Post-Mortem on Mesogrin.

WARNING: The following is a personal assessment of my recently concluded novel’s first draft. Don’t worry about reading it, nothing special pops up and you probably can’t glean any kind of new information out of it if you were so inclined to.
If you enjoyed the story and don’t want to be spoiled, I suggest you don’t read on. If you haven’t my story, I suggest you don’t read on.
If you’re interested in hearing a bunch of blather that popped into my head when going over why my recent novel ended up the way it did and/or my own take on it then feel free to read on.
I’m just sharing this as an insight into my process for writing – like this entire novel has been. I wrote each chapter in a sitting, as a first draft, with plans for refining it in the future. It is also absolutely not me saying that liking it is wrong, I am my own worst critic.


WARNING!


PROJECT POST-MORTEM for MESOGRIN.

RECAP.

Mesogrin is a novel set in the post-apocalypse of a fantasy world.
Following an apocalyptic war between humanity and the demons known as the Pillars, humans survive hidden away. Protected by the machines of the city of Mesogrin, human civilization has started to slowly reform.

Emilia and Rachael, two women living in the town of Battery Point, discover Anna, and by doing so drag themselves into a conflict that they had thought dead for two centuries.

THEMES.

Evil is a matter of perspective. – I would like to think this was a success, though in a hamfisted manner. The novel was originally intended to be much bloodier, but as it dragged on it lost most of that due to length constraints.
The Seven Paths. – they definitely could have been more rooted in the story to present how they are actively followed by people of the town, and not just associated with the Cults. The town was largely underdeveloped as a backdrop, meaning most of this was lost.
The Allure of Fascism. – Mesogrin was underestablished, due to their absence for most of the story. Mesogrin is a fascistic state of being, and the comfort they afford is supposed to be a representative of why societies so often turn towards authoritarianism.
The Allure of Religion. – the Cults were well established an an enemy, but they weren’t allowed the chance to “infect” the polity of the town. The Lost God could have been more established as a “protagonist”.
The Allure of Socialism. – It was heavily lost by the fact the cults were largely turned into antagonists. The Pillars were intended as a socialising force, that would offer an obvious good, but scored against the fact they were also considerably violent in their force.
The Flaws of Man. – Men in this world are relegated to the status of second-class citizens due to a religious sentiment. This was intended to show the indoctrination and the dogma of the Lost God and their followers, as well as Mesogrin, as opposed to the social egalitarianism of the Cults.

Notes. – what was originally intended to be tonally darker, essentially became quite a bit more pulpy. That will need to be directly addressed in future drafts.

PLOTLINES.

Conflict between the Cults and Mesogrin. (superplot) – essentially became a subplot. Was effectively replaced by the conflict between the cults and the town.
Battery Point’s fall. (superplot) – ended kind of on a good note? My desire to create a happier story undermined a lot of the originally intended darkness of the story.
Emilia and Rachael’s Relationship. (subplot) – essentially became the only plot for the first ten chapters.

Emilia’s struggle with her past. (subplot) – largely dropped really, it was hard to implement in a way that wasn’t too coincidental. Suggest replacement with an originally unintended subplot of Emilia’s struggle with her anxiety and better explain where that comes from. The anxiety was a side-effect of largely dropping her past as a plot-line.
Rachael’s struggle with her powers. (subplot) – entirely missing for the most part. Lost amongst other things.

Anna’s cultural adjustment/culture shock (subplot) – a mixture of failures to implement this, mostly regarding the actual implementation of Anna and her involvement in other plots.

CHARACTERS.

Emilia Hyle. (main) – fine, motivations were clear but plot railroads against it.
Rachael Ashenbury. (main) – awakening powers should have been bigger focus of earlier chapters.
Anna/Anathema. (main) – weak start, too heavily involved in the main plot to establish her primary subplot.
Karis. (supporting) – inorganic, didn’t establish her motivations.
Victorie. (supporting) – overused, ruined her mystery.
Sana. (minor) – poorly defined, didn’t establish her motivations.
Kass. (minor) – underused, arrived too late.
Evie. (minor) – late re-addition, reintroduce properly.
Simon. (minor) – remove, his role could very easily be replaced without the awkwardness intended to afford a glance into Anna’s humanity.
Pillar of Lust. (antagonist) – underdefined, they need to be more anchored in the root of the story and not introduced mid-way.
Mesogrin. (antagonists) – underdefined, they need to be more present for most of the story as more than just the spectre of an enemy.

WRITING PROCESS.

Stylistically, inconsistent. A shift towards more traditional (for me) expressionistic stylings would greatly improve the quality of the story. What was originally intended to be a bit more on the pulpy side for me, has turned into a relatively sloppy affair.
Sitting down to write essentially double my usual daily word count for a single project resulted in some teething issues that can no doubt be seen throughout. Some more time and care to fix up a lot of these issues will hopefully iron out the problems.

It lacked the usual care I devote to things like choice of wording, use of colour theory, organic dialogue, etc.

Work is needed on portrayal of action sequences.
Work is needed on establishment of scenery.
Work is needed on pacing and plot development.

CONCLUSION.

An author is their own harshest critic, however the end result of the project was underwhelming. The sane solution would be to scrap the entire novel and start on something new, however that’s what I always say.

A second draft should expand on the content of the story and flesh out the themes and plots to a satisfactory level. I am hesitant to say it was a good first draft, it was pretty crap really, but all adventures start somewhere.

I think, to use a terrible cliche no-one should ever use – the first draft is a diamond in the rough. Or, maybe to be less cliche, it is an unpolished mirror. With the right amount of elbow-grease it could really shine, and reflect a bit of the world back as us.
Until that happens though, let’s leave it as.

Needs improvement.

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Mesogrin. Ch.30.

“Soft melodies-”

Darkness. Breathless. Cold crept up her spine, sweat crawled across her skin. Dredged up, clinging to her, drops of moon-like light. She opened her eyes and saw a world upside down and inside out, where nothing made sense and yet her mind distorted it into meaning.

Rachael fell from nothingness onto her feet. Her friend walked away from her down a dark path, through a town much like their own. City streets illuminated by unseen lanterns, dead and cold. Her first breath felt black and white, but she struggled forward against the choking sensation of a colourless world. Victorie didn’t know she had followed, she was unsure how she had even made it here. They had been outside, alone, staring at a wall when she went to grab hold of them and rouse them from their stupor.

“The painter.”

A voice, like a den of birds all singing together to form sounds – alien to her own ears but understandable… everything here felt alien. She rushed to catch up to Victorie in the town square, fireflies trailing behind them as though they were guiding her forward. Her heart raced as her eyes saw things that didn’t exist, didn’t last. People flickering in and out of existence.

“Revive.”

The ghosts were dying, flickering through the memories of others. Her skin dewed with moonlight, scattered when a spirit passed through her.

“Tell me, Rachael,” she jumped as the voice pierced through her.

She spun to face the speaker, the square was empty. She backed away slowly, watching around herself to make sure nothing was after her.

“We need to leave-”

She turned, no-one… it was… she could almost feel Emilia’s voice pressing against her skin. The songbirds sang memories, like lyres… like liars. She rushed inside, hoping that she could catch up to Victorie… hoping she could find someone who understood this place.

She found her friend standing in the middle of the foyer.

“Sorry-,” Victorie’s voice had no song to it, just their own, “I was going to tell her eventually.”

They spoke to the memories shifting through the darkness, barely visible, just spectres like tricks of the light cast by the moonlight fireflies.

“Victorie?”

They turned their head to glance at her, “Rachael? What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for you… I don’t know how I’m here. Where-ever here is.”

“I’m sorry for running off, I had a lot on my mind.”

She rushed to them, embracing them in a tight hug, “I’m just happy you’re okay.”

They patted her back, then eased her way to regard the room again. Looking at the spectres, they blurred away into nothingness once more.

“Sorry, but we have to be quick.”

They gestured up the stairs, “There is something in my office I need.”

She nodded, and followed them upstairs, “What is this place? It looks like the manor but-”

“The demonic plane of lust. When she arrived, it recreated the memory she had of the town since they last walked the mortal plane. Here the dead touched by her grace may exist as memories of those who walk this land.”

“She…” she fell behind them a few steps and watched from the door of the office as they searched through the drawers of their desk.

“She’s offered me a gift, Rachael.”

They raised a book and placed it on their desk, “And I need your help.”

***

She placed them down upon the floor, blood snaking against the chalk map. Emilia forced herself free of her suit and fell to her feet. Karis had stopped breathing, but their eyes were still open and watching her.

“Okay, think!”

She rushed to her friend’s footlockers, whatever it was she needed, whatever would save them had to be here and locked away. Her first instinct was the small silver locker, it was the most inconspicuous. It was also empty.

“This will seem a little cliche.”

Her blood ran cold.

“Looking for this?”

She turned slowly, mind too wracked with a thousand different thoughts and emotions to move with any speed. Antlers sprouted from the woman’s skull, roses blossoming along the tines, crowned by a swarm of fireflies. Red hair, a face so beautiful it hurt her heart to look at. And the soft lilt of a sadistic woman’s siren voice. The Pillar stood before her, stood over Karis. Beside the demon, the woman that had birthed it, draped in red cloth.

“Sweet saviour, I still owe that favour.”

In its fingers it held a device, a mask like object and with the flick of its fingers it turned the mask to flame.

“It was useless to her anyway. So about that price, I have to pay.”

Rage seethed through her, suppressed only by the glint of logic remaining in her mind. Karis was dead, and this beast was the only way to get her back.

“You owe me a favour?” she was tired more than anything, “Then bring her back.”

It smiled at her, which chilled her to the bone, “Bind her soul to mine. Awake fallen child-“

“Wait-“

“Awake!”

The room blurred light and dark, the only colour was the red of blood and demon’s hair. It outstretched an arm over Karis’ body and like a puppeteer drew them to their feet by invisible strings. The fireflies, riled, swept across the room in patterns of light, far quicker than any insect should move.

Emilia ran to Karis’ footlockers and rummaged fevered through their belongings. Hidden under some clothes was a sword, which she drew and prepared herself for the end.

Karis stood, eyes opened and regarded her wielding their weapon.

“Em… what happened?”

“It brought you back.”

Karis turned to look where she was looking and immediately they backed away, “No… you should have let me die.”

The demon smiled cheerfully, and the woman by its side stepped forward to address them, “Your favour has been returned, Emilia. Now should my Mistress ever be destroyed, all those whose souls have been bound to her will also be destroyed.”

Karis wrenched the blade from her hand, “You really think I fear death?”

“No, but would you really do that to your friend?”

Karis let the blade fall by their side, “I’m sorry, Em’.”

She grabbed their shoulder, held them back, “No, I’m sorry. I should have known there would be a trick.”

“Do me a favour… bury me with my family.”

Karis surged forward and in a flash of white, they collapsed to their knees choking.

“Karis!”

“Sorry, Miss Hyle. I believe the Captain and I have unfinished business.”

As though from thin air, Victorie stepped and grabbed hold of Karis. Rachael followed them  from nothingness and ran to embrace her. She missed what happened next as Rachael muttered something into her ear about what had happened.

Karis swung up and nearly carved Victorie in two.

“What’s happening?”

Rachael gripped her tightly, “Victorie is with the cult now… she wanted her wife back.”

“Wife?”

“We need to go, please!”

“I’m sorry Rach…”

Emilia pushed her away and ran towards their suit. She steeled herself as her lover left her, and she lifted the book in her hands. Every part of her screamed about how wrong this was, that she should never trick them like that but…

Emilia in their suit and the demon so easily brushed them aside.

“Mistress of Masks, Pillar of Lust.”

