First Movement Crescendo

Part Nineteen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet
Part Thirteen: Dancing with the Devil
Part Fourteen: Adagio under Lantern’s Glow
Part Fifteen: Into Destiny
Part Sixteen: A Perfect Storm
Part Seventeen: Paradiso e Inferno
Part Eighteen: A Taste of Eternity


“I have a sister, but not through blood,” I answer, wishing to make her happy with my answer.

“That won’t explain it,” the man Skandha interrupts, “The condition doesn’t come from his human ancestry.”

“What are you talking about,” I demand, growing frustrated by their cryptic talking about me as if I weren’t right here.

“Perhaps a sibling on the other side?” the beautiful woman asks Skandha as they continue to ignore me.

“Possibly,” he says in an unconvinced tone, “I don’t know if they even work that way.”

“But he could be half, or at least only a part of it?” the woman with the painful eyes asks.

“It is possible,” he repeats in the same uncertain tone.

I lean back in my seat, containing my frustration. As much as I want to shout and demand they stop ignoring me, I’m not confident enough that whatever reason they wanted me for requires me to remain alive and in one piece.
The beautiful woman returns to her position on the other side of the table, the three who had spoken continue to discuss me with the same veiled language they’ve used thus far. I can’t see Raktabīja but I can sense his menacing presence behind me, observing me silently. The fourth Mara neither joins the others in their conversation, nor looks at me. He seems entirely focused on his tea, which he has been drinking with an almost ritualistic intensity since it was poured.

“Can we still do it with just him?” the pain woman asks.

“I can’t say,” frustration has entered his voice, though it is restrained, “The message is… vague. Unlike the machine they use we have to sift manually through impossible amounts of information. We’re mostly working from guesswork.”

I wonder if this message might be what prompted them to want me, but if so I couldn’t think of who might have sent it or why. After that he makes even less sense, I suppose they may be competing with another of the cartels. The machine may be one of the registers the guard captains use at the wall, but that would imply that one of the cartels had managed to steal a register. That would be suicide, if it was even possible. The aristocracy guard the registers as jealously as they guard anything to do with the Aberrant, stealing one would bring down the wrath of the Nobility.
The talking stops briefly, the woman with the hateful eyes seems deep in thought and the other two await a response from her. I look down at my tea, suspicious of whether another sip would return me to that place of understanding again, or if more could have an even stronger effect.
I take the cup in my hand. The pressure from the eyes of the leader begins to build in me again. I grit my teeth and curse her silently, throwing the cup back and swallowing the contents as rapidly as I can without meeting her gaze.
The darkness and cold from before materialises instantly, my mind is flung violently into the pandemonium in contrast to the gentle drift from the earlier sip. Before reality completely vanishes I hear the beautiful woman ask, “Was it really okay to let him drink that?”

The woman with the wicked eyes replies with sadistic malice, “If not, we’ve already learned there are others.”

***

I come to in the other place. The maelstrom of darkness and light, where heat and cold exist together. I feel the same sense of tranquillity as last time. This place feels like home. I feel connected to this place, like everything is as one. The surging chaos that makes up this place tears through me where my body would be, but I am unharmed. Releasing the desperate connection to form I had never known I carried with me, I spread across everything and become everything. I feel myself burning at the centre of the sun, covering the earth in every stream and ocean, my bones are the mountains and every breath of wind is the air from my lungs. I understand the innermost natures of things, the truth and freedom from constraint is paradise.
I see the past and the future together as one. I see all this is beside what could have been. I see the people I have hurt, by my presence as well as my absence and I weep. I remember now why I went back last time. Not from her voice but by my own choice, by my shame of my failings and the desire to be better. I reach out across eternity to the distant extremes I have spread and pull myself back together. Denying myself paradise is the same as being in hell but until I make things better I cannot stay.

“I want to go back!” I cry into the void. In the space beyond and within everything I feel the presence respond to my cry. I can feel it watching me, I can feel it has always watched me, and everyone else. I feel so small before it.

“Please, I can’t stay here.” I cry as loudly as I can, “There are people I have left behind who are suffering because of me. Let me go back and make it better.”

It acknowledge my request, sending me back through the immeasurable distance and time to where I had been. Before I return it tells me a secret truth I cannot contain within myself. At once I am back in the room with the Mara, the memory of the other place a fading dream. The only thing that has returned with me is the sense of purpose I’d discovered.
It is as if no time at all had passed while I had been in the other place. Even with the last vestiges of the experience fade from my memory I feel altered by the experience. Under the gaze of the woman with the cruel eyes I feel no pain. My body feels refreshed, the damage from my fall completely healed.

“I think it worked,” she says to the man on her right, his expression one of silent awe.

I grin across the table at her, my confidence completely returned, “I think it did too.”

 

A Taste of Eternity

Part Eighteen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet
Part Thirteen: Dancing with the Devil
Part Fourteen: Adagio under Lantern’s Glow
Part Fifteen: Into Destiny
Part Sixteen: A Perfect Storm
Part Seventeen: Paradiso e Inferno


Raktabīja pours tea for the Mara and me. It’s smell is different to the tea I am used to, not unpleasant but very strong. I raise the cup to my lips, using it to conceal my observing the four Mara seated across from me.
Furthest on the left is a man with the darkest skin of the four of them. Dressed in a finely tailored outfit of mostly black broken up with enough deep reds to prevent the attire from seeming monotone. His head is shaved smooth, giving him a refined appearance that at the same time conceals his age.
To his right the woman who had welcomed me, the only one of the four openly watching me as I drink. Her smile extends momentarily as I look at her, possibly she has noticed my eyes on her. She has cunning eyes, their intensity distracts me from everything everything else about her, my instincts tell me she is in charge here.
Next to her a man dressed in a simple well made outfit is seated. He is handsome but wears an air of humility that makes no brag of it. Two gold rings his only jewellery, one plain gold band on his left index and on his right ring finger a large ruby on simple gold base.
The final Mara is a young woman is gracefully seated. Her eyes and lips are painted in deep rich tones that enhance her natural beauty and she is dressed in light vibrant colours that stand out against her dark skin. Her hair cascades down her shoulders the styled waves seem completely natural. Her hands are intricately tattooed in a delicate pattern and elegant gold and silver jewellery adorns her from head to toe with, inlaid with numerous precious stones.
I lower my tea, returning it to the table. The four Mara doing the same. I expect one of them to speak, but instead they watch me silently. Growing uneasy by the silence I speak, “You have my gratitude for saving my life.”

