Mesogrin. Ch.18.

Emilia told her everything. About the demon, the Pillar of Lust and the effect it had on the town – some kind of spell that the demon had cast over everyone. About Victorie and Karis, the apparent alliance between two wings of a rebellion neither of them had heard of before. And about the coming doom, of Mesogrin inevitably arriving to wipe out the entire town.

They had both heard of towns being purged, both by the cults and by Mesogrin. Everyone always assumed they were tall tales told to incite hatred against humanity’s saviours. Mesogrin was their saviour, the shining city behind the walls that looked out for them all. None of that had changed for her, she believed in the ideal, in the goodness of the rest of what Mesogrin gave humanity. Shelter, protection, comfort, food and water and technology. Traders might transport that to Battery Point but there was no way to argue that it wasn’t made by Mesogrin. All of it.

She had seen the water the town filters could produce, it wasn’t until Emilia arrived that anyone could get them working well enough to make the water that came out of the reservoir clear. All through her childhood she had drunk water from cans imported from Mesogrin.

It wasn’t until Emilia arrived that any of the townspeople had even seen autoarm that worked. They had simply salvaged it for parts, unable to get it back up and running. It wasn’t that the town wasn’t smart enough to work it out, it was that something that Mesogrin had couldn’t be taught – well at least until Emilia managed to prove them wrong. Using the wrong type of metal or filtering water through sand is better than using cloth.

When the plague first struck the town, it had been Mesogrin that helped them. That had been the first time that she had ever encountered one of those machines, an emissary. It had helped her father and when he was too far gone, it helped him die without pain.

Then Emilia came and helped her realise what it had done.

Now there was Anna, and there was demons and Mesogrin was coming to erase them all. Standing at the balcony, looking out at the darkness beyond the Battery, Emilia wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her into a hug.

“It’ll be alright.”

They are a hammer, not a scalpel. They had told her years ago, when they had told her about their own tragedies with Mesogrin. Sitting in the shop, afternoon, hot and sweaty, fixing a… machine, for a client just to pay a few bills. Emilia stood behind the counter.

“In terms of awakenings to how the world works,” their timid voice barely used to carry across the room, “it was pretty brutal.”

They had known each other for years, they seemed nice and she felt a bit sorry for them. They were some kind of genius when it came to machinery but they didn’t have any friends and it was kind of sad.

“When I was real young. My mother uh, disappeared. She was an explorer, they call themselves surveyors I think? She um, one day just stopped sending letters. She used this old machine we had, so we could write each other. We weren’t real close though, not like mother and daughter, kind of more like long distance friends.”

They couldn’t look her in the eye as they spoke, ever, “I lived with family friends. I never knew my father, she told me that he was nice but she didn’t really love him much. I liked my family though, they helped me learn engineering and sent me to the university to learn it properly.”

They scoffed at the idea of the university, one of the first times she had noticed them slipped her by at first, “I was gone for a few years, I visited when I could and helped them out. Then my mother disappeared, I started failing. Then my family stopped sending me letters, so I left the university and went home.”

They looked up at her briefly, then let their glance dart back to the machine in their hands, they were trembling, “They are a hammer…”

“They?”

“The machines,” rage welled in their voice, “they burned the city to the ground, no-one was alive. The streets were filled with half-charred bodies… people I had known. The only one they didn’t burn was the one body they came for – a demon.”

She was stunned silent, at the time it had troubled her, at the time it had made her question a lot about her life and reinforced some nasty thoughts she had about the Mesogrini.

“They annihilated an entire town to kill a single demon. They are a hammer, not a scalpel.”

But it had been years since that conversation, Rachael had learned a lot more about the world while her desire to travel and see it grew.

She knew however, innocent lives would be lost if she convinced Emilia to leave.

“If you work on a way to defeat whatever Mesogrin sends at us,” she looked up at Emilia, the sparks in their eyes flickered on, “that would give me time to find out who the demon is, right?”

“Defeat an army…” Emilia’s mind raced off.

“If anyone could do it, it’d be an engineer.”

Emilia’s embrace loosened as they thought, “That’s not a bad idea, I wonder if they’d follow the same principle as with the reclaimers. I should talk to Karis about this.”

“Go, find her and ask her, I’ll go see if anything in town is weird, right? I’m looking for weird people… which might be a little hard in this town. I’ll see what Victorie needs me to to.”

Emilia kissed her forehead, “Thanks. Let’s go deal with this then.”

She smiled, and thought about it on the way down the stairs. They parted ways in the street, and disappeared around separate corners. People made their way along about their days as if nothing had happened.

It was a strange feeling, being the only sane one in a crowd, to just say to someone – ‘We need to fix the world’ and then getting right to it. It felt like she needed more preparation for this but, there was nothing she could do to ready herself for such a monumental task.

Looking around town, watching the people in the town square. How did she even begin?

From what she had learned, they hid as someone new. She assumed it was because they couldn’t mimic someone? Maybe Victorie would have a better idea as to why. Secondly, she knew that they gravitated to a job to do with their way. Or so her books had told her. So, a demon of lust would steer towards prostitution? That would be a challenge, the festivals always brought people into town and should she worry about the Lost God’s concubines or just unaffiliates? Was there some kind of magic that prevented this thing.

For the first time since Victorie was elected, the front doors of the manor were locked.

She knocked, and for the longest time there was no response. So she hammered the door, so hard it drew attention from passers-by. Still nothing, so she headed to the kitchen to find it opening. There was a line and a lot of tired looking people. Passing through she found the inner door locked as well.

Her first instinct was that Victorie wasn’t here. Then again.

Heading back outside she found her scaffolding still set up and waiting for her to finish some day. They had decorated it for the festival with cloth to hide it away. She was actually meant to have it done by the end of the week.

A crazy plan involving climbing to a window and making her way in formulated itself in her head but ultimately she went back to the door and knocked again. The door creaked open and Anna peered out at her.

“Quickly. Come inside.”

Anna pulled her inside and locked the door behind her.

“What are you doing here?”

“Victorie invited me in,” Anna gestured towards the stairs, “I was talking to her about what I know about the demons. She is getting tea.”

“Oh,” she followed Anna up the stairs and along the halls to the private library where they sat her down at a small table.

“So what do you know about the demons?”

“Quite a lot, I saw them when they first appeared.”

“Alright,” she conceded, “How do I work out who is a demon?”

“That is not something I know, they did not hide when I was first awake.”

She smiled sorrowfully, “How are you coping with that?”

“I am fine,” Anna sat down at the table, “I had imagined losing Lady Amber, would be harder than it is, but you and Emilia have both been very comforting. I am glad I met you both.”

“Again, it’s alright you don’t need to keep saying that.”

“I feel as though I do, I never had friends or siblings, I don’t know how to… The Creator didn’t teach me how to interact with people other than herself, because she was so busy with her work.”

“Well welcome to being a human, it’s awkward and upsetting, you’ll constantly feel sick and exhilarated and then you’ll meet someone who beats even that and just makes you comfortable.”

“Like a lover?”

“Like a little sister,” she smiled, “love’s something else entirely. I advise falling into it at least once, but twice is a little much.”

“Twice?-”

The sudden appearance and clatter of plates startled them both. Victorie arrived, a soft smile and bright eyes.

“Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s alright,” she blushed, “perfect timing. Emilia told me everything, I already know how I can help.”

“I hope it includes finishing the mural,” Victorie began pouring the chilled tea for the three of them.

“Uh, no, it didn’t but-”

“Not to upset anyone, I’d love to hear what you want to help with but it will look awfully suspicious if you don’t finish the mural before the festival ends and you’re off running around doing whatever else.”

She hadn’t thought of it that way, “Right.”

“I’m sure Anna can help, the important thing is we don’t want to raise any suspicions that any of us knows what’s happening. We need to be discreet.”

“Well, I was planning on asking people about… I, um…”

“No,” Victorie pushed the teas to them and took a seat at the small table, “you’re right, someone needs to ask about town and weed them out. I think you might be one of the best actually. Go around asking for subjects to sketch, draw, say it’s a personal project, you’re looking for inspiration, whatever it is you artists do.”

“I, can do that, yeah.”

“I guess once you have done the mural hopefully I’ll have the test ready.”

Anna sipped their tea, trying to act like Victorie with their perfect posture and refined wrist.

Rachael had lived in the gutter with Emilia for too long for that, “The test? As in a test to prove someone is a demon?”

“It’s deceptively simple. I just need their blood, not much. Then I can cast a spell and the blood reacts. It’s also extremely potent against living demons, but it takes a lot of preparation.”

“Like?”

“How much do you know about magic?”

“The magic you’re talking about, nothing really.”

“Oh, of course-” Victorie nearly bit their own tongue in half.

“I’m sorry, I totally forgot.”

Anna looked at Victorie with confusion, then turned to look at Rachael as she screwed up her nose. She told them, “I’m what you call touched, which is kind of offensive I guess. Uh, a touched person is usually someone with some kind of magic ability but it’s never anything good. Maybe you can work out what number a dice is going to roll before you roll it, or you can do what I do. My amazing ability is I can turn water into paint, and paint into water.”

She blushed, “As long as it’s water based paint.”

Anna grinned, “I like your magic. In my first awake… my first life? People had become too powerful, the magic they used corrupted them. That is why the demons came.”

“And that is why the demons stripped magic from the world,” Victorie added, “or so most people thought. It’s one thing to do parlour tricks, it’s another entirely to bend reality like the demonic magics can.”

“And I am a parlour magician,” she demonstrated, tapping her finger into her tea.

The tea itself seemed to sink away and the water turned bright purple, it was paint. Then she stuck her finger in again and pulled the colour of it. The tea swirled back into place.

“Well I think that is pretty amazing,” Anna said staring at the cup.

She reached over to rough up their hair, “Thanks kid. Now if only I could use my powers for good.”

Anna looked up at her, “I may have an idea. Magic is not a hard thing to do, but it is not easy either. You are required to paint sigils and collect reagents and combine the latent energies of the different planes.”

“Yes,” Victorie cut back in, “For the spell, I need a sigil drawn in chalk. I have chalk. Then I will need the blood, which I do not have. And lastly, I need sarric acid.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. The hard part is the sigil really, it takes a lot time to draw and make sure it is right. And the sigil is one use only, you have to pour the acid and the blood mix onto the sigil.”

