pitfalls, and soul traps, but there was no time for that; she ran through the walls like a ghost, faster than death or worse could catch her. She arrived at the central chamber, which was shaped like a pentacle with doors and corridors leading out from each of the five points. ‘Master!’ she called again, ignoring the sinister threats of the smoke guardians. On an impulse she chose the north door, and the membrane opened at her approach.

What she saw there made her heart catch in her throat. A piteous mewl escaped her lips, like that of a wounded kitten. It was Vermipox’s study; there was a desk, and books, and screens, and works of art; there was a desolate landscape on the wall, done in oils, showing a city on a lake, beyond a dying moon; and there was Vermipox, lying on the floor, battered, broken, and yes, grievously wounded, and standing over him, the one who had done this to him, the loathsome worm, the unspeakable dreg.

‘Qlip,’ she said.

The traitorous wrack had been expecting her. ‘Yes, Qlip,’ he gloated. ‘Qlip the idiot, Qlip the fool, Qlip who apparently counts for less than a cheap, malformed mon-keigh slave! Qlip, who opened the gates at just the right moment. Qlip, who sabotaged the defenses, poisoned the guards, and smuggled in assassins. Qlip, who has patiently endured countless humiliations, and Qlip, whose time finally has come!’

She took a step forward. ‘Ah-ah,’ he warned, pointing a liquefier at Vermipox’s helpless form. ‘He will be a mess of soup before you reach me. Oh, the look on your face! How I have waited for this moment! Tell me, did you think that you were somehow special? Did you think you were the only one who could go under a haemonculus’ knife?’

A few minutes, that was all she needed, and Qlip obliged. ‘Do you wonder how I could accomplish all this?  I pledged my service to Lady Pleghanie months ago. She had you defeated from the start, and you never even knew it. My reward was to be sent to Master Antharos, who worked on me just as your feeble master worked on you, and he has surpassed the work of this doddering old fool; I am faster, stronger, and better. Do you know why? Because I am a trueborn eldarith ynneas, and not some aberrant, hybrid slave!

‘Do you want your precious master? Come and get him, then. You can save him, if you can defeat me. I will show you once and for all that you are nothing but a slave. At last, I will put you in your place!’

In spite of herself, Meeran laughed; what a ridiculous creature he was!

‘Oh, Qlip!’ she laughed. ‘Poor Qlip, you never understood did you? Is that what you think it was all about? Stronger, faster, better? Yes, I am fast, and yes, I am strong, but that is not how I won all those fights. I am in constant pain, Qlip. Every breath hurts more than even the dark eldar could possibly imagine. My soul burns, Qlip. Didn’t you ever wonder why my pain does not empower you? I will tell you: it is because it empowers me. It is because I am pain. Try to drink my pain and you might as well try to drink the ocean. Do you know what happens if you try to drink the ocean? You drown, Qlip, it absorbs you.’

Too late, Qlip hesitated; too late, he began to wonder if there was more to his betrayed master than he had thought, more to the girl than a surgically altered slave.

‘I am the suffering of the universe, Qlip,’ said Meeran. ‘And the universe suffers. There is no one who could bear the weight. Only the one who understands may draw power from me, only the one who created me...’

Vermipox sprang up like an avenging spirit, fully healed, moving faster than the eye could blink. With one hand he grabbed Qlip by the throat, snarling into his face; with the other, he grabbed Qlip’s wrist, squeezing until the bones were crushed to splinters in his grip, and Qlip dropped the liquefier gun. He lifted Qlip up by the throat with a casual strength that would have shamed a fully-armoured space marine, and flung him forcefully all the way across the room, where he smashed into the wall with a snapping of bones and then fell limply down on the floor.

Vermipox paid no more attention to Qlip. He fussily dusted off and adjusted his robes. ‘My daughter,’ he said. ‘I had hoped that you would come.’

Meeran’s eyes filled up with tears. ‘Master, I am so sorry! I should have been here with you, but I delayed, and I…’

Vermipox held up a hand. ‘Now, now, stop that; no recriminations, it is unseemly. You are here. I assume the palace has fallen?’

‘It was barely holding when I came in. Master, we must leave.’

