Needles stitch the veils with threads of diseased ebony, crawling up and under the weft, the weave, a cramped darning of familiar colour. In the warm vortex of her core, where once struggled that tiny voice braying to be heard, there is now only blessed silence; it lends her the power to stretch out so she may touch the familiar hue, taste the life behind it. She reaches out, far, so far, across the endless worlds, touches each row of black stitching–not stitches, in truth, but the thread of life itself–with her own ebon thread, elation rising as she recognises her sisters, as they recognise her.
This is not a joyful reunion, only one of deep relief. As single pieces they’re useless upon the board, able to survive by stealth and will and consumption, but no force of any particular power. Individually, faced with a foe of similar or greater strength, they would perish, but together, they are a weapon, her weapon, their mother’s. This is all they know of what they were, of who they are, enough to comfort them, enough to keep them sane. Reunited they become one consciousness; spread across the veils to hunt her out. To and fro they seek, growing ever more frantic, the sanity brought about by their reunion slowly descending into a blank sort of terror.
The more they panic, the more the veils fight them, until each passing veil breaks like a wave across the shared weight of their essence, sweeping them backwards, sending them gasping, reeling. By degrees, by desperate increments, they fight onward, clinging to one another’s frail awareness like foul limpets. Weak even en masse they battle, struggle onward, veil after veil after veil, each as empty of any sign of her as the last. Loss encompasses them, misery enshrouds them, they begin to lose heart, to unravel. Without her to guide their power they are meaningless. But who is she, who are they? Not one of them can recall it.
We are too weak to hunt properly, my sisters, says the one who wears Irina.
We are less. They agree.
How many of us have we lost?
We are six. Were we always thus?
The one who wears Irina stops to think. No. She says, the dim wall of memory relaying to her that once there was another, a focal point that wasn’t mother. We were seven.
Anger swells through their collective, rips an undertow of raw, bloodless hatred, as they realise the truth of it, remember the severing, the breaking away. That moment the chain broke, made them weaker, left them vulnerable. The moment one of their number deserted the fold.
Betrayed! Shriek the sisters as one.
The one who dared to leave them, she was the strongest of them all. She the one who lead the formations, she who held the focus of the seven, who buffered the rest against the fearsome will of the mother, deadlier than poison, heavier than stone, sharper than the AM blades they once carried. Without her there must be a new focus or all will crumple before the mother, but without the mother how can they choose which of them is strong enough?
The one who wears Irina’s body calls to her sisters. We are lost, what shall we do?
You found us, comes the sibilant answer. What say you?
Yes, what say you, sister?
Be the focus till we find our mother.
Hold us together until she can pull us through the veils, make us whole again.
The one who wears Irina tilts her head. Sunlight warms her aching skull where the shell she wears stands on a high building above a decaying, moral-less city of souls less worthy than scraps. This body is weak, a decomposing vessel. It amazes her that this is how she began. How did she expect to live in such a fragile cage? It must be akin to living death to have only this, to be denied all of the worlds, strapped to one alone. This cage of flesh will struggle to contain all that she has become, unequal to the task. Though strong now, pink and plump with muscle, this avatar will begin to wither on its bones, shrink and desiccate. A mild panic flits across the breadth of her conjoined mind, into theirs. She feels their grief; their shared loss become a black burden, heavy as the night.
Be at peace, she reassures them, forceful in her self-control, burying the fear, the thoughts of what will come. We will have the protection of robes soon enough. Do you not remember, sisters? The mother, our mother, gave us robes to hide our faces. We were a terrible sight; there were none who knew us that did not fear!
As do I.
Oh we were glorious.
What were we?
It does not matter, she says to them, crooning. We will find her and we will know again. And when we do, we will hunt the one who betrayed us, make her suffer as we have suffered and oh so very much more! But now, my sisters, let us find our mother.
They reach out again across the veils, determination making them strong. The wearer of Irina leads them, their guide, their new focus, they trust her; give her all their will, every ounce of their combined strength. Before her, the veils offer up their secrets one by one. None yet reveal the scent of mother, but they no longer fear, the sisters, sure that they will find her. On and on, through multiple worlds, whipping past amber skies, and violet and green, under pale cerulean moons, triple suns, the shadow of immense planets on the horizon, through storm and vale, between vast mountains and over endless deserts, through the blackest of voids, through the heart of new-born stars and ancient suns alike they fly to seek out all worlds on each veil. All of them devoid of the one they seek.
