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Scoundrels Chapter 104: San Jonas Undivided
I am The Bard, who has observed a strange thing in the minds and hearts of men. It has been put into them that the real is a rather small and nasty thing, and that a great many true things are mere illusion. That all the hurt and evil and tragedy of the world is what is really real, the pain of childbirth, the horror of war, the brokenness of the whole race. That these are the real things, and that hope is an illusion, faith a farce, and love merely chemical response to sexual attraction, and that to believe in such things is “unrealistic” or “childish”.
This is quite frankly a load of claptrap and nonsense put out by devils and unhappy people to justify their unhappiness.
It is indeed childish to see the world only as goodness and light, though this is the most endearing quality of those naive souls. That sees only a part of the story, but it is equally adolescent to view it all as grime and darkness. Both are fragmentary parts. Indeed, there is brokenness in men, but also beauty. Death and horror of battle, but also a great deal of courage and selflessness, which is the best quality of men. There is the pain of birth, and the joy of life. There is a hell, and we make a good deal of work to make earth like it too often, but there is also a heaven.
Therefore, depart from adolescent materialism and nihilism, they are unserious philosophies for boys. Remember thusly, that faith is real, love is real, and hope most real of all, and all the lies of devils and all the evil of man cannot unmake that which is everlasting. For all the suffering and wickedness dies, for it is corrosive. But these things shall remain, and even the smallest portion of them is worth more than an ocean of the former.
As Keelah rested, Lamora and Hathor surveyed their situation. Raymond’s distraction was still going, pulling enemy forces towards the north to contain it. The cyclone appeared to be growing larger and louder as the night kept on as more died and added to its power. “It’s rather impressive, very efficient, but he can’t keep that up forever.” Hathor observed. “Even feeding off of our enemy’s ritual, he’ll burn out.”
”Then we use the time we have well.” Lamora replied. “Max, keep an eye on Keelah. Anyone with medical experience, to there, we’re a ways off from the main lines, so we’ll find somewhere to set up a temporary hospital for the wounded.”
The small group nodded, but there was little movement. The mad dash through the sewers and stress of the night was getting to them. Furthermore, it was growing late, and the dark and fatigue were setting in quickly. “It’s going to be a long night yet. Rest, drink if you have any water.” Lamora ordered, and began to think.
She was not a commander of men, and this fight was hardly the sort she was used to. Even when she had served, she was a scout and a sniper, operating on the fringes of larger engagements, and she certainly knew nothing of urban warfare or organizing troops. Even the engagements with the scoundrels had by and large been far smaller in scale. Fear and tiredness began to creep at the edges of her mind, but she kept them back. It was going to be a long night yet.
”Our first step will need to be ensuring communications. I need an amplifier. Divine, not arcane.” She acknowledged, and looked about the skyline for a church steeple. Then, she spied it, a golden sun atop a nearby church, most likely of Pelor. “Not perfect, but it’ll do.” She muttered, and took the form of a condor, flying up towards it.
Placing a hand on the great statue, she focused her mind, compartmentalizing her fear and reaching outwards into the mind of the city. What she found there was an echo of her own dread and exhaustion, only amplified. In their fear, the people of the city, particularly the southern half, were barricading themselves inside of their houses, weapons towards the doors. It was a natural instinct, to remain in an area one felt secure in and try to defend it as best as they were able.
Unfortunately, it was exactly what was planned. The citizens of San Jonas were armed, and many of them were veterans, but isolated, facing coordinated death squads with magical support, they were being picked off one by one. Furthermore, the air had been filled with a thick miasma of dark magic, feeding off of and amplifying fear, encouraging people to stay locked down, so that they could be taken one by one.
The situation was dire. The center of the city was gone, entirely impenetrable to her gaze. The western side of the city, where they had just fled from, was falling quickly. The Black Lions had concentrated their forces there, against the university, and quickly smashed apart any resistance. The east, by contrast, seemed eerily quiet, not the quiet of peace, but of predators hunting one another. She tried to pierce through, and was met with searing fire. Ah, so that was where they had taken Anathema. Matlal and Elsior would be there, but gathering forces in that quadrant would mean facing the elites of the elites, something her militia would stand no chance against.