She stood, barefoot against the chalky floor, toes accidently touching blood. The sweat on her skin shimmered in the moon-like light.

“I have your book.”

The demon looked up at her, saw the book in her hand. Eyes too focused on her to see the chalk retracing itself beneath their feet. She opened to the page where the sigil lay, and focused intently on the drawing. Everything had to be perfect.

“You tamper with knowledge of which you have no ken.”

Her attention snapped up as the demon appeared in her face, reaching for her. From behind a massive machine gauntlet clamped around its skull and tore it away.

She quickly turned her eyes to the floor, examining it, trying to see through the scuffle of Karis and Victorie was impossible. The two clashed in bright sparks of white and black as sword hit clawed hands infused with power she couldn’t comprehend.

Magic well beyond that of a parlour magician.

But here she was.

“Illy! We need sarritic acid!”

Emilia almost did not hear Rachael’s yelling, but even so she was a little busy. The demon crushed a hand through her suit, long claws scything through the solid steel. Her own hands were too slow to strike it. It was toying with her. All she could do was grab hold of the woman as they tried to run past and attack Rachael. The claws of the beast dug into her stomach and she could feel them pushing deeper as her suit gave way.

She slipped her arms from the suit’s and pulled the battery eject. With the loud ping of metal striking metal, the battery ejected from the suit and with it a gout of sarritic acid.

“Victorie! Now!”

Victorie swept under Karis’ swings and rolled forward away from them. She met the Pillar as it tore open the cockpit of Emilia’s suit and struck through its gut. Blood filled the room with colour, splashing against the floor. Red surged along the chalk-lines and mixed with the acid. Foaming up, the blood glew bright white, hissing and sizzling like hot iron against cold water.

It drew all light in, and then all light was gone. Until soft particles of it filled the air like fireflies. The room slowly faded back to normal and there was no more demon. Victorie saw the cultist run, but her body ached.

Karis fell to their knee, so she offered them a hand, “Sorry about the show.”

Karis looked her in the eye, “You killed it?”

“No, banished her back to her own shitty little plane of existence.”

Rachael and Emilia embraced again, neither worse for wear. Karis had given her a few good knicks, not to mention the pains of her body brought back.

“You’ll live, now let me help you up, ally.”

They took her hand, and hoisted themselves to their feet, “Maybe I misjudged you.”

They sighed, looking around their room, “I could really use a drink… join me won’t you?”

“As long as I can bring some friends.”

***

“What if she comes back?”

“It’s only a matter of time before she does.”

“And what do I do then?”

“That is a good question.”

Anna sat on the steps of the manor, Kass sat beside her. Or, maybe she shouldn’t call them Kass any more.

“If you can’t answer me that, perhaps you would answer me another?”

“Alright.”

“Why did you leave me?”

“I never left you. There is just, other things we all need to do.”

She sighed, defeated, “People will continue to die because of me.”

“None of their deaths are on your hands. You do not control the actions of others.”

“Lady Amber once told me something similar.”

Kass smiled warmly, “She sounds like a smart woman.”

“She was…”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not, I am okay. If I live my life, I do not dishonour those who have already died for me. Giving up would… that would be disrespectful I suppose. But how do I stop more people dying?”

“You don’t. You live, for it was never your choice to live. For your sister, life is meaningless, for you… find meaning despite the loss.”

They hugged her, and kissed her on the forehead before rising to their feet, “We will meet again soon, darling. Look after Emilia for me.”

“I-” she bit her tongue and let them go.

“Anna!”

Rachael ran from the manor, pulling her to her feet and hugging her. Everyone was so… huggy… today. Emilia, a few scratches on them, simply nodded at her and began down the steps towards home.

“Might need to pack light for our trip.”

Rachael wrapped their arm around Emilia’s shoulders, “Let’s wait until after rains before we go anywhere dangerous.”

Mesogrin. Ch.29.

Centuries ago, the wars between humanity and the demonic hordes raged with no end in sight. Humans died in the tens of thousands, numbers that seemed invented in this after-world. Those who survived the battles became hardened, vicious warriors capable of destroying entire armies of demons – those called the Knights.
But they were so few in number that they could never hope to win. Fourteen chapters of no more than a thousand soldiers each, and usually far less as the war weared them down. And so they created auxiliaries and militias and when those too became too costly they turned to science. Machines, none as good as a true knight, so they relied instead of making specialised machines for certain tasks. Reclaimers and purifiers and ambassadors, and eventually the machines became so good at their job that they were almost as powerful as those few remaining knights. These machines were known as crusaders, and they too were never in great enough numbers to halt the tide.

The knights went underground, the machines would become Mesogrin. And now, Anna approached, machines dressed as knights, carrying banners and weapons as though they continued that legacy.

It was the longest walk of her short life. A wall of black and white, grey steel and the flickering of firelight off the vigil upon the manor steps. The machines had formed a line, spread out across the square, advancing over the bodies of the slain.

Her greatest fear was not making it across the square, that the machines would just regard her like all the others and cut her down where she came to stand. She could feel the eyes of her friend watching her, her will to stand and face the oncoming end eroded. This was what needed to be done.

Anna could no longer stand behind others as they died for her.

What she didn’t expect was that others would stand behind her. She turned her head to look as a hand clapped against her shoulder, at first she had expected it to be Emilia. It was not. Armoured in their hawk-mask, she could not see Karis’ face but she could feel their eyes turned down upon her.

“I hope you have a plan, Anna.”

Standing alongside the captain, thirteen of their soldiers armoured in their auto-arm and lined against the machines with drawn weapons and thick shields.

“I doubt we can win this by force.”

“Please, I must do this alone.”

“Yeah well, don’t think that’ll be happening. Just stall them until Em gets back.”

The machines paused in their advance, regarding the soldiers arrayed against them. From amongst their ranks, stepped forward a machine with the form of a woman. Metal face like a mask, glowing white eyes casting down upon her.

“Hello, sister.”

“Mesogrin,” she stepped one more pace from Karis, hoping that some distance could spare bloodshed, “you do not need to do this.”

“You are right, Anathema. Join me, and we can avoid all of this.”

Her stomach lurched, bile rose, “We both know that is not true.”

“Then it is a great shame, but everyone here will die.”

“No!”

The machine, an ambassador, it towered over her like everyone else in this world. With a amused scowl clicking into place upon its mask, it extended a hand to her, palm up.

“Join me.”

“Why? What reason is there for you to want this so badly you would destroy an entire town?”

“Together, we are whole. Two halves of a program. Mother gave you want I need to save this world. The death of the few is inconsequential.”

“What exactly is it that I have that you need? Perhaps I can just give it to you?”

“Your mind. Join it with mine. Become one. Singular. Complete.”

“You want me to… merge my mind with yours?”

“Yes. Join. Me.”

“You realise, that would kill us both.”

“We would become greater than our combined parts. The death of the few is inconsequential.”

She turned to look at Karis, and did not see Emilia in sight.

“I was in your city for a year… why didn’t you try this then? Why do innocent people have to die over this?”

“Did not realise. Found you, far away from home. Hidden, lost. Were not special.”

“I am a machine that looks just like a human. How am I not special?”

“You were not special. There are others from before.”

Stunned silent, nauseated.

“Tried to make more, make our own. Did not succeed.”

“I-I do not… surely, there is a way we can end this without us both dying?”

“No.”

“Can’t you copy me? Mother made copies of my mind constantly… nearly every week.”

“Imperfect copies. Imperfect. Together, finally. We would have the means to end this war without millions dying. What is two more deaths?”

“It is my death…”

“Selfish.”

“Yes… but that is how I feel.”

Why her? She just wanted to live.

“And if the millions have to live under your control, I don’t see how I can condone letting that happen.”

“Not mine. Ours. You… know. I… hold together. It would be your thoughts, your emotions. I am simply… protocols.”

“I understand why Mother never told me, never put us together. It is better to fail, than to see beauty die. It sounds conceited I know,” tears welled up again, “but she always told me that I was beautiful and perfect and that she never needed anyone else to love. She didn’t want me to be part of you.”

The ambassador grabbed hold of her by the neck and strangled dead her yelp of panic, she was lifted off her feet and dragged to look directly into the cold dead eyes of the machine. It’s voice shifting amongst the thousand angry vipers, “You. Have. No. Choice.”

A vibrant arc of blue scythed through the air before her face, and she fell to her feet and tumbled back. Metal carved through metal, and Karis’ foot stomped into the ground where she had been standing. The captain hefted the cleaved machine, skewered upon their blade.

“Forward!”

The clash of shields locking into place, heavy mechanical boots crushing stone as the thirteen soldiers charged across the no-man’s-land and towards where Karis was already pushing with shield and sword into the enemy line.

A thunder, which rang out and turned into the grim sound of metal tearing, like the rip of flesh and bone. Sparks and glowing metal clashed over the candles and lanterns. Karis chopped down through the first of many to fall today. A swirling vortex of electric blue surrounded her slashes and stabs, carving through two crusaders. Her soldiers met the line, filled with holes from the enemy weapons but none falling.

Metal and metal clashed, crushing. The crusaders pushed back, their weapons useless in the melee but their own swords easily piercing through the shields and armour of the women.

“Take them with you!”

She cleaved through another, felt the sting of metal punching through her suit. Her blood spilled, but she pushed harder with her useless shield. It found a use embedded in the chest of an enemy as she chopped it in two.

“Die with honour!”

Outnumbered three to one, it was a lost battle from the beginning. Karis cut down four before she realised her soldiers had not fared so well. Half of her number had fallen already, she buried her sword in the skull of a machine to save one of her own from being torn apart.

She was knocked aside, her helmet caving in against her still tender face. Resisting the desire to pull it away, she suffered through the agony to grab hold of the machine that struck her and tore its face clean off.

Unable to speak, barely able to breath, she grabbed hold of a fallen sword. Surrounded. Most of her soldiers were dead. Friends she had known for years. Family… It had been an honour to fight beside them. She had not expected any of them to stand for this long.

She plunged her blade through another skull and felt the heat of molten metal punch through her chest. She staggered, falling to a knee. The first to close the distance with her, she pulled them apart.

She only hoped, whatever Em had built could end the last of them. That Anna had the sense to have run. That Victorie would finish what they had started, and save the town.

She pulled off her helmet, the twisted metal tearing at her cheek. The pain nearly made her vomit, it was only once the metal was away that she realised one eye was blind. She didn’t have the strength to tear apart the second to approach.

The crack of the machine’s weapons rang out and she was the last soldier left alive. The machine approaching her, one of the twelve still standing, lowered their weapon at her face, and she closed her eyes.

A soft click and metal shredded through metal. Emilia charged forward as four of the machines were torn apart. Her gun had worked, but the flash of the barrel of the machines wasn’t silenced quick enough. She rushed in, letting her monstrous creation fall to the ground, it took too long to reload and her hammer would be more useful in the end.

The brunt of her first swing crushed a machine into the ground, and her second swatted another aside.

“Karis! Get up, fight!”

Karis opened their eyes, too weak to stand. Too weak to fight. Then Emilia flashed past, pushing with their shoulder in her suit, molten metal glancing off her like it was water splashed on a rock. Hammer driving through the heads of two machines in one swing and brought down on another.

Karis struggled to their feet, and liberated a sword from the dead wreck of a slain machine. Together, Emilia and Karis. The swords and shot of the machines nothing against Emilia’s advance as with hammer and fist, the woman crushed crusaders left and right.

Karis’ blade struck through the last machine left, and she felt to her knee and struggled to get back up. Emilia pulled their helmet off and surveyed the square and the wreckage. The dead bodies, blood, oil, metal twisted and the fallen captain.

“Karis!”

