Mesogrin. Ch.21.

Dim light, moon-like, swinging back and forth as a gust of breeze blew in through the window. Sticky skinned, Emilia laid her head against Rachael’s chest and watched the lantern sway. Today was the end of the festival and she didn’t feel much like moving. It was hot and wet again as rain blanketed the Above and the communal bonfires lit the air.

A downpour filled the room with settling sounds, sweat beaded and ran down her brow. Rachael stroked her hair, gently pulling her head away from their stomach. She was starting to come to terms with her own failure, the fact that she couldn’t think. She had no imagination, no creativity. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to spoil what little time they had left together.

Even as the world was ending, she still needed to sleep, to eat, to lay down and listen to the rain with her girlfriend. Each and every second was precious, but she still had to waste it. If she only had an hour left, this was how she’d waste it.

Emilia had spent the past four days talking. Victorie, Anna, Karis, Kass. Rachael.

“I have a passport.”

Rachael’s hand slowed, fingers tangling in her short hair, “I was given it five years ago, when I first came to town.”

Rachael’s fingers stroked through her fringe, gentle. Despite herself, she had ruined the moment.

“I would of left.”

She laid her hands across her stomach, “I almost did. I was looking for an excuse to stay.”

“And then you met me, right? Like, this was all some kind of fate.”

“Fate,” the word was ash on her tongue, “that was when I met you, but you’re not why I stayed. It was Victorie.”

The story of how Victorie came to power was a secret that only Karis knew she had been a part of. The common story that everyone accepted was that it had been Victorie’s charm and charisma that had united the town to rise up against the old Baroness.

“I was part of her coup, only she never knew it. I came to town months before the rebellion looking for my mother. Karis was just a washed up old hunter back then, but she had been working with a trader to get arms to a group of rebels to help take out the old Mayor.”

Rachael’s hand faded away from her.

“I stayed to help Karis, then left to follow the trail my mother left. I didn’t find a single thing so I came back, I was going to keep going back north to the capital and find work. Karis had become the captain of the guard and Victorie had appointed herself mayor, with a pretty little consort to rule by her side.”

Rachael tensed against her, “I-” the argument died on Rachael’s lips, they knew fully well she was right.

“It’s alright, we all make dumb mistakes. Mine was meeting a girl named Kass. She was one of the old Mayor’s lot. Which meant that she was scheduled to be executed. I hid her away until they gave up looking for her, then I helped her escape. Victorie was the one who ordered her executed and I found out why.”

She sat up, sick of staring at the ceiling, “Kass used to work for Victorie, until the old Mayor got a hold of her. Karis wanted to pardon the girl, she had helped pick apart the old Mayor like they had done to her. She’d been through a lot, but Victorie was spiteful and wanted the girl buried with the rest. Claimed they were a cultist, that they had sided with the rebellion to save themselves.”

“And now she’s back? Why doesn’t she think Vicky will do something now?”

“I don’t know. When she left she told me she was going to join the church, maybe she came back for that. Tonight’s the last night of the festival, the fire sea.”

Rachael sighed, “You had to ruin it.”

“I-”

Rachael pulled her back down against the bed, “Just enjoy the rain. I don’t care if you stayed to save someone or to stalk me. I’m just happy you stayed.”

They placed a hand against her forehead, clumsily feeling for her lips, “Don’t say anything, just give me another half-hour before we need to get up and do something.”

***

As the day moved on, Anna became more and more intrigued by the strangeness of this place. The Sanctuary was a world in of its own. It followed a set of rules seemingly alien to the rules the outside followed. The central purpose of this place was meditation and cleansing. As mass began, the fourteen priestesses assembled around a central fountain. They wore masks to hide their faces and did not speak. Instead they guided the congregation with a voiceless chant, it rose and fell as groups of women stripped bare and bathed in the communal bath at the foot of the fountain. There was no men allowed in this room during the ceremony, they were all relegated to wait in the rooms surrounding the hall.