That meant they were, in all essence, cut off from the north by the forces of the lions, and Raymond’s distraction was working. The yuan-ti forces were concentrating towards the north of the river, heavily fortifying the bridges, and concentrated in a defensive semicircle clearly bent towards keeping the undead out of the center of the city. But once Raymond became exhausted, the undead would disperse and those forces would be free to spread out and crush the rest of the northern quadrant.
Therefore, only the southern side of San Jonas, between the university in the east, the river and inner city to the north, and the elven quarter to the east remained standing. Death squads had penetrated from the inner city and were moving southwards, but their progress was slow. The southern quadrant was highly armed, and held a high population of hobgoblins. Neighborhoods further south, and further away from the nexus of dark magic to the center, were beginning to gather into small groups. Even to the north some sections held for now. But without greater coordination and overall strategy, any areas of defense would become islands, pinned by enemy forces until a Black Lion could smash them apart.
At the moment, pockets of resistance had formed in the elven sector, where the terrain was better suited, and their decreased need for sleep allowed them to fight all the harder. There were also the beginnings of primitive fortifications and barricades going up on thirtieth street, where there were a fine selection of dwarven breweries, and a dozen smaller groupings around taverns, inns, theatres, and other community gatherings.
She considered her options. Linking the various groups directly might be possible, but even so they represented a minority. The majority of the ordani were locking down in their own homes rather than risking moving outside to link up. Understandable, given the circumstances, but potentially fatal. To resist the Black lions would require coordination and a plan, and defenses would have to be prepared for when the north fell.
Lamora paused, trying to think through a strategy, to consider what the correct decision should be, and what she really could do. Her powers had grown substantially, but direct telepathic relay across the entire city would be impossible, and even if she could contact a hundred at once, it would take too long. It would have to be generalized and simple, most likely so simple that words could not be used. Then initiate direct telepathic communication with the leaders of existing cells to coordinate them.
She began with antipathy, drawing and concentrating the fear and despair of the city into great walls. The first she put on the edge of thirtieth street and stretched as far north as tenth avenue, where the fortified Brewer’s Guild Hall was. The second she stretched across tenth avenue to fifty-second street, just on the other side of the elven district, and then place the third antipathy barrier there. Fear of anything beyond that would fill the minds of men, and cause them to retreat back behind these lines.
To counteract this, she concentrated forth two great psychic banners, which she cast forth into the minds and dreams of the Ordani. The first she set above the southernmost gate, a great caduceus. The fortified gatehouse would serve as a hospital, and refuge for the wounded. If all other places failed, it would be the last to fall, and if the barrier were to drop, the least of these would have the first chance to escape peril.
The second she placed with great care, for it would mark the rally point for all to gather and organize, determining the headquarters of their resistance. It would have to be large enough to hold many, able to be fortified, centrally located, and ideally would have another divine amplifier similar to the statue she was currently using. After a few minutes of searching, she found it.
The temple of Flthargn was one of the most visited in the city, partially because it was also the city’s largest hotel. Standing on the main road running north to south, it served as a wayhouse for all those who were traveling the union. Any trip across the union would almost inevitably come through the great city, and so the temple of the traveler god grew in both popularity and size until it was one of the more impressive ones in the north. Large enough to accommodate substantial forces, commanding a view of the surrounding gardens, multiple stories high, with balconies for snipers, and only a single entrance through gate and then door, it was perfect.
So to any who looked to the heavens, there they would see the second and more potent banner, a cry to rally and unite them all. Symbol of their home and nation, the flag of the seven taloned eagle now flew over the hotel. Radiant in the minds of all those loyal, but hidden from all those who would betray the union and seek her destruction.
Therefore, Morrell saw it also, and recognized what was coming. He had kept his men out of the south thus far with good reason. He smiled, and pulled them northwards instead. Best to shadow and control that soulstorm first, let the snakes go and die.
Thus, the night of terror and death became lit by the light of hope. What would have been a black rebellion, and a day of uprising turned from slaughter to struggle, as the banner of the ordani lifted high, and they rallied to it.
Thus began the third battle of San Jonas, when the Ordani shook off the poison which had dwelt near their heart for one hundred and fifty years.