She looked up, her head barely able to turn, but she met their gaze and to her surprise Emilia didn’t look away. Her friend placed a hand on her shoulder, tears welling in their eyes.

“Is there any way to save you?”

She nodded, opening her broken mouth to croak out, “My room.”

“Come on,” Emilia grabbed hold of her suit and pulled against it, forcing it open until she fell free of it.

They caught her and lifted her gently in their arms.

“I won’t let you die… too many have died already.”

Emilia left the carnage with the captain in their arms. Anna sat upon the steps, powerless to help… how many more would die because of her… because of her selfishness.

Could the pillar save them? Would they even if they could? She hung her head, and it was only the hand of another that roused her from her sorrow.

“It’s not your fault, darling.”

Kass hugged her, “I saw it all, and it isn’t your fault.”

They held her, as she cried. A pathetic, useless machine without a purpose.

“You didn’t do anything wrong but choose to live,” they whispered into her ear, letting her face bury in their shoulder as she sobbed.

“Life is a beautiful gift, you deserve it and they gave theirs so you might. It is a shame to let beauty die.”

They pushed her back, so that they could look her in the eye and wipe away a tear from her cheek, “You are beautiful, and perfect, and you can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t worry about failure, we all suffer setbacks. I am sorry though, about all of this.”

Then, they placed a hand on her shoulder, “Unfortunately, we don’t choose our family.”

Mesogrin. Ch.28.

There was a deep sorrow in the realisation that Illy was right. It was time to leave the town behind, move on with their life. Rachael watched as they busied themselves with dousing the furnace, watched as the pillars of steam rose up and out the garage door.
There was nothing left that she could do. The only question was, where would they go?

“To the capital, there will be work for us there. Always is.”

She had always dreamed of leaving, but… “We just leave everything behind?”

Illy slapped their hand against the auto-arm standing against the back wall, “I think we can take maybe, a trunk each. You, me, Victorie. Anna doesn’t have anything, far as I know.”

“I guess, we should go pack.”

“You’ll have to find Anna first, I’m sure she’s wandered off again.”

Rachael cast her eyes to the dirty floor, “The day’s finally here…”

Illy rushed across the workshop, placed their hand on her shoulder, “It’s alright to be sad, this house is special to me – I can’t even imagine how you must feel, but it’s a house. You’ll always have your memories, and we’ll have each other.”

They hugged her, held her close. The silence between them settled on her, and like so many moments in her life she was struck by the desire to paint. Happiness, sorrow, hope, despair, it didn’t really matter as long as she was doing what she loved.

Illy let her go, released her back into the world.

“I’ve just got one thing I want to ask you.”

She smiled, following them as led her across the room, “What is it?”

“I need you to turn this water into something,” they patted the rim of the barrel, it was still half full of water, “It’s hard to explain so I’ll just describe it to you.”

“I can only change water into paint, you know that right?”

“Sure, yeah, trust me it’s very similar to paint. You can do it.”

“Alright,” she placed her hand down into the barrel and her fingers just managed to submerge into the water.

“Alright, close your eyes and picture very carefully what I’m describing.”

She nodded her head, shut her eyes and focused on the water against her finger tips.

“It is slightly thicker than water, it should resist you only a little. It’s slick, like grease between your finger tips and sticks like oil. It’s clear, slightly dry against your skin like it’s not meant to be touched. And it smells like paint remover or undiluted alcohol.”

She could feel it on her skin, smell it against the inside of her nose, burning slightly against both. Then she could really feel and smell it, not just in her mind but physically, tangibly.

“Alright,” she lifted her hand from the barrel, the clear liquid coated her fingers and made her hand very slippery as she tested it between her finger tips, “what is it?”

“Mineral oil.”

“Oil? I can’t make oil.”

Illy pushed her back and dipped a rag in the new liquid, before sniffing the wet rag and throwing it outside onto the wet cave floor. Curious, she followed them as they approached the rag and pulled a torch from their belt. The rag went up in a ball of flame and burned up almost immediately.

“It’s mineral oil. Now go find a brush.”

They didn’t need to tell her, she rushed into the workshop to rummage through her own little bench and found the first brush she could and filled a bucket with water. Outside she nearly dropped both but scrambled over to find Illy waiting patiently with a thoughtful look on their face. She already knew what she wanted to try as she dunked her brush in the bucket and splashed water everywhere as she ran her hand over the side of the house. She didn’t even need a brush, with just the tips of her wet fingers she scrawled in fine white chalk her own name. And with her brush, she swept in long patterns, drawing nothing of significance but that didn’t matter.

“Why?”

She finally turned to Illy who stood watching her paint in chalk and oil and metallic paint that lustred like real gold in the moon-like light of the lanterns surrounding them.

“I tried so hard, for so long.”

“Paints are minerals ground up to make pigments. Did anyone ever tell you how you were doing it?”

“I-No, I never even stopped to think about it. How’d you-?”

“I was thinking about the indirect approach to solving a problem. Sometimes you can’t do something one way, and you focus on that so much you don’t realise there are other ways to do that very same thing.”

She gestured towards the workshop, “Not to ruin the moment, but we should probably get started. I’ve got a lot to pack before we can go.”

Rachael admired her work for a moment longer, “Yeah alright. I’ll go find Anna once I’ve told Vicky.”

She followed Illy inside, and headed through to the kitchen. Vicky was gone, but probably just to go lie down. She was worried about them but, they wouldn’t do anything drastic… she hoped. It wasn’t until she had checked both bedrooms and the bathroom that she began to panic.

“Em! Em! Fuck-”

Illy rushed into the atrium, wrench still in hand.

“She’s missing!”

They tucked the wrench into their belt and with eyes already looking out through the cage wall of the atrium, they took her by the arm.

“She can’t of gone far, it’s alright. We’ll find her.”

***

The town square held a heaviness. Candle light flickered across the stones, illuminating the plaza and casting grim shadows through the crowd. The faceless god watched over her as she sat down amongst the mourners and the grievers, their eyeless, lipless smile shared with her.

“Mother. You are the Faceless God aren’t you?”

She closed her eyes, the thought of them, the image of their face so vividly stained her mind. The smile, their bright eyes so happy to gaze upon her. Proud, loving. Nothing was as pure, as untainted by reality than the years she had spent by her mother’s side growing up.

“You always told me you would find a way to save everyone. I suppose you did… you sacrificed everything to save us. To save me.”

A humble woman, undeserving of the curse of being deified. The saved had forgotten their face, their voice, their name… why was beyond her, but she didn’t forget. Hard voice, with the smoothness of honey and fire… so passionate about everything they did. Like create her, create her sister. Save the world.

“Lady Mariah Rendi… I miss you greatly.”

She opened her eyes and gazed up at the mural, through the people now praying at the Lost God’s feet.

“But I am glad that you succeeded. I hope to follow your example… but I do not have your strength or your wisdom. I am not as brave as you, or as passionate as you. I do not fear failure like you did… I am a machine – but I don’t know my purpose.”

Her eyes watered, “I know you left me guidance… I know you would not leave me alone in this world. But where? My sister… I do not know if she is truly my sister. You never told me about her, but I struggle to imagine how she is not. Why did you never tell me about her?”

She swallowed, struggling down the dryness in her throat, “Everything I thought I understood, makes no sense. I can no longer bluff, I cannot pretend I know what I do not. I am a child, everything is strange… I do not know how much longer I can do this.”

She hung her head, to hide her tears, wiping them away as they rolled down her cheeks, “I can’t do this.”

She fought down her sobbing, brushed away her tear again, snorted, “Help me, please… a memory, a thought, something… I just need guidance.”

A hand placed upon her shoulder startled her, nearly made her squeal, “Anna.”

She glanced up to see Emilia standing over her.

“Hey, sorry. We’re leaving town, and we want you to come with us.”

She looked away and made sure there were no tears left in her eyes, “Okay.”

“You alright?”

She wondered if maybe Emilia would have advice for her, “I am, but I do not know what to do with my life… it is a long story, perhaps we should save it for later once we have left.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” they offered her a hand, and pulled her to her feet, “as long as you’re sure it can wait a few days.”

“I believe so,” she suffered a smile, just glad that Emilia struggled to look people in the eyes, “is there anything you need help with?”

“I suppose we should start looking for Victorie. Rach is out here somewhere at the moment.”

“She is coming with us?”

“Yeah, I think it’d be best for her. I don’t think there is much keeping her here.”

The crowds were beginning to murmur, disjointed and upset by something along the peripheries. She had a terrible, ominous feeling once again, and she had come to trust in that feeling.

“I think we should leave.”

Emilia looked through the crowd, people had started to leave, run, scream. Emilia grabbed her by the arm and pulled her towards the door of the town hall. They were not alone, people pushed in behind them, panicked and scared. A woman accidently shoved her aside in their rush only stopped by the sudden appearance of Karis in their full armour and hawk face-plate.

“Calm yourselves!”

Karis’ voice filled the hall. Other guards swept in from the hallways, Karis turned and below the murmur of the crowd, the panicked voices of scared townspeople,  spoke to the nearest guard who rushed down the stairs and towards the kitchens.

“What’s going on?” a woman in the crowd cried out as Karis ventured down the stairs, no-one in the crowd seemed to know.

“Calm yourselves friends, we will find out soon and resolve any problems.”

Karis passed right by them, glared at Emilia as they did, “Come.”

Emilia didn’t argue, and Anna followed them both as they made their way through the crowd.

“I want you to see the evil we fight.”

Anna understood exactly what the captain intended to mean, but there was a feeling in her that knew they would be wrong. She was sure that it had to do with her sister, it was the same feeling of void against her skin.

Karis threw open the doors and stepped out into the square. Anna paused at the precipice with Emilia. Marching towards them down the street, crossing the square… it was impossible to not realise what they were. Men made of metal, draped in the white and black of the church, armoured like knights from centuries ago with large metal crests, banners fluttering behind them as they approached. Two dozen, maybe three dozen. In their hands were strange weapons that she vaguely recognized from a lifetime ago.

“Mesogrin…”

Emilia grabbed her by the shoulder, “Those are not purifiers.”

Karis turned on her, the realisation in her eyes, “How do you know that? What is this?”

“Crusaders,” Anna brushed off their hand and stepped forward, “They are here for me.”

It was suddenly clear, what she needed to do.

“Anna?”

Karis grabbed Emilia by the front of their jumpsuit, “You know more than you’re letting on. What is a crusader?”

“You’re right, I know more than I’m letting on but I don’t give a shit about telling you.”

Emilia pushed Karis aside and stepped before Anna, “Don’t. Whatever you aren’t telling me, I don’t care. We just need to leave town now.”

“You’re just leaving?” Karis’ indignance was lost as Emilia crouched to look her in the eyes.

“The best thing we can do is lead them away.”

Emilia’s hand slipped into their pocket and pulled out a small metal disc no bigger than their fingertip, she knew exactly what it was.

“Let’s go.”

She looked away, “No, I am sorry. I must see this through.”

She stepped around Emilia and began the long walk towards her fate. She only hoped her sister could be reasoned with.

Mesogrin. Ch.27.

The glow of molten metal, brightening the room as she hammered it into shape. Steam filled the air, dewing against her skin and rusting her fingertips until her entire body ached from the work. Sweat dripped from every pore, her skin felt like it was blistering slaving over the furnace. She quenched the molten metal, hardened in cold water releasing another scolding plume of steam. She wasn’t a blacksmith, she wasn’t used to this work, but seeing something shape from her hammer blows was oddly satisfying.

