Darkness. Breathless. Cold crept up her spine, sweat crawled across her skin. Dredged up, clinging to her, drops of moon-like light. She opened her eyes and saw a world upside down and inside out, where nothing made sense and yet her mind distorted it into meaning.
Rachael fell from nothingness onto her feet. Her friend walked away from her down a dark path, through a town much like their own. City streets illuminated by unseen lanterns, dead and cold. Her first breath felt black and white, but she struggled forward against the choking sensation of a colourless world. Victorie didn’t know she had followed, she was unsure how she had even made it here. They had been outside, alone, staring at a wall when she went to grab hold of them and rouse them from their stupor.
A voice, like a den of birds all singing together to form sounds – alien to her own ears but understandable… everything here felt alien. She rushed to catch up to Victorie in the town square, fireflies trailing behind them as though they were guiding her forward. Her heart raced as her eyes saw things that didn’t exist, didn’t last. People flickering in and out of existence.
The ghosts were dying, flickering through the memories of others. Her skin dewed with moonlight, scattered when a spirit passed through her.
“Tell me, Rachael,” she jumped as the voice pierced through her.
She spun to face the speaker, the square was empty. She backed away slowly, watching around herself to make sure nothing was after her.
“We need to leave-”
She turned, no-one… it was… she could almost feel Emilia’s voice pressing against her skin. The songbirds sang memories, like lyres… like liars. She rushed inside, hoping that she could catch up to Victorie… hoping she could find someone who understood this place.
She found her friend standing in the middle of the foyer.
“Sorry-,” Victorie’s voice had no song to it, just their own, “I was going to tell her eventually.”
They spoke to the memories shifting through the darkness, barely visible, just spectres like tricks of the light cast by the moonlight fireflies.
They turned their head to glance at her, “Rachael? What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you… I don’t know how I’m here. Where-ever here is.”
“I’m sorry for running off, I had a lot on my mind.”
She rushed to them, embracing them in a tight hug, “I’m just happy you’re okay.”
They patted her back, then eased her way to regard the room again. Looking at the spectres, they blurred away into nothingness once more.
“Sorry, but we have to be quick.”
They gestured up the stairs, “There is something in my office I need.”
She nodded, and followed them upstairs, “What is this place? It looks like the manor but-”
“The demonic plane of lust. When she arrived, it recreated the memory she had of the town since they last walked the mortal plane. Here the dead touched by her grace may exist as memories of those who walk this land.”
“She…” she fell behind them a few steps and watched from the door of the office as they searched through the drawers of their desk.
“She’s offered me a gift, Rachael.”
They raised a book and placed it on their desk, “And I need your help.”
She placed them down upon the floor, blood snaking against the chalk map. Emilia forced herself free of her suit and fell to her feet. Karis had stopped breathing, but their eyes were still open and watching her.
She rushed to her friend’s footlockers, whatever it was she needed, whatever would save them had to be here and locked away. Her first instinct was the small silver locker, it was the most inconspicuous. It was also empty.
“This will seem a little cliche.”
Her blood ran cold.
“Looking for this?”
She turned slowly, mind too wracked with a thousand different thoughts and emotions to move with any speed. Antlers sprouted from the woman’s skull, roses blossoming along the tines, crowned by a swarm of fireflies. Red hair, a face so beautiful it hurt her heart to look at. And the soft lilt of a sadistic woman’s siren voice. The Pillar stood before her, stood over Karis. Beside the demon, the woman that had birthed it, draped in red cloth.
“Sweet saviour, I still owe that favour.”
In its fingers it held a device, a mask like object and with the flick of its fingers it turned the mask to flame.
“It was useless to her anyway. So about that price, I have to pay.”
Rage seethed through her, suppressed only by the glint of logic remaining in her mind. Karis was dead, and this beast was the only way to get her back.
“You owe me a favour?” she was tired more than anything, “Then bring her back.”
It smiled at her, which chilled her to the bone, “Bind her soul to mine. Awake fallen child-“
The room blurred light and dark, the only colour was the red of blood and demon’s hair. It outstretched an arm over Karis’ body and like a puppeteer drew them to their feet by invisible strings. The fireflies, riled, swept across the room in patterns of light, far quicker than any insect should move.
Emilia ran to Karis’ footlockers and rummaged fevered through their belongings. Hidden under some clothes was a sword, which she drew and prepared herself for the end.
Karis stood, eyes opened and regarded her wielding their weapon.
“Em… what happened?”
“It brought you back.”
Karis turned to look where she was looking and immediately they backed away, “No… you should have let me die.”
The demon smiled cheerfully, and the woman by its side stepped forward to address them, “Your favour has been returned, Emilia. Now should my Mistress ever be destroyed, all those whose souls have been bound to her will also be destroyed.”
Karis wrenched the blade from her hand, “You really think I fear death?”