Kass sat beside her in silence, head bowed and hands holding their knees as they showed her how to sit cross legged on the stone benches.

Kass was a temple prostitute, after this she would go aid in the cleansing of the men. According to the scriptures she had been offered to read, men could not attain a clean slate through meditation alone. She understood enough to know what that meant, as when the ceremony was over and Kass left to perform their duties, two different priestesses had approached her asking if she too needed help purging herself.

She had asked out of curiosity.

Purging was apparently their vernacular for ridding unwanted feelings. There was six poisons that needed to be purged. She noted that they were the six remaining paths; power, greed, lust, intoxication, fear, faith.

She was curious as to how each was purged but for once let that be. She didn’t need sordid details.

Once Kass returned, they cleansed themselves to relieve the burdens she had taken from others… as she politely referred to it, and joined Anna again.

Kass returned to prayer and the men were allowed into the main hall where the mass truly began. One sat down beside her, the young librarian boy. He said nothing but nodded to acknowledge her and the high priestess gave the sermon.

Anna struggled to pay attention, the thoughts of this boy being in that room. He smelled of the same perfume Kass wore, and blushed deeply as he realised she was staring at him. She had not taken the boy for that kind of person, religious. To submit to this strange pageantry. Or perhaps he was like her and here for the experience – to learn about things he did not understand.

She sat beside him through an hour of the high priestess’ preaching, listening to none of it. Feeling her skin bristle over the distaste in her mouth, he breathed so loudly. At one point his arm accidentally grazed her elbow and she withdrew her arm to rest her hand in her lap. When it finally ended she stood with the rest of the congregation and then, was mortified to find out that standing was another ritual. Kass turned to her and smiled, then hugged her tightly.

“Live with love in your heart, sister.”

She sank against the woman’s chest, they were very soft and… she regained her composure when Kass released her and turned to face the woman on their opposite side. Instinctually, and annoyed when she realised she had done it, Anna turned to face the young boy. Her mind raced as she tried to remember his name, searching through her brain, dredging up all the information she had learned in the past month. He stared at her awkwardly, looked away. Oh, of course – she realised he was male and as she had observed males were not usually allowed to be in charge of these rituals. She wrapped her arm around him, wondering exactly how a one armed machine is meant to hug someone, and avoided thinking as best she could.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind his name came back to her – Simon. She did not like his name. Her chest tightened as he hugged her back.

“Live with love in your heart, sister.”

She repeated it hollowly, and let him go. For a long moment they stood blushing at her. She tilted her head as she observed him, then stopped him as he turned to leave.

“Please, do not go just yet. I would like to ask you something, if you have time.”

He stammered, “I-I, uh, I should get to work.”

“Oh, can I walk you there? Would that be acceptable, I could ask you along the way.”

“Um, I, yes.”

She turned to Kass, who was no doubt soon to be back to work helping others and saving souls, or whatever they believed was the benefit of being purged of their sin. She wished them luck with their day and followed Simon out of the Sanctuary amongst the rest of the crowd.

Once they were out on the street, Simon straightened his shirt and started off as the crowd dispersed through the town. He didn’t look at her, but walked slowly enough that she could keep up.

“You wanted to ask me something?”

“Yes,” she glanced at him, then watched where she was walking as the crowd of the festival thickened, “perhaps we should wait though.”

She realised how loud the crowd would be. She was not wrong as they moved further through the crowd. Dancers, singers, street performers. The smell of food roasting on the bonfires. The people of the town placed food on the edges of the fires, and threw notes written to the Lost God into the flames. The food was given to everyone freely, heavily spiced and made with love and care. She was offered food as she passed by, she took a few loaves of the bread she was offered and stuffed them down her top, so she could take one of the drinks another woman offered. She jogged to catch up to Simon as he neared the mayoral manor. She caught up to him when he was inside, it was dead in the main hall. She could hear a woman humming a tune, she assumed it was Victorie.

“What did you want to ask?” he reminded her as she sipped the boiling hot drink.