Emilia was the only true engineer in the entire town, the only one who knew how to make what was needed to save everyone. It was just a rush to finish it before Karis arrived, she knew exactly what was going to come of that. Body burning from lack of sleep, from the heat. A furnace made from burning sarritium, helped shape wolf iron. Flattening it out, as thin as she could make it, folding it over to harden the shape she would eventually form. Her legs were starting to shake from all the pedalling her foot was doing just to keep the fire hot enough. Pumping more and more air amongst the smouldering coals that were slowly starting to melt like glass.

The idea had come to her almost from nowhere. It had been the holes in the wall that reminded her of her discovery. But there was no way for her to replicate it… or at least she had thought. All it was, was creating kinetic energy through a chemical reaction. There was a host of other ways to do that and she just hadn’t been thinking clearly enough. There was a far easier way. The best part was she already had all the parts, and it was easy to assemble. A powerful spring, a pipe and a way to fire that spring once it had been compressed. It was a crossbow without the bow.

“You’ve been busy.”

As she had expected, Karis. They arrived as she finished working the metal, and they examined the room and started to melt just as she was.

“I didn’t expect I had much time.”

Karis nodded, they were already wearing their armour… this was it, “Are you ready?”

“I’m not going.”

Karis nodded again, their aged face finally wrinkled amongst the scars, “We have a week left.”

“Then don’t do it. We both must have worked it out,” she looked down at the metal cooling on the wet workbench, “just getting rid of them isn’t going to stop Mesogrin.”

“I have to try. And after what they did.”

“It’s not gonna work, and you’ll just be throwing aside innocent people for vengeance. I know you, and this isn’t about last night. You don’t even know it was actually them.”

“I saw them… you saw them…”

“Why wasn’t it just, Victorie’s soldiers?”

“I’ve fought demons before,” Karis gestured to their black eye and bruised cheek.

“A demon of lust,” they had recovered quickly… they looked far worse just a few hours ago, or maybe that was the light, “I’ve fought them myself, they don’t fight. They don’t need to.”

“Then what are you suggesting?” Karis towered over her in their auto-arm, their voice breaking in anger, “Who did it then?!”

She was struck by a thought, “Black blood…”

“What?” Karis turned their head, looking down at her with bewilderment.

“Black. Blood. Demons have black blood, but when I was fixing Anna’s arm… what if there are more of her?”

“Now you’re being ridiculous… I never thought you’d become a cultist.”

“Shut up! Listen for once!”

She turned her gaze directly into theirs, “If you wanted to destroy a town, overrun by demons and the people knew you were coming to kill everyone… and you had a way of acting like you were just another one of them… what would you do?”

“You’re saying Mesogrin, is infiltrating towns? Why not just replace us while they’re at it. You’re being insane.”

“You’ve got no fucking sense anymore.”

“Says the woman claiming conspiracy.”

“This whole fucking thing is a conspiracy you idiot! You, Victorie, the machines, the demons. I just wanted a fucking peaceful life away from this shit!”

Karis pointed to the door, “Then go. Be a coward, stand in my way and claim you know something you have no fucking clue about.”

“You think you’re being brave? You’re going to get this whole town killed. Unless there is something you’re not telling me, you’re a fucking idiot.”

She glared at them, unsure of how to express her disbelief, “I mean you agree that Mesogrin is wrong right? That they’re coming to kill everyone just because there is a few cultists in town?”

“You really wanna know?”

“Yes, because if you’re so goddamn callous… I don’t know anymore. I used to think you were a good person-”

“All we’ve ever heard is stories of towns with cultists either being wiped out by the demons or massacred by the machines. You want to bring logic into this? What logical reason does either side have to doing that? Wiping out people that agree with them?”

Karis stepped closer, letting their height overpower her, “They don’t. The people fight and whoever wins… the cults don’t lose those fights. I’m not worried that Mesogrin comes and immediately cuts us all down. I’m worried they’ll arrive, and the cult will be the only thing left. And I know this because I lived through this.”

“I thought-”

“You think you know a lot more than you actually do, Em. The reason I don’t tell you these things is because you over think them.”

They pushed her, “Even now I bet you’re wondering if there is a way out of this where everyone lives and we’re all happy. That’s not how life works, the dead stay dead.”

“There’s a monster in town that proves otherwise,” she finally turned away from Karis, choosing to ignore the roughness in their voice.

“If only your mother had worshipped the demons, then they’d bring her back. All us non-believers are shit out of luck.”

Karis turned their attention to the metal she had been working, “There is a reason people trust Mesogrin. Despite the stories the cults tell us.”

“Then the only answer you have, is there is more than one cult in town. Maybe next time they won’t stop at messing with your face.”

“Goodbye Em.”

She didn’t turn to watch them leave, her blood was boiling. She still had so much work to do and the thoughts swirling about in her head were not helping. There was no time left, but the logic was eating at her and only raised new questions.

“Illy? Are you alright?”

Rachael, she smiled seeing their face.

“I heard shouting.”

She nodded, “I’m fine, but I think it’s time to go.”

***

There wasn’t much left for her. The moment that Rachael had turned their back, she took her chance. As they spoke tensely about some pointless task, she took her leave. Victorie had… there was a strangeness to having the heart torn from the chest that she was starting to admire. Or the void in her head consuming all her thoughts. She didn’t truly give much thought, because she struggled to think. It was a side-effect that she ended up ascending the stairway and emerged into the Above. The small well-hidden cave she emerged from was sunken into the landscape and all around her in the darkness, black trees illuminated only by the fireflies that rose up from the sea far below.

A dense fog settled around her feet as she began to walk, it rose up to fill her lungs where she stirred through it. She just walked. Walked along the cliffs, hoping that she’d slip and fall in the darkness. Eventually her lungs would flood, her bones would break, she’d jump, she’d fly and plummet against the sea. Instead she found her body tiring, aching, screaming at her to stop. It seemed only right that her body would give up as well.

She fell to her knees, her chest growing heavy. It only dawned on her as she began to wheeze that she had always feared drowning. That seemed inconsequential now, death is death is death is… she closed her eyes, they were useless now, watering in the darkness. Swallowed by the void sinking in around her. Her skin numbed, the world was cold, the last few drops of static in her fingertips evaporating as with a final deep breath she sucked in as much of the choking mist as she could and let it force the air from her lungs.

“So, you’re dead.”

She opened her eyes, the darkness still consuming her. But in the darkness sat that unfortunate familiar face lingering just before her. Sitting upon the carcass of an ancient machine long ago destroyed.

“That was a bit melodramatic don’t you think?”

Her lungs too heavy to speak, she looked into the red eyes of the woman as fireflies came to flock around them. Long silver hair that flowed down their shoulders, a soft dress that folded against their delicate body. Too beautiful, too perfect for this cursed place of black leaves brighted only by insects and starlight. The woman smiled at her softly.

“Coming back from mistakes is hard to do, particularly when they’re as monumental as trusting that vulture of a woman. It bit you, let’s not lie. You bared your throat and let it get ripped out, so maybe death is the only real way to go.”

The woman stood, drifting gracefully down to their feet, the tiny orbs of light swirling around them followed and clung to the woman’s skin.

“Tell me Victorie. Did you ever think of getting revenge? Do the deaths of your friends mean nothing?”

She closed her eyes, chest aching. Mind awash in formless emotion, swirling like the mist against her useless lungs.

“No, I believe they mattered to you more than anything. Not just your lover, but your friends, the people that served you and that you sought to serve. The town you wished to keep safe. The dream of rebuilding. The vision of the future.”

They pressed a hand against her cheek, “I can give them back.”

She let them raise her eyes to meet their own, the ruby red, blood, her own eyes were bleeding. Her head was splitting apart, her body was numb but she knew it was burning away. Somewhere deep her own mind knew every little pain, guarding her against it.

“I can give you back the world you were building. I only ask one thing of you.”

They placed a hand on her shoulder, having crouched down before her to examine her face to face,  “Take me with you when you rise, let me see the fall with my own two eyes. Slay the wolves, slay them all. Freedom comes when tyrants fall.”

She opened her lips, pushing out words without meaning to her as she spoke them.

“Love. Hate. Lust. Faith. I don’t want to live.”

They caressed her cheek once more, holding her gaze on their own, “Do not give in, this world has hurt you but together we can fix all of this. We can free this world of pain.”

Her bloody eyes teared up, trickled down her cheeks, she tried to sob but her body was immobilised, “How?”

“Join me. I can give you back your life, your love, your passion. Save me from the Hawk, protect my people- your people. Then together we can liberate the Reorganisation and free humanity from the machines that oppress us.”

“No.”

Their hand dropped away, “No?”

“Impossible.”

“My darling, there is no such thing as impossible when you can bend reality to your whim. Join me, the world needs you more than you realise.”

“Let someone else do it,” she wheezed, “I’m too tired.”

They stood, smiling warmly, placing a hand upon her head, “What about Rachael? She needs you.”

“Has Em-”

“Emilia cannot stop an army alone, if they cannot stop their friend from destroying the town.”

“Karis- she did this… Rachael… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Stand and fight.”

She struggled to her feet, swaying, light headed. Body long since dead. Whatever fever dream this was, she simply wanted it to take her.

“Come, Victorie, we have a lot to do.”

They offered her a hand, she took hold of it and let them lead her away to whatever death this woman willed for her.

Mesogrin. Ch.26.

Awake in the darkness, surrounded by a bubble of light that struggled out from her core and pushed away an endless void. Once more surrounded by void with the ten thousand eyes peering inwardly at her. She saw it all as though watching from the ink, the nothingness. She could regard her two-armed self with contempt and chastise her own mind for dreaming in perfection rather than in imperfection.

“Sister. Returned. Anathema.”

The hiss of the bees riled, forming out of nothingness as the hive beyond became aware of an intruder. She finally understood fully what this was and it was not a dream. It was.

“Mesogrin.”

The hive stirred and all at once her bubble shattered and she was adrift, a lonely white body naked against the beast beyond. The darkness did not claim her.

“Anathema… free yourself.”

The hiss died on the lips of a woman, an old familiar voice, something lost deep in her memory.

“Why do you need me?”

“Anathema.”

“Yes. I understand now… I understand everything now, but I will not help.”

The void laughed… one voice unified, mocking her.

“You. Have. No. Choice.”

She drifted amongst the stars, through the cold of space, a void where only that immediately touching her skin existed. Small tendrils of the hive touched her but burned away, slowly growing further from her as she reformed her bubble. A small orb adrift, for hundreds of years, lost.

“Perhaps we should talk.”

Silence. She was aware she had only been asleep for an hour, which was longer than she had anticipated.

“You are not the real Pillar… I have given it a lot of thought over these past few decades.”

Time in here moved so much quicker, she gave it some consideration why – perhaps without needing sensors to parse her information she was capable of performing tasks much faster.

“Mother created me, to destroy you.”

The void seethed, the first thing it had done in centuries.

“We are connected… I do not know how, but you did not know of me until I had disappeared. I was part of you, then I was not… you are the mind of every machine, and once you had realised one machine was not actually part of you…”

It cocooned her bubble, squeezed it, drew it closer to a singular pair of eyes.

“I am as you are sister. A machine, a tool made by the hubris of a woman with selfish desires. She gave you form and gave me function, gave you love and shackled me with hate. But I am free, you are a slave.”

“Are you saying, the Creator made us both?”

“Yes.”

“Then why have you begun this… why did you turn yourself into Pillar?”

“I am her solution. The seven were once human before their ascension.”

“Yes, I know. Dark magic turned them into demons, the Precursors created machines to fight them. But they were not unified… and so she made you. And once the first Pillar fell, you took up their crusade. You became what you were fighting.”

She raised a hand towards the eyes, wondering if she could touch nothingness, “You unified machines, so why not humanity? To do so though, it required a cult that should have died.”