Travelling across these endless plains, these cacophonous visages, scenting out the essence of their mother, it touches their senses first as a mere prickle, a dimple in the weave. The sisters rise up on Irina’s tail, a comet of power in the veils, reach out their awareness from afar to try and touch the anomaly.
Closer, sister, move us closer.
What is it?
Then they are upon it. It is vast, complex and unutterably wrong, a cat’s cradle stitched between the veils, but not some random, ugly patchwork this, no indeed, embroidery of rigorous and delicate construction this, woven to appear as a natural whorl in the patterns, yet it is anything but.
The veils around it, their sentience mighty enough to push back against the sisters if not to destroy them, wary of their black thread, their inherent wrongness, barely even note the mass of stitched and re-stitched veils in their midst. They sit, meek as kittens, on its periphery, unaware of the magnitude of their ignorance, unaware of the malignant tumour of veils beating at their heart. The sisters share a moment of pure bewilderment. What is this thing? What game? As one, they dive toward it, spear through the layers to the centre, pass through dark space, into atmosphere, below cloud to see it rise before them.
It is a whole world, just one. And it is an aberration, a patchwork of many parts, many places, all melded together to make a whole. Perfect and perfectly warped. Dark as they are, agents of chaos as they have always been, they sense its sinister heart and rejoice. It is a world like them, an evil place whose very existence threatens the sanctity of all reality. And there, fragmented in some far-off corner of this wondrous irregularity, the scent they’ve been hunting. Her. The mother. Fierce joy burning black thread to red-gold they race toward the place they sense her and come to a horrified halt. She is the mother, and yet she is not.
Like them, she has forgotten who she is, and there is no way for them to make her remember.
The sisters scream out their grief into the void.
The carriage gleams in a livery of gold and white, feathery accents of poppy red bright as blood bob from horse headdresses, coachmen’s hats, and from the top hats worn by the outrider grooms. Hooves clop heavy syncopation on cobbles, solemnly trotting, high-stepped and proud from street to street. Milling crowds stop to stare, rich and poor alike. The gleaming glass of the carriage window slides back, and a head tipped in burnished copper curls peeps out.
‘Melisant Foyle get your head away from that window this instant! What will the young gentlemen think of you?’ Nanny Grebe taps a reproving fan on Melisant’s ivory forearm, her softly rounded face set in frequently used lines of outrage. ‘For shame upon your soul! You don’t wish to grow up a hussy now, do you lass? Your father would blow his brisket so he would, and a pretty pickle you’d be in then.’
Melisant rolls cat-green eyes. Pulls her head in nonetheless and straightens her curls, re-setting the modish feather fascinator formed of lark wings perched atop, and pulling its silver veil so it once again covers her eyes as intended. She flounces a little, fiddles with the buttons on her dove-grey gloves, puts creases in the emerald silk of her travelling dress, earning another tap.
‘Oh, Nanny dearest,’ she says, lips prettily pouting, ‘I’m just fearful bored, we’ve been sat for hours, and we’ve only now entered Londinium, we’ll be another full two hours till we reach the house. I can’t bear it any longer. If I don’t move soon, I’ll explode, starting with my derriere.’
Nanny Grebe blanches. ‘Language!’ she shrieks, half fainting in her seat.
Melisant bites her lip, fishes Nanny’s smelling salts from her reticule and, flipping back the porcelain cap, wafts it beneath her snub, freckled nose, smiling as Nanny groans and her eyes flutter open.
‘I’m sorry, Nanny. I didn’t mean to offend.’
Nanny sniffs, snatches back her salts. ‘As if I’d know, you’re a wicked, wicked girl right enough and the sooner you’re married off, the better.’
Melisant frowns, forcefully reminded of the true reason behind their venture to the capital. ‘Oh now, Nanny, that’s mean!’
‘No more’n you deserve.’ Grebe replies, stuffing the salts back into her reticule and wearing a look of such singularly Mithran satisfaction that Melisant is forced to hide a Cheshire grin behind her fan as the hooves click onward, deeper into the heart of Londinium town.
© Ren Warom