The woman who had spoken inclines her head slightly. Her eyes narrow quizzically, but still doesn’t speak. Even Raktabīja watches me silently, five sets of eyes locked on me waiting for something. I look down at my tea, wondering if it was poisoned though I can’t imagine what purpose killing me would serve now.
The air turns cold in my lungs, with thoughts of poison and murder I spring to my feet. The damage from the waterfall is still too great and I collapse in a heap on the floor as soon as I’ve risen from my chair. The Mara continue to watch me impassively as the cold radiates outwards from my lungs, the blood freezing in my veins and my extremities turning numb. I struggle for the grey, for my blades but my fingers and mind are too clumsy to properly grip either.
My vision grows fuzzy and distant. The pressure from Raktabīja’s powerful grip as he lifts me from the floor and places me back in the chair feels like the caress of a phantom. As ice spreads through my muscles and lock my joints in place, I can see the Mara who had greeted me still staring at me with her intense cunning. I want to curse her, but my mouth cannot move.
Her voice echoes like crystal in a cave of ice, “Just like you predicted, Skandha.”

“Not quite,” one of the men replies, my eyes are frozen in place and I my hearing is strange so I can’t tell which of the two had spoken. The same voice continues, “He did survive, and is awake, but he has been affected. I’m not sure what that could mean.”

The sound of voices continues, but my hearing seems to drift out of sync with my mind and while I can hear sounds around me I cannot understand them. All of my senses experience the same disconnect. My mind is adrift in a sea of discordant sensations, the only constant amongst the chaos is the ever present deadly chill and all consuming darkness.
I wonder if this might be what dying feels like. I feel remarkably tranquil to my own surprise, no rage or sorrow, just a sense of contentment as I let go of the desire to control or perceive my surroundings. The storm that surrounds me slowly begins to form recognisable patterns. Memories form together in chains guided by some external maternal hand. Silver pin pricks of light form and penetrate the pandemonium. With the light comes warmth. The dark and cold that surround me are not banished by the light and head, but mingle with them. Creating pure comprehension that defies language.

“Wake up, Nightingale,” her voice shatters everything. I realise where I am, all the sights and sounds in sharp jarring focus all at once. Confusion overtakes me, I can feel the moment of comprehension and tranquillity slip beyond my fingertips. Fading like a lost dream. The loss is heart breaking. I hate her for taking it from me, I stare at her, wishing for her to die. She simply laughs continuing to speak, “You’re not an ordinary human are you?”

“I am a shadow,” I answer sharply, she had taken everything from me to ask a question she already knew the answer to.

“But you’re not simply a shadow, are you Nightingale?”

I simply stare hatefully, having no answer to give that could satisfy either of us.

“A shadow should have expired from the tea you drank,” she explains, her eyes tormenting me, boring painfully into my skull but not permitting me to look away, “What are you, Nightingale?”

“I told you, I’m a shadow,” the pain in my head continues to build, like a giant larvae is growing testing my skull for weak points to burst out from. Her eyes continue to pour her evil presence into me, I want to scream but I refuse to give her the satisfaction.
Suddenly the pressure breaks. She blinks releasing me from the chains of her gaze and turns to the lightly dressed man on her right, “Skandha?”

He replies in the voice I had heard before but couldn’t place, “I’m not sure, he seems to be telling the truth but we were not wrong. Somehow he both is and isn’t.”

I realise that the beautiful, jewelled woman has moved and is seated beside me. Up close she is even more beautiful than she had been across the table, I felt a desire for her that I hadn’t felt so deeply since my surgery. She places a soft palm on my cheek, her closeness makes my heart race as the smell of her fills my nostrils.
She searches me for something, then addressing me asks, “Do you have a sibling? A twin perhaps?”

Paradiso e Inferno

Part Seventeen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet
Part Thirteen: Dancing with the Devil
Part Fourteen: Adagio under Lantern’s Glow
Part Fifteen: Into Destiny
Part Sixteen: A Perfect Storm


“I’m back,” Layla’s bright voice beams through the house announcing her return to the farm. I’m lain out in bed, overcome with the ever-present pain in my bruised and broken body. I’d survived the trip over the fall, though barely. I had washed up on the shore of an irrigation canal that had diverted from the main lake and been rescued by a couple of farmhands.
Bones in my legs and ribs had been shattered by the fall, even with my skill I would have died without my preternaturally resilient body. For an ordinary human these injuries would take months to heal, and likely never return to their original state. Monster blood meant Lucas would be up and walking again in a couple days, by the Royal Moon with some luck. But even that might be too long a wait, if the aristocracy sought retribution they’d likely find him within the day and in this current state I stood no chance against even an ordinary unarmed human.

“Welcome back, I’m still where you left me,” I sing back through sharp pain of my broken ribs. I listen to the sound of my caring host approaching, I can smell something bitter in the air I don’t recognise.
She knocks politely before entering. The owner of the farm and his workers have been out in the fields all day hardly willing to spare the time it had taken for them to carry me inside. I’d been warmly tended to by the farmer’s daughter Layla, a young woman hardly more than a girl with a smile that radiates the kind of innocence one will never see in Night Town. That smile peers through the door as she it cracks open to check on me.

“Good afternoon, sleepyhead,” she teases, allowing the door to swing open as she leans against the door frame. Suddenly my body kicks into danger mode, behind her the outline of another shifts behind her. They had moved so quietly I hadn’t noticed them until now. Almost certainly an altered man of some description, most likely an agent of the aristocracy come to kill me or worse, “I’ve brought a friend of yours with me, he’d been looking for all morning, isn’t that wonderful?”