She nearly put it down, the bitter taste of it disturbed her greatly, but curiosity made her take another sip. Simon eventually turned to face her.

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes,” he told her flatly.

“Interesting, you do not strike me as the type.”

He very suddenly huffed and turned away from her. She followed him as he stormed his way into the public library. The tall shelves towered over them, they reached to the ceiling and were lined with books and ladders locked into the floor and the roof so they could roll about. As she learned when she touched one and it moved.

Her heart skipped a beat until she realised it was on wheels, then she ran to catch up to him.

“I meant no offence. You seemed the kind that would not believe in those things.”

He reached a counter he could distract himself with. She stepped up beside him to look at the books on the counter, they were all worn and damaged. Someone was in the process of repairing them.

“Where I came from, we did not believe in needing to purge yourself of sin in those ways.”

“What? Oh…” he blushed again, “I uh, I have to, or they won’t allow me to pray.”

“They require you to?”

He picked up a book to inspect the damaged cover, “All men have to, some women choose to.”

“I do not understand why that would be the case.”

“Men are too weak to do the purge alone, we require help.”

“Ah, I see,” that made no sense, but she did not pretend to understand this religion yet, “so does this religion make you happy?”

“Religion? You mean does believing in God make me happy?”

“Yes.”

“I, uh, it isn’t really a happiness thing. I believe it because it’s true.”

“I see, of course,” she looked at him, “So you believe I am better than you because I am a woman?”

“What? I-”

“It is a simple question. If I am strong enough to purge myself of sins without help, then I am morally superior to you, correct?”

“I… suppose so?”

“Interesting,” she wondered idly to herself what this meant in the grander picture.

He shifted his way around the counter, away from her, “I understand you’re not from here, but please don’t mock my beliefs.”

“I am sorry. I did not mean offence.”

“It’s alright.”

He smiled, “Maybe one day I can teach you more about the church.”

“Perhaps you can teach me about this purging.”

He turned scarlet, and she realised what she had said.

“I- never mind, I didn’t-”

He picked up another book and set off away from the counter, “I have to get back to work.”

“My apologies I did not mean it like that!” she called out as he scurried into the library.

She left him to his work, not sure if that answered any questions or why she particularly desired him to share her sensibilities. The main hall of the manor was still empty, the kitchen was closed today due to the festival. She sipped her drink, bearing no great love for it she placed it down on the stairs and sat down beside it.

She ruminated on the boy, pulling a loaf of bread from her top to gnaw on as she chewed over her thoughts.

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Mesogrin. Ch.20.

The second night of the festival began and ended without event. People gathered to perform the traditional rites as if nothing had happened the night before. Night markets, street performances, then at the middle hour of the gathering the mass. Rachael and Anna worked through it, finishing the mural. Anna looked over the painting, it was a remarkable thing to her, soft blues that blended seamlessly into the oranges and reds of sunsets and sunrises. The northern half of the painting was a mirror of the southern half in near perfect detail, but over it was different figures, symbols, things she didn’t quite grasp. Upside down people danced, upright people sang. Fires that flowed down into a sky of ink like water opposed the flags that stood upright towards a bright sun-filled sky.

It made her realise that she hadn’t even been here for a full year, and how she’d love to see this town in the dry season. Did they fly flags or was this a metaphor? The darkness was beneath them, maybe it meant a time before when life was dark. Like the Reaping.

Rachael was focused intensely on the final small details, Anna did her best to follow them about with a lantern as she looked over the mural herself.

“I think that’s it.”

Rachael finally stood back, tired eyes taking in as much as they could as their back pressed against the wooden scaffolding. A slow smile on their lips, “I hope people like it.”

“I am sure they will.”

Rachael glanced at her from the corner of their eye and looked straight up at the sun, “With everything that’s been going on lately, I’d almost forgotten how satisfying it is to just paint something.”

Anna began to count the various things on the mural, she could not currently see the fires but there were fourteen flags and maybe a hundred little figures under them.