‘Yes. It is hard to let them go, my stately home, my irreplaceable treasures, my beautiful atrocities; but they do not matter. They are only the souvenirs of many thousands of years, not the years themselves. Let the fools break plates and vases and imagine that it is Vermipox they break! We have many lessons yet to teach them, and we have only just begun. None shall be spared, not the humans, nor the tau, nor the craftworlders, and certainly not them. Come, it is time to go.’

‘One moment, Master.’ Meeran bent over the broken form of Qlip, gently removing his mask. The face beneath was pasty and soft. Meeran bent close to him, intimately, close enough to kiss. ‘I told you once Qlip, did I not, that if you knocked again at the gates of the black tower, that they would swing wide open and swallow you inside?’

‘Please, no…’ he begged.

‘Oh, but yes.’ Her savage grin held no trace of mercy. ‘Now you know, Qlip. There are worse fates in the universe than death, worse things than to be consumed by She-Who-Thirsts; there is me.’

She pressed her lips to his, and there was a hideous slurping, sucking sound. His feeble protests and kicks were all in vain. When she was done, there was nothing left of Qlip in the living, soulless ruin that remained; or at least, so it was to be hoped. It would have been too terrible to imagine that some part of him still remained within, and aware.

The sounds of looting and breaking glass were getting closer. Vermipox courteously bowed to her and offered her his arm; she curtsied coquettishly back at him and took it, and together they walked into the painting on the wall. For a moment they were clearly outlined, two characters looking back toward the viewer, the personifications of pain and death. Then they became two dabs of impressionistic colour, crimson and indigo, and then they were only a trick of the light, an apophenic pattern in the brushwork. And then they were gone.
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Barking Agatha
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Aug 29 2013, 09:43

EPILOGUE

The collective aristocracy of this section of Commorragh, the hereditary and self-proclaimed ladies and lords, the guild masters, and gang bosses, and pirate kings, and merchant princes, all were gathered in the red plush and gold surroundings of the Lady Pleghanie’s hall. It was an awkward gathering; it was much too soon. Most of them had been at each other’s throats only a few days ago. Now that the riots had been quelled, and the cycle of assassinations had run its course, and order had been restored, they all had taken stock, and found that they had suffered grievous losses; the loss of power, and influence, and the loss of whatever it was that each held most dear; all except for Pleghanie, who had somehow come out on top of the whole affair. Those of them who could not work it out nevertheless harboured for her a deep resentment, and the few who could, at least in part, though they might grudgingly admit to a sense of admiration, loved and hated her even more.

Pleghanie would not have chosen to host such a gathering at this time, but like everything else in her existence, it was inevitable. She had emerged once more as the undisputed queen of them all. It was unthinkable for the gathering to take place anywhere else. Their district had a visitor, the most exalted visitor of all, and the presence of each and every one of them was required.

A page announced the entrance of the visitor: ‘Lord Asdrubael Vect, Archon of the Kabal of the Black Heart, High Overlord of Commorragh!’

A hushed silence fell over the crowd. Vect’s imposing form entered the great hall, and his oppressive presence filled the room like a black shroud looming over all. The crowd parted to let him pass, bowed in awed silence.

He was followed by a retinue of two Incubi, two Lhameans, two Sslyth warriors, a Medusae latched onto the brain of its host, and a snarling Ur-Ghul, and by the hunched and wizened figure of the Master Haemonculus himself, Urien Rakarth, his twisted and deformed shape disturbingly hidden beneath the folds of a grimy black cloak.

Vect solemnly crossed the room and took his place upon the dais, in order to address the crowd. Urien Rakarth stood below him, at his side. As hostess, Pleghanie took her place on Vect’s other side, though there was nowhere else in the universe at that moment that she would not rather be.

‘I am most displeased.’ The High Overlord’s voice bore down upon the room. ‘Hardly surprised, but most displeased. I am told that you had among you a most potent weapon, a weapon that might have fueled thousands of unstoppable raids, a weapon upon which we might have built empires, and all that you could think of were your own vanities, your own pleasures, your own games.’

He said this with a significant look at Pleghanie. She did not flinch, a picture of innocence.