She enters the room and the figure moves into view of the doorway. Taking me by surprise, I realise I’d seen his face before. The devil man who had watched me at the tavern in Night Town. It was unlikely he was here on behalf of the aristocracy, the cartels tend to keep their business focused on Night Town. If he wasn’t here because of the Baronet, I couldn’t think why a cartel thug would be looking for me out in the agricultural districts, not to mention how he would even have known where to find me so quickly.
I watch him as he enters the room, thanking Layla for her help in finding me. Raising a scene now would only succeed at putting her in danger, so I sit silently and wait to see what happens. She lets us know she will be just outside in the yard and to call out if we need anything and leaves the devil man and I alone here. He closes the door behind her as she leaves, taking a chair and seating himself beside my bed. His skin is dark with severe lines accentuating his face making him seem more dangerous than his youth should be capable of. Some aspect of his stare makes me think of a tiger, and I watch him carefully as prey watches the predator.

“Nightingale,” he starts by using my shadow name, re-enforcing my fear at his purpose, “I am named Raktabīja, Demon of the Blood Mist. My masters have bid me to bring you back to Night Town.”

I am familiar with the Blood Mist, the cartel were the most largest in Night Town. Their name was fitting for their reputation of brutality. Their Devil Men were called Demons and faltered before neither death or killing.
I answer him with deference worthy of his reputation saying, “I am unable to walk, Raktabīja. More, I am likely hunted by the aristocracy. Going with you now would mean suicide for both of us.”

“I am aware of pursuers, my masters have known of your crime since before you committed it. They wish to make you an offer of employment. You must choose now to accept or decline their offer. An Angel is on his way here as we speak. With my help there is a chance you may survive, will you accept?”

I cannot believe the Demon’s words, regardless of my crime an Angel is far beyond anything that would make sense for their retribution. A baronet in the eyes of an angel is hardly more than a commoner. It’s impossible.
The Baronet’s son however I have seen in the company of one and Ava is of noble blood. Even so it was ludicrous. The Demon’s face is completely impassive, met with his inhuman gaze I believe him utterly. I feel a rush of terror, and nod silently. Whatever I have found myself in the centre of, I am debris swept up in the winds of a storm.

The moment my head dips, Raktabīja begins to shine with an internal glow of a dark star. Both blackened and brilliant, his aura to my aberrant senses is almost painful to look directly at. With preternatural alacrity that far surpasses my own capabilities I am hoisted from the bed across his shoulders like I am weightless.
Layla recoils in horror, collapsing to the ground and screaming as the Demon races past her from the house crossing the fields with impossible grace. I know the monster blood empowered forms we assume take a different appearance to the eyes of ordinary humans. I cannot imagine what she must have seen as we passed, but I pray it does not scar her. She has a kind heart.

The wind rakes my skin, across the fields behind us I can see soldiers covering the farms. Amongst them, a mere spec in the distance now, one of the figures begins to shine with divine radiance.
Raktabīja notices the explosion of oppressive pressure as easily as I do. Doubling his pace as he races towards the entrance to Night Town. The chase has begun in earnest, a mere shadow between an Angel and a Demon I can only tremble in helpless awe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Storm

Part Sixteen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet
Part Thirteen: Dancing with the Devil
Part Fourteen: Adagio under Lantern’s Glow
Part Fifteen: Into Destiny


The hall I’m in is empty with James’ departure, with none of the guards in the vicinity and no obvious indications for where Sophia may be I tease out the perceptive power of the grey, extending my senses out searching for signs of activity. The sounds of seven distinct individuals are faintly audible. Fortunately only two of the figures seem to be female with a significant difference in age between them.
The older woman was accompanied by a man of similarly advanced age and they both seemed to be sleeping. The younger woman was alone in a room nearby, awake despite the late hour. Opening my eyes draws my senses back to my human limits, repealing the shallow dip I’d taken into the grey. Adjusting my path to avoid the patrolling guards I carefully time my approach so I arrive by Ava’s room as I predict the guards to be the furthest from this area of the estate they’re likely to go. Bowing my head demurely, I wrap the door with the back of my knuckles politely and confidently let myself into the room.
Inside the room is dimly lit by the light of some candles, slumped sobbing over a desk a young lady lightly dressed in her sleeping attire. The click of the door closing behind me as I enter attracts her to glance back in my direction. Sofia’s face greets me with a confused expression behind her tear streaked face and bloodshot red eyes. Everything about her appearance exactly as I remembered from that night.
My heart pounds thunderously in my chest. I take a hesitant step towards her, savouring the moment. My blood roars in my ears, my veins burning with the thrill of the moment. Scarlett’s lips parting slightly as I search desperately for the words, but it is Sophia’s voice that breaks the silence first.

“What do you want, Scarlett? I wish to be left alone tonight,” her voice is rough from crying. The words sound fundamentally identical as on that night but some evanescent quality feels different, causing my resolve to falter. Suddenly I begin to consider the insanity of my actions, invading a Baronet’s home without a plan on the off chance his daughter-in-law happens to be the woman who pushed me off a roof once. Whether this is Sophia or not, what am I hoping for?
Too late to back out now, I shore my resolve and walk across the room towards her. Sophia, or Ava, is taken aback by the flagrant disregard given to her words by a servant. By the time she realises that something is wrong I’ve closed the distance to an arm’s reach from her.

“Good evening, fair maiden,” I offer my widest harlequin grin, tilting my head slightly for effect. Smoothing down her wild hair before running the back of my hand lovingly across her cheek I stare deeply into her eyes and continue, “I beseech thee most earnestly, not to shout. I am not Scarlett, but an old dance partner from another age. You knew me as Nightingale, I gave you my true name and you called yourself Sophia. I’ve followed the trail of your sweet music for all these years, dreaming of our reunion. You called it fate that we should meet again, and at last you are proven true.”

Inspiration shapes the words that pour from me like a dam bursting after so many years. I want to sing, to take her by the hand and dance upon the rooftops. The exaltation of my victory should be profound and beautiful, but I am met not by the fierce dancer I had known that night. In her eyes none of the fire and madness I had dreamt of. Ava, for I cannot think of this weak thing as Sophia, looks at me terrified.
She screams. This is not going at all as I’d hoped. The shrill cry is met by the yelling of guards out in the hall. Falling backwards from the chair and crawling desperately away from me, I feel quite confident that this woman while physically identical to Sophia could not possibly be her.
Determined not to have wasted this entire pursuit, I plunge into the grey and with preternatural speed I whisk up the empty chair and bar the door to buy a moment before the guards arrive. Empowered by the ephemeral mists I dance across the room, effortlessly lifting Ava and holding her against the wall. I allow her to truly see me in the mist, her terror silencing her screams.