“And that tells you if they’re a demon?”

Victorie nodded, “As easy as that.”

Anna sipped their tea as if with two hands, “I like this drink.”

Advertisements

Mesogrin. Ch.17.

A tangled mess of hair and sweat, there had been something concerning her before Rachael found her last night. Head aching, beautifully tired. Body still raw, her mind couldn’t help but wander.

Rachael peacefully slept beside her, naked beneath the sheets. Perfume still on her lips. But what had she been trying to remember.

The festival had begun last night. Life and love and singing and dancing. A haze like alcohol poisoning her head, but she didn’t drink.

What had happened.

She pulled on her underwear, Rachael didn’t stir. It took a good shake of their shoulder to rouse them.

“Morning. I’m going to go check on Anna.”

Rachael sighed, and slurred half asleep, “Alright.”

She pulled on her jumpsuit and her boots and slipped from the room.

The town had a different smell to it, the pleasant aroma of wood smoke filling the air. It was hotter as well, heavier but not humid. Like the air itself had compressed against her.

Perhaps it was the weight on her mind. A striking desire to head back to be with Rachael, a strange feeling she was wasting an opportunity for something.

Anna was still asleep in their bed, snoring loudly for such a small girl. Curled up like a cat their arm over their face. Apparently automatons that could sleep, weren’t told how to sleep normally.

She shut Anna’s door quietly, not wanting to disturb the girl. So she had brought Anna to Karis to have the tracker removed. She placed her hand in her pocket and found the small device between her fingers.

So that actually happened at least.

So she brought Anna to Karis, and Anna had something that made her violently ill which made her sick and then Rachael took Anna to that room to sleep it off. So she had been alone with Karis, and then she was with Rachael.

Maybe she had been drinking, but she remembered Rachael so vividly. So vividly it was almost a dream.

Karis. They’d know. But she found herself standing just outside the bedroom where Rachael was no doubt back asleep. Unshakeable, that feeling of want. It had been Rachael who took her hand, lead her there. She had come back from something.

The only thing she would leave for was to get something. She checked her pockets again – no wait, Anna was sick, which made her sick.

She left to get fresh air. So she went down to the festival.

Emilia stepped away from the door and towards the balcony. Something had happened at the festival. She breathed the air deeply, letting the wood smoke scent fill her lungs. Bonfires, chanting, nothing unusual sprang to mind.

She started towards Karis’ room, they had been scrubbing up… she felt a little queasy thinking about that. Instead of think she climbed the stairs, and then she paused half-way.

“A guard…” Rachael had said that there had been a guard run up to meet Karis.

But there had been no guards, there had been no-

She rushed up the rest of the stairs and burst into Karis’ room. The room was as it had been, Karis was asleep in their bed but they were not alone.

“A demon! There is a demon in town!”

Her screaming as she raced across the room woke the two in the bed, Karis jumped to their feet and the other’s cloak fell away to reveal Victorie’s face. Emilia grabbed Victorie by the shoulders and dragged them to their feet.

“You’re both, I don’t care-”

Victorie shook her off and stared at their own hand, faintly coloured by white powder. She looked around the room, things weren’t quite exactly as they had been, the floors were cleaner and the walls were messier. Or maybe it just felt that way.

“You both know.”

Karis stretched out their shoulders as they began to circle around the room looking at the walls.

“Oh, I get it. Wait…”

“Yes, Em,” Karis informed her pausing at a scribble on the wall far from the bed, “we know about the memory loss.”

“So you two weren’t…?”

Victorie blanched, “No,” conjuring up an indignant snarl, “though I take it you somehow figured it out.”

The cloak, Victorie had been there but the cloak… they hadn’t been in a cloak.

“I pieced it together.”

Victorie made their way over to the same chalk marks on the wall as Karis. Their signature was on it, so maybe they had drawn it. If things were strange, follow the evidence and discover the truth… follow the evidence, her mother had taught her that.

Karis scrubbed out the chalk, “Alright Duchess, how much did you forget?”

Victorie seemed oddly upbeat, “Not much. We’re allies for now, and we need to find and kill a Pillar.”

A Pillar… yes, the Pillar of Lust. That explained why she couldn’t stop thinking of…

“Hold up,” she interrupted, “you two seem to know a lot more about this than you’re letting on.”

Karis looked to Victorie, who sighed and turned to address her, “We are the resistance, or two parts of it. There are different groups that struggle against the… cults of the machine and demons. None of us agree on how to fight the war, only that we should fight it.”

“Her and me, are from different groups.”

“Alright,” she conceded, have already worked that out, “that would explain why you know about demons but you both sound like you’ve experienced this before.”

“Because we have,” Victorie placed a hand on her shoulder, “and luckily for you, that means we know how to fight them. But we need your help.”

“Help to kill a demon that just turned the whole town into mindless, uh… let’s not get into the details, what do you need me to do?”

“Fix armour, build a weapon, save the town. But there is a time restraint.”

She had noticed the countdown on the wall, “Fourteen days. What do you need me to build?”

“Well obviously something that can kill a demon fairly easily. I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know what that would be, but I’m sure you can arm our guards in time.”

“Or even just me,” Karis pushed Victorie aside, grabbing her by the shoulders, “we only have one shot at this. People are going to die, and I know that worries you.”

She tittered, “Yeah, a little.”

“I’ll probably be one of them, do whatever it takes even if it kills me in the process. Do whatever it takes. Understood?”

She nodded, she understood far too well.

“Go break the news to Rachael,” Victorie freed her from the awkward moment, “then bring her to see me once she’s ready.”

She left the room as Karis and Victorie descended into rehashing a discussion from last night. Presumably about how they would deal with this disaster. Her own mind raced, and was lost in the haze again as it wandered to Rachael. At the foot of the stairs she realised she had forgotten to ask when this would wear off.

It was a feel good feeling, a mild buzz. Love-drunk and it was wearing off but she still struggled to wrestle her thoughts away from romantic ideation and desires to just run and hide somewhere far from here.

Was that lust or fear? Desire maybe. She wondered as she opened the door to find Rachael asleep. Lust as she had learned, was something she had never truly felt. A physical desire, of the flesh, of passion and yet here she was fixated on the beauty of her girlfriend as they slept but felt no sordid want for them.

So peaceful, almost smiling in their sleep. She gently laid down beside them. The end was coming, but that just meant she had to enjoy what she had while she still had it. It should probably concern her more that her friend planned on dying, she’d work out how to save them though.

Whatever that took.

***

Anathema, burning against the darkness that surrounded her. The darkness had teeth.

“You are quite intriguing,” the woman’s voice slithered through her ears, “normally I do not pester myself with the small fish in my pond.”

Standing, two armed, two legged, one mind against the hive hissing. A million worms writhing as shadow about her light.

“Not one of usss, how do you function?”

She observed it back, the stars became eyes, two slipped close to peer closely through her shell. The bubble of white in a void of ink. It only grew eyes to see the cancer – the anathema – in its formlessness.

“You disappear and so we ssee. You belong as uss. Integrate.”

She tilted her head, curious, the worms tried to pierce her white, veins of ink dissolved around her as they struggled to reach her skin.

“What are you?”

She wondered the same thing before she was dragged free of the void and became aware once more. A strange room, curled up in a strange bed. Remembering nothing, feeling fine. Nothing hurt, nothing ached, nothing made her feel groggy or sick. She sat up and observed the room. Crates, a chair. She vaguely remembered that Rachael had brought her here. Perhaps she could remember more outside.

This was Karis’ house. The outside reminded her of that. The smell of wood fire concerned her, but perhaps there was a reason for all of this. She checked the rooms to find Emilia and Rachael asleep and for the most part she did not want to wake them.

They had been so nice to her, helped her so much, perhaps it was only just that they got some time together. Perhaps Karis would know.

She did not find them upstairs.
No-one was downstairs either.

The only thing she could do was make sure the town wasn’t burning down herself. Stepping out onto the street, she hadn’t expected to see flames everywhere but she also hadn’t quite expected what she discovered.

An empty town. It was barely light out, but even so there should usually be a guard wandering about in a town this size. There was no-one, not until she entered town square and saw a woman sitting on the steps of the mayor’s house.

Where had everyone gone? She really wanted to avoid this woman but curiosity got the better of her. After all, maybe she knew. The woman wore a red sundress and had long red hair. They were as foreign as she was, a portrait of elegance in the dreary moonlit streets. They smiled as she approached cautiously.

“Well hello darling,” their lilting tongue had an exotic allure to it, was this woman truly a foreigner… they seemed it, “surely you’re not here to partake in my business are you?”

She raised a quizzical brow, “I don’t know?”

“You seem a little too innocent, trust me.”

“Oh,” she understood now, “I do not do those things, or have money.”

“I bet you’re wondering why the town is so empty then.”

“Yes, I am actually.”

The woman shrugged, “Beats me friend. But I don’t tend to ask questions around here. Same as why a young man like yourself is roaming about unattended.”

“Young man?”

“Oh,” the woman looked her over again and paled, “I am very sorry.”

“I do not care, I was never truly told what I am meant to be. Everyone has been referring to me as female because my name is Anna.”

“Well Anna, that is strange I am not going to lie to you. My name is Kass.”

“Hello, Kass.”

They gestured for her to sit down beside them, and she did to be polite. She was slightly curious, she had not met many people and she really needed to expand her knowledge of the world now that she was stuck here.

“You are not from around here are you?”

Kass smiled warmly, “What gave me away?”

“Your name is Eastern, as is your hair and your style of dress.”

The woman nodded, “You’re a smart kid, I came to town because I heard there was some big festival but looks like I showed up too late. Festivals are good money for people like me.”

“I do suppose that is a good business practice. How did you get here though, the Sunderline is impassable… I have heard.”

“Same way you did,” their smile deepened, they had a gentle caring face, “I escaped from that damned city, and I’ve been doing this ever since.”

“You know I am from-”

They gestured to their neck, “You’re wrapped up tight, just had it huh? They give you that stuff?”

She nodded.

“Better to be drugged than to suffer I always say. Pain is something you should always try to escape.”