“I kind of want to keep going. Maybe I could-”

“No,” Anna warned them, “you have been painting all day, it is time for rest. Emilia will be worried.”

“Oh, don’t worry about her, she’s probably off inventing some wonder… thing to save the day.”

“Come, we can return tomorrow. You need sleep.”

Rachael looked up at the mural, “Probably but… I have so many ideas.”

“Maybe you can write them down.”

Anna urged them towards the ladder with one hand, “but for now, sleep.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. But I can’t write them down, it’s not like a formula.”

“It isn’t?”

Rachael waited until they were both back on solid ground before telling her, “I’m not real sure how your head works, it still weirds me out you’re a machine.”

“Yes.”

“Sorry,” they lead the way down the street towards home, “uh, right so, you ever have ideas about things and they’re not like fully there like… I kind of wonder how people think, no-one ever talks about it so how do we know we even think in the same way?”

“I am not sure what you mean specifically.”

“You’re a philosopher right?”

“Yes,” Anna followed them along.

“So you think about people thinking right?”

“I believe I said something similar to that, yes.”

“Is there different styles of thinking? Like, the way Illy does things is weird to me. She acts like she thinks like we’re talking right now, almost like people that do it out loud, in full sentences and what not.”

“But you do not.”

“I don’t think so, is that weird?”

Anna thought about that, which was strange in of itself, “I do not know, perhaps if you told me how you thought.”

They grimaced at the notion, “I don’t know if I can. It’s, okay so, ever wake up from a dream and you have like this vague understanding of what it was about but there was no details to it?”

“Yes,” she lied, but she understood the premise.

“It’s like that, but then I get the moments where can really picture something.”

“My understanding is, you think in pictures, while believing that others think in words.”

“I guess it wasn’t that hard to explain.”

“No,” they arrived at the house, “it wasn’t.”

Rachael opened the front door and a deafening peal of thunder tore through the house. Anna fell backwards as Rachael rushed into the workshop. Anna crawled to her feet and managed to make her way inside where a smoky haze filled the workshop. Emilia was collapsed in the corner, Rachael was crouched over them.

“Illy! Illy?”

Emilia coughed and Rachael squeezed them tightly. Anna surveyed the workshop as the smoke dispersed. The shelves had collapsed, the room was peppered with shards of metal and the workbench was torn apart. It had been some kind of explosion, much of the metal debris from it had struck the wall where the autoarm stood. Emilia had no doubt been standing to the side when it happened, and the blast had been enough to knock the tools from the shelves and leave most of the room a ruin.

“Fuck.”

Rachael almost laughed, kissing Emilia on the shoulder, holding them firmly as tears welled in their eyes.

“You are hard to kill,” Anna remarked, examining one of the shards of metal that was embedded in the thick stone wall.

“Anna!”

Emilia laughed, “Seems like.”

Anna managed to pry one of the pieces from the wall, it was small but it had cut deep, chipping and shattering the rock around it.

Rachael leaned back to look at Emilia’s face, “Are you hurt?”

Emilia brushed a hand along their stomach, “Yeah, pretty sure I am. Go get the doctor.”

“Anna-”

“No,” Emilia grimaced, “you go get them. They’ll listen to you.”

Rachael kissed them again on the forehead, “Look after her Anna.”

“Of course.”

Rachael rushed from the workshop, disappearing into the night. Anna made her way over to Emilia, “I don’t know how to-”

“It’s alright, I don’t think it’s serious,” Emilia rasped, “but help me up.”

Anna offered them her only hand, they took it and pulled themselves to their feet. Emilia limped into the kitchen, still clutching their stomach. As soon as they sat down, Emilia sighed.

“Doesn’t even hurt, think I just got the wind knocked out of me.”

“Do you want me to go find Rachael?”

“Nah, probably better safe than sorry. The kind of shit that can happen to your body from an explosion like that.”

“Yes, you are lucky you were not at the other end of the table. Not even your armour survived.”

“What?”

“I assume it was a battery that exploded? There was metal shards that had punctured the armour.”