“No, but would you really do that to your friend?”
Karis let the blade fall by their side, “I’m sorry, Em’.”
She grabbed their shoulder, held them back, “No, I’m sorry. I should have known there would be a trick.”
“Do me a favour… bury me with my family.”
Karis surged forward and in a flash of white, they collapsed to their knees choking.
“Sorry, Miss Hyle. I believe the Captain and I have unfinished business.”
As though from thin air, Victorie stepped and grabbed hold of Karis. Rachael followed them from nothingness and ran to embrace her. She missed what happened next as Rachael muttered something into her ear about what had happened.
Karis swung up and nearly carved Victorie in two.
Rachael gripped her tightly, “Victorie is with the cult now… she wanted her wife back.”
“We need to go, please!”
“I’m sorry Rach…”
Emilia pushed her away and ran towards their suit. She steeled herself as her lover left her, and she lifted the book in her hands. Every part of her screamed about how wrong this was, that she should never trick them like that but…
Emilia in their suit and the demon so easily brushed them aside.
“Mistress of Masks, Pillar of Lust.”
She stood, barefoot against the chalky floor, toes accidently touching blood. The sweat on her skin shimmered in the moon-like light.
“I have your book.”
The demon looked up at her, saw the book in her hand. Eyes too focused on her to see the chalk retracing itself beneath their feet. She opened to the page where the sigil lay, and focused intently on the drawing. Everything had to be perfect.
“You tamper with knowledge of which you have no ken.”
Her attention snapped up as the demon appeared in her face, reaching for her. From behind a massive machine gauntlet clamped around its skull and tore it away.
She quickly turned her eyes to the floor, examining it, trying to see through the scuffle of Karis and Victorie was impossible. The two clashed in bright sparks of white and black as sword hit clawed hands infused with power she couldn’t comprehend.
Magic well beyond that of a parlour magician.
But here she was.
“Illy! We need sarritic acid!”
Emilia almost did not hear Rachael’s yelling, but even so she was a little busy. The demon crushed a hand through her suit, long claws scything through the solid steel. Her own hands were too slow to strike it. It was toying with her. All she could do was grab hold of the woman as they tried to run past and attack Rachael. The claws of the beast dug into her stomach and she could feel them pushing deeper as her suit gave way.
She slipped her arms from the suit’s and pulled the battery eject. With the loud ping of metal striking metal, the battery ejected from the suit and with it a gout of sarritic acid.
Victorie swept under Karis’ swings and rolled forward away from them. She met the Pillar as it tore open the cockpit of Emilia’s suit and struck through its gut. Blood filled the room with colour, splashing against the floor. Red surged along the chalk-lines and mixed with the acid. Foaming up, the blood glew bright white, hissing and sizzling like hot iron against cold water.
It drew all light in, and then all light was gone. Until soft particles of it filled the air like fireflies. The room slowly faded back to normal and there was no more demon. Victorie saw the cultist run, but her body ached.
Karis fell to their knee, so she offered them a hand, “Sorry about the show.”
Karis looked her in the eye, “You killed it?”
“No, banished her back to her own shitty little plane of existence.”
Rachael and Emilia embraced again, neither worse for wear. Karis had given her a few good knicks, not to mention the pains of her body brought back.
“You’ll live, now let me help you up, ally.”
They took her hand, and hoisted themselves to their feet, “Maybe I misjudged you.”
They sighed, looking around their room, “I could really use a drink… join me won’t you?”
“As long as I can bring some friends.”
“What if she comes back?”
“It’s only a matter of time before she does.”
“And what do I do then?”
“That is a good question.”
Anna sat on the steps of the manor, Kass sat beside her. Or, maybe she shouldn’t call them Kass any more.
“If you can’t answer me that, perhaps you would answer me another?”
“Why did you leave me?”
“I never left you. There is just, other things we all need to do.”
She sighed, defeated, “People will continue to die because of me.”
“None of their deaths are on your hands. You do not control the actions of others.”
“Lady Amber once told me something similar.”
Kass smiled warmly, “She sounds like a smart woman.”
“I’m not, I am okay. If I live my life, I do not dishonour those who have already died for me. Giving up would… that would be disrespectful I suppose. But how do I stop more people dying?”
“You don’t. You live, for it was never your choice to live. For your sister, life is meaningless, for you… find meaning despite the loss.”
They hugged her, and kissed her on the forehead before rising to their feet, “We will meet again soon, darling. Look after Emilia for me.”
“I-” she bit her tongue and let them go.
Rachael ran from the manor, pulling her to her feet and hugging her. Everyone was so… huggy… today. Emilia, a few scratches on them, simply nodded at her and began down the steps towards home.
“Might need to pack light for our trip.”
Rachael wrapped their arm around Emilia’s shoulders, “Let’s wait until after rains before we go anywhere dangerous.”