“Does anything I said mean anything to you?”

She shakes her head, tears flowing freely once more. A violent rage boiling over beneath the surface of my calmly threatening demeanour.

“Is there anyone in the world you know of who looks exactly like you? Do you have a sister? Has anyone ever stolen your blood? Does the name Sophia hold any meaning to you?”

She shakes her head again to each question. Behind me the guards have made it to the door and will be through in seconds.

“Where is your husband headed right now?”

“I don’t know! He won’t tell me!” she bawls suddenly, having apparently touched on a nerve I long to press further but the splintering wood of the door insists it is time to go. Dropping Ava unceremoniously pushing the monster blood in my veins to its limits I dash towards the window, deftly hooking my hand beneath the desk and hurling it through before me as I leap.
I hear the guards charging into the room behind me. They have the skill to perceive me but not the power to catch me. I don’t waste time returning to the Gate, it will already be closed against me and not even Aiden would aid me tonight. Instead I rush towards the river Sol, my options severely limited after assaulting one of the aristocracy. If I’m able to survive my flight I will need to lay low for a few days for the heat to blow over.

Up ahead the roar of the waterfall grows steadily louder as I approach. Like the drums of  war fighting to drown the screams of the damned in hell, I offer a desperate prayer to the stars and leap into the tumultuous cascade of water.

Into Destiny

Part Fifteen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet
Part Thirteen: Dancing with the Devil
Part Fourteen: Adagio under Lantern’s Glow


Scarlett’s shift doesn’t start at the estate until after midnight, leaving me with more time to spend waiting even though I now have everything I need to begin my infiltration. I have no interest in spending more time at the festival, my mind has already shifted its focus towards what I would do when I saw her.
After all these years spent trying to find her, even with this past month knowing that she was in my reach I still didn’t know what I was going to say to her. After chasing her for so long I still don’t know anything about her. I don’t know why she was at the library that night, nor who had hired her. I don’t know if either of Ava or Sophia is her real name. I don’t even know if I actually care about the answers, or if finder her has become some meaningless competition with myself.

I pass the Twilight Wall, handing Aiden Elijah’s writ before continuing along the familiar path towards the cathedral. The decorations for The Royal Moon festival are far subtler and refined here in The Day. Instead of the sprawl of red lanterns and floral decorations, each home bears a symbolic token of the season that references their House and its achievements.
The aristocracy are famous for their elaborate and extravagant attempts to outdo one another at every opportunity. The Baronetess’ display at the festival being a fitting example. This fact makes the refined elegance of the House symbols all the more striking to me.
Symbolism is the all encompassing language of the aristocracy with everything meaning something else. Following the same fundamental formula as every other house so far, the Baronet’s estate has flown their flag of heraldry from a ceremonial spear. A chain of vibrant flowers wind the shaft and from the bottom of the flag four amber gemstones inlaid on golden stars hang prominently from the base of the flag.
The spear represents the house as receiving crusade commendations. The flowers and amber represent the maiden houses of the women married into the house. And the four stars represent the current generation of the Lord of the House.

For the remaining hours leading up to midnight I watch the stars from vantage in the bell tower. I’ve never felt that the heavens have had a plan for me, but tonight I take the moment to pray for their blessing when I meet Sophia.
I watch the fireworks with a detached interest, they are an uncommon site even here in Caelestis and these ones in particular are exceptional. Covering the sky with a blanket of colour received by cheers from the crowds in Night Town.
Before long they have passed and I am left to watch the stars in quiet isolation. I wonder if Avery is somewhere watching me at now. I hadn’t noticed her once since being released, for whatever that is worth. The temperate night air backed by the distant music of the River Sol’s flowing water is soothing enough that I could fall asleep any moment if I wasn’t careful. The serenity that surrounded me was helpful at quieting the nervous excitement that was growing within me the longer I was forced to wait.
The deafening tolling of the enormous bell that shared my tower made certain I could not have slept through midnight even if I had wanted too. With the thundering noise suddenly the reality of the moment strikes me, the realisation that finally I would reach the point I’ve been chasing for years. Whether the answers satisfy me, or not, tonight represented a milestone that felt significant in a way I couldn’t entirely understand. Uncorking the vial I gulp down the vile concoction as quickly as I can, grimacing, my body heaving instinctively willing me to regurgitate.
I manage to keep it down and all at once my body explodes in agony. My bones pulverise and reform themselves, my cartilage, tendons and muscles re-knitting themselves across my new skeleton feels like I am being carved with thousands of burning hot blades and pummelled by microscopic hammers. I double over, tasting blood in my mouth under my jaw clamped like an iron trap.
After seconds that feel like hours the change is complete. I rise clumsily to my feet, the distributions of weight in Scarlett’s body is unfamiliar. After dressing in the uniform I’d borrowed from Scarlett I draw cautiously on the grey. The ephemeral weightlessness fills me and I leap from the belfry utilising the protrusions from the tower to control my descent. I meet the ground after a less than perfect execution and a heavier landing than I would have liked. I brush the dust from my hands and make my way towards the servant entrance.

Inside the estate is as it had been during my entrance under the grey, seeing it clearly through my real senses gives a greater appreciation of the decadence adorning everything. Wealth over taste seems the goal with House Thierris, enormous gold and scarlet tapestries and portraits that tower over everyone cover the walls.
Passing through the main serving rooms I mirror the routine I had studied Scarlett following during her work. I perform a small trick of the grey to dissuade notice away from myself. Subtler than the eye glazing obfuscation, this technique simply discourages any of Scarlett’s friends from sincerely pursuing conversation with me. Unfortunately it would draw the attention of the skilled guards, so I could only use it to avoid confrontation here in the early rooms.
Requiring all of my discipline to stop myself from hurrying as I walk the hall towards the inner section of the estate. I lower the grey veil at first sight of the stationed guards. Beyond this point I’m going blind, having been unable to pass these guards under the grey. Greeting the guards with the friendly smile I have seen her give them many times, they let me pass without a second glance. Following the hall I round the corner and am forced to step immediately out of the path of James Thierris as he rushes past me towards the entrance to the estate looking flustered and very well dressed for this time of night. My curiosity is immediately piqued, but my goal is further into the estate and with James’ departure this is likely the best opportunity I may ever have to get Sophia alone.