For they came, first in a few, then in dozens. Entire families, men and women, elves and dwarves, men and goblins. The wounded filtered past, moving towards the gate, but those who would fight were many, and they were ready.
The various holdout groups fell back behind the antipathy lines, and began to assemble barricades. In a moment, they found themselves standing within the hotel, or at least an illusion of it. Lamora waited there, a serious expression on her face, before a table with a representation of their territory on it. “Gentlemen, welcome to the resistance.” She welcomed them.
Several seemed suspicious at first, and others merely disappointed. “I know you were hoping for a paladin, but I think given the situation we can say there are none left in the city. Furthermore, as some of you have no doubt seen, the Black Lions have betrayed us and allied themselves with the serpents. The university is fallen, and the east is no haven either.”
”Not to mention the monster up north. Where did they even get that thing?” One of the dwarven leaders grumbled.
”He’s on our side.” Lamora corrected. “But he is just a distraction. Sooner or later he’s going to grow tired and then they will come for us in force. We must stand undivided and prepare our defenses or we will all be swept aside.”
The others nodded, and together they began to plan their defenses. They prepared three lines of defenses, each of which would be set up using barricades. The outermost section of the defenses would be more porous, small barricades which could be set up quickly and then abbandoned. There would not be enough of them to cover all the outer ring in time, so they would be set up to confound and funnel the enemy into kill zones, slowing them down and dragging them across nails as they advanced.
The second line of defenses was to be built up in a ring with the hotel at its heart. Already preparations were in place to transform the building into an improvised fortress. This second line would be far stronger, meant to hold fast against the enemy and break their teeth upon. Here they would concentrate far more of their efforts to deny the foe.
If and when this second line fell, they would fall back to the final line, concentrated in a small area around the southern gate, using that gatehouse as their final citadel. There they raised up the barricades as high and sheer as the city walls and buildings, so that nothing short of potent sorcery would be able to break through them. Work began on the outermost defenses immediately, but their time was about to run out.
Far to the north, Raymond breathed heavily, leaning on his staff as he pressed forwards. The vengeful ghosts had come willingly, but providing the energy to sustain so many was exhausting, even tonight, even on his own home field. Dead yuan-ti surrounded him, shuffling outwards to protect the rest of the north. His power was all but spent, and the enemy just kept coming. He was unsure how many his forces had slain, but they had been fighting for almost two hours now, and he was reaching his limit.
”Lamora, if you can hear me, I’m running out.” He whispered into the air, praying she would hear it.
”I hear you Ray, you brought us the time we needed. The southern defenses are coming into place now.”
”Good, good.” Raymond said, sitting down on a bench. His eyes felt heavy, his limbs weak. “Any word from El and Matlal?”
”None.” Lamora replied. “The east is dark, but Anathema is certainly there.”
”Then make sure you have something ready when they get it.” Raymond said. “Knowing El, once she gets it, she’s going to throw herself straight at the enemy.”
”More than likely.” Lamora admitted. “Ray, fall back to the southern gate and rest there. You’ll need your strength.”
The necromancer complied, and slipped into shadow. The spirits continued to rage, and the dead still patrolled to protect the loyal living, but any who fell now would remain fallen, and it was only a matter of time before the enemy discovered he had retired for the moment. Time was running out.
But the scoundrels no longer fought alone
The Ordani rose, and fought for their city. It began with the outer reaches of the defenses. As the death squads pursued the fleeing citizens, they charged directly into traps. The resistance made its presence known with a thrown stone, imbued with a light spell so it shone. The dazzling flare blinded the subterranean serpents for a moment, and highlighted them in the dark. Crossbow, longbow, and musket sang in a chorus, splattering the overly agressive enemy across the stones.
One squad moved around a barricade and headed down another street, only for a unit of dwarves to detach from the shadows. The doughty folk let loose with tunnel guns, short-barreled weapons that fired many iron pellets, shredding the lightly armored snakes and routing them. Elsewhere, dwarven shield walls flanked behind an enemy who found their path blocked by a barricade and crushed them against it.
The smallfolk did their duty admirably, moving dangerously far out and reporting back on the movements of the enemy. If confronted, they met the foe with a storm of sling bullets, daggers, and shortswords, hurling themselves upon the foe with sudden fury. The surviving kobolds were the most furious of all, moving through their sewers to emerge among enemy formations to butcher them without mercy.