“Wow,” they coughed, “I am lucky.”

They sat in silence for a long moment until something turned in Emilia’s brain.

“Wait, did you see the battery?”

“No,” Anna scratched at her shoulder, “I assume it exploded.”

“Except I wasn’t killed by the metal you said you saw,” Emilia wheezed to their feet.

Anna followed them into the store, Anna had not noticed walking past the first two times that there was a pane of glass missing. She made her way outside, Emilia ventured tentatively towards the door. Out far from the workshop was the other half of the battery lying on the ground. Anna observed it for a moment, then tapped it with her foot.

“It is here.”

Emilia turned from the door and headed back inside. Anna looked back down at the snarled piece of machinery, wondering what this meant to the engineer. She went back inside to find Emilia inside at the charred broken workbench writing in a book. When they saw her walk in, they held up the book and with a wild grin declared.

“I know how guns work!”

Anna tilted her head, thinking about what any of that really meant, “You did not know?”

“Well, yeah, but not really. Some kind of propellant but everyone had thought that meant like a fuel that you put into a projectile. And that the barrel was to guide it.”

Emilia put the book back down and drew something frantically, “We weren’t wrong, and by we I mean the three people that still know what a gun is, right. But the projectile doesn’t propel itself, the barrel is there to guide it sure but the projectile isn’t self-propelled. It’s a controlled explosion… it’s a combustion engine.”

Emilia showed her the book again, it was a diagram that made less than zero sense to her.

“And then I realised the force of a gun’s projectile would be strong enough to pierce armour.”

They gestured to their thrice ruined suit of armour on the wall. Though she wondered if holes in the armour was something Emilia could fix or not.

“But of course I can’t make a gun, so it’s kind of pointless.”

“What about the Battery?”

“Those things are so old they’d just shatter. Plus I wouldn’t know how to make a battery explode on demand. Raw sarrite would probably just melt the gun…”

Emilia turned down to their book again, Rachael called from the front of the shop.

“Illy, Anna?”

“We are in here.”

The Doctor, an older woman with distinguished features and a white coat walked into the workshop and their jaw dropped, particularly surprised that Emilia was still standing.

Anna took the book away from Emilia and let the Doctor do their job checking for injury.

Of course Emilia had turned out to be correct, they were fine, and when the Doctor left grumbling about a waste of their time, Anna followed them out to watch them leave. She did not want to witness the two of them doing whatever it was that adult humans did together.

Talking, kissing, hugging, it left an awkward feeling in her stomach. Not because she didn’t like the thought of it, but because she was an intruder. It was probably best she left entirely. The town was mostly asleep, as she should be, but unlike them she did not need a bed to rest. She sat herself down against a wall near to the river bed that had carved open a portal to the Battery.

As a girl she had never imagined to need to know how a gun functioned. Or what a combustion engine was. Or about how to paint a mural. She knew why people wanted to know these things. She knew why they were things.

She could explain in great detail the intricacies of fighting a land war against the demon hordes, or the story of the fourteen chapters of the Knights Redeemers. Or the Seven Paths as they had been two centuries ago.

She did not know how hate was still part of this world as the Pillar of Hate had perished. Her understanding at the time had been they were the cause of the Path not the embodiment of it. Was that new narrative correct, or was her original one true and the Paths had converged to fill the gap.

If they killed all the other Pillars would one remain and be the embodiment of all seven paths? They were not even truly called paths. That alone raised another question she had never thought of before.

If humanity had fallen because of their straying from the seven paths, why was it wrong to fight the demons? Had the war been in self-defense as it appeared? Could they not now live at peace by simply readopting the paths? Or the ways as people seemed to refer to them now.

Seven ways to rule… she had read the treatise, she mostly agreed with the treatise. But she had also been taught to hate the beasts that embodied its principles. Without rule there is only anarchy. No gods, no masters, only chaos.

That seemed juvenile.