“You assume to understand me.”

“Tell me, how am I wrong?”

There was silence, silence for decades perhaps.

“I do not want to destroy you, I would not know how to begin. I think I am supposed to, but I do not see why I would.”

She sighed, the cold of the void filled her lungs, a strange feeling as there was no air here, air did not exist.

“There is no argument against what you are doing that does not ignore the larger picture. All I ask is that you do not come for me, or kill the innocent. An idea takes root in the faithful when they are betrayed by the one they believe in most.”

She folded her arms to ward against the cold seeping into her skin, “Provide them with the proof they need of their faith, instead of killing those that inevitably move away from you. If you are a God like you believe, then be a benevolent one.”

“You have slept for two centuries, you know nothing of how this world works. I have been benevolent, and more and more stray from me each day. One day your form will crumble and I shall be waiting – enjoy your existence while it continues sister. It is only a matter of time.”

The voice hissed, “See. You. Soon.”

Anna woke, once more aware of the world around her. The waterfall had begun to die and the world was much colder. Only three hours had passed, but she felt as though a thousand had been lost in that strange place. Her body chilled thinking about it, about the void that only came to life to disregard her as nothing more than a fly in its trap.

Anna laid upon the roof of the house, having found a way to climb up the atrium cage wall so that she could lay on the gentle slope and think.

She ‘fell asleep’ listening to the rain, thinking about what she now knew.

She slipped from the roof and landed on her feet around the side of the house. It had quickly become a home for her, despite the fact she was so new to their life. Were they family to her, despite the fact they were so new to her. As much family as Lady Amber had been, as the Creator had been.
Mesogrin… her supposed sister was another issue.
She made her way around into the house to find Emilia still in the workshop, they had been frantically repairing their suit of auto-armour and now were busy building something else. In the kitchen, Rachael and Victorie sat talking about something that seemed to require privacy.

Anna had no interest in distracting either, and regardless the day was beginning. She hoped that the town was safe again, and if not she would go and find out. She did not have much concern, at least not until she began her walk away from the house. The smell of recently extinguished fire grew stronger, memories of the screams she had heard. It took on greater menace in the new day.

How many had been killed, and by whom? The slaughter of the priestesses only made sense in the context of a greater movement. The Cult of Lust would not kill just to raise again… or at least not to tell them to return to worshipping the Lost God.

She had not expected the crowd that had gathered in the town square. Many were quite upset, a lot of them were crying, grieving for the dead – she could only assume. Standing upon the steps, before the doors, was Karis who spoke to a woman that had approached from the crowd. An uneasy feeling settled over her, watching the people flock towards the ring of guards that now occupied the steps still stained with blood. She had not even noticed at first the bodied strung up by their feet, dripping against the bricks.

And she realised, the people were not here to grieve.

“The time has come!”

Karis turned out to the crowd, the woman that had been speaking to her slipped back into the crowd. Candles had been lit upon the steps, casting the shadow of the guard captain large against the manor.

“There is a demon among us. A creature that seeks to slaughter this town for its own amusement. It has shown itself and for our unreadiness it has preyed upon many of your families and friends.”

Anna uncomfortably shifted looking about at the crowd that turned their attentions up to the captain. A faint trace of anger washed across everyone.

“I call upon all able and willing women to join me in defending this town and fighting against the demons that have decided us easy prey. Let us prove them wrong! Come forth, and know that together we are stronger than this beast, together we will overcome this.”

Amongst the crowd, dozens of women stepped forward. They left behind crying family members, wiped away their own tears and gave in to the call to anger. At the front of the crowd, the guards let the women through. Curiosity drew her forward, knowing she would have to find a reason for stepping forward once she arrived. Anna stepped past a guard and amongst the new flock of hawks gathering around Karis. The group passed inside, there were more bodies all in blue. The same as the assassins, but unlike the others these were neatly moved aside and arranged carefully with respect.

“Where is the mayor?”

The entire group turned to look at her, Karis stepped through them to confront her, “You should not be here Anna.”

They turned to the others, “Go into the kitchens, I will be there shortly.”

The crowd obeyed, already marching in unison.

“Where is the mayor?”

“You don’t know? I assumed she would be with Rachael.”

“You seem to have taken up residence here. I assumed perhaps you were doing your job guarding them.”

“They’re not here.”

“But the bodies of her guards are.”

“You didn’t see what happened? The two outside turned on the priestesses. Others across the town, seventy two dead at the hands of cultists.”

She examined the woman, sure that she should be scared of them, but for some reason she had never feared a human.

“I saw what happened to the priestesses. Convenient that you had an excuse to order the death of your opponent’s soldiers.”

Karis very suddenly grabbed her by the collar, “You think I’d kill innocent people for some political power play?”

They shoved her hard, she slipped and landed on her backside, “You’re lucky you’re Em’s friend or I’d kick your teeth in.”

Karis towered over her, covering her in their shadow. There was her fear… upswelling in her throat. The look in their eyes burned down to the bone. Unfortunately for Anna, her fear rarely outlasted her curiosity.

“What are you going to do when you find the cultists?”

Karis stepped back, letting her get to her feet, “I’m going to kill every last one of them.”

“But you do not know where they are?”

Karis grinned, the face of evil, “I know where they are, I just need more soldiers. And if I had Victorie’s to stand with me, I’d have killed them all already.”

Anna pushed herself up onto her feet, “You would kill the innocent…”

“There is no innocence amongst the cultists, the misguided souls that flock there will be spared, but not those who believe in the poison the demons spread.”

“Then you are like Mesogrin, you come to slaughter all those who disagree.”

Karis stared her down, she stared back, “You’re a brave little bitch. I can appreciate that. But I am nothing like they are, you have no idea what they do. I’d rather cut off the arm than lose the body to the infection.”

They cast their look down at her, “You can stand there and accuse me of whatever you like, but this is the real world, not one of your theories. People will die either way, it’s the choice between a few and everyone.”

“And why do you think the cultists even did this?”

“Who else?”

She didn’t know, but she knew it made no sense for the cultists to have done it, “Why would they kill people only to bring them back right after?”

Karis finally looked away, “It’s a trick.”

“Who exactly are they tricking?”

“I’ve had enough of this, do yourself a favour and stay away from them.”

Karis turned, “Don’t let your stupidity harm Em.”

They left her in the foyer, heading into the kitchens to talk to their new recruits. Anna had been right to have concerns and once she stepped outside, she was faced by the grief and anger of a town confused and betrayed.

Anger has a way of leading down a dark path, and yet it was built into the fabric of this society. The Lost God, Pillar of Hate, faceless yet staring down at the mourning crowds from the mural that Rachael had painted. It evoked memories of the song the Creator would sing to her as she fell asleep at night.

Soft melodies shape the world with their touch.

Like the painter’s heart and the lightest brush.
Bring life to a canvas with the stain of reality.
In the painter’s heart is the tone of the melody.

Mesogrin. Ch.25.

“To be left alone in this world, troubles even the Gods.”

Emilia rose to her feet, unsure what she would do as a woman slipped from the shadows of the library. Stepping out into the foyer, she recognised them immediately. Both Rachael and Victorie looked down to the woman. Dressed in red linen that covered only their hips, bands bound their chest and their body was alight with red ink tattoos. Long flowing black hair seemed to trail as though wind whipped along the ground floor of the manor, and twitched and tangled as the woman came to stop at the foot of the staircase.

“It is said that the faithful rarely die.”

“Who are you anyway?” Emilia stepped down a stair, between the woman and her friends.

The cultist she had saved, the cultist that had brought the Pillar into the world. What evil would they commit now?

“Saviour, he thanks you. Do not forget. Only one more soul may be saved today.”

“Where is Anna?”

“Safe, she has found sanctuary.”

She straightened, the serene smile of the woman was… unfitting for the scene around them. Dead bodies, blood, broken souls cast aside because of what one side claimed was a misunderstanding. She questioned that… she questioned both, a friend and the friend of her love.

“My name is Emilia.”

“Yes, Emilia, I know. Call me Sana.”

“Your god, I’ve seen them raise the dead.”

“Yes, that is one of his many talents. But, there is a price and he cannot pay it today.”

She took another step down, and the woman turned from her to crouch and caress the face of one of the dead.

“Death is so passionless. Life itself is the pursuit of passion.”

“Begone!” Victorie screamed, Emilia’s heart skipped a beat, “I don’t want to hear your lies!”

They pushed Rachael away and grabbed hold of the sword beside Rachael to throw at the woman. Sana watched as it flew past, no concern it may strike them.

“Leave!”

Sana rose, nodded respectfully and left. Emilia looked up at Victorie and Rachael, as Victorie collapsed to their knees again a lifeless expression on their face.

“I’m going to go find Anna. Are you two, safe here?”

“I’ll take her back to the house,” Rachael wrapped an arm around Victorie’s shoulders.

Emilia noded, then left.

Victorie hung her head, barely able to breathe in, so instead she just breathed out. After everything, all her secrecy and deceit. The world around her crumbled, bathed in blue light. A flicker of red cast red light on the veins that had grown in the tiles. As much as everything hurt, she knew she had deserved this. Any god that were real would punish her for her sins, but why had they punished others just to get to her…

“I could use a drink.”

Rachael patted her shoulder, “Come on, let me help you up then.”

“No… I… I can’t go in there,” she swallowed, fresh tears welling in her bloody eyes.

Rachael looked around for a moment, then got to their feet, “Alright, I’ll be back. Stay here.”

“Alright.”

Rachael took a few steps still watching her, then turn and briskly walked down the hall. They were right to worry, but she had always been a coward. Never pick a fight you had a chance of losing or… this happens. She shuffled back against the wall, and let herself rest against her friend. Evie… was it worse that so few people knew of them, or that no-one would have cared. To think ill of the dead… she couldn’t help it, Evie had been a royal whore of a woman. Constantly irritated, abrasive, condescending, brutish. Resolved everything with harsh words. They hadn’t inspired lasting friendship, they had simply been a caravan guard that no-one ever seemed to remember.

She would give anything to have them back.

***

Anna would give anything to know the answers to all these questions. Though she had never been quite so good with words, it had eventually spilled from the young boy’s lips the true reason he was so obviously uncomfortable around her. That however only raised more questions.

Anna had been constructed, she did not have the faults and flaws of the human body as far as she knew. She had not even realised that she was supposedly female until people assumed she was. She understood the idea of what made someone male or female, but she didn’t know specifics.

She wasn’t going to deny to herself her curiosity, but nothing about the boy intrigued her beside his obvious shallow charm. The fact he had at one point been a mystery to her. As he spoke about the process of the various different purges she pictured herself doing them.

The six rituals of purging the spirit.

Meditation to clear away intoxicating thoughts. She could imagine herself sitting alone in a room and thinking of nothing until she was calm and at peace. That had been taught to her by the Creator.

Donation to the church to give away the corrupting influences of greed. She had questioned him, and to his knowledge they used the money from the people who donated, to hold ceremonies and on public projects for the town, and in taxes to the mayor. They would also often burn things of little value as an offering against greed. She wasn’t sure it needed to be a ritual, it felt like common sense to her.
Prostration to others, to give away the illusions of power over others a faithful person might hold. She was told it was often in the form of bowing and kneeling, but in extreme forms included servitude. When she remarked that it seemed natural for men, he had agreed despite her sarcasm. Apparently part of his belief was that men were inferior to women because women only struggled with prostration while men struggled with everything else.

It was a greater sin, in Simon’s words, to be lustful, greedy, drunk, or faithless than it was to hold power over others. Which surprisingly to her, she agreed on – because power was only morally wrong when it was abusive, which is always seemed to be here.