Across the whole of the defenses, men and hobgoblins kept up the rank and file. Musket and crossbow was a poor substitute for elven snipers armed with bow and rifle, but they were good enough. Pike and halberd walls blocked as effectively as any barricade, and were of particular use in securing the sewers when paired with arcane backup.
The commanders of the resistance assembled in the hotel, and continually worked to manage the many conflicts across the southern area. Runners came and went constantly, as even Lamora’s prodigious psychic powers could not maintain the whole communications network herself. Those two old to fight built the barricades further back even higher, as those young enough to be trusted ran messages, food, and water to the front. For the enemy would not spare either the young or the old, the women or the children. It was a fight for survival against an utterly genocidal foe, a monster that would wipe their people and their city from the face of the earth given the opportunity.
The storehouses of the city were opened, and all freely gave food, water, bandages, weapons, and ammunition. The smoke of chimneys rose from a hundred homely kitchens as meals were prepared and copious amounts of coffee brewed. Behind the third line, clerics labored to heal the wounded and cure poisons, and a certain one eyed kobold awoke from her rest and took up her crossbows once again.
As for Lamora, she was not found coordinating the defenses. She was no commander, and did not pretend to be capable of leading anything more than a small squad. She did not even do this, as her unique talents meant she was best used as a mobile response force unto herself. Armed with blade, shield, and also a borrowed elven rifle, she flew on black wings across the front. From rooftops and alleyways she struck, the fine elven firearm barking out rapidly as she targeted enemy commanders and mages in particular.
Whenever the enemy threatened to break through and overrun the defenders, she was there. In the form of bull and bear she crashed through enemy formations to break their momentum. Fleeing ordani suddenly split into dozens of images, each traveling in another direction. Barricades appeared out of nowhere, halting the foe, before the defenders suddenly turned and fired through the illusion to shred their pursuers.
And when the Ordani were truly broken, hope descended with the condor’s cry. Out of heaven she fell like a goddess or angel, blade brilliant in the dark night. Her longsword was living light, an elegant weapon of a heroic age. Her shield warded against all blades, turning arrows and spells back upon their caster with flashes of mirrorlike light. The heroine of a thousand faces held up the line wherever it was threatened, and by her example brought forth the great heroism of her people. Her touch healed the wounded, banished poison and illness, and restored hope to the despairing, and so the defenses could not be shattered.
Speaking of mages, Hathor was a similar one-fiend army, flying over the battlefield and obliterating death squads with freezing blasts of ice, torrents of electricity, and walls of fire. Entire squads vanished under his gaze, as the arcane might and cunning knowledge of the librarian was turned to the utter slaughter of the enemy.
In the next hour of the battle, the Ordani reaped their vengance upon the enemy. A score of death squads were slain to the last, two hundred serpents falling like wheat before the scythe, in exchange for a tenth of that number. The sudden organized nature of the resistance caught the enemy entirely off guard, and fear took their hearts as rumors of angels appearing on the battlefield spread.
But the victories won in that first hour were ultimately of small consequence. Relatively few forces had been fed into the south, the majority concentrating on defeating the enemy to the north. But as word reached Morrell that the necromancer had retired from the field, the black lions deployed to defeat the undead. With this threat attended to, all the fury of the yuan-ti was free to fall upon the resistance to their south.
Lamora watched from the rooftop, as the gates of the inner city opened, and forth marched six thousand yuan-ti, thirty times the force which they had initially opposed. And this would not be comprised of the easily isolated and destroyed death squads, but a full and organized legion of the unholy. So, she did what she could.
She checked her amunition, reloaded, and took a brief glance to the east. Ray would be out of commision for at least another hour, and Keelah had apparently left bed rest to bring her fury onto the foe. By now, Matlal and Elsior surely must be drawing near to Anathema. If that blade could be obtained, then the barrier would fall, and the enemy might lose heart.
Until then, she thought as she raised her rifle and fired another shot, slaying yet another serpent sorcerer. Keep reloading, and make them bleed for every inch.