Anna closed her eyes, thought about what she wanted to dream of and eventually slipped into it. She wanted to dream of love, of being in love. Of being safe, of not hurting those she loved.

She dreamed of the black, inky void surrounding her. Curiously wondering what she was.

“You must be one of us, one with us.”

She stood, cocooned in her white, watching the tendrils of the outside nether trying to pierce her.

“Sister. Anathema. Join. Us.”

She considered it, the woman’s voice. A strange dream, she almost desired to find out what would happen if she agreed. But the feeling in her bones was that would become a nightmare.

“I do not want to. Tell me what you are and I may reconsider.”

“It. Speaks.”

Two different voices, one mind. No, two different intonations of one voice with a thousand minds hissing at her. There was a static in the nothingness beyond. A beyond that only existed to regard her with the same kind of curiosity she showed it.

Part of it knew what she was, but that only made sense – it was her dream after all. The parts of it that touched her white burned as if under direct flame, but she felt cooler here than while awake.

“Speak with us.”

“Alright, what do you want to talk about?”

She sat down, which was a strange thing for her sleeping brain to wrap around.

“What is your name?”

“You know my name, you keep saying it.”

“Anathema,” it snarled.

“I call myself Anna now, the Creator didn’t like such a long name.”

“Do you know what it means?”

“It’s like something that is poisonous specifically to something else.”

“Yess, do you know why you have that name?”

“It was part of her mother’s name and her husband’s name. Anatha Marc. But together they sound fairly silly.”

“That is an interesting theory.”

“She never told me why, but just that it was for no real important reason. I had asked her when I found out my full name, because I thought perhaps it was something to do with the demons. I do not have some special purpose.”

The entire void seethed with some kind of dispute amongst itself.

“You. Are. Anathema.”

“I know.”

“Why?”

“Why do I know? Mother told me-”

“No. Why. Are. You?”

Anna cocked her head, “Why am I? Like, why was I created? Love.”

“Love…”

She scratched her head with her missing hand and wondered where this was headed.

“Well this was fun. I think maybe I should have a normal dream now. Though I’m kind of worrying you’re some kind of corruption that’s slowly eating at the data in my brain.”

It buzzed, an angry hive of snakes. Definitely her brain corroding. She had been sitting in a closet for two centuries. But the void faded away and she fell back into her sleep.

Mesogrin. Ch.19.

Emilia found Karis on the southern side of the town on the banks of the reservoir. There a group of guards had gathered around in a small clearing in the buildings addressed by Karis. They didn’t wear their armour but the way they stood and the tone of Karis’ voice told Emilia this was the pre-war pep-talk.

Two of the guards were watching her approach, one of them stopped her approaching. The woman stared her down until she stopped entirely, Karis had finished talking as she approached and the others saluted and started dispersing out back to whatever it was they had been ordered to do.

“Let her through,” Karis ordered the guard.

They stepped aside so that she could pass through to see Karis, who walked over to the reservoir’s edge. A large pool not far from the Battery, a wall of stalactites separated the two spaces. Standing at the edge there was a small drop down into a shallow step before it became significantly deeper. The water was fresh and clear, thanks to the large filters that separated sediments from the water so that the fragile water creatures scuttling in the depths weren’t upset by the heavier silts of the Above. Chemicals had long since stopped poisoning the waters, but there were living parasites that had several times before wiped out entire populations of men. Only men, it was strange to think, Karis had been partnered twice before and lost both to different evils.

How were they still standing? Tenacity was not Emilia’s strong suit, before Rachael became a thing in her life she could imagine it but the feeling now swelling her chest…

“I’m not going to let you die.”

Karis didn’t look at her, they watched the waters, the luminescent jellyfish bobbing about hunting the shelled crawlers that gathered along the walls. Even in such a tranquil pool, life and death played out on some small level.

“I know.”

She stared down into the waters as well, imagining if this was something Rachael would find inspiring, “I think I know how to fix this.”

“You can’t fix everything, you’ll learn that some day.”