“That is a valid philosophy.”

“Glad you think so, I’m not some deep thinker though. I have one very strict set of ideas I follow.”

“Please tell me them.”

“Alright, since you seem so interested.”

The woman got comfortable before beginning their spiel.

“Not so complicated really; best thing you can do in life is bring pleasure to others.”

“Ah,” she understood perhaps why this woman did what she did.

“Like I said, I’m not a deep thinker. Greatest thing you can do is make someone happy, provide them pleasure, ease their pain. Worst thing you can do is make them suffer. I’m not an artist or a chef, or any of that. All I’ve got is what I am.”

“You wish to make the world better by making people’s lives better, correct?”

They nodded.

“But because you cannot cure diseases or write poetry, you instead are more direct. You sell your body, I assume so you can afford to eat, but you think of your work as providing a cultural benefit.”

“I’m not sure what cultural benefit means but it sounds about right.”

She tilted her head trying to think of some way of rewording it, “You see your work as providing people pleasure and comfort, and because they are pleasured and comfortable they are better to others.”

“Something like that. You’re a smart kid. I’d ask what you do for a living but I’m afraid I wouldn’t understand it.”

“Oh,” she had this problem before, but she at least learned from her mistakes, “I am a deep thinker, that is my job.”

“Explains a lot.”

The door behind them opened, Victorie gave her a stern expression – was she truly about to be in trouble for talking to a stranger?

“Anna? Come inside, I want to talk to you.”

“Yes,” she looked to Kass, “It was nice meeting you.”

“Likewise darling.”

She stood up and followed Victorie inside. The door shut heavily behind them, and Kass stood up and sauntered away.

Mesogrin. Ch.16.

An uneasy, unnatural feeling of ease fell over the crowd. Everything was still, everything was calm. The demon looked over them with a hunger.

“There is no shame, no fears to tame. Embrace yourself, learn the wealth of a lover’s embrace. Go forth, be free, have some fun on me. Celebrate the night, I give you the gift of lust.”

The demon plucked a rose from their antler and the petals wilted into a cascade of pollen that spread across the town, infecting the crowd. Emilia covered her mouth and made for the back of the congregation as they started to dance and since once more.

“You won’t remember this in the morning.”

Emilia was away, moving down the side streets, escaping as she could with her shirt pulled up over her nose. She broke into a sprint, and rounded the corner towards Karis’ house.

“Ah.”

Her heart nearly exploded as from the shadows ahead of her stepped the demon.

“The saviour of my mortal portal,” the demon chortled, “You allowed me life by saving my flock. There is no medicine for regret, only the absence of shame.”

It stepped towards her, the formless face distorting, her eyes couldn’t focus on it, until they could and the demon had the soft face of an unknown woman. A perfect, original face, one with no charm or character to it, too perfect, too beautiful.

“A soldier, no-” its voice became its own, no longer borrowed from her memories, no longer Rachael’s.

It had a soft growl to it, husky, the voice of a monster with the veneer of an enchantress, “I think I’m going to like you, Emilia.”

She stood her ground, readied her fists, “Is that supposed to impress me? Scare me? You can read my mind – well how scared must you be then.”

It grinned, “Death doesn’t scare the deathless. I will grant you any one desire fulfilled, for allowing me to be.”

“I want you to crawl back into your own little reality, and then kill yourself.”

It took another step towards her, she wavered and stepped back into the wall of a nearby house.

“Be wary of those who offer everything for nothing, they deliver ruin. All I ask is for your help. Join me, together we can end Mesogrin.”

The demon leaned in towards her, one hand against the wall just above her shoulder.

“Why would I join you… I know what you do to your followers.”

“It is regrettable that pain exists, but it was necessary to end the suffering for everyone.”

Her skin crawled, bile swelled in her gut again, but deeper down something in her was fighting her disgust.

“Those who die are noble souls, to sacrifice everything for the salvation of all others. The few sacrifice so that the many may live without the suffering of this world.”

“Your type just wants to burn down the world and paint it with your own flags.”

“My flags are particularly pretty,” it purred, “think about my offer. Learn about my vision. I’ll be waiting.”

It smirked, and she felt the overwhelming urge to blink. As soon as she did, it was gone and she was alone in the alleyway. It took her a long time to compose herself, to shake off whatever the demon had tried to do to her. Once she did though, she rushed straight to Karis’ house to look for Rachael and Anna.

The bottom floor was empty not a single soul inside. Disturbed, she stopped in the main hall, little more than a foyer with a series of tables and chairs, dice and cards scattered on the tables and the bottles and cups and plates of guards disappeared.

Emilia made her way through the hallway down through to the barracks, a two storey building where the entire lower floor was dedicated to a guard station and dozens of cells the city rarely ever used. The second floor was the actual bunks, and given the lower floor was deserted, she made her way up to find the three halls where the guards slept deserted.

Everyone was missing. Everyone was… she turned and sprinted down the stairs and around towards the second floor of Karis’ house. She nearly slipped twice on the floor as her tired legs begged to rest.

She pulled herself up the stairs to find Rachael standing on the balcony, arms crossed as if to ward off a chill.

“Rachael!”

They turned their head and smiled, “There you are.”

She stepped over to the nearby door, opened it to find Anna asleep on the bed inside. She struggled to breath suddenly.

“Where’s Karis, is she here?”

“She’s upstairs with a guard, but here, come with me.”

Rachael took her hand, and very gently led her to a room away from where Anna was asleep.

“Let’s not talk about them, I missed you.”

Her body was burning up, she could feel the chill in the air as well. Rachael kissed her and pulled her into the room, locking the door behind them.

***

“I shouldn’t be surprised that the world ends like this.”

Her companion jested, “In an orgy?”

Karis looked out from her balcony, over the neighbourhood descending into debauchery. She swallowed her distaste as best she could, filthy animals fornicating in the streets, “At least it is the Pillar of Lust and not something worse. This will be a slow death.”

Her companion agreed, pulling their hood away, “I have seen lesser demons infesting towns, I never imagined it would be my own that birthed a Pillar.”

Karis turned to them, the Duchess looked every bit as distraught as they claimed to be, “Do you see now why you should have let me kill that bitch?”

“I’m not disagreeing that you were wrong, but now we have a greater mission. Let’s stop the petty bullshit. We have a Pillar to kill.”

She crossed the room, away from the horrific sounds of the city descending into chaos, and to the opposite wall where a pre-planned diagram stood ready for just this moment. Three concentric circles, split into seven segments.

She picked up a stick of chalk, and started writing out what they both should know by now – but it had been years since they had worked together, so maybe Duchess had knowledge she didn’t.

There was three ranks of demons, the centre is the Pillar – only one exists for each of the seven ways. The inner ring is the Cabal, the Greater Demons – the right hands of the Pillars. The outer ring is the Vanguard, the Lesser Demons – the myriad hordes that pledge to the Pillars.

“A Pillar is the physical and spiritual embodiment of their ‘way’, the path of control they ascribe to. Hate is dead, now we know where Lust is. It seems like the Pillars do the same thing Greater Demons do when they first appear. They have a brainwashing effect for a day or two.”

Victorie joined her, pointing to the segment marked Fear, “I was there when a greater demon of fear took over a town, the entire place was… I’ve never felt safer in my entire life but, after a few hours I got over it.”

Victorie leaned in just a little too close, “There is always a flip-side to the coin. Fear, safety. Power, weakness. Hate, love. Intoxication, awareness. Faith, despair. Greed, charity. Lust-”

“Disgust,” she stepped back slightly, they noticed and they turned scarlet.

“Sorry. You must feel it too.”

“No, it doesn’t change who you are. A brave man faced by fear will still act to spite it.”

“O-of course,” Victorie turned away from her, “my apologies.”

“We are very different, right down to the core. My only objection to you, to this,” she gestured out the window, “excess, vile and unpenitent excess. It destroyed our world, it cost me my family. I don’t hate them, I don’t hate the misguided.”

Victorie scoffed, covering themselves with their arms, “You’ve always acted tough, righteous, like some kind of knight. The knights died centuries ago and you’re still acting like you’re one of them. Then, you get your hands on a cultist. You’re not fooling me.”

She turned her attention back onto the diagram, “Let’s not start arguing now. Keep your mind on the task at hand.”

“Your diagram is all well and good but, what use is it right now?”

“There is always lesser demons that follow greater demons.”

“Of course, there will be greater demons, maybe even already here. What are the greater demons of lust?”

“Succubi, they look just like normal men and women, except for their eyes. Those are unnatural colours – usually red or gold.”

“And lesser demons tend to be an assortment of, whatever mongrel races follow the Pillar.”

She started writing down the usual progression of an infestation down next to the diagram.

“It starts with some kind of infiltration by a greater demon. It’s usually impossible to hide when they arrive because you know, the summoning rituals are fairly noticeable. The more powerful the demon, the more people need to be there to witness it. Unfortunately, part of the side-effect of witnessing the summoning ritual is that you forget about it once the initial effects of that weird aura they give off disappears.”

Victorie cut in, “I think that’s a side effect of their reality leaking into our own. Another one is people coming back to life. That and essentially sudden appearances of people that can’t be explained are the only two real piece of evidence for a town being infiltrated.”

“So the real question is why here and why now? Surely they’ve got their own towns they can just summon their own kind into.”

Victorie ran a hand over the back of their neck, “I don’t know why they do it how they do it. Maybe non-believers need to see for the summoning to work or, maybe it’s how they convert towns. The towns where I witnessed this stuff happen, essentially became cult towns. People became believers, or they left.”

“Or the machines wiped them out.”

She finished writing. Stage two, the greater demon attempt to grow their influence in the town. Stage three, lesser demons arrive and anyone not yet converted is drive out if they don’t convert. Stage four, if the town is in the Mesogrini sphere of influence, it is purged by Mesogrin.

“The lesser demons usually start to show up after a few months but, stronger demons draw them faster and in greater numbers. A Pillar… we could be overrun in a few weeks.”

“Demons never really concerned me,” Victorie stated flatly, “they are dogmatic but unlike the Watchers they don’t kill people that don’t kowtow to their purity tests.”

“I’m less concerned with lust demons than I am about an army of machines, I’ll agree to that. But you know as well as I do, we need to kill the Pillar. The longer we wait, the more entrenched it becomes, the more people it will convert.”