There are no more inmates left on death row in a secret prison. Only the oldest sin remains. I'll carry it with me forever.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Doctor King said that when facing a scenario that offered the hardest path ahead. A path that involved tackling the harshest kinds of racial injustices in order to root out the systemic issues that the nation had… still has.
I believe we can root them out together. Through difficult conversations and actionable change.
My name is Madame Nelle Lockwood, I’m the Last Sin Eater. This is the end of my story.
I stood in that space for what felt like minutes. The tulpa’s of older sin’s now rushing at me, Nestor pinned to the ground with a still confused Buck’s foot, Edgar nowhere to be seen as the droves of inmates rushing from all sides, malice in their minds and hands ready to tear us apart.
To say I felt the enormity of the situation impress upon me would be a gross understatement.
I pulled my knife out, my mind still swelling with questions on how my Mother was here, only to fade, on the relation I had with The Warden aka The All Father… what was wrong with Buck… but, I had to push forward with the task at hand; eviscerating as many of them as possible.
It was only when a knife pierced my chest that I felt the world fall silent. My mouth grew hot, and I felt my breathing grow shallow, gasping for air that wasn’t coming. I looked up at Buck and saw the agony in his face, as if his limbs acted without his instruction.
“Buck…” Was all I managed to iterate before the world grew cold and distant.
The last thing I recalled for the longest time was darkness. A cold, unforgiving void that enraptured the soul, froze the bones and made my flesh feel as if it were in a charnel house. Piece by piece being stripped away and my consciousness scattered in so many directions.
It felt as if I were being pulled in multiple directions at once, sensory overload interspersed with a sense of total calm. I was where I should be.
“Eleanor Gwynedd Lockwood, I’ve heard so much about you.”
From the absolute darkness came a small, delicate flame. Situated in a lantern that hung on a long thick chain, attached to a great metallic pole that jutted out from the darkness with no bearer visible. The black and white flame danced in its glass prison and the closer it came to me, the more put together I felt. My sight began to clear, my hearing returned and the muffled voice grew in clarity, a pronounced English woman’s voice cut the air and brought familiarity, I could smell ginseng and sage on her person and felt at ease.
A body broke through, following the lantern. Cloaked in a gown of darkness and her skeletal frame reaching out to me, pulling my body upright and straight, her face hidden behind a mourning veil, the fragments of bone not hard to see.
“You will find it difficult to speak, so until you have regained that ability, I ask you to listen; You are facing a moment that many encounters at some point in their lives. For some, it is minute and inconsequential. For others, it is a moment the world is watching them commit to. All are noted and all have reactions. You have reached your first of many, Nelle.” She offers a bone hand clasped in bracelets and jewelry to me, I take it and don’t even register the issues she should be having with strength. She pulls me forward and I find myself standing on invisible ground, the surrounding light only serving to display the absolute nothingness around us until she waves her hand.
“What… am I not…” I croak, my voice still finding its footing. Her hand passes by my face and I see the enormity of creation beneath my feet, the exact same as my nightmares. Luminous stars in beautiful patterns, nebulas passing underneath while galaxies rotate overhead.
“Dead? No. You’re merely asleep. A moment or… perhaps a space in between is a better phrase. You will make a choice, you will wake up and everything will change. Every action a consequence.” She sighed. “I just wish it hadn’t gone this way. Truly, I do. This is why I don’t get involved in personal matters or individual rites anymore… too messy.”
She clicks her fingers and the area beneath our feet rushes forward, down to our world and eventually to Sturgeon. To all my friends and citizens going about their day. Each one blissfully unaware that the very same sins i’d excised in the prison were now latching themselves to their bodies, the sun steadily growing darker as a great calamity wraps around it, bathing the city in twilight.
“Should you falter here, Nelle, this is what will befall Sturgeon. What will befall every soul in due time with enough malice, rhetoric and patience. The All Father… Amos… he will not stop. None of them will. The Unbounded shall take every soul they can until there is no more to take. Then…”
She cast her head up to the visages of the 7 monstrosities obscured in the depths of the skies, eyes and mouths awash with glee as ascended humans willingly threw themselves into their gaping jaws, growing their strength. Eventually, they would form together and send a single arc of black light down to Sturgeon, obliterating it in seconds. My horror at the scene was only beaten by the grief I felt at so many lives snuffed out in an instant, a responsibility on my shoulders that I did not understand.