Antharos the haemonculus spoke up. ‘My lord! We can create another girl. If Vermipox could do it, then so can we, given enough time, and enough slaves…’ His voice trailed off under the withering gaze of Urien Rakarth, who had swiveled like an owl to give Antharos his rapt and terrifying attention.

As a matter of form, Vect considered the proposal. ‘What do you say, Urien?’

Rakarth shook his head. ‘Vermipox is as old as me.’ His voice was like the breath of a dessicated corpse. ‘Who knows what knowledge he may have acquired through the endless years? And the girl was no ordinary specimen. I sense the hand of hidden powers in this.’

Vect knew as much. It filled him with a cold rage: his choices were not entirely his own. Whether through action or inaction, he was caught in the web of the old god’s game, a farce of cosmic proportions. Let it be action, then.

Pleghanie pictured her game board, upended, the pieces scattered, the configurations changed, and suddenly she saw her next move. It was a bold move, but it was the only move to make, and she had to make it quickly, before someone else did. Was this what it felt like to be a moving piece? It was exhilarating.

‘My lord,’ she said. ‘Though I am blameless in this matter, as surely you realise, I believe that I can offer a solution. The webway is vast, but not infinite. If we search for them, we are bound to find them sooner, rather than later, and we can bring them back. If you will allow me, I will take my household troops and search for them myself.’

Vect looked at her thoughtfully. ‘And will the girl serve us?’

‘The girl serves Vermipox, my lord, and Vermipox, whatever he may think, is pliable. They will serve.’

‘Very well, but you cannot cover all directions by yourself. You will begin your search to the North.’

The succubus Etain stepped forward. ‘The girl is mine. I want her! She is mine!’ She turned and glared at the assembly, as if daring anyone to contradict her claim. ‘I will go South. I want her!’

‘No surprise there,’ said Vect. ‘Urien?’

Rakarth nodded. ‘The covens should participate. I think perhaps young Antharos should undertake the search to the East. He might learn something.’

Antharos winced. Only Rakarth would refer to him as ‘young’. He desperately tried to think of a way to get out of it, but there was none that he could see. ‘Gladly, my lord,’ he said. He really was very bad at intrigue.

Vect pointed at a foppish-looking slaver with a long mane of black hair streaked with blue highlights. ‘And you, Master Finghul, it was your guild that first captured the girl, was it not? Perhaps then you may capture her again. I suggest that you join the search, and cover the West.’

Finghul despaired. Successful or not, such a profitless quest would be the ruin of him. Technically, he could decline. Technically, Vect had no authority to order him to take on such a mission.

‘At your command, my lord,’ he said, of course.

‘Good,’ said Vect. ‘It seems that we are agreed upon a course of action, wonders be. That will be all then. I am sure that you have many preparations to make. Don’t let me detain you.’

They stood where they were, hanging on his next word.

‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What are you waiting for?’

THE END
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Barking Agatha
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Aug 29 2013, 09:50

And that's it! So, any thoughts? Smile
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Lady Malys
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Thu Aug 29 2013, 22:22

Marvellous! I have really enjoyed the atmosphere and the delicacy of this story. You have stayed true to the same style throughout, and the tone and the characterisation are darkly Commorrite, which I have appreciated very much.

Obviously this is the end of this story (or at least, this part), but will you be making more?

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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Fri Aug 30 2013, 06:42

I think so, but not for a while. I need to store up on images and allegories again, and maybe even a plot. Also, I need a bit of a rest. I stayed up nights because the images wouldn't let me sleep until I put them down in words (a bit like Vermipox and Meeran, actually, but I'm human and I need my kip!) Smile

And thank you very, very much for your kind words. It may not seem like much, but it means a lot!

Edit: I don't mean that like like an Oscar 'thank you', I really mean it, a nice comment means a lot to me. Smile
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Sat Aug 31 2013, 19:59

I thought it a great tale, one who has embraced the madness that it the Dark City

(And I love the idea of a Mandrake storyteller. I think its a perfect role for them. I like storytellers)
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PostSubject: Re: Ascent - a fantasy (Complete)   Mon Sep 02 2013, 20:58

Thank you! I liked the idea that their tales become true in the telling, which would make them unimaginably dangerous. Smile
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