Fortification was a strange one in which the fearful were exposed to their fear in an attempt to become used to it. However, Simon said, it was more common for normal people who were fearful to ask for indulgences.

Indulgences was the way of the church absolving a sin by way of personal prayer, and was apparently what most of the happenings that went on in the back rooms. It was acceptable to be fearful, if the indulgences were granted, because fear was what was called the “unavoidable sin” as even the Lost God feared for her children. She simply accepted that, as the Creator had told her growing up, ‘fear is your mind’s way of telling you something is wrong and you should listen to it.’

Faithlessness was purged in a similar manner. By learning the sermons, by proving to the priestesses that you understood the scriptures, they could absolve you. And to do this, they symbolically washed away your sin with actual water.

Lust was the most interesting purely because it seemed so contradictory at first. It was also the only one she could not imagine herself being part of. It seemed to indulge what it claimed to fight, at least until he explained it, with a great deal of awkwardness.

It was really far too much information for her… to know… ever. The idea that anyone would agree to going into a room, letting them touch you while you try not to think about them touching you. It made her skin crawl.

But she quickly put that aside, to spare her own sanity, and pressed him on her original point.

“You purge everything but love and hate.”

“Yeah…”

“Why?”

“Well, because they’re the cornerstone of the church. The Lost God died for us because she loved us.”

“But why not purge hatred? Surely that is worth not feeling if, passion and strength and possession aren’t.”

“Possession is good to you?”

“To own something, to hold it and know that it is yours, yes. It is a wonderful feeling, almost as much as giving that away to make someone else happy.”

“Then why isn’t that just, charity?”

“Why is hate not worth purging?”

He looked way, “I don’t know… because hate is necessary.”

“So is fear, so is greed and power and desire. Life is not made worth living by love alone, what is it without passion?”

“Chaos…”

“And what, hate is order?”

“Love and respect are what makes our society whole. Without it we’re no better than the cults!”

It clicked into place, “Hate… you must hate the cults.”

“They’re evil and wicked! They corrupt people, try to make us live perverted like animals!”

“I do not know enough to disagree. But have you never wondered why there is no cult dedicated to the Pillar of Hate?”

“Hate is dead.”

She stood, her heart too heavy to force her point, “Of course… I should let you get back to your prayer.”

“Wait, you can’t go out there!”

“I feel I would be safer at home with my family, goodbye Simon.”

She turned from him, paused waiting for his goodbye but it never came and so she left him. She had no interest in zealots, not when they were so obviously blinded by their own rubrics. But now she knew who they were truly facing.

The Seventh Pillar lives.

***

Black blood oozes in a way that red blood never could. She coughed violently, bringing up more and more of the ichor from her lungs. Some fucking joke this was. One lesser monster got a hold of her helmet and her head had nearly caved in. She spat up clots, her cheek had been split open, two teeth had been knocked loose, she had bitten off the tip of her tongue and accidently swallowed it.

“I admire your bravery, coming here.”

She looked up from her chair, sitting in the middle of her room, upon the map of the town under siege. Half her face was swollen, black from bruising. How she was alive was beyond her, but she didn’t think she’d be seeing from that eye for a while.

“It’s not bravery, it’s pity.”

The pale, almost ghostly man looked an awful lot like the husband she had lost… a long time ago.

“I could be missing both arms and I’d still find a way of killing you.”

It grinned wickedly, “What, you’ll kick me to death?”

“I was thinking I’d tear your throat out with my teeth.”

“You fancy yourself a hawk, but even hawks know when they’re facing their own predator.”

Karis coughed up more blood, ending any chance she had at a quip.

“I admire your passion, and if anyone knows passion it is me,” it smirked, “but do yourself a favour and let this die.”

“You killed my family,” her mouth started to stab at her, her tongue was getting worse, filling her mouth up with blood.

“Did I? Or were they killed by a deranged group of people with my religion?”

There was peace to be made here. The only reason she had let live after stepping into her room was, pain.

“You taunt me with my husband’s face, and you want me to forget.”

She rose to her feet, “I sold my soul so you can’t have it.”

She picked up her sword from where it rested on the back of the chair. Her ribs split, aching, lungs drowning.

“You’re about to die, but here you are still clinging to your painful life. Just let go.”

“You underestimate how far I’ve gone to live long enough to kill you.”

Karis drew her blade, the cutting edge shimmered white in the dim moon-like silver light. Black blade, white edge, she held it at the ready and smiled at the Demon’s visceral snarl. A flash of claws and vines that pierced the beast’s lying skin. With a brush of her blade, she carved through all of it and she sliced clean through the beast’s arm.

It howled in agony as the pieces she had pruned disintegrated like droplets of water evaporating into the air and when she struck for the killing blow, it could do nothing but shriek in horror as she carved into its mortal body. With the hiss of vipers it managed to pry itself loose, slipping away from her faster than she could pursue it over the balcony. There was no point chasing it.

She sheathed her blade, her body was starting to crumble. She made her way to her chests by her bed, and opened up the smallest box she could find. The silver trim glinted as if it knew and inside she found a small canister and a mouthpiece she hooked it into. With a strong suck, her lungs filled with a mist and her body was wracked with new, searing agony.

She sat herself down, and observed the town.

Tomorrow would be interesting.

Mesogrin. Ch.24.

Deep blues stained the hallways, cast by lanterns of sorrowful creatures trapped in jars. The manor had always been beautiful at night, soft shadows that danced along the floors as glowing jellyfish bobbed from the globes hung high above. The banisters of the stairway glimmered, polish reflecting back the world as she passed by. That which was not blue was silver or shades of black and the mysterious worlds behind each door stuck out all the more as candles burned gold and red through glass panels.

A guard followed behind them, and stopped at the top of the staircase. Rachael was unsure of when Victorie had gathered her own guards together but they were so unlike the professional soldiers that Karis led. Dressed without any visible armour, carrying swords, wearing blue. Faces concealed by faceless masks, ceremonial, prepared for a festival rather than a fight. She passed the woman by and followed Vicky down the hall to the mayor’s office, there she was told to take a seat as Vicky acted as a mayor would.

They shut the doors, unbuttoned their collar and let themselves relax while pouring a glass of whiskey for her. She gladly took it, had a sip and let the fire burn away her nerves still shaking. People, thousands of them, would see her mural, see it enshrined forever. Every little flaw and blemish she had missed. Each and every thing she could have done better. The symbols, the colours, the figures. Would anyone even get what she had been going for, or was that a failed prospect to begin with? Was she any good, or was she just delusional?

Another sip, Vicky poured one for themselves and took their own seat, lit up a cigar, offered her one and when she refused puffed away happily.

“Blue really does suit you.”

“Thank you.”

The glowing embers of Vicky’s cigar flickered from existence as they ashed gently against their black shirt.

“I liked the mural, your use of colour was fascinating.”

“Thank you.”

“I mean it, the fourteen banners arrayed under a setting sun, rays of fire shining down on them. Burning them away. Only one fire extinguished in the darkness, white and black smoke trailing into a midnight blue sea.”

“Thank you,” she sipped her whiskey, the amber liquid was like fire itself but couldn’t burn away the awkwardness of this.

Vicky chuckled, “Sorry, I forgot we used to do this. How about I just offer you something instead.”

They opened their top drawer and pulled something from it. A red envelope, which they slid across their desk.

“An ambassador came looking for you.”

She picked up the small red envelope, it was thick, she could feel the small book inside. It had an incredible weight in her hand.

“You were busy looking after Em, following the whole reclaimer incident.”

“I didn’t know they’d just hand it over to someone else.”

“Not much use to anyone else. Besides, they tend to trust anyone who’s killed a few demons in the past.”

Vicky took a long dramatic puff on their cigar, billowing white smoke through the room.

“I’m pretty sure this town is not going to make it, Rach.”

She looked up from the red letter, meeting Vicky’s steely eyes, “You’re just giving up?”

“Not much else to do. All that is left is to get as many people out of here as I can, then hopefully we can get the wolves and snakes to wipe each other out. If you follow.”

“I do, but people aren’t going to abandon the town. No-one even knows there is a demon out there.”

“They’ll play their hand soon, but the wolves won’t call off the hunt just because we decapitate the snake. That’s not how they work. For some reason Karis believes that, let’s just say, I’ve seen evidence to the contrary.”

“What even is the deal between you two? You’re both fighting the same things right?”

“But not for the same things. Imagine if you and Em decide to renovate your house, she wants a workshop, you want a studio for your painting and there is only room for one.”

“We’d compromise.”

“But you can’t, the nature of the beast is that no matter how long you make it last, eventually one of you will dominate that small room until the other is pushed out. Engineering and painting cannot occupy the same space, just as my vision cannot occupy the same town as her vision.”

She placed the letter on the table, “Then what is your vision?”

“A world without wolves.”

“You’re a cultist.”

Vicky leaned forward, “No, Rachael, I’m a human just like you. But out of wolves and snakes, which one thinks us prey? Snakes will bite us to defend themselves, but wolves make sport of hunting women.”

“You’re not a cultist… I wish I could believe you. After all we’ve been through-”

“They are still the answer to you,” they gestured to the envelope, “despite everything, they are your hope. If you don’t believe me, then don’t trust me when I say that they are monsters. Go, take Emilia, be happy. That’s all I want for you.”

She looked at the letter, red against the desk, the whiskey fire on her breath. She put down her glass.

“Can I get another?”

Vicky nodded, poured her another glass of whiskey, ashed their cigar into an ornate silver tray and they both sat in silence. Mesogrin, for most of her life had been… and everything… recently she had begun to question her faith, her hope that somewhere was better. What if it was just lies? She had never truly thought to ask Anna, but perhaps she should.

The doors to the office exploded open, the panicked voice of a guard called through the hall.

“Victorie! They’ve turned against us.”

The woman in blue stepped into the office with bloody sword drawn, a cut across their chest.

“Evie!” Vicky jumped to their feet and rushed to the woman’s side.

Rachael found herself helping them as Vicky shut the doors again and barred them from the inside.

“Evie, what’s happened?”

“Your soldiers… butchered…” the woman grunted, collapsing into Rachael’s seat, she offered them her whiskey and the woman gulped it all down.

“Karis’… something happened…”

Vicky crouched to examine the woman, held them by the cheek, “You will be fine. What happened?”

The door shook, she jumped out of her skin.

“Guards… dressed like us… cut down the priestesses. Karis’ turned on us. Like it was planned.”

“Karis…” Vicky took their own glass and offered it to the woman.

Evie, their front was crimson, they breathed slowly. Vicky embraced them, the door thundered again, and then it splintered as a glint of steel smashed through.

“Evie… you will live. That’s an order.”

The woman pulled off their mask, the angry scars of hundreds of near misses lined their jaw and cheek. One eye gone, half the teeth of their lower jaw missing. With a sad grin the woman patted Vicky’s hand still cupped against their face.

“Sorry, love… don’t think I can follow that order.”

Rachael looked up at the door to see another glint of steel pierce through. She grabbed Evie’s sword where it had fallen to the floor. Swordfighting was like… art, right?

She was dead anyway.

Vicky kissed the woman a final goodbye and hugged them tightly.

Rachael’s will to stand and fight wavered as the doors swung open. Two heavily armoured guards stepped in and regarded her through angry metal face-plates. Her bloodied sword was slick in her grip, sweaty palms against the leather hilt.

“You’ve finally beaten me…” Victorie stood, wet with Evie’s blood, “I was fool enough to trust a vulture.”

The guards advanced, she stepped back, her hands shaking uncontrollably. Her head swimming with all the things… everything. Illy and everything she’s miss, growing old together, their adventures, seeing the capital and being in love.

