Vespesian watches from the castle gates as Margo gives herself up. The scheming bitch. If she thinks that by these actions she can get to the vessel before him, she is mistaken. He has his love to guide him, but here, in the shadow of the castle, it has fallen strangely silent.
Climbing the walls, Vespesian follows the bitch’s spoor. He observes, at first with glee and then with rising anger, her strength in the face of the Mother’s violence. She should suffer, not endure. This shallow, self-centred creature should have no hidden reserves. She is all too much for such a nothing.
‘Just a flaw,’ he whispers to the walls, to his love. ‘A special flaw she might be, but still only a flaw. She can be wiped from the stone the same as the rest. It will be my pleasure.’
He leaves before the Mother reveals her face. Vespesian knows what lies beneath the veil. The Mother’s face is part of who she is. She carries it everywhere she goes, just as her daughters do, each new daughter–and there will be more–carrying a piece of her damage within. All except the twins. How the Mother must despise the need to keep them undamaged.
Swift and silent as the shadow before the sun, he fleets up the wall and across the roof. There are two things he knows about the Shadow that holds his love’s vessel as a plaything. One, it must be contained within windowless walls. Two, it must never be allowed to be beneath the ground. Its prison, therefore, will be high in the castle.
Rolf lies facedown on the hard stone floor, limp and unresisting, in a sticky pool of his own blood. He counts the beats of his heart, whispering intermittently somewhere within the solid block of pain that constitutes his chest. He’s still not sure if it means that he’s alive.
He should be dead. There’s not one inch of him that doesn’t feel broken. He’s lost a great deal of blood and feels impossibly weak, constantly tired. He’s resisting the urge to sleep; afraid he may not wake up. When unconsciousness feels this alluring, it can only be dangerous.
The darkness has left him be since he lost the will to move. It plays rough, but bores easily. He senses it though, beneath the floor. Not sleeping. Resting perhaps? Whatever it is that darkness does. Or perhaps it waits? Something is coming. Something it recognises. He can feel the anticipation. Or is it fear?
Careful not to move, he directs what little is left of his energy outward, straining to get a deeper sense of what comes. The effort hurts in every millimetre of him, body, mind and soul, but it is rewarded. A dark shape moves on the walls, climbing toward them. The angel. The wrong one. The one called Vespesian.
Vespesian disappears into the open window. He cannot go through walls and doors; he is more corporeal than non. Those of his kind who walk the Veils are stuck to physical form. Limited. Reduced. The power is some compensation, the ability to walk the veils similar to how he used to be. But never enough. Never.
Vespesian has always sought power. It calls to him. He had power over death, beyond death. He still holds that dubious honour. But not for him the puling regard for the light. Simpering and pandering. Not for him the service. The never-ending, benighted servitude.
Vespesian stalks the corridor without care. Only the Mother has the power to fight him, and she will not come. She’s as obsessed with the bitch Margo as he has been. As he still is. Humans should not be that powerful. He wonders what she is.
The Mother is human. Or was. But he knows what she is. She holds no mysteries for him. That one gave up her humanity as readily as he abandoned his divinity. What use are such things? They become only a prison in the end.
The door to the Shadow’s cell is hewn from granite, as it should be. These doors cannot be opened by hand. A thousand men could not coerce these slabs of stone to move. Only the right word. And the right word is…?
‘Ostende te,’ he says softly, and smiles as the stone doors swing wide.
He struts into the room, barely flinching as the doors ease shut behind him. There will be no force holding him in these walls when he wishes to leave. His love will have its vessel and they will walk out side by side. He smiles again at the bloodied scrap on the floor.
‘I see the Shadow has been at play.’
‘You…you can’t be here.’ The vessel’s voice, like his body, is weak. As he was he might have fought for his body, his mind. Now there is no contest. Serendipity. It follows wherever he travels.
Vespesian utters a rich chuckle. ‘And yet I am.’
He takes a turn of the room, moving deliberately. The Shadow lies restless beneath his feet. It is afraid, of that he is certain. He brings that which will ruin it.
‘Are you ready?’ he asks the bloodied form prone on the floor.
‘To be a vessel?’
The vessel laughs weakly. ‘I’m not afraid.’
‘In a moment,’ Vespesian tells him, retrieving the bottle, ‘you won’t be anything.’
He grasps the nub of cork and twists it loose, turning his head away as he does so, not wishing to be blinded. But instead of light, it is darkness, thick, cold and cruel, that bursts from the bottle. Vespesian roars. Enraged.
‘What is this?’ he screams. ‘What is this? You are not the Radiance. Tricked. Tricked!’
Up through the floor rises the Shadow, joining with its maker. The Absence. It pools, advances, sucking all the light from the recessed LEDs into itself, and the thousands of voices that spoke to Rolf now speak to Vespesian, and they have become countless millions. Billions. Whole worlds swallowed by darkness and forever changed. He staggers and falls back, retreating to the wall.
Did you think us incapable of deceit, Angel?
Did you think the Radiance would allow such hands as yours to touch it?
Its words hit him like blows, each one causing him to flinch. ‘I didn’t…’
You are unclean and it hid from you. It saw what was coming long before the game was cast, and it hid itself away. It thought it would outplay me. But I hid too. I hid in its likeness and I am here and it is not. Where is it, Angel? Do you know?
‘Still in the Libraryrinth,’ Vespesian whispers. ‘Tricked. Tricked.’
And you signed your name against me, Angel. Do you know what that means?’
Vespesian slides down the wall, moaning. ‘No…no…oh God no.’
The Absence laughs. So many voices. All laughing without emotion. The sound is terrible. Yes.
The Absence, reared from floor to ceiling in a blank obsidian wall, crashes down. It sweeps across the floor, a tidal wave, picking up Rolf’s limp form and swallowing him into itself before smashing into Vespesian where he cowers, hands over his head. Rolf is all but done, but it has a new plaything now, and this one is so much stronger. Oh, the fun it will have with him.
With Vespesian’s screams echoing in its mass, the Absence turns toward the stone doors, and they burst open before it. They cannot hold it. The only thing that can hold it is the bottle, and the bottle is within it. And without? What is there without it? An entire world that should not be, to defile and consume. It laughs, and that dreadful, empty chorus of a billion voices in one proclaims:
Let us play.
© Ren Warom 2013