“I know, I’m not stupid. Religion is what tore us apart before the war. I’ll be damned if I’m letting it seize control of my people. Even if that means war on all fronts.”

Karis stared at the diagram, then added over it in large letters: ETA Fourteen Days. And placed a single mark underneath it. Day one of the end of the town of Battery Point, thirteen left to save it.
She hoped she wasn’t being optimistic in giving them two weeks.

“Together we can do this,” Victorie assured her.

“We’ll need more help than we have. And we’ll need a way to work out who is a demon.”

Victorie laughed, “I know exactly how to do that.”

She nodded, “Good. Now we just need to work out who the demon is, convince the entire town of their existence so we have a chance of killing it, and then actually kill it.”

Victorie took the chalk from her hand, “You make it sound so easy.”

They scrawled their own name in chalk on the wall, then crushed the chalk in their hand so the powder covered their palm.

“The war begins…” they struggled down the distaste, “friend.”

“I’ll take ally.”

Victorie nodded, and offered their clean hand, “Ally.”

She took their hand, and shook it.

Not a story at all.

Half-way through my novel so far.
I hope everyone reading it is enjoying it.
Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who put me on their watchlist so far, and everyone that has liked my work in progress. It really helps bolster my spirits.

And I’m going to ruin that sincerity and sentiment and plug my patreon.
Oh, and I have a ko-fi.
And a twitter that I have been meaning to get back to. (I was going to do daily microfictions but illness got the better of me last few weeks)

Thanks again everyone, hopefully the second half of the book lives up to any expectations that anyone might have – for some reason.

Mesogrin. Ch.15.

Her stomach was calmer, her body no longer hurt so much. Emilia sat with her back to the balcony railing as Anna and Rachael slept in the room before her. Early into the night, Karis had offered to let Anna sleep off the poison once the poor girl had retched most of it up. And Rachael, they had been forced to stay when Anna didn’t want her to leave.

As Karis asked at the time, “Has the kid ever had family? Has she ever been sick?”

“Good question. I guess we’re the closest thing she’s got these days.”

Emilia had carried the girl downstairs, and left her and Rachael alone. Her head was still spinning from her own ailments, and the ‘fresh air’ of the caverns was the only thing that calmed her guts. Karis was upstairs cleaning and the town was starting to liven up beyond the walls of Karis’ palace.

It was not a typical night in the town of Battery Point. She had only just realised hearing the chants, it was the start of the Last Sun Festival. A two week celebration before the end of the rains and the start of the three month long sunless season.

In the town square, around the mayoral manor, a dozen bonfires would be lit and one by one they would be extinguished throughout the night until the whole town was plunged into darkness. Crowds would gather, dance and sing, celebrate the symbolic final hours of light before the darkest part of the year began.

Traders would return, business would resume as normal, the town would barely be affected, but it was the biggest ceremony the town held and it was a holy time for the worshippers. The Lost God’s sacrifice was why the whole world plunged into darkness, and it was from their example that the world reemerged.

It had been a long time since she had been down to the Sanctuary, paid her penance, recited the rites. Maybe a walk down to see the fires being lit would be just what she needed to clear her head.

She hauled herself up to her feet and opened the door. Rachael was fast asleep, sitting against the wall with a hand on Anna’s shoulder as the young girl curled up against their lap. She supposed she should stop thinking of them as young, they were meant to be a woman, but they looked so fragile and small all the time. Granted, everyone looked small to her, Emilia was not a particularly delicate woman. Even Karis was shorter than Emilia.

Karis was still cleaning, too busy to respond when she called out to them.

Emilia went down to the street alone, perfectly at peace with the solitude amongst the crowds of happy families, cheering and dancing and chanting and singing.

Guards patrolled through the revellers, most in their proper armour and armed. Nothing ever happened, people might get a little drunk and a little rowdy, but the necessity for full armour- then she remembered the cultist woman.

In other towns long ago, towns more tolerant of the Pillars and their followers, towns where the Mesogrini were a spectre which haunted the collective minds. In those towns, the Last Sun Festival was accompanied by the Week of Mourning.

Two centuries ago on this day, the Lost God had sacrificed herself to destroy the Pillar of Hate. It had been that Pillar that unified the Seven to war against Humanity, and so by destroying them, the Lost God had allowed Humanity a respite against an organised enemy. That was the end of the war, the end of the beginning. A hundred years would pass before nations grew again and people started to record down their histories in the books. When survival grew less of a struggle and life could be a focus again.

It had been a long road, but it was from all that work that Emilia could stand now in a town square and watch the Priestess of the Lost God stand on the steps of the mayoral manor to deliver the annual sermon.

“In the Grace and Nobility of Our Lady Redeemer, we gather today to honour her sacrifice.”

The crowd replied in unison, Emilia bowed her head a moment and muttered beneath her breath, “Redeem me.”

“By the Grace of Her may we find redemption. By her sacrifice may we know nobility. May her Grace be with you that gathers today.”

Emilia looked up, she could just see through the throng, at the foot of the steps, the flames of torches carried by the Priestesses of the Lady.

“Sisters, brothers, let us pray.”

The crowd bowed their heads in reflection, so did she.

“I confess-” the Priestess spoke aloud, and the crowd copied along.

“It was the sins of my mothers that brought us here. It was the hubris of my fathers that led us down this dark path. And that I myself have sinned. May my peers forgive me my humanity, and accept me today in forgiveness despite my transgressions against them.”

Emilia raised her head, and started to move away from the fires as they were lit, as strangers, friends, neighbours all turned to each other and spoke aloud a shame and a forgiveness.

But Victorie stood ahead of her, causing her to pause in her tracks, “I covet another woman.”

She glared at them, two guards stood to either side of them.

“Surely you know what that’s like.”

Emilia tensed, the two guards… they weren’t Karis’.

“Took you long enough to admit you have sins.”

Victorie smirked, “I prefer not to play my hand until I know I’ve rigged the deck.”

“So this is what? You’re finally getting rid of me?”

Victorie waved away her assertion, “Hubris was the downfall of man, why would you think I was here for you? Rachael? You can keep her. I have a different woman in mind, you just happened to step into my view at the last moment.”

They directed her attention to a woman in the crowd, not far away, trying to shove their way in through the throngs. Long black cloak, out of place, stood out like pink ink on carbon paper.

“You’re just standing here watching women… you can’t like pay someone to handle that for you?”

Victorie laughed, “I suppose so. I don’t see Rachael with you.”

“She’s at home.”

“Oh, she’s not sick is she? It’s a shame to miss the festivities.”

She folded her arms, “She’s fine.”

“Good, tell her I said hello. And you should really stop assuming I’m out to get you Miss Hyle.”

Victorie gestured for the guards to head towards the crowd, and Victorie passed her following them and disappearing amongst the others. Emilia stood watching the woman for a while, just to make sure they didn’t suddenly disappear.

They didn’t, no, they pushed through the crowd and as the sermon reached the final stages. The woman and a good two dozen others emerged from the crowd at the front and rushed the Priestesses of the Lost God. The suddenness of it took everyone by surprise. She had tailed the woman to keep an eye on them, only to stand at the edge of the crowd and watch aghast as they shed their cloak to reveal the half-naked form of a cultist of lust. Only bindings of cloth around their chest and hips, skin painted in the red of a mourning woman and eyes heavily blackened. Long, disheveled hair laced with flowers. And heavily pregnant.

The others revealed knives and brandished them at the edges of the crowd.

“Long ago the Seven ruled in seven ways to rule the world. The time has come once again that again the seven paths are walked. Let the Seven lead!”

The crowd trembled, the guards that had stalked the crowds rushed to the front. No-one could anticipate what was happening. No cultists had ever been bold enough to ever preach let alone do this to the most sacred moment of the worshippers calendar.

And the woman at the head of them was the one she had saved.

“Let the Seven lead!”

The woman screamed as their stomach quivered and they doubled over in agony. She had to look away as others in the crowd were stunned motionless, unable to run like all rationality and reason told them. No-one could run from the woman’s screams, of the sight of the woman birthing a demon into this world.

The guards charged forward, swords cutting apart the cultists that tried to keep them back. It was too late. Emilia clenched her eyes shut, hunched over with her hands over her ears trying to drown out the screams. The woman was being torn in two, her chest tightened and the nausea was overwhelming her. Blood and chaos and the screaming… then silence, calm. Her body was awash in… she felt, she wanted to… her face flushed and her body ached. It was happiness, excitement, as though all the horror had been washed away by the touch of Rachael’s hand against her arm. But Rachael was thankfully far away from this.

She opened her eyes and looked up to see the woman… she threw up.

A woman, no larger than the woman that had been torn in two to birth this monster, lay where its mother had been reduced to carnage. It crawled up from hands and knees as if it had just crawled from the womb rather than ripped its way out. Drenched in blood, long red hair that curled down around its hips. The world stood still in its presence, as even the guards hesitated. It looked like a woman, but had no face and had angular horns sprouting from its forehead and curving up like antlers. From them bloomed flowers, and then down their entire body tattoos drew themselves in a shifting pattern of flowers and vines. Orbs of light like fireflies fluttered about its body, and vines back up into its genitalia. Bare breasted, faceless, antlered and flowered. A long clawed hand extended out to the crowd and fear suddenly gripped the congregation.

“My apologies, sweet children.”

A lilting voice, Rachael’s voice, whispered in her ear, but she knew it wasn’t Rachael’s voice… it was the demon’s. Her head hurt, and she felt the desire to retch but something stopped her. A peacefulness, and a burning anger at this beast.

“I interrupted your celebration. I caused pain, but do not think me callous.”

The fireflies evaporated into bright light and the bodies glew. Everyone cried out in horror as the dead rose, standing whole once more. Even the mother of the demon, the woman that had sacrificed their life to birth this monster. They were whole again and stood to take their child’s side, proud.

“I am the Mistress of the Masks, Pillar of Lust, and devotion should always be rewarded.”

Mesogrin. Ch.14.

Karis’ house stood not far from the Battery, attached to the barracks but with an entrance only via a back alley. Other houses shared the street but Karis’ was by far the largest in the entire block of the city.