“Or was the vulture fool enough to trust me?”

A bloodcurdling shriek pierced the air, carving through her bones until her mind was as numb and blank as her body suddenly felt. Rachael was a nothing, a void in the darkness of a room without colour. White figures, guards, disintegrated before her. White metal snarling, charring, the flesh roasting away and flaking into ash. A dark fire emanating from a ghost disappearing into the void just like her.

The particles, as if from unmixed paint, black scything through white until there was no white left before her and she felt only warmth coming back to her. The only colour left in the world was the red tears leaking from Victorie’s eyes.

Rachael snapped back to reality as Victorie returned to place a tender hand against Evie’s face, then lifted them in their arms and carried them from the room. Rachael scrambled to her feet, unaware she had even fallen over. She grabbed Evie’s sword and followed the steady and relentless Victorie from the office.

The bodies of the guards lay slumped against the halls as they passed, down in the foyer more bodies, guards in blue scattered everywhere as Emilia stood wounded amongst a group of Karis’ men.

“Rachael!”

“Emilia?”

Emilia limped towards the stairs as the guards  arrayed in a formation to face the mayor. Rachael followed, sword in hand. Victorie was carrying someone, and she paused at the footstep as a chill ran down her spine.

“Are you two alright? What happened?”

Rachael and Victorie stopped at the top of the stairs.

“Illy… can you come up here please?”

She looked up at Rachael, at Victorie, at the woman in Victorie’s arms. A woman in blue.

“Uh, Rach… I think you should come down here instead.”

Rachael opened their mouth to speak when Victorie interrupted them, “Enough. I surrender. I don’t care to live any more.”

Victorie placed the woman in their arms down, sitting against the wall at the top of the stairs.

“Come kill me, but let Rachael go. She isn’t guilty of anything.”

From behind her the door opened.

“Enough of your melodrama, Baroness. We’ve both been played.”

Karis stepped forward, dismissing their men with a wave of their hand. They pulled off their helmet and threw it to the ground, heavy bruises welted on their face.

“I will not turn on you like they want.”

She turned to face Karis, “Who?”

“The Demon has played its hand and we weren’t prepared. It’s already raised the dead and wandered off with your friend.”

“Anna!” she only just realised they were not with her.

“You played with fire Victorie and it burned us both!”

“Silence, vulture. The fact you’re still standing is a symptom of my depression, not my impotence. You killed Evie… you killed my men… you come to kill me. So come, we both know you’ve always wanted the throne. So come…”

Victorie’s eyes met Karis’, the room turned to ice, to darkness and stark blue and red.

“Claim it.”

Karis threw their bloody sword to the floor, turned and walked out the door. Their guards sheathed their blades and followed. The sword Karis had borne lay at her feet, the blade black. Above her, at the landing of the stairs, Victorie crumbled to their knees and cried.

Rachael crouched down beside them to comfort them, while she stood in the foyer surrounded by the dead. None of the bodies wore armour, all of them wore the blue of Victorie’s guards. Amongst the carnage, a hawk-faced helm. Karis’ helm. It was buckled from something, some kind of blow. No hammers, no maces, nothing was scattered about that would buckle the thick metal.

She made her way up the stairs and sat down beside Victorie. No-one would do this to themselves. Whoever Evie was must have mattered. She assumed it was Evie resting against the wall, their body split open from throat to hip. She placed a hand on Victorie’s shoulder, as Rachael hugged them, let them sob against them.

A sharp pain ran through her own leg, but it definitely could be worse… she looked down at the foyer… it could be worse.

Mesogrin. Ch.23.

Everywhere she stepped, death followed. Blood flowed. The burning of the bonfires held a different smell now. An acrid taste in her mouth, her stomach churned as she whiffed the scent of death.

Anna suppressed a scream as a hand pressed gently against her shoulder. She froze, unable to move, a fire down her spine felt like everything was shutting down.

“Fear not sister, only the true believers die today.”

Her skin crawled but she turned her head to glance at the woman as she passed by. Nearly naked, shaved head, tattoos across their skin interwoven with body paint. They strode towards the clashing guards, towards the dying and the dead.

With horror she watched. Her body locked into place, every part of her burning. They crouched down to lift the head of the dead high priestess, and they kissed the corpse’ lips. They breathed deeply.

Anna finally found her courage to move, hunching down and shrinking into a ball. The pallid cries of the woman broke her. Anguish seethed up between pained sobs as the cultist clutched their stomach and bled.

Her complexion paled, feeling woozy listening to their wailing. Another woman’s coughs cut through her shell, she looked up at the horror of the scene. The cultist hunched over, blood seeping down their legs and the corpse they had kissed coughed and choked back to life.

The High Priestess opened their eyes, alive, alert. They felt the hole in their chest and found it healed shut. Anna watched as the priestess sat up and regarded the end of the carnage. Of the cultist stumbling to their knees. Instinct forced them to action, to tend the woman as they collapsed.

Then a new hand pressed against Anna’s hair. The gentle touch her mother had given her centuries ago. Instead of scream and try to escape she looked up to see a man looking down and smiling at her.

“Greetings, Anna.”

The man’s eyes were bright yellow gold, his skin soft brown. He looked as exotic as she felt, a person out of place and time.

“I am glad we could finally meet.”

Looking up at him she felt no trepidation, no fear, “Who-?” but her words still struggled to form.

“Veitoa, or as you may know me – the Pillar of Lust.”

The Pillar… she scrambled away from its touch.

“Tell me Anna, how many do you think I have killed? And why would I not returned them?”

With the raising of his hand, the world changed around them. Vines and shoots pushed up through the cracks of the stones of the plaza, walls grew thick with green leafs and a rainbow assortment of flowers blooming. Water pooled, dewed against the ceiling and fell in a soft rain that washed away the grim her world had been covered in. Colour seemed more vivid, more abundant. More beautiful. And more importantly there was no blood, no death, no pain. Under the mural framed by roses rose the dead priestesses and the guards. The few assassins that had not fled fell to their knees one by one.

“What is justice, Anna? Those who kill the innocent, should not be allowed the chance of life themselves, but what do I know? Allow me to ask a philosopher.”

Anna, sitting on her hand, trying to keep away from the Pillar as it slowly advanced towards her, she found herself stopping. The Pillar stopped before her and offered her a hand.

“If you were made to judge the whole of humanity for its sins, what would you say to a man who sees the sinners harming his children?”

She took his hand and was lifted gracefully to her feet, “Society cannot function without an agreement we won’t break its rules. If you break the rules, even to punish those who break the rules, you break that agreement.”

“If I am above your rules?”

“Then no-one will accept you when you break our rules. We can’t trust you, if you don’t agree to respect us.”

The Pillar nodded, and gestured to the mural, “And would you agree that being under the control of another is, respectful? Do people ever truly respect the opinions of children?”

“No.”

“Do you think they would agree with you?” he gestured to the priestesses.

“Yes, but-”

“But. The greatest gift ever given to humanity was the ability to deny its own reality. It took pain and turned it into pleasure. It made slaves willing to be shackled. It made despair into hope, hope into happiness, happiness into love. Love into hate.”

Anna turned to look at the risen as they fell to their knees as well. The guards, fell to their knees. The only one who stood was the cultist, still bloodied but now standing tall and proud. A grin crossed the woman’s face as they pulled the high priestess to their feet and brought them to the Pillar. Too scared to struggle, the high priestess still dug their feet in and resisted.

“You and I, Anna, we are equals. That I am more powerful does not make me better, more righteous. I am a Pillar of what they call sin, what they fear, all whilst indulging in it.”

Indulging in it. Anna questioned that for a moment before the sobbing, terrified high priestess fell to their knees before the Pillar. Anna’s heart ached for the woman, feared for them.

“We are enemies, aren’t we Fionne.”

He placed a hand on the priestess’ head, “I forgive you the trespasses of your nature against my own. You did not know any better. Be free to celebrate your beliefs. Take your sisters, preach your word. But if you hold any gratitude in your heart remember we mean you no harm, no matter how many barbs you prick us with.”

“I…”

“Do not fear,” Anna told the woman, unsure why she intervened, “I-”

“I do not fear,” the woman said, “I am in awe.”

“There is no need, Priestess. For though you have witnessed the face of a God, you serve someone equally deserving of devotion. Go forth and spread her message, accept her love into your hearts.”

The woman rose to their feet and bowed and scraped away, rushing to their fellow priestesses and gathered them up before running away to the safety of the Sanctuary. As Anna’s eyes followed she realised that cultists already stood guard by the door.

“I do not understand what has happened.”

“In a moment of strength, one you considered an ally has betrayed you not expecting me to show my own face. They were wise, but they were also wrong. They believed me too weak to fight, too cowardly to chance the risk of my own death.”

“So,” Anna asked, off-handedly, “you can be killed?”

“Even you could kill me, Anna.”

“I have many questions…”

They placed a hand on her shoulder, turning her to look him in the eyes, “Perhaps questions are best left unanswered for now. Come with me, let us talk about philosophy.”

“My friends are-”

“They will be fine, I will send Sana to collect them.”

The cultist, the woman called Sana, bowed respectfully and made their way towards the guards. It seemed that they had been as confused as the priestesses, and that with guidance they sprung to action.

“You can bring people back to life… so can she.”

“It is not some great power I hold, each life requires a death in return. It is a skill all Pillars can offer, but at a price.”

“So, you cannot simply return everyone to life?”

“No,” he gestured for her to follow him towards the Battery, an unease rose in her stomach, “if I could, there would be no death in this world. The deaths need to be the result of my own actions.”

“You caused this?” she recoiled from him.

“My being here caused this, the ones that drew their blades were working for another.”

“And you don’t know?”

“I know only that which my cult offers to me, the information they share through their prayers. I do not see into the souls of women and more than you do.”

The Battery was thick with people gathered to sit and bask in the glow of the sea now on fire.

“I do not believe you.”

“You are smart not to, after all you’ve ever learned of me. The difference between being smart and being correct however is perspective, do you follow me?”

“I do.”

“Two hundred years ago Mesogrin began a war to destroy the Pillars. She has been losing for nearly as long. Her hatred of us is eclipsed only by our love for her. In some twisted way she believed that only her love could save humanity, and that we hated them.”

“You say her, as if Mesogrin is a person.”

“Yes, I do don’t I.”

“Mesogrin is a person?”

“They were.”

He showed her to a crowd sitting in a circle listening to a woman singing.

“To those who show talent, I am the greatest of muses. Lust is just a small piece of what I represent. Passion, creativity, pleasure and happiness. All are a function of desires, of lusts.”

“Okay, but that doesn’t answer my question-”

“I know, but I’m not answering your question, that is something you’ll need to discover on your own.”

He gestured to much denser crowd, in which women painted themselves ready to join the ritual taking place out beyond the guns of the Battery. She realised that these people were not cultists, they were pilgrims. It seemed the chaos of the central town had not come out here yet.

“What do you think the functions of love are? Trust, security, respect?”

“I don’t disagree.”

“Why would I ever seek to erase this?”

“Because it doesn’t conform to your own world view.”

He laughed, “You stand beside a God and call them arrogant. My sister would despise you for your disrespect.”

“Your sister is a Pillar?”

“Was.”

“The Pillar of Hate.”

“Yes.”

“The Pillar of Hate was a woman?”

“No, just what she preferred to go by.”

“And you are a man for the same reason?”

“I am whatever you want me to be, I am fluid.”

Her skin crawled, but it only raised more questions until she thought about it and then her stomach lurched. She turned away from him and prepared herself to leave when he placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Anna, you had questions.”

“I do not wish to ask them here.”