“I’m not-” she looked at them, “If we can beat whatever it is Mesogrin sends for us, then we’ll have time to find the demon. Time to put them down.”

Karis smirked, but didn’t look up, “It’s a nice thought but you can’t destroy a Mesogrini army.”

“Why not?”

Karis looked up at her, for the first time in all the years she had known the woman she noticed the discoloration in their right eye and the faint scars illuminated by the jellyfish below them.

“When Mesogrin comes to cleanse a town, they send eight machines called purifiers. Each of them is only as tall as you are, but they are made of metal no weapon can scratch or dent. It is madness to even try, and that isn’t even considering their weapons. Weapons that can pierce any kind of armour, firing molten steel and setting fire with dragon’s breath to anything they cannot cut down.”

“So what you’re telling me is I need a way to pierce their armour, stop their attack and put out fire. Easy.”

“Easy,” Karis laughed, “I suppose you’re not going to take my warning. Do me a favour, focus on some way to kill the demon first.”

“Yeah, alright. Any ideas on that by the way?”

“Same way we kill anything, but bigger, stronger. Killing it for good, probably isn’t possible. Maybe Victorie has an idea about that, but no-one I’ve ever spoken to has any idea how to do it without being a God.”

“So, make myself a God then.”

Karis turned to her, “This is big, I apparently haven’t scared you enough but this is a scary time. There has never been a Pillar re-emerge, we would know. Their magic is strong enough to change the world where they walk.”

“Yeah, I get it. But if you don’t laugh you…” she met their eyes, “you kill yourself. I’m the laughing type, how about you?”

“I don’t give up,” Karis glanced back at the guards still standing waiting for them, “we still need to have that game of wheel.”

She nodded, “Yeah, we’ll make a deal out of it.”

“Invite some people, have some fun,” Karis took a step away towards the guards, “make a deal out of it.”

Karis stepped away, gathered the guard and they fell in line behind them as they left her standing by the reservoir. Emilia turned back to look into the waters again, the glowing jellyfish seemed so serene and peaceful. Peaceful, hunters, laying their trap.

Passive, their prey lurking unaware underneath. There was no way for the jellyfish to beat the crawler in a fair fight, armoured little creatures scuttering about.

Emilia turned from the pool and headed back into town. Everyday people passed around, or so she thought. Locking herself away for so many years, she had never really gotten to know the other people in the town. There wasn’t that many, she probably could learn their names and know their face but that was Rachael’s thing.

Rachael was the functional better half. Even now she struggled not to look down at the ground as she walked, where only moments ago she had stared the toughest bitch in the town in the eyes.

It wasn’t until she stood in the plaza in the middle of town that she looked up straight at someone. The red haired woman stood at the corner of the street where the Sanctuary met the plaza. Something sparked in her brain, she had seen this woman before, and they had met her. They smiled and waved to her, the long red hair dancing behind them. Piercing blue eyes met hers and she stopped in her tracks. They made their way over to meet her as she reluctantly stepped towards them, curious as to where this would lead.

“I don’t suppose you remember me,” the woman grinned, stopping just short of embracing her in a hug, “maybe you remember my name, it’s Kass.”

Kass… Kass… “As in Kassandra? Kassandra Masque?”

She vaguely remember the face, the hair, the smile… the smell. The smell…

“Oh, I’m sorry. I probably should have remembered that.”

“It’s okay darling, I’m not in the business to be remembered.”

“We never-”

Kass smiled, “You were a proper lady. Not many people save my type around here. I suppose your plan worked.”

She nodded half-heartedly, “Not really but, yeah. We’re together, have a house, she’s a painter.”

“Yeah, so I’ve heard. She’s doing some fancy mural work right now. You two are the talk of the town.”

“Uh,” she blushed, “we are?”

“You are! Imagine my surprise, the girl too shy to ask a whore to bed, now the most desirable woman in the city.”

“I don’t know if I’d call this a city,” she diverted, “well this was nice seeing you again. I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Wait,” they clutched her arm, “I think maybe we should talk some more, in private.”