“Nothing. They will move to their next destination and start all over again. As they have done for countless aeons. This is what awaits them all if you are not able to make a choice. The right choice. The only choice.”
“What is the offer?” I asked after a long pause. She kept her stare on the destruction below as she looked at her hands, the light of the lantern glowing brilliantly.
“A life for a life. A sacrifice to put the path in the direction it needs to go in.”
The scene shifted to the prison. To the carnage approaching us in slow motion. To Buck, standing over a confused Nestor with his eyes glazed.
“He was infected with a Pride Trigger. It shifts the perspective and pushes any good soul to terrible deeds. Yours seems to be in control, but Buck is too weak after his surgery. He will kill Nestor if I do not intervene. If YOU do not intervene.” She turned to me, a weariness to her voice, her black cloak shimmering with the souls of so many countless individuals waiting to be ferried to their next life.
Before I could reply, she clicks her fingers again and a series of flashing images flitters in front of me; people I’d never met but had an inexplicable and deep bond with flashed up; all of them dead. Some with smiles on their faces, others gone in a flash, some talking of reuniting with the family they lost, missing those they left behind. All of them giving their lives in pursuit of a better future. A future without Amos. Without The Unbounded.
“Why am I crying? I don’t know these people. I don’t… I don’t understand.” I felt the pain rush through my body, the first true pain I’d felt since I woke here. A pain insurmountably stronger than that of the physical; as if I were redoing the loss of my Mother on repeat ad infinitum.
Lady Death took my hand in hers, never taking her eyes off of the slew of bodies laying and waiting for her and her emissaries to collect them.
“You will eventually, Nelle.” She said softly, her dulcet tones ringing in my ears and pulling at my heartstrings as if she shared every ounce of my grief. “You will, and you’ll be so thankful for it. SO much better for it. These people will one day shape you. But it all starts here.”
As the image snaps back to Buck, I feel myself fall into that age-old adage of bargaining, knowing full well the futility in such an act.
“Send me back with your blessing. An imbued weapon, ANYTHING to take them down & I swear I can protect him. I can get to The All Father and… and maybe if I do, the Pride infection in Buck will go?”
“A solemn acceptance is the hardest thing. I understand. If you feel you can, I will give you the chance. But my offer doesn’t change. A life for a life. Be that The All Father Amos or Buck's… it is not for me to decide. Or to interfere.” She hands me a cloth wrapped weapon and places her hands over mine, the glow of her bracelets nearly blinding me. “This is just a dream, but you will recall everything when you awaken. This will be with you as well as my guide… Look after him, will you? He’s one of my favourites.” Her boney smile, though hidden, is still visible. I don’t know how a skull can mould its features, but I feel an overwhelming sense of ease as I wipe the tears away and smile.
Everything grows blurry and my body begins to ache once more, my chest throbbing and burning as the scene clears and fades from view.
“Thank you, my lady. ”
The cold floor is the first sensation that runs through my waking body, my eyes looking down at the knife still buried in my chest, somehow missing vitals as strength and anger fills me. Hands grasp the handle and with a scream I pull it free, the wound inexplicably not remaining once it leaves.
“What a day, of all the people to meet…” I huffed as I got to a knee, an inmate closing in on me with claws bared and evil intentions in his mind. I looked to Nestor, still on the ground and holding off Buck. “Hey, don’t hold back, he still has a skull fracture from an old hunt, headbutt him with everything you have between the eyes and he’ll go out like a light. Don’t think, do it! And throw me my iPod!"
At the same time Nestor reared his head back to collide skulls with the still confused Buck. The inmate lunged for me with a knife in hand. Rolling back and onto my feet, I tripped his lead leg and grabbed his head with my free hand, using his momentum against him to drive his body skull first into the hard concrete, my steel toe-capped boot coming down hard on his neck to silence him for good. Grabbing the iPod from Nestor, I saw it still playing as I put my headphones in. The next song came up with a smile on my face. I took the moment to call out to the prison, seeing a black shape in the distance.
“I realise Father up on high called for my capture and my friend’s demise, said he’d let you all go if successful. But he didn’t tell you who I was. What I am.”