Adagio under Lantern’s Glow

Part Fourteen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet
Part Thirteen: Dancing with the Devil


“Two hours, and the price is septupled for this insane deadline!” Matthew barks, snatching the vial of blood from my hand. I do so enjoy his showmanship. His laboratory has a strange combination of sterility and arcane corruption that evokes painful memories of my surgeries, causing my old scars to itch.
The trademark jars and vials of brackish green fluid containing the unsightly remains of harvested aberrants line the shelves of the walls. A dim ephemeral glow and otherworldly dissonance hums in the background of my senses inflicting a nauseating sickness that resonates through my bones.
The connection between the aberrants is little understood. The trade and study of their substances is strictly regulated by the nobility. Only the royal army has the ability to harvest the aberrants, so even the cartels have little more than the regular merchant access. As a result very little is genuinely understood about them.

“You’re harsh but fair, old man,” I answer, the discomfort of this room dissuading me from haggling with him on the price. As he must have known it would. Still, I can afford the expense for this. If it truly is her, this will all have been worth it.
The first breath of clean air upon leaving is a godsend. The static that had been building in my skin since entering dispersing in the calm late afternoon breeze. The red glow of the lanterns beginning to show in the fading sunlight, allowing the frenetic power of the festival to creep back into the atmosphere.
Crowds of people are beginning to form as the nights celebrations begin anew, families with children and tourists from the realms make up the majority. The locals will fill out the area later in the evening after their jobs. Higher up the mountain on The Twilight Wall there fireworks will cap the evening’s festivities every night leading to the Royal Moon itself.
Though earlier than I’d expected with two hours to burn awaiting my commission’s completion, I am free to explore the festival at my leisure. I’d already checked on Amelia as soon as I was released. As Avery had said, she slept and would not wake for a full day and night. Seeing her alive and unharmed was a greater relief than I’d anticipated, the thought that I’d put her in danger had a far more resonating effect on me than I’d have believed I was still capable of. An unpleasant, but not unwelcome, reminder that I am still human.

Musicians, performers were everywhere along and adjacent to the main street. Watching people dancing together and families in awe at the feats of fire dancers, sword swallowers and jugglers, highlights the beautiful side of Caelestis. Even the cartels supported the celebrations for this week, I saw the Devil Man follow a group of muggers into an alleyway. The criminal element of Night Town policed its own aggressively when the Aristocracy had reason to descend to join us. No-one wants to deal with an amateur gang provoking the wrong people.
So early in the festival no True Nobles have yet descended to observe the festivities, though a large number of lesser members the aristocracy have come with their entourages and body guards. Mostly Knights and the children of Baronets for now, the power and beauty of even these lesser aristocratic presentations has been remarkable.
The house guard of the Baronetess Rosemont attracted a crowd of their own. Eight soldiers in beautiful gold and red uniforms escorted a litter carrying a woman veiled behind barely translucent curtains. I didn’t recognise the woman, more likely one of the daughters rather than the Baronetess herself, such an early display of wealth and power was an interesting manoeuvre. I expect there will be imitators the following evening and the Baronetess will receive the illustrious privilege of being the subject of gossip on the morrow.
I enjoyed observing the evening from the dining stall where I enjoyed a delicious bowl of an exotic pasta meal in broth. The stall owner had come from the Earldom of Sunder Hill which had until recently been in the marches before the Queen’s crusade had won the Eastmark. He told me about the strangeness that the presence of the Aberrant had on the land, of the bale storms and beautiful but deadly flora and mutations among the animals of the area. How since the reclamation of the territory the land had slowly begun to return to the more wholesome natural order. I was intrigued to learn about the bio-organic structures the aberrant had built or grown still existed under the control of the Earl. Though the people were kept far from them.
After thanking and paying the stall owner for the meal, I made my way back to Matthew’s shop. The walk was pleasant, the crowds had grown and packed the streets such that it was a ponderous journey but I have grown to enjoy the slowing of my pace with age.

“It will last twelve hours exactly, once on you won’t be able to remove it until those twelve hours pass. If I hadn’t been under such an unreasonable time constraint I could have altered the conditions, as it is you’re fortunate I’m skilled enough that it is possible at all! And don’t think the conditions have lowered the price one bit!”

“Of course not, Master Artisan,” I croon ingratiatingly, the small vial in his hand seems to spark with power when I relax my eyes or see it in my peripheral view. I hand him a purse of coin and wait eagerly as he counts them with miserly attentiveness. My impatience is set to boiling point when at last he is satisfied that the entire sum is present.

“I don’t want to know what you want this for, but you’re a good customer Lucas and you’ve got people who’ll miss you if you go.” The old mans sentimentality takes me by surprise. He plays the role of a crotchety grouch so well it is almost jarring to see him pull back the curtain. Matthew had been close friends with Benjamin him long before I’d known either of them and in the roughly five years he’d failed to come back, I hadn’t seen the old man express much other than aloof crankiness.

“You honour me, Master Artisan,” I answer, smiling warmly at his kind words. The old man doesn’t miss a beat before he’s back to normal and chasing me out of his store cursing about the lack of respect my generation has for our elders.
With the elixir concealed safely in a pouch against my skin, I stare up through the ceiling of red lanterns at the stars in the night sky. After all these years, to be so close to my goal. It’s difficult to believe it is finally happening. I pray that I find the answers I’ve been looking for.

Dancing with the Devil

Part Thirteen of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade
Part Twelve: A Reprised Duet


“As you wish Avery, I do wish to compliment your dancing, you were an exquisite partner,” I answer lightly, gauging her reaction at the same time. She gives none. Which may have been valuable if she hadn’t already proven herself more than capable many times over.

“First question, who are you working for?” The question takes me by surprise, I had assumed she was quite familiar with my employment due to her proximity to our first meeting. I let my reaction display naturally having no need to conceal anything from her at this moment.