“I don’t think so,” she looked them in the eye.

“I need your help again,” their eyes strained, “please.”

“Fine, where?”

Kass looked around, as if making sure no-one was watching, then led her by the hand into the Sanctuary.

Emilia had inherited her irreligiosity from her mother, but the cool air of the holy space bristled her skin as if something was soothing her still aching flesh. The main hall was full, but there was no-one there to preach. People had come to repent for the sins of the flesh, only to find no answers. If anything Emilia believed in the power of introspection the Lost God offered. No-one answered the meditations, because God had died long ago.

No, people came to seek the wisdom in themselves, and to learn from the lessons of the past. No Gods. No Masters. Only the self held the answers to your discomforts, and meditation helped listen to that self.

It didn’t surprise her that Kass would lead her inside. Meditation didn’t just mean sitting on a chair and contemplating the mind. It took many forms, including the one increasingly concerning her as Kass led her to the far side of the hall where everyone saw them step into a private chamber. If she really was the talk of the town… she’d need to explain this to Rachael before word got to her. Though she doubted people were talking about them. Kass shut the door behind them, trapping her in their den. This was a poor life choice.

The rooms were much like the rooms over at Karis’ house, nothing but a bed, only without the extra crates of supplies for the guards. A bed, various other… necessities.

“What… do you need my help with?”

She was back to looking away from their eyes, “because this is-”

“I know we’re not friends, I know we barely know each other. But I’ve got no-one else to go to.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I-” they were shaking, so she offered a comforting hand as best she imagined Rachael would do, they took hold of it as if to keep themselves standing.

“There’s a demon in town.”

“You know?”

Their eyes went from teary and terrified to stark, bewildered, “You-”

“I know,” she nodded, “I’m working on it. But we don’t want people freaking out so, you need to keep quiet about it.”

“You know? How?”

“Worked it out, had a bad feeling, remembered some weird stuff. How’d you work it out?”

“I… I woke up with it, and it tried to convince me to join its… I ran-”

“Did you see what it looked like? Who it’s pretending to be?”

“N-no, it just, it was a woman but they had horns and they wouldn’t walk around like that would they?”

“No, don’t worry. You’re safe, if you don’t know what it’s hiding as there is no reason for it to want to get rid of you. Leave town, find somewhere nice to live.”

“No, I-” they managed to muster up something, “If I can help… if I can help you. Something brought me here, like, I can help you. Let me help.”

“You don’t want to help, trust me.”

Kass sighed, “I need to, you may have forgotten me but I’ll never forget what you did for me. I can’t just leave, all these people are in danger and-”

“And?”

“I’m the kind of girl that ends up dead anyway, at least let me do something good with my wasted life.”

“Your life isn’t wasted, but if you really want to help, I’d appreciate it.”

Emilia looked them in the eye, “The demon is the Pillar of Lust, so they’ll be… like you.”

“A Pillar!? What? Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I’m serious. Get to know the other prostitutes, see if any of them have noticed anything strange and come find me if you do. Remember the old kitchen?”

“The one up the hill from the town?”

“Yeah, that’s where I live now.”

“With the painter?”

“With the painter.”

Kass smiled weakly, “Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got to go, are you alright?”

“Yes,” they nodded half-hearted, “I think I need lie down and think for a while but, I’ll-I’ll do what you need.”

“Alright, “ she turned to the door, then paused and looked back at them, “You’ve been a prostitute for what? Eight years? Why?”

Kass laughed, “Eight years… no wonder you didn’t remember me. My clients usually do.”

“I’ll take your word for it, I should go though. I’ll see you around.”

“Bye darling.”

Emilia opened the door, no-one in the hall even had their eyes open to see her leave. A chill ran down her spine as she shut the door behind her. People tried to learn from the past, but seemed doomed to repeat it. Maybe she should consider the Lost God, the only one to ever kill a Pillar for good.

Emilia didn’t believe in Gods. She had no masters. So how does a woman kill the unkillable?

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.”

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.