Edgar flew overhead and dropped a clothed package down to my outstretched hand, clasping it tight with the bandages unfurling and a beautiful scythe glistening under the alarm lights. Nestor held out his arm for the tired corvid as his other dragged Buck to the safety of the open cell, a smile on his face.
“I’m Nelle fucking Lockwood. The Last Sin Eater. And every one of you…” Twirling the scythe around towards them, confidence surging through me and meshing with the deep-seated fear. “Is about to be devoured.”
Shutting the world out of its screams, insults and drivel was always something I’d been adept at. Be them remarks of racism, sexism or general bigotry, I grew to become immune to them. Music and focus were hand in hand for me. I wish I could tell you that I acted in grace, that I was quick-witted and full of candour.
But no, I’d devoured the sins of this prison and I was embodying every single one of them as I struck inmate after inmate in my pursuit of keeping those I loved safe. As if Lady Death was watching and keeping score beside me.
My Lust for victory, my Greed for competition, my Envy of all these worthless fools who had already lost their chance at redemption and not a care in the world beyond basic instincts, my Sloth in the inability, deep down, to change anything meaningful and allowing this sickness to grow… My Gluttony in just wanting MORE time with Buck and my Mother… My Pride in my abilities and the sickness of knowing where my genetics sprung from.
So many bodies rushed towards me, not the least bit deterred by my bravado or my threats. That’s fine, I will reap every single one if it means I can save Buck. I don’t care if it’s 50, 100 or 10,000 souls I have to take. Not a single one of them is worth Buck.
You can’t save him.
No, shut up, I can. I just need to take them all out. A flip over the tall one, turn and thrust to take his head off and the torso of his friend, step aside from the incoming haymaker and rolling boot to the face. I could do this, I could…
There’s too many. You will grow tired.
Fuck you, stop it. Just stop it. I’m not willing to give in. A dozen more, gone. This blade imbues me with the strength of 10 Nelles!
And yet, it still won’t be enough.
The internal battle raged on as I chipped away at the sea of violent offenders, the crowd at one point overwhelming me and piling on top as their pressure threatened to take everything I had.
“Shit, Lady Death helped you out, huh? Well, guess that means I can take off the restraints!” Nestor called out from above the pile of bodies. “Memento Mori.”
In an instant, the bodies were thrown into the air and scattered in multiple directions, some hanging over the railings 40ft above us, others crumpled into a heap. As one larger man broke ranks and ran at me with a shiv, Nestor darted in front and with one uproarious kick to the man’s neck, sent him hurtling into the concrete wall, smashing into it with such force that small cracks formed around him.
Nestor looked bigger, tougher than he usually did. Arms beefier and standing a little taller, Edgar by his side and clearly larger. On Nestors black-gloved hands were obsidian knuckle dusters, his legs covered in thick pads.
“A phrase I was told only to use if things got dire and a sign was given. I guess this is it. You take care of Father Dearest, I’ve got the riff-raff!” He threw another haymaker, and the crowd was knocked back like a tidal wave. “GO! I’ll join you when I can!”
A nod of gratitude given, I dashed past the still conscious prisoners and past the cell, looking in for a moment to see if Buck is still unconscious. The look fills me with more dread than anything thrown at me in the prison.
The cell is empty.
No time to stop, I just had to hope he’d come to his senses and gone ahead, I see the Tulpa sins marching towards me, each of them nothing more than a facsimile of their sinners. Threatening, yes, but not worth my attention when Nestor and Edgar were so capable.
As I ran closer, scythe at the ready, I saw Edgar swoop in and cover the way with his black wings.
“Protect Mama. Protect Papa. Kill Corpse Hoarder.”
“I will, honey. I will.” I darted around as he screeched and caused a distraction, darting between outstretched hands and hungry mouths to reach the side of the building and scaling the stairs.
In just a few moments, I’d be able to put this to an end.
Kicking open the doors to The Warden’s office, I was expecting immediate raised voices, a clash of blades and a quick resolution. Naive, I know.
Instead, I found myself rooted to the floor as the door slammed shut and the lights were shut out, matching the obscurity I’d seen on the outside just a short time ago.