“My services have been acquired by an anonymous party using an intermediary who gave no name that contacted me through a previous employer,” I state plainly, considering the hidden meanings behind the question. “My investigation has suggested my employer is The Most Honourable Marchioness Madeleine Wilson, her intermediary the crow Daniel Thomas and the previous employer Sir Alexander Taylor. Although his servant Sebastian is the true power behind the throne, so to speak.”

She waits for two beats at the end of my answer, seeming to be waiting for me to continue. I suspect I haven’t delivered the answer she had been looking for. I tense up apprehensively for the outward expression of her displeasure. I’d been tortured before. My alterations and training helped lessen the experience, but that didn’t mean I was any more looking forward to it.
I search for another answer she may be looking for, and though I can think of a number of possible ideas I don’t know enough to successfully bluff her on any of them.

“What jobs are you currently undertaking?” she asks without any retaliation for my apparently incorrect answer.

“Simple switch job on some scribbles I’ve got locked in my stash,” I reply to the same expectant wait.

“What are your intentions for the blood you took from the Thierris serving girl?”

I pause to consider the question. The purpose of the blood must be obvious to her, especially if I assumed she was aware of the face I was having Matthew craft me. My desire in entering the Thierris estate was a purely independent endeavour, there should have been no possibility that she could have preempted it. Even I hadn’t known about it until I’d seen Sophia’s picture in the dossier.
The only explanation I had was that Avery had been looking for someone else and found me. Either she worked security for the Baronet, a possibility I hadn’t considered due to the expense in maintaining a full time shadow far exceeded the ability of aristocrats below true nobility. That she had been employed by the Baron to guard his daughter seemed even less likely for reasons of etiquette on top of the issue of expense. It had to have something to do with the son James’ connection to the Angel.

“There’s someone I’ve been looking for, who I believe might be Ava Thierris. My intention was to disguise myself as the servant and see for myself,” I answer deciding now to alter my strategy away from being absolutely forthcoming.

“Why are you looking for Lady Thierris?”

“She very distinctly resembles a woman who once nearly killed me.”

“Tell me about this woman”

I sighed, her face is like stone. I can’t read her to know if she is already aware of my story. Amelia always warned me that the shadows would be the death of me, and of course I’d always known she was right. In Night Town there is a saying that no shadow has ever died of old age. Some take it to mean that our altered bodies can live forever, in reality its simply a reference to the mortality rate. I had accepted going into the shadows that I would likely die there, I’d been careful to keep my work clean however. To avoid jobs that might put those I cared about at risk.

“First, I need to know what you did to Amelia,” I was pushing my luck asking, but I needed to know. Avery stares through me, her hawk like gaze tearing through to my soul without mercy. I gave nothing away, reflecting her own impassive stony visage back at her. Our contest of wills lasts only a couple of seconds.

“She is unharmed, I gave her the same as you gave to Scarlett.” I have no choice but to believe her, or not. I choose to believe her.

“Around ten years ago I was hired for a switch job on some administrative records at a library in The Day. While on site I was interrupted by a group who seemed to be searching for something at the same time. One of them spotted me through the grey, I disposed of all but one of them. She caught me on the roof and kicked me off after introducing herself as Sophia and saying something about fate. I barely survived the fall and when I saw her in the dossier for this job, I needed to know.”

Once more she gives me weighted pause while studying me. My instincts tell me that this time is different however, but I’m cautiously guard my hopes in case they are unfounded. In a sudden, fluid motion a knife appears in her hand as she kneels before me. She saws through the ropes binding my hands and drops the knife beside me and turns to make for the door.

“Your equipment is in the room at the end of the hall. Carry on with your plan to see Ava if you wish, my job doesn’t require me to care about that. I’ll be seeing you.”

I take the knife and cut myself free. I recognise the blade as one of my own. By the time I’ve made it out of my bindings and out of the room there’s no sign of Avery anywhere in the abandoned building. At the end of the hall, my things are waiting like she said. Including the vial of Scarlett’s blood. I reequip myself with a sense of ritualistic cleansing. The smart thing to do would be to stop chasing this lead, I’d already proven I’m in over my head. But I’m not especially smart, and things have just started to get interesting.

A Reprised Duet

Part Twelve of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude
Part Eleven: A Fool’s Masquerade


The atmosphere in Night Town has shifted drastically over the past month. The harvest surplus has been largely taken up by the aristocracy, while there remains plenty for the regular citizenry costs have tightened as artificial scarcity enters the market. Beyond this, the Royal Moon festival is being readied with many aspects of the celebration already having begun.
Red paper lanterns hang as honorary representative of the stars, weaving a canopy of lights above the market district. The red light they emit paint the city with an eerie, frenetic energy mingling with the vibrancy of the floral decorations spread beneath. The vibrant intensity of the celebration reminds me of the stories I had heard as a child that had been passed down from the generations who witnessed the last Royal Moon a century ago. The stories spoke with awe at wildness of the festival’s mad revel.

I walk through the festival decorations on my way to meeting with my darling Amelia. When I last borrowed Elijah’s writ of travel she set the condition I join her for lunch when I return it. I must admit to a not insignificant pang of shame to think my own sister would feel the need to trap me in order to spend time with me, my obsession has kept me overly busy of late.
The sight of flowers inspires me to bring her a gift to apologise for my recent distance. With some help from the florist I leave with a small bouquet of purple hyacinth and liatris, I’m told convey regret and sadness seeking forgiveness. I am contented by their beauty, and the sweet fragrance from the hyacinth.
I let the sweet aroma carry me the rest of the walk to Amelia’s home. I rap a playful rhythm on the wood before letting myself in.