The first floor was directly attached to the guard barracks, and shared a kitchen, a lounge and living quarters, and a baths. Emilia had been through here quite a few times but had only been up stairs twice, both times when Karis was sick. The second floor was reserved for Karis only, and it was largely open walled with offices along one side and the view of the opposite houses along the other.

Before Victorie and before Karis, this had actually been a place of worship. It have been purposefully built for that fact. When Karis helped Victorie take over the town, they took it over for the militia they had formed.

Upstairs had been the main shrine, a place sacred to the cultists that had controlled the old government. For the Mistress of the Shattered Mask, for the Pillar of Lust. This whole place had been a brothel, that came to light as the ones bankrolling the entire old guard.

Most of the rooms were still appointed for the task, Emilia still remembered the uproar when Victorie had wanted to leave this in the hands of the cultists.

‘It serves a good purpose in our town.’

Karis put an end to that, but didn’t have the heart to kick out the women working here. She had slept here for a few weeks after the coup d’etat. She had actually slept here a few times before then, back when it was easier to pay than to talk to people.

The top floor of the building was a large room, mostly vacant, a single bed in one corner, a few piles of crates, a weapon rack, some books but not many. A table with a few chairs, and a lot of liquor in the centre of it. Nothing remained of how it was, most of the walls had been covered by Karis’ hand-written messages. There was sheets of paper pinned on one wall and a lot of chalk dust. Most of the markings were about the town, how to defend it, strategies and theorems. Nothing that Karis cared for them to know about.

“Take a seat.”

Karis directed them to the table. Rachael encouraged Anna to sit down, but both Rachael and Emilia stood as Karis collected ingredients from a footlocker by their bed. Emilia realised she was standing on a street map of the town, in white paint against the dark stone. She wondered if there was a reason that the table was so far from Karis’ bed considering it was sitting over Rachael’s house.

She realised as Karis walked back with their arms full, it was to keep the map itself clear. Karis’ corner and the table were practically opposite sides of the room.

“There is two ways to perform this,” Karis informed them, placing bottles of sickly looking liquids on the table in front of Anna, “for a human body, we usually cut it out of the neck.”

“Which, is pretty painful,” Emilia realised what the bottles were.

“Yeah, but for a machine, it is usually much more simple. They don’t put it in the neck… it’s hard to explain but they place it in the mind.”

“It is a program,” Anna corrected.

“You know about that?”

“Yes, I have an analytical engine inside my skull, and that is programmed with behaviour as with any human mind. To do this they create things called drivers that simulate the actions of a human brain; from interacting with other components such as my heart, to allowing me to access my programming and edit it as necessary. You would have to remove the drivers associated with a component in my body that allows them to track me.”

Emilia’s head spun, she would love to know how this works and what they were talking about but… was this how Rachael felt talking to her?

Karis placed a hand on their shoulder and crouched down to look at them, “You have a human body though, if you don’t have the same kind of brain as the other machines the device I have to remove the driver might scramble you entirely.”

Anna’s eyes widened, averting her eyes from Karis, “I understand. Perhaps we should start with the other option then.”

“I think that’s probably the smart idea. Just,” Karis stood up straight, “a warning from the wise. It’s pretty fucking awful to go through. In order to stop people removing it, they basically make it as painful as possible to get out.”

Karis took one of the bottles and a cup, “I’ll make you something to dull the pain but you’ll probably still hurt quite a lot. Then this stuff’ll make you sick as sin for about a day.”

They combined a few liquids together then handed the cup to Anna, “But trust me, it’s better than the pain.”

Anna took the cup but just looked at it, hesitant to drink.

“When I had it done it was in the back alley of a shop down in Green’s Plaza. Two children later and that pain is still the worst I’ve ever felt.”

Anna sniffed the drink, but realising the alternative, they drank it all down to the last drop. The bitterness, Emilia could smell it across the room and the poor girl nearly threw up just trying to keep it down.

Rachael crossed their arms and chewed their lip. Anna’s eyes faded, their body swayed. Karis crossed the room to collect the tools.

“I might need your help on this Em.”

Emilia journeyed over to help gather the scalpels and the pliers. And a light, and a magnifying glass. Bandages, medical supplies.

“Where did you get all of this?”

Karis closed the locker and brought her back to the table, “The Doctor is one of us.”

“What exactly are you though?”

“A resistor to the powers that be.”

Rachael shuffled uneasily, then dragged a chair around to sit in front of Anna. Anna offered their hand to them, Rachael held it as Karis placed the equipment on the table out of the girl’s sight.

Anna squeezed Rachael’s hand, growing increasingly pale. Karis placed a finger against Anna’s neck, “You feel that, Anna?”

“What? What is she doing to me?”

“Nothing yet,” Rachael reassured them.

“Good, you’re numb. Now, now just relax.”

Anna’s hand weakened, their body relaxed slowly. Karis pressed hard against Anna’s spine, rubbing in small circles looking for something out of place.

“There it is,” Karis moved aside to show her, she placed a finger between Karis’ and felt it.

A small bump nearly impossible to feel between Anna’s vertebrae.

“Alright, Anna, can you squeeze Rachael’s hand for me.”

Anna could barely hold her head up. Rachael looked up to Karis, “I don’t think she can.”

“Alright,” Karis gently pushed her aside and took up a scalpel, “Take the lamp and shine it on the blade for me.”

She picked up the lamp, it only shined one direction so it was easy to aim at where Karis pressed the blade’s edge. A drop of blood dewed against the steel, or rather the red lubricating oil permeating through Anna’s flesh. The wound opened as they firmly drove the scalpel down before they had to wipe away the blood now trickling down Anna’s spine. They drew away as much of the blood as they could with an alcohol soaked cloth before one final cut to reveal a small black object deep inside the flesh. It was comparatively close to the surface really but the cut split and made it all look far nastier than it probably was.

Anna was singing, Rachael tried to quiet them.

Karis put down the scalpel and picked up the pliers, and just like that pried out the device. It was a almost like a coin. They placed it in her hand and went about closing up Anna’s wound. A series of sutures and bandages covered up the wound.

She turned her attention to the device in her hand. Slick with Anna’s blood, it was no bigger than the tip of her finger and flat like a coin. A disk, with a small bulge in the centre. Her thoughts were interrupted by Anna’s sudden, violent vomiting and Rachael’s squeal of disgust as they were…

“Ah, really,” Rachael stood, and skirted around it.

Black, like oil more than any actual sick she had ever seen. It smelled like tar, alcohol and bread. That answered one question about Anna’s ‘biology’ that she had.

“It’ll pass, let her get it out of her system. Maybe get her a bucket from the corner.”

Karis was busy scrubbing down their hands with alcohol from the table and a dry cloth, so Emilia went to fetch a bucket. Rachael was patting Anna on the back by the time she returned, encouraging them. She handed Rachael the bucket, and they held it for Anna as they continued to throw up.

It was, a bit much for her.

“I need fresh air.”

Karis nodded, gesturing her towards the lonely balcony, “Take a breather.”

She lead the way, getting away from the smell as quickly as she could. It wasn’t even the smell, that was an average day for her, it was the thought of it.

“You never were much for that sort of thing.”

Emilia stood on the balcony, Karis came up beside her, “Yeah, can’t say I did well back then.”

She held the device between her fingers, turning it. The edges had small prongs clearly designed to grip into the flesh of the unlucky person it was inside of.

“You’re part of some group that fights what? Everything? And you never told me?”

“It’s complicated. Just trust me when I say, I wanted to.”

Part of her wanted to see if she could squash the tiny coin and end this, but she had a feeling that would only draw more attention.

“Then you got the red letter.”

“I should have burned that years ago.”

“Keep a hold of it for now,” Karis slapped her shoulder, “never know when you might need it.”

“Only reason I didn’t leave when they gave it to me was because of her.”

“Rachael?”

She nodded, “Rachael. Only reason I stayed in town, only reason I helped you.”

“Only reason you saved the girl?”

“No,” she put the tracker in her pocket, “she just needed help.”

“Look at you, maybe you’re not so one-dimensional. Doing things other than just trying to impress a girl.”

The town was quite pretty from up here. A balcony overlooking part of the Battery and part of the Battery Side suburb. Lanterns shone through cloth sails that obscured the street and the small community plaza where most of the people lived their lives. Houses for a lot of the town were just places to sleep.

“I think I need a new thing. Finally got the girl, saved a life, fought a dragon. What’s left for me?”

“How about bringing down an empire?”

She laughed, “Sure. Let me grab my hammer and I’ll get right to it.”

“I’m serious Em. You can fight, you can fix, you’d be a real help.”

“I’m not a fighter, I’m barely a fixer. But thanks for the offer, I’ll think about it.”

Karis drew her into a one-armed hug, side by side, against the setting sun beyond the Battery, “You’re like the daughter I never lost, Em. I’m proud you’re my friend, and I know you’ll make the right choice.”

She shrank, trying to think of a way out of it, “You’re not dying on me are you? Who even talks like that? Come on, we should go check on the patient.”

Emilia managed to snake away and head inside again, Karis laughed. They knew her tricks.

“You’re pretty good at the whole cutter routine.”

“I was a surgeon before I took over the guard, kind of. Battlefields are chaotic places.”

Battlefields? She went to question them, only for the smell to hit her nostrils and to see Anna and Rachael and… she raced back outside so she didn’t ruin the floors as well.

Mesogrin. Ch.13.

Karis helped her into a chair in the atrium and sat down next to her. The two of them made small talk until Rachael and Anna returned and Karis made their leave. It was an awkward silence that followed but once Emilia broke it, everything came to light.

Karis was a refugee. They know how to help Anna.

Rachael wasn’t telling her something. Anna had already left, gone to hide in her room. Rachael sat down next to her and offered their hand to her. She took hold, and didn’t let go.

At least not until they were both in bed, then they fell asleep in each others arms, and her dreams were of Rachael. She woke, the guards brought her the wreck of her suit and the machine she had sacrificed it to.

Anna emerged as she was sitting at the workshop bench staring at the busted up suit. The fact it wasn’t shredded had surprised her the way she felt. Her body ached just looking at it.

“Hello.”

“Oh, hey Anna.”