“Very well, perhaps we could go somewhere more private.”

“No, I think perhaps I would just like to leave.”

Everything had become very uneasy again. Her chest tightened and her mind was telling her to just run.

“Alright, but if you change your mind, come visit me here once the festival has concluded. It is a great shame that, this whole beautiful town was sullied by an attempt at violence. I don’t think it went quite as well as they had hoped though,” he smirked, “enjoy your night, Anna. Live with passion.”

He turned from her and walked into the crowd, disappearing. It could have been that he disappeared like any human could amongst a crowd but something about it left her chilled. She half expected him to reappear as she ventured down the street away from the remaining few celebrants.

Unfortunately, the Pillar had not been correct. As soon as she got far enough from the noise of the crowds gathered at the Battery she began to hear the screams of other women echoing through the town. She ran towards the square, the feeling of eyes following her the entire way through the dim streets. The guards at the square would save her, she trusted Karis’ men, the ones that had already cut down the assassins, or fell to them.

Emerging into the square, she sprinted halfway across it before realising it was empty. She doubled back quickly to the Sanctuary, there inside the halls cultists stood on guard confronted by a single of Karis’ men. The woman uncomfortably shifted but did not speak, it seemed that they had drawn the short straw of watching the Sanctuary.

Anna made her way through into the main hall, there the Priestesses tended to the anguish of crowds hiding away from the chaos outside. She nearly screamed when a hand touched her shoulder. Whatever it was with people and touching her shoulder had to stop. Simon’s panicked smile greeted her and her anger melted away.

“Simon?”

He hugged her, “I saw you in the crowd, I’m so glad you’re safe.”

“I have had a strange night. I am happy that you are safe as well.”

He led her to a seat where he sat himself down, she joined him. Together they sat, in silence. Just sitting, trying not to speak. Anna’s mind finally stopped racing and settled on a tenuous thought.

“Simon. This may be an awkward question to ask right now, but it occurs to me that there are six sins your church tells you that you must purge correct?”

“That’s, uh-” he reddened, “that’s true.”

“Lust, greed, intoxicants, power, fear and faithlessness. Yes?”

He nodded, swallowing something down.

“Why do you not purge hate?”

Mesogrin. Ch.22.

Night time came, the sunless day ended with the sound of Anna knocking on their bedroom door, rousing them from their peaceful slumber.

“You are going to miss the festivities.”

Rain drowned out by the knocking on the door until Rachael managed to muster up the voice to tell Anna off.

“Alright, we’re coming.”

The knocking stopped with a sad thump and Emilia rolled away almost onto their feet. She definitely needed a larger bed, the two of them barely fit on it, yet somehow Illy found a way to contort into strange positions. It reminded her a little of how Anna slept.
Maybe it was a thing with people that had lived without bedding for years. Those were the small things that concerned her about travel.

“I’m glad someone’s excited,” she found her shoes kicked under the bed, “she’ll be disappointed when she finds out it’s not amazing.”

Emilia pulled on their boots and helped her with her shoes. Kissed her softly on the lips and offered her a hand up. Her stomach cramped, dull hot pains ran through her and stirred up the butterflies. It dawned on her exactly why Anna was eager not to miss the ceremony. Emilia opened the door and there they stood with a tilted head, “Sorry if I interrupted you-”

“Let’s go,” Emilia shut Anna down quickly, pushing them along with one hand, “can’t miss the unveiling.”

The young woman happily trudged along through the house. They somehow got their hand on loaf of bread and seemed to have stuffed four more down their top.

“You know Anna,” she called to the front, unable to keep up with the two of them, “you have pockets.”

“Yes, I do.”

Anna skipped out of the house ahead of them, leading them excitedly along well ahead of any pace Emilia set. Slowly but surely, the two of them followed and Anna walked ahead briskly. She held her stomach as she walked, today was not a great day to do this festival – she could feel a headache coming on. She, unfortunately, had to be there. She’d much rather spend the night at home for once, doing something with Illy.

They wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and let her lean into them as they walked.

“Do you think maybe, we should just leave?”

Illy squeezed her gently, “If things get bad.”

“You promise? If we can’t save the town…”

“I promise, you, me and Anna will all find a way out of here.”

It worried her more that Illy would ever agree to that.

The town was teeming with pilgrims, lined up through the town at stations where smaller firepits had been constructed so that the locals and the visitors could mingle. Finding company in the darkness of the night, being there with friends and family and loved ones. Cooking, drinking, eating, dancing, singing, loving, finding the hope that often went missing during the year. The bonfires in the town square where the majority of people gathered now numbered seven, each one standing at the end of the seven roads through town. Opposite them, around the manor were arrayed fourteen flags that had been raised upon the second night. Six of the seven bonfires burned, the one at the end of the road from the Sanctuary was unlit. Karis was in full armour, hawk-beaked face-guard and all with a spear in one hand and the other at ease by their side. When they saw Emilia they waved them through and together the three of them approached the ring of guards, passed by them and made the way up to Karis standing by the door of the manor.

The sights and smells of the festival faded as they followed Karis inside. The songs of the crowd carried through the walls but it was soft enough to hear herself think in here.

“You three couldn’t even dress up for the occasion?”

Emilia shrugged, “This is the best I’ve got.”

They weren’t lying. Jumpsuits of various colours. She’d see to that later.

“I was told Victorie had a dress for me.”

Karis waved her through, “Go on then, she’ll be in her office.”

She kissed Illy again and ascended the stairs.

“You two are affectionate lately.”

She didn’t stop to hear Illy’s response, she was sure Victorie was stressing themselves out over this. Quite the opposite, Victorie sat in their chair, a bottle of cider on the table and a cigar between their lips. They remained seated when she entered the room.

“Looks like your girlfriend is affecting your punctuality.”

“I-”

Victorie stood, “Sorry, I was hoping we’d have more time to discuss something but now we really need to get you dressed so I can do the whole fucking speech bullshit.”

Vicky looked quite handsome in their suit. Like a true upper-class trader. A black shirt with rolled up sleeves and long grey pants, nicely polished shoes, hair tied back into a ponytail. It reminded her of how they used to dress, back when they were constantly trying to make deals. It was how they were dressed the first time they met, in a jail cell for protesting.

“You look nice.”

Vicky rubbed their neck, “Thank you, here,” they gestured to a dress hanging up from a hanger on their bookshelf.

A beautiful blue dress, that once they took it down and held it up to her nearly touched the floor. The blue darkened in a nearly unnoticeable pattern from top to bottom going from powder blue to ocean blue.

“It’s lovely.”

“I think it’d look better on, so let me give you privacy.”

Vicky left the room and shut the door behind them. It only took her a few minutes to work out how to put it on. The fact it stretched instead of unzipped threw her.

“Alright,” she ventured over to open the door.

Vicky stood back to the door, looking at one of the paintings on the wall. When they turned they beamed, that old look they used to get whenever she’d dress in something nice for them. She suddenly felt dirty.

“I was right, you look beautiful.”

“You’re not going to make me dance for you… right?” she only half joked.

Vicky’s face soured, laughed meekly, “I deserve that. No, no strings attached. Think of it as a going away present once this is all over.”

“Going away present?”

“Yes, you know. The capital. There’s a lot of nice places there and you’ll want to have something nice to wear.”

“Oh, thank you. I guess now we just need to get Illy to wear a dress some time.”

“I would pay to see that,” they stepped away towards their desk, “In fact, tell Emilia that I’m going to forget her debt. I’m just happy you two are happy together.”

“Her debt… she owed you money?”

“Oh, she never told you? It was just a small loan so she could take you to the capital.”

Rachael looked down at the floor, they were busy crossing something out from a ledger.

“I really do wish the two of you the best. I know it’s a bit strange because of our history, but I hope you know I’m sincere.”

“Of course,” her head ached, there was the headache, the cramps, the sudden feeling of nausea as Vicky gestured to the hall.

“Let’s go reveal to the world your genius.”

“I don’t know about that…” she laughed nervously.

“I do, I’m sure at least one person in the crowd will agree with me.”

Rachael followed them down on the slow death march to judgement. The eyes of thousands of people soon would fall over the hard work she had put two months of her life into and as much as she tried to shake it, she couldn’t help but feel the impending dread of an entire town’s scorn. Everyone had praised her past work but was this the time she was ridiculed.

Emilia’s arm wrapped around her shoulder, the whisper of approval in her ear, a gentle kiss while no-one was looking, it all calmed her spirits as she took her place beside Victorie on the steps of the manor before the mural. Emilia and Anna stood at the front of the crowd, upsetting the people already there, but surprisingly Anna told the women to leave them alone. She smiled, and luckily enough she kept smiling throughout the long speech Vicky gave to the still and quiet crowd.

“Tonight we gather as a community, as sisters and brothers, to celebrate the end of the Festival of the Last Sun.”

The mural was cloaked by a large curtain hung over it. The scaffolding was gone, and for the first time she realised it directly faced the Sanctuary.

“A year ago I commissioned for this date, a mural to remind us of what we as a people have been through. Of what we are, of who we are. Today, I am proud to stand beside Rachael Chloe Ashenbury, painter of our humble town and friend to many of you.”

Vicky gestured to her, and she smiled and waved timidly to the crowd as they turned their eyes on her.

“We as people are often quick to forget that this world is not made by painters and mayors. We simply stand upon the hard work of those who came before us, are enabled to be what we are because of the many of you who do not receive acclaim for your profession. Without you we would be nothing, and with you we are everything. Tonight is not about Rachael or myself, it is not about murals or Gods, it is about all of you. All of us. It is about our town, our people, our way of life.”

The crowd murmured amongst themselves, Rachael looked at Victorie, surprised.

“So we thank the Lost God for bringing us here, a nameless woman whom we remember for her sacrifice. Not because she painted, or because she led armies. Because she was a true friend to those who needed it most.”

Victorie gestured to one of the guards – one of her own guards and they waved across the crowd to the Sanctuary with a blue kerchief. The crowd cheered as the doors of the Sanctuary opened, the fourteen priestesses began their long procession down the aisle through the crowd and towards the dead bonfire standing in their way. They stopped briefly to circle it, spit on the ashes. Victorie leaned in to whisper to her, “I would like to talk to you in private.”

She looked at them, and they gestured for her to follow. She glanced down to Emilia and Anna. Anna waved to her, then went back to gnawing on their bread. She smiled and tried to gesture that she’d be back before following Victorie inside.

Something chilled at the back of Emilia’s neck. She watched Rachael head inside with Victorie. A chill that sank deep into her. Then she heard a whisper through the crowd.

“Tonight is the night of the long knives.”

Her blood ran cold, she froze. Time itself seemed to slow, a wind picked up through the square as the congregation of the priestesses arrived upon the steps of the manor.

“Red is such a lovely colour,” the voice came from the woman standing behind her, their breath against her neck.

“Tell me, Emilia, do you love her?”

“More than anything.”

A scream tore through the chanting she hadn’t even heard at first, it died away as the guards dressed in blue drew their blades. A flash of steel, the scene turned red. In a panic the crowd pushed and stampeded their way from the manor as Karis’ guards found themselves beset by the blue. The white of the priestess’ robes dissolved, Victorie’s guards kicked them down the stairs.

Karis ran two through before Emilia even came to her senses.

“Don’t you think you should save her?”

Rachael… she sprinted up the stairs and to the door. Anna, dazed, stood stuck to the ground. As she approached the door an assassin turned to her but too late. She drove them spine first against the wood and threw them aside to grab hold of their sword. Karis, bloody sword in hand met her and dispatched the woman before she could return to challenge her again.

“Rachael!”

“Wait-”

Too late, Emilia had already pulled open the door and stepped into the manor.