“Sweet sister, I have brought you a gift,” I sing through the house, following my nose lead me through the house towards the delicious smelling meal. I am not immediately struck by the realisation that my greeting is met by a silent house. I don’t even notice the woman waiting for me in the dining room isn’t Amelia until I can already see her.
The moment I can see her, the grey is already upon me. Time seems to slow to a crawl. My body responds faster than my mind can react. The bouquet drifts slowly to the floor. By the time it lands I’ve drawn and flung three knives into the chair she had sat in less than a second ago. She shines in the ephemeral fog that covers the world with a radiance immediately marking her as a shadow. A strange familiarity about her.
She’s closed half the distance between us in an instant. Leaping backwards, blade held defensively between us, I’m calculating my options for escape. The front door almost twenty meters back. A window three meters past my assailant. An upstairs window twelve meters. She’s faster than me, two meters. No chance for escape. No sign of Amelia, she should be here. I pray I hadn’t gotten her killed.
The invader sidesteps my first strike with room to spare, passing beneath my swing on my left and entering my blind spot. My momentum is stuck going backwards, she has me cornered by my own movement. She’s good. I don’t even see blow that strikes the back of my skull to try and dodge it. I’d been careless, my last thought as my consciousness fades is that I recognised her. She had been the one who tailed me the day this all started.

***

No time seems to have passed, but as I begin to notice my body again my first sensation is the sharp pulsating ache that surrounds my head. I realise I’m restrained when I try to raise my rand to hold my head. Trying to open my eyes I’m met by a dark room, my heightened senses able to see clearly in the dim light shining beneath a door.
I seem to be inside a ordinary sized room for a bedroom, though there is nothing here but me. The rope-work was expertly done. I begin working at them to escape, though I doubt the woman who’d caught me would leave me enough time to do so.
Closing my eyes I listen for any sign of movement beyond the door. It’s silent. Not that silence means much when my opponent is a shadow. I collect what I know while struggling with the ropes. She’d followed me after my meeting with the crow, I’d thought I’d lost her but whether I had or not she had found Amelia and laid a trap for me. I can’t be sure if she was working for or against the Marchioness, nor understand why she had waited so long to act directly. As far as I can tell she’d taken everything useful I’d carried with me, even my better hidden pieces. Definitely a professional.

Suddenly the door opens, bright light streaming momentarily through the portal into the room. I would have been temporarily blinded if I’d been an ordinary person. As it is I recognise the woman from earlier enter the room, outside a hallway as bare as this room all I can see.
I don’t waste any time pretending to be unconscious, she’d likely predicted how long her blow would have kept me out. I watch her carefully, searching for any kind of hint towards her purpose in her appearance. She’s not unattractive, though far closer to unremarkable than beautiful. Without wearing the grey she seems almost ordinary, her dull brown hair and eyes, and athletic build standard for any Night Town hard lifer.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” I ask. She smirks down at me, shaking her head condescendingly.

“I’ll be asking the questions, Nightingale” her voice is professional and cold, “You can call me Avery, I hope you’ll be willing to co-operate. It will be a lot easier for both of us.”

A Fool’s Masquerade

Part Eleven of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo
Part Ten: Interlude


“Impossible! There’s only seven more nights until the Royal Moon,” he exclaims. Laughter bursting from my lips at the sight of the old man’s expression of disbelief. The face he wears as fake as the ones he crafts.

“And I must look my best for the ball,” I wink to him letting him know I’ve no time to play his mercantile games. “You have until the the clock strikes twelve tonight.”

“Midnight!? Do you think I am a miracle workers? You’re the only one here with monster blood in their veins!”

“Midnight.” I repeat with firm finality. Matthew glares at me one last time as I leave him to his work. The darkness preceding the dawn still holds sway over Night Town in the cool morning air. The sun has yet to rise since I’d received the truth of my employer’s identity. With this revelation the reason it had taken so long for Olivia was now apparent though the meaning behind the connection continues to elude me. The petty lordling I’d imagined at that first meeting was but a crudely crafted illusion only capable of deceiving me due to the unbelievable nature of the truth.
My employer was none other than The Most Honourable Marchioness Madeleine Wilson, illustrious mistress of the distant Eastmark and an exceedingly powerful woman. If such a human term as that could truly hold any meaning to one of the nobility. The crow that met with me was likely just one of an entire murder under her control. Why a woman with such vast resources at her disposal would bother enlisting the services of a flash for so menial a task, I had only theories.
The name of the crow I’d met with is Daniel Thomas. The youngest son of an aristocrat himself, he had been an officer in the Eastmark conflict before he disappeared from records. He had reemerged as a member of the Marchioness’ retinue in the year following the campaign’s success where he’s served ever since.
Of Ava even less could be found, the household staff of the baronet’s estate knew her as the daughter a younger daughter of the Baron of Ambersvale. While the least of the noble rankings, a Baron is still a true noble and difficult for even Olivia’s network to infiltrate. She did however manage to discover a record in the registry confirming the existence of Ava as the Baron’s third daughter.
Despite this there was some information that would be useful to me in the days ahead.

Entering the Baronet’s estate through unaided stealth had proven beyond my ability. The grey was a formidable tool but it had a number of flaws that the aristocracy exploited in securing their sanctums from my peers and I.
First, the drain it puts on our stamina is so strenuous that an hour under the grey represents my absolute limit. Longer than that and death was the most favourable outcome I could hope for.
Second is that the grey is not perfect when concealing the user against an observer with the proper training or similar enhancements. Skilled individuals like the Gate Watch can see us as plain as day. For Monster Blood users like the Crow’s or Devil Men it was like it shone a bright light on us.
Petty nobles such as Baronet Thierris could afford to hire guards with these skills, even going so far as to treat such servants as status symbols. My last incursion into the estate I had managed to count as many as four men forcing me to turn back long before I even made it close to where Sophia’s room would be. Stealing the letter I’d been hired for had been simpler than breathing, but it had never been my true objective here.
I shadowed James on his strolls around The Day several more times, with much greater caution this time. He had not visited The Angel again since that first time, nor did I ever see him accompanied by his wife or the Baronet beyond the walls of the estate.

I’ve grown quite familiar with the bell tower this past month. The only tall vantage point accessible nearby, I’ve spent a lot of time here during my observation period. In this time I’ve developed an intimate familiarity with the staff and visitors that frequent the estate. As with all aristocrats, the Baronet boasts a vast number of servants from Night Town who tend to their daily lives.
If my gut was right I had a very narrow window of opportunity to reach Sophia before The Royal Moon. There is a saying in Night Town, that only starlight shines on the finest string, it means that the order of things follows a strict order that only the stars can see through the mysteries of the Nobility. The Royal Moon marked a once a century event when The Queen would return from the war to oversee the apotheosis of new Nobles. Only the most powerful members of the Aristocracy could ever dream of attending the Celestial Ball. Whatever game the Marchioness and the Baronet were playing, I knew deep in my soul that it would end then. Unable to rely on the grey, another option remained to me. The Monster Blood that fuelled the transformations of the shadows, devil men and crows could also be used by the lesser miracles of certain artisans like Matthew.