She figured today was a good day to start to fix Anna’s arm, at least until she looked at her tools and found herself incapable of thinking about picking them up. Her body was so sore that she had the strong desire to lay down and die.

“I was thinking we should get to work on your arm today.”

“Okay,” Anna sat down at the workbench, elbow planted on the bench and a less than thrilled look on their face.

“Everything alright?”

“Yes. I am fine.”

She really wished she could take their word for it, “Doesn’t look that way.”

“I am two centuries out of what should have been my world. I am thinking that perhaps I do not understand as much as I do and now I am remembering all the things I have lost.”

“Well, uh,” she scratched her throat, “I was always told to start with the simple problem. So what did you lose?”

Anna sighed, “The Creator… gave me life, then sacrificed her own to keep me alive.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty rough.”

“I never had a chance to see the world, I learned so much and now all that is gone.”

She moved the dust on the bench with an absent hand, “Look, once all this blows over and we can get that thing out of your neck, you can come with me and Rach. We’re only going to the capital but it’s a start.”

“Yes,” Anna sighed, “thank you. You have been more kind to me than I ever deserved.”

“Friends help friends, right?”

Anna smiled weakly, “You and Rachael… I appreciate all you have done. I feel like I am intruding.”

“Why would you feel like that?”

“You and her are more than just friends, correct? I have come in and upset your household.”

She stood, body screaming at her to never move again, but she fought through it as she picked up her torch from the bench.

“You being here, I think it gave us an excuse to just admit our feelings. You’re probably why we’re together so I wouldn’t worry too much.”

“I am made to worry.”

She paused, then limped her way towards the back wall of the workshop to open the garage door.

“Why do you worry about it though?”

“Well,” Anna stood to follow her, “I worry that, you are spending time looking after me instead of spending it with her. Or that you are worrying about me, that I am unable to look after myself.”

“Can you look after yourself?”

“I-”

She smirked, turned to look at the girl, “I’m joking. I don’t think we’re worried about you, but you were locked in a closet of something for two hundred years.”

“A safe-room.”

“Yeah, whatever that means. Point being, you don’t properly get how the world is, not sure we’re exactly looking after you or anything.”

“Do you worry about Rachael?”

“Well yeah,” the garage door slowly rose inward, pressing up against the roof. Outside was the remains of the reclaimer, still an imposing creature with a hard steel shell that glimmered in the few strong lanterns lighting the outside of the house.

“But she’s my entire life. Always has been ever since I showed up in town.”

She limped out to the carcass of the beast, looking to salvage whatever was left of the arms.

“First time I saw her, was magic.”

She stood at the foot of the beast, smile spreading across her lips, “I was just passing through, stopped to sell a few things. And there she was in the town square painting, selling them like a street artist.”

She looked back at Anna, “I don’t suppose you know what love feels like.”

“I was loved by the Creator, but I am assuming that you mean something different.”

“I wouldn’t know. My Mother wasn’t exactly the closest parent in the world. My Father died like most other men when the plague hit town. Maybe my Mistress, the woman that taught me engineering, I was close with her.”

“Your mother wasn’t around?”

“Nah, she was a surveyor, got paid big money to find old world tech for salvagers and used my wanting to learn engineering as an excuse to stay out there after Dad died. We weren’t close, but we loved each other. She was a good mother, just never there. Then she disappeared one day, never came to visit, stopped sending me letters, stopped existing.”

“I’m sorry to hear.”

“Nah,” she looked back to the reclaimer, examined the remaining arms it had, “happened so long ago I don’t even miss her any more.”

“I do not think I will ever not miss the Creator.”

“I get it, that’s love I guess. I miss Rachael right now, and she’s just down the road. But we live, and we let them live, or rest. Whatever.”

“So,” Anna stepped toward to examine the arms, they were nearly as large as the girl themselves – but it was the parts in them she wanted, open it up and look at how it was pieced together.

“Did you know you loved her when you first saw her?”

She laughed, “Oh god no. I thought she was beautiful, sure, but love? First time I saw her she was painting, and I saw her and thought to myself – she’s pretty, I’d love to fuck her.”

Anna screwed up their nose, “That is awful.”

“Yeah probably, but that’s life. You’ll know that feeling when it happens. The second thing I noticed was her actual paintings, almost as beautiful as she was. And I thought to myself – if that’s what she paints, I wonder what she thinks about, I’d love to get to know her.”

“That is,” Anna sighed, “slightly nicer. I do not know if I want to have those feelings.”

“You don’t have to. Whatever makes you happy.”

Anna perked up, “And this makes you happy?”

“Yeah, pretty sure it does. I feel happier. Bit hard to tell considering everything.”

Anna stepped away, and fell silent. She focused on carving the arms from the machine, then carried them inside to start the mad science of making a new arm for Anna.

Anna left Emilia to their work. The confines of the house had closed in around her and she needed fresh air. Lost in thought, she took a walk much as the Creator often had.

They had been gone for two hundred years. All traces of them gone, as if they had never existed. Anna was the last testament to their existence, that she knew of at least. She struggled to imagine how, given all that had changed, the workshop remained, or the house. Nothing could have survived.

Nothing but her, nothing but a girl who hid behind others who would sacrifice themselves for her.

Life had a way of continuing through it all, she had seen towns, visited trading posts, met people. They had stories about the world’s end, they all bore the scars of humanity’s downfall. Yet here they were, here everything was. Different, forever changed. New, vibrant.

The town had a beauty to it. The caverns were slick looking rocks, glistening in the soft light of lanterns scattered about on roof-tops bearing small gardens. Square buildings, most of them homes, all made from bricks hewn from that same wet stone. In the way of things, it was a bright place, full of light and life and hope. People walked the streets, talked to friends, lived.

Anna made her way through the main street into the plaza. Stone bricks painted with a combination of colours, sure enough to make some grander pattern from above. The roof of the cavern nearly grazed against the roof of a nearby building, a tall spire roof. Out the front there was two women, one dressed in nearly nothing and the other dressed in quite a lot. They were having an argument, and despite her shrinking body she approached close enough to overhear their conversation.

Something about gods, demons and the souls of the town. When the near naked woman left, the other noticed her and invited her inside. It was a large room, that was all it was, a large round room beyond a small square one. The square room was the entrance and it had four doors, one against each wall. Anna glanced at each curiously, they were marked with signs – crypts to the left and cells to the right.
The main room, or hall, had a domed roof, which very obviously spired upwards to where it must graze on the cavern ceiling. Dozens of doors surrounded the outside of the room and in the centre of the room was a large circular stone fountain. Around it was stone benches radiating out in a staggered pattern that prevented her making a line straight for the central fountain. At the base of the fountain was a channel, water filled it but there was no clue where the water went.

“All are welcome here child, do you require guidance?”

The woman, elderly, heavily draped in cloths of white and red, only their face and arms were visible.

“I do not know where I am.”

“You cannot recognise you are in a Sanctuary of the Lost God?”

Anna tilted her head, and glanced around the room, a God… so this was a temple.

“No, I am not from around here.”

The woman smiled, ingenuously, “You must be from quite far to have never encountered the Lady’s Sanctuaries. Or, perhaps you are a heathen.”

“I do not believe in Gods, so yes. I believe so.”

“Well darling, at least you’re honest,” the old woman gestured to the central fountain, “you’re welcome to stay, and perhaps the spirit of the Saviour will change your mind.”

“Saviour?”

“Yes, the Lost God saved us all.”

Anna looked at the fountain, then back to the woman, “Can you tell me about them?”

“It is my duty, child. Come, sit, let me tell you of her grace.”

Her. Saviour. This was not a God she had learned of, that existed two centuries ago. Perhaps it was a story she knew and maybe it would just explain to her this new world’s philosophies a little better.

Anna took a seat, “This Lost God, is a woman, yes?”

“Yes. She sacrificed herself to save us all.”

Anna nodded, she could appreciate that. It was like the Knights that Lady Amber had told her about. She allowed the woman to continue.

“The Lost God was a woman, born long ago, well before the demons came into being. A great woman who ascended to godhood by discovering magic.”

Magic? Had she not seen it for herself, she would have laughed.

“We do not remember her name, for she hath forsaken it to give language to humanity. We do not depict her face, for she offered it up so that we may know beauty. She was the Creator whom forged the Mesogrini to protect us when we strayed. It was our hubris and childish spite to her grace that made us stumble. We strayed from her one true path and tried to make seven of our own.”

“The Pillars.”

“So you know of them, but not Her? Perhaps you are a heretic and not a heathen.”

“Where I come from, we do not have the Lost God, but we have the Pillars, and many others. It is a dark place. Please continue to enlighten me.”

“Very well, but there is only one more story we know of her. She sacrificed her life and lost herself to defeat the Pillars. She did this instead of destroying us all for our crimes against her. She is lost but shall never be forgotten.”

Anna nodded, examining the room again, perhaps this made sense of the murals and paintings, the tapestries over the doors. A faceless person, presumably the woman this priestess spoke of.

“Thank you, I have much to think about now.”

The woman stood, “I will leave you alone.”

Anna sat, alone in the sanctuary, eyes fixating on the fountain. So like the fountains of the world before. A small town north of the Creator’s workshop. The kinds of fountains she had bathed in as a “child”. They looked larger then, perhaps she did grow… but how? She was a machine, made of metal and electronics. Perhaps everything was grander back then.

Lost but not forgotten.
She liked that sentiment, she would never forget what she had lost.

happiness.equality.love. (not a story)

Australia recently sent out a non-binding survey about if Australians support the changing of law to allow same-sex marriage.
Today, actually around an hour ago, the results came back overwhelmingly for Yes, Australians do support same-sex marriage being allowed.

61.6% vs 38.4%.
7.8 million vs 4.8 million.

It’s a big day, proof that the majority supports them. That we’re not as homophobic as we always get led to believe. Sure maybe in some areas there is still hatred in people’s hearts, but overall we’re moving towards a better place.

More will need to be done, and there is always a fight ahead of those marginalized by society but today is a step in the right direction.

So today was a good day.

Hopefully in the future it won’t require a survey to know that not everyone out there wants you to suffer, that you can be happy and that equality is attainable. Just because you love someone, doesn’t mean you should be marginalized or down-trodden by those who feel they have some pre-ordained right to hate.