The tolling of the bell signalled my moment approaching. Exhaling softly, with the drawing of my next breath I feel myself shift into the grey mist. The dull watery quiet covers my senses and the familiar icy chill fills my extremities as I release the rigid constraints of human flesh and pitch forward over the clock tower ledge.
Silently landing behind her as she steps from the servants entrance and crosses the road heading towards Night Town. One of the night shift handmaidens, Scarlett is my key to reach Sophia’s room of the Baronet’s estate. Under the grey the short journey back to Night Town feels agonisingly long, the only challenge is passing the gate captain. It had cost a significant bribe for his blindness this once, a price I could scarcely afford again any time soon.
At last we arrive at the maid’s home, my aberrant transformation has grown sharper and more painful. The vast overwhelming hunger bubbling up from a place deep inside me as the alien instincts convey meaning beyond my ability to comprehend from the chaotic causality of nature. Abandoning my ephemeral fog, I conceal myself with my mundane skill in her home until Scarlett turns in to sleep. To ensure she will not interrupt I give her an elixir so she will sleep for a full day and night before drawing from her veins a vial of blood.

Interlude

Part Ten of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo


Years earlier.

The roar of battle fill the air with the death filled banshee’s wail. Unspeakable weapons of war pounding great blows upon the earth like the hammer of gods. Out in the trenches, Her Majesty’s crusading army weathers the storm anticipating a break in the assault to allow their advance to continue.
At the vanguard of the crusade, The 1st Assault Reconnaissance Company under the command of Captain Carter Thierris, are positioned far ahead of the main force. The campaign for the conquest of the Eastmark has raged for a century without sign of an end. Lead by Marchioness Madeleine Wilson, the expected outcome of this assault was the capturing and elimination of the monstrous encampment. Success at this junction would carry accolades for the officers involved upon their return to Caelestis.

“Captain, the regulators predict the bombardment will be exhausted in an hour,” Lieutenant Sir Alexander Taylor reported. Carter acknowledges the report with a curt nod, the lieutenant had been with him for most of their assignment, along with First Sergeant Aiden Williams, Carter doubts he could have come this far. Afforded his commission due to being the eldest son of a Caelestis Baronet, as an officer Carter was smart enough to understand he relied on the knight and the vastly more experienced enlisted man.

“Have Williams ready the men to attack,” Carter orders. The order itself is all but a formality, the planning and briefings for the strike having long since been delivered. As the lieutenant departs, Carter is assisted into his armour by a servant to the backdrop of the gradually slowing bombardment strikes.
Despite being his second year of his tour of duty, this battle would represent the first engagement where Carter would see active combat. He was afraid, though as an officer he could not afford to show that fear. A good portion of the men under his command were veterans in combating the Aberrant. They knew he was unblooded and he had yet to earn their respect. They say a mans first time facing the Aberrant defined him, Carter prayed to the stars that he would earn his honour in the battle.

Emerging from his pavilion Carter watches the company’s preparation with a critical eye. The deep alien red Eastmark sky swirls with the unwholesome appearance that defined the Aberrant territories. Pillars of sickly green flame descend upon the field in arcing trajectories originating from the profane encampment whose perverse gaze stared mockingly down at them.
Offering a silent prayer to the stars and The Queen for strength, Carter stares defiantly back. The trembling in his knees grows stronger before the reality that lies ahead. Accepting the offered cup of tea from the servant, Carter receives the Lieutenant Taylor’s report with all the confidence he can muster. “The men will be ready by the time the barrage ceases.”

As predicted the barrage soon comes to an end. Carter’s whistle signals the charge, voices bellowing orders rise up in concert and as one they surge forth from the trenches into the killing fields. From across the smokey, cratered field impossible, inhuman figures pour out to meet them.
A hail of arrows from behind him rain down on the Aberrant, dispersing the tide of bodies momentarily before the dead monstrosities are swept away by the fresh waves of foes. Volley after volley delivers death from the heavens to the monsters as the men charge forward. With just over fifty yards left, the soldiers form a wall from their shields and brace to receive the Aberrant charge.
The battle formation silences the soldiers battle cries, in its wake an eerie silence broken only by the sporadic bellowed orders from the soldiers and the advancing ethereal chittering and profane gibbering of the Aberrant. As the alien tongue reaches Carter’s ears meaning half understood claws at his consciousness assaulting his senses with madness.

Then almost as soon as it began, the battle is done. Disgusting films of alien viscera and eldritch gore spatters Carter. His sword lost in the corpse of one of the undulating creatures that had broken the line and fallen barely before it would have slain him. Horrified nausea shook him as he stood before the strange structure their enemy had been defending.
His orders were to hold this position and await further orders. As the ranking officer, first spoils of the battle were his. The nobility reserved the right to any Aberrant technology or artefacts recovered. But as Sergeant Williams had insisted it was a tradition for trophies to be taken by the commanding officer. Only a handful of men had survived the battle, less than twenty, but they all looked on as Carter took the strange glowing orb from among the spoils and raised it high above his head in triumph. A bellowed cheer rose from the men, praising the strength of Mankind in defiance of the Aberrant.

***

As the first rays of dawn sunlight peeks into the dark, heavily curtained bedroom of the aged knight. Sir Alexander Taylor cries out in fear, the familiar nightmare waking him from his slumber like clockwork.
Sebastian has been expecting the cry, enters the room, opening the curtains and comforting the gibbering old man. The knights feeble fingers cling to the servant while he babble unintelligible nonsense. Long grown used to his master’s terrors, Sebastian is patient as he listens. Amongst the garbled rambling a single phrase holds any semblance of meaning amongst the madness.

“Stars protect me, it saw me! A red moon rises and rivers run red, staining the earth with the colour of blood! Majesty take me! It never died, and it is coming!”

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