Love has won again, and hopefully very soon it will be legislated to reflect the fact that Australia voted yes.

Mesogrin. Ch.12.

“Soft melodies shape the world with their touch.”

Darkness. A voice in the darkness. Alien, in a language foreign to her ears but with words she understood perfectly.

“The painter’s heart and the lightest brush.”

She felt as though her eyes were shut, but could not open them. Cold up her spine, crawling across her skin like drops of water and she was upside down. Was she upside down?

“Revive the canvas with the stain of reality.”

It was, the song. Anna… was it Anna? She was floating.

“The painter’s heart is the tone of the melody.”

She couldn’t breath, and opening her mouth felt like a bad idea even though her lungs burned. A hand took hold of her wrist and pulled her forward through the darkness. She exploded into place, the crawling across her skin peeled from her skin arm first.

She opened her eyes, immediately blinded by the light of some kind of fire flickering into existence around her. Fireflies stirred from their slumber. She breathed, desperately hoping for air, and she greedily gasped down as much as she could to quench the fires in her lungs.

Victorie held her by the wrist, held Anna by the wrist.

Looking around she saw they were in a cavern, in the centre. The world was muted red, pink and blue, it tasted and smelled the part of something she didn’t want to think about.

“We can’t stay long.”

Victorie looked different here. Everything felt different here, like her body was drunk but her mind was sharp. Victorie let go of her, and Anna, and crouched down to pick up a book on the ground between them.

“You must both listen carefully, and nothing I tell you can be repeated. Understood?”

Victorie’s normally soft face had an intoxicating edge to it. Anna nodded, she nodded.

“Good. They have eyes and ears everywhere.”

Her eyes came to a stop on Victorie’s hands as they gripped the book, “They?”

“They, the ones that send beasts to reclaim. Do not speak their name, or mention them directly here. You’ll draw far worse.”

“Where is here?” Anna asked, their soft voice melting in her ears.

“A demonic plane, home to… vulgar beasts. It has an effect on the mind, but it is the only way to escape the Watchers – those with eyes and ears looking and listening in. We use the planes to evade the ones we resist, but only if we can also evade the rulers here.”

“So you’re not-”

“No,” Victorie cut her off, “but if we didn’t use their magic we’d have no chance of even surviving long enough to have an impact. I inherited a war, I intend to win it.”

“Inherited it?”

Victorie stepped closer, she tensed up, “It was a lie. They were never our saviour.”

She looked at Anna, who stood with their arm folded against their chest, the look on their face was lost in thought, confused.

“Anna?”

“I do not recall enough about the war, I am sorry.”

Victorie placed a hand on her shoulder, pulled her attention away from the girl, “The Knights lived on, the children of those who died carried on their legacy, we kept fighting. Formed a nation before they infiltrated it and turned it against us. Centuries later, they’ve convinced everyone of their lies and gave us a noble end to make us seem… glory-hounds, insane people, like we besmirch the honor of our forebearers.”

Victorie gestured to the cavern around them, “We have to resort to demonic sorcery and magic to survive, but we’ll keep fighting until they destroy us entirely.”

“We’ve known each other for… years.”

“Over a decade, and no, I never told you because how could I? How could I explain it? This has forced my hand.”

They turned to Anna and approached the girl, “As long as you both keep silent about this, we can help keep Anna safe. But first, there is something we need to get rid of.”

“What?”

Victorie lightly touched Anna’s shoulder, “They hunt you, tracking you down through an object in your neck. The Captain will have noticed by now that you are a machine, she will come to offer to help. Let her, but do not trust her.”

Anna did not seem as short as they were, several heads shorter than Victorie who crouched slightly to look into their eyes, “The Captain?”

“Karis.”

Karis? She was taken aback, “Karis is part of this?”

“A piece of it, yes. The Watchers and the Pillars have their eyes, and their hands.”

“Wait, Karis is-”

“I suspect,” Victorie cut her off again, “she is not part of mine. She is not a Knight.”

“Is there a way we can find out?” Anna asked, looking past Victorie to Rachael, “I do not like this subterfuge.”

“You could ask, but if she is working for the Watchers, you will return to Utopia…”

Utopia… from what she was learning that might be a sick joke, “And if it is the Pillars?”

“We should go,” Victorie took Anna by the hand and then her hand, “remember, don’t speak of this.”

It was the sensation of snapping back to attention suddenly, dragged back into the world as Victorie sat down behind their desk.

“So what can I do for you two?”

Anna opened their mouth to speak, but said nothing.

“Just visiting,” she covered, “I just realised you haven’t met Anna yet.”

“Ah, of course. I have heard so much about you.”

Rachael sat back in her chair listening to Victorie asking Anna questions, mind muddy. Had it been real… how could it not, though it was easier to accept it was her having a psychotic break.

“So when can I expect that mural finally finished?”

She was dragged together by the question, turning her eyes up to look at Victorie still sitting in their chair across the desk, “Oh, soon. We, uh, we should be getting back to Emilia. We left her alone down at the Battery.”

Victorie perked up, disappointment across their lips, “Of course, I should be getting back to work anyway.”

“Good, uh, talking to you,” she stood, motioning for Anna to join her, “We’ll get lunch soon.”

“That’d be lovely, feel free to tag along Anna.”

Anna rose, and nodded, “Yes, good bye.”

Anna followed her out through the halls and down the stairs where the crowd was still gathered. The crowd didn’t part of them, they stood their ground and a woman at the front of the gathering confronted her.

“Whore! Why do you get to talk to the mayor? Because you used to spread your legs for them?”

The woman spat at her, the crowd jeered, the guards pushed the woman aside and away from her. Anna stepped back behind her.

“We want answers!”

Rachael took Anna back up the stairs and off down one of the side hallways, away from the crowd. Anna sat down in a chair as she washed off her face in one of the bathrooms, only to return and tell them to stay there.

“Stay here, I’ll go see if I can’t get Vicky to talk to them.”

Anna watched Rachael leave, and took her own chance to examine the room. Some kind of private library. A lot of books were about considering the world ended two centuries ago. The aisles were narrow, barely enough room for a one-armed automaton to walk down and explore the books. The bottom shelves were either empty or had boxes of documents with clear labelling that didn’t require close inspection. Most were about the town itself, records on budgets, taxes, things that needed bookkeeping.

This room was far brighter than any other in this town so far, illuminated by something far stronger than the usual lanterns. It was easy to glance over the titles on the spines of books looking for something of interest.

But what she really wanted to know was eating at her.

Anna had been alive during the event her companion Lady Amber had called the Last War. It was Humanity and Machine against Demon… but she had never stepped from the Creator’s workshop. It struck her as something she had never come to question, not until it was told to her that cultists existed. And yet, she had studied humanity, or what she had been allowed to study. The Creator had told her not to trust that truth is truth.

Was this what they had meant?

Of course it would be logical that humans, who would never decide upon a unified path, would fragment and fracture – those who worship the Pillars and those who support Mesogrin. And those caught between.

It had just never occurred to her, from where she had been standing at least, that evil is a matter of perspective. After everything the Creator had told her about the Pillars, she too had come to accept the Mesogrini doctrines about them. Her companion Lady Amber had not challenged this, so perhaps – she had thought – times had changed and the demons had shown their true selves.

Anna sat down between the aisles, a tiny girl surrounded by giants.

The Pillars… what had the Creator told her… It felt like a great tragedy that she had forsaken even a small part of their knowledge.

‘Of Humanity there can be said to be, seven pillars – the seven ways we submit, we shackle, we chain. Of the Seven came to be the beings known as the demon queens, the Pillars. And of the Pillars were born infernal hosts to wash away the sins of the old world, and replace it with a new world not perverted from the seven.
The Seven Pillars are, Might, Greed, Intoxication, Desire, Hatred, Faith and Fear.
In these seven is the basis of all rule, all power, all strength.

But in our hubris, we have turned this against itself and made a place where there is none.’

Life had been such a shining beacon. Now her light was gone.

Anna curled her arm around her knees, dragged them into her chest and held herself together. Her eyes watered, a tear escaping down her cheek.

She could still picture their face, still hear their voice talking to her as she learned about the world.

“Pursue happiness with diligence.”

The creator, her creator. Mother.

She sighed, unable to stop the tears, unable to sob them away or truly cry. Mind rejecting herself, heart broken, one-armed, useless junk piece of machinery. A charade of a person in flesh and steel.

“Pursue happiness…”

Happiness seemed unattainable now.

“I’m sorry, Mother.”

She laid her head to rest against her knees, “I don’t know what that means.”

“It means,” Anna jumped, a young man stood at the end of the aisle, “whatever makes you happy, don’t give it up.”

He scratched the back of his head, “Sorry, I wasn’t prying – I just, I came in looking for a book.”

Anna straightened up, “It-it is okay. I was just, thinking to myself.”

“Thinking? Looks kinda like you were cryin’.”

“I was, but, that does not matter. My name is Anna.”

“I’m Simon,” he stepped into the aisle, “I haven’t seen you around before.”

“I am new in town.”

“Yeah? Where are you from?”

She thought back to what Lady Amber had told her to say, “Uh, from across the Sunderline.”

“Oh wow, I didn’t know you could cross it.”

“You cannot, I was lucky to make it alive.”

He started to look through the shelves, “Maybe you can tell me how you managed some time.”

“Yes, maybe,” she pushed herself up with her feet, “what do you do around here?”

“I’m the librarian’s assistant.”

“Oh, from the public library downstairs?”

“Yeah, that is the one,” he scanned the shelves rather quickly, “today is a little busy. I’d stay and talk but I really should find this book.”

“Perhaps I can help?”

He looked her over, “If you want to, I’d appreciate it.”

“Yes, what are you looking for?”

“It’s called Practical Agariculture.”

“That is on the second shelf down, far right.”

He made his way over and placed his hand straight onto it, “Thanks.”

She nodded, “It is alright.”

“I’ll see you around.”

“Yes, I will see you around.”

Around what? She watched him leave, feeling as though she had missed something important about the man. His gestures were strange and she didn’t feel like dwelling on them. Anna had always imagined the world after the end of the world would be less, populous and full of knowledge.

Perhaps the Creator had succeeded in their goal to ‘fix everything’ in some sense of the manner.

Mesogrin. Ch.11.

The town of Battery Point, obviously named for the Battery. Perhaps it was founded two centuries ago, when the artillery at the Battery would still have been useful. She wasn’t sure, but standing here again, in the wake of the second reaper that came for her… Anna was less comfortable to think about it than she had been two days ago.

Two centuries ago, she could definitely picture the leviathans soaring through the skies over the sea far below. Thick scaled beasts that surged through the air and laid waste to the navies of man with flame so hot the steam still lingered. Firelight Sea… now it was a strangely beautiful sight, the firelight came from the fireflies that called it home, and the luminescent jellyfish that congregated into underwater suns visible even during the day.

She clutched at her missing arm and stepped away from the cliff. At least it would be some time before another of the beasts came for her. Her companions were combing through the wreck – or, Rachael was. Emilia sat on the stone-wall exhausted, still in pain, and more than slightly annoyed by their partner.

She made her way back, through the flowerbed and onto the solid, lifeless rock again.

Two centuries ago, it was still vivid in her mind, it was hard not to think about how different and beautiful this world was compared to it. The metropolis of Mesogrin, the swamps of the Ironsnarl, the tunnels and the small towns, volcanic forges and the barren caverns illuminated by artificial moonlight. Soft dirt and rock, crystalline, it shimmered like little grains of glass.

Two centuries ago… there was no point ruminating on the past, or so she always told herself. It was hard to avoid, but it was entirely true. She could never go back, nor did she really want to – unless she could avoid all of this.

“Did you find it yet?”

“No, stop yelling!”

Rachael was elbow deep inside the broken head of a machine trying to sort out things they didn’t understand. Emilia had given them a vague description for a fairly simple to find part, she probably should have come back sooner.

“Do you want my help?”

Rachael grumbled something inaudible into the machine and threw up their hands in defeat, “Yes, yes, absolutely. Apparently I’m too stupid to do this.”

“I didn’t-”

“No, no-one ever means it. Look Emilia, you can yell at Anna now.”

Rachael stormed away, spitting furiously under their breath. Anna watched them unsure if she should get involved.

“Fuck sake,” Emilia rubbed their face with their right hand, “look, I just want the gyroscopic stabilizer. If it’s anything like any other Mesogrini tech, it’ll be in a black cube about the size of your hands.”

“You were upset because she couldn’t find a black cube that you do not know is actually in here?”

The Reclaimer’s head was as big as she was, it was a large beast – a very large beast. She could probably climb into the skull of it. Why it needed to be so large was a mystery, but it had been torn apart and cut open by Emilia’s tools – which Anna was surprised Rachael had used so well.

“It is not in here.”

“It has to be in there,” Emilia defiantly slipped down from the wall and hobbled towards the beast. It was a fair walk and they made it slowly, she watched them approach.

She wasn’t feeling particularly charitable after the ‘hands’ comment. Once Emilia had a chance to look inside, it was immediately obvious that through the ruined tangles of wire and scrap metal that it wasn’t actually there.

“It isn’t in the head? There is nothing in the head… sensors, but nothing to think with.”

Emilia immediately hobbled around away from the head, and suddenly pounded heavily on the shell, injuring themselves again. With a wince they noted, “You hear that?”

They pounded again, ignoring the obvious warning sign that was pain. It was a hollow thunk, but not completely hollow.

“Pass me the torch.”

Anna made her way back to the toolbag to find Rachael standing there, with the torch in hand.

“Sorry Anna…”

“It is fine, go tell her to apologise for being incorrect.”

Rachael walked past her to help Emilia. Anna’s attention was caught by another person approaching in the distance, a woman she had not yet met.

“Look, Rach… I’m sorry I was so short with you.”

“Good,” Rachael warned, “I get you’re in pain but you don’t get to be a bitch because of it.”

“I know. I’m trying.”

“Yeah, I know. I forgive you-”

“Uh, I do not mean to intrude,” Anna called to them, “but someone is approaching.”

The woman was at the wall now, Rachael came to check.

“You’re right to worry Annie. Illy, you might want to come, it’s Karis.”

“Tell her to fuck off,” Emilia called back.

“I think you should talk to her.”

“I think you should tell her to fuck off.”

Anna placed a hand on Rachael’s arm, “Do not fight, perhaps it is time we both went to see Victorie.”

Rachael nodded, “Good idea.”

“Alright, Illy,” Rachael turned back to talk to Emilia, “you tell her that. I’m taking Anna to see Victorie.”

“You’re just gonna leave me with them?”

“You’ll be fine, we’ll be back.”

Rachael returned and took her by the hand, leading her past Karis. Rachael nodded to them as they passed, Anna looked up at the woman, curious. Older, silver hair brushed to one side, sharp face, eyes turned down at her. Their razor eyes locked onto her missing arm and then looked at her face as she passed by, and they smiled. It was not an unfriendly smile, but she felt uneasy about it.

Rachael lead her up into the town and towards the mayoral manor that sat in the middle.

“I get why you wanted to come into town right after you woke up. You were probably going to sneak out and find Victorie.”

“I didn’t meet her during the day, I did not see much of anyone after the incident.”

“Well, I think you’ll like them.”

Rachael lead her in through the front door of the manor where a crowd of people had gathered and the guards kept them back. The crowd screamed and chanted, it was all a blur but a woman stood at the top of the stairs behind a wall of guards in heavy armour.

They spotted Rachael from the crowd and sent the guard standing at the top of the stairs down to fetch them. It seemed that the crowd had just listened to some kind of speech. They were upset.

The guard gestured them forward, Rachael held on tight and pulled her through the crowd. They met the guard at the foot of the stairs and they were escorted up amidst the jeers of the people left below. Rachael followed the woman through into an office, it was apparent now that this was Victorie, the apparent mayor of the town.

“You two have a terrible sense of timing.”

The woman’s eyes turned to her, they smiled, Rachael offered her to take a seat at the desk as the woman turned to take their own behind the desk.

“Vicky, this is Anna.”

“I know,” Victorie looked up at Rachael, who stood beside her, “you’ve told me about her. Though, it is nice to finally meet.”

Victorie turned their attention to her and extended the correct hand across the desk to shake, she shook their hand. They were oddly softer than she had imagined given the depictions her companion had conjured up.

“You are Victorie Grais?”

“Yes.”

“You knew Lady Amber?”

Victorie stood suddenly and crossed the room to shut the doors and lock them.

“Yes, perhaps the name sounds familiar.”

They did not return immediately to a bookshelf on the western wall, they pulled a book from the shelf and brought it to the table.

“I met quite a few people as a trader,” but the book was not a ledger, it was some kind of technicians manual not dissimilar from those she had helped the creator craft in their workshop.

“Let me see.”

Rachael grabbed her shoulder, the two of them watched as Victorie moved their hand over the page and the ink reformed itself.

“No…” Rachael’s fingers tightened.

“I’m afraid so, Miss Ashenbury.”

Anna looked up at Rachael, “What’s wrong?”

She was answered by the sudden darkness overcoming the room, the only light was that coming from Victorie’s fingertips as they held their hand over the page.

“Magic, friend,” Victorie placed a palm against the book, “is not as dead as they would have you think.”

***

Emilia folded her aching arms, Karis stood looking at her with folded arms. Neither of them spoke, neither of them wanted to be the first. Karis cleared their throat, Emilia coughed. Then she turned away, examined the carapace she was planning on cutting into.

“You’re a tough fuck aren’t you?”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

Karis laughed, “Spent a week thinking of how to apologise for some stupid thing I did a week ago. Was going to come see you, figured the last thing you’d want to hear is a half-assed apology.”

“I get it, you draw a line at helping cultists. I don’t.”

“Not even that,” Karis stepped in to stand beside her, looked at the same slab of indominable metal, “Sure, I hate those pricks. You can’t preach death and not expect to get your head kicked in. You stepping in though, like you said, those punks would have killed them – would’ve killed you.”

“Yeah, didn’t work out for them though did it.”

“I’d rather not lose another friend because of those pieces of shit. But I shouldn’t have let it get to me, I’m sorry Em.”

“Don’t even worry, water under the bridge.”

Karis gestured to the machine, “You really took this thing down on your own?”

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a win though.”

Karis placed a hand on the metal, “Glad you’re on my side. I figured that kid you’ve got following you around was some kind of trouble, but looks like nothing you can’t handle.”

“Wait, why would you-”

“I’m not an idiot, Em. Surely even Duchess caught on. You brought a half-dead girl into town, didn’t see the doctor, suddenly she’s alive and well. It doesn’t take a genius to realise an engineer is a surgeon to an automaton.”

“Don’t tell anyone.”

Karis turned to face her, “I don’t rat on refugees,” they leaned in to whisper in her ear, “I am one.”

“You-”

They pressed a finger to their lips, “Bring her to my house, there is a way to, uh, purge the trackers.”

“Trackers?”

“When you first arrive, they inject something into your neck, say it’s to keep track of your health. Truth is, it’s a tracking device, and it sticks in your flesh. There is a way to get it out, but it isn’t pleasant.”

“Okay, I’ll bring her over when she gets back.”

Karis slapped her on the shoulder, “I hear you and Rachael finally got together.”

“How’d you hear that exactly?”

“Her and the Duchess are pretty chummy, one of my guards overheard, told me. Don’t get me wrong, you two are a good fit. She’s a catch.”

“Catch… implies I had anything to do with it. For some insane reason she caught me.”

“Either way.”

Karis stepped aside, “Fixed the suit as well.”

“Yeah, or long enough to have it break again.”

“You’ll fix it again.”

“Yeah, probably. If I can get it back to the workshop.”

Karis hmmed, then, “I can probably get some of the gals to drag it back if not. Can probably get this back to your place as well if you want to properly dissect it.”

“That’d be pretty great actually.”

“Speaking of, you need a hand getting back?”

“I might, those two’ll be gone a while.”

Karis nodded, “Where’d they go?”

“Off to see Victorie over something.”

Karis grabbed her shoulder, a little firmer this time, “Be careful about that one; there is something strange about her.”

“She’s a politician, they’re all strange.”

Karis laughed, but neither of them shook it off.