“Ah, Nelle, this isn’t how I wanted us to finally reunite, you know. I was hoping you’d have come to me with open arms and we’d be doing what needs to be done in order to bring this place to its foregone conclusion.”
A shadow scuttled around me, the pale visage of The Warden just barely visible as my eyes adjusted.
“I want this over, Warden… All Father… whatever you call yourself. Nobody else has to get hurt.”
He cackled, my body still not responding to my desire to move, I felt him walk closer, hands clasped around his face.
His eyes were bulging out of their sockets, flesh peeling away, shedding all over and the black skin bubbling underneath. His hair steadily falling out with every step.
“You can’t stop what’s in motion, my sweet Nellie. Your mother couldn’t stop it, neither can you. Who’d have thought that my own kin would work so hard to go against me? I thought after absorbing all these sins, you’d come to me willingly… but it seems your PRIDE needs some extra work.” He leans in and I see something amorphous behind him. It’s long, spindly limbs jutting out of the back of him, pinning to the far walls and something grotesque on its shrouded face undulating as he smiled.
“Go fuck yourself. I have no Father!” I spat, venom in my words as the scythe dropped from my hand and kicked out of sight.
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, my love. ALL have a Father. You’re just fortunate enough to share my lineage. But, you may as well stop now. I have the prime reason for giving in with me right here…”
He claps his hands and Buck walks into my field of view, mechanical and almost zombified in his stature. His forehead still gushing blood and his eyes bloodshot. All Father put his hands on his shoulders and patted them proudly.
“Your boy has my Pride trigger in his soul. We both know to remove a sin requires you to devour it. That, of course, requires time… time you do not have. So, here comes your final test, Nellie. The final choice you’ll make to see if you’re ready to do what must be done to help bring Sturgeon and this world to its rightful makers.”
He pushes Buck to his knees and places a hand on his head, Bucks eyes rolling in the back of his head for a moment.
“STOP IT! PLEASE!” I begged, watching Bucks nose bleed profusely and All Father’s smile grow wider, more monstrous.
“You may not have eaten your mother’s sin, but you took off the emotional shackles she placed before falling into the void, one half of my restraints here. The other was put into those godforsaken totems and…” He lifted his hand and placed the other on my face, a searing, blinding pain rippling through every cell in my body. “In the two of you. The pride of The McGraw’s and The Pride Of The Sin Eaters. Pitiful.”
He let go and my body finally fell to the floor, head resting on the soft carpet in a daze as he knelt down to look at us both.
“He’s going to wake up any moment now and become the next representation of Pride. A great beast that will tear through everything until he finds a worthy host. You… well, you’re still my daughter, you’ll live. So your choice will be made. Follow me, stop me as your mother once tried. Or stop the man you love. I certainly wouldn’t wanna be in your shoes, that’s for sure!” He walks towards the door and looks back just the once, the horrific visage from my nightmares trailing behind him, almost melding with him as more of his skin breaks away and something otherworldly pokes out from underneath. He’s changing, rapidly. “Do you know why I chose the last name Leichenberg, Nellie? It means mountain of corpses. SO many have tried to stop me in this life and others… they always fail. Don’t make the same mistake. I look forward to the next family reunion.”
I looked over at Buck, his eyes twitching. The dim light in the room showing me Nestor and Edgar battling hard to buy us time, but they’d tire before long. The inmates were unrelenting, and the tulpas were closing in.
“Th… B… ne…” I muttered, his body tensing up and pausing as he debated leaving me there.
“What was that? You’ll need to speak up. This form has limited hearing.”
“I… I’ll join you if you help me up.” I croaked, my shame overwhelming me. He shook in place, almost giddy.
“You’re not lying, I can tell. Well, far be it from me to deny my brightest daughter, nothing like your siblings, that’s for sure. Come, come, let me help you!”
He picked me up and embraced me. A deep, loving hug as I could smell the decay on him, rot and sulphur with a meal of mushrooms and fruit manifesting near him in a golden bowl.
“I’m so proud of you, Nellie. I’d hoped you’d see sense and you’ll be overjoyed to be there for the ascension!”
“There won’t be one, Father.”
Pulling my serrated blade from my holster, I dug it into his back once; the wind exhaling from him as I held him close. His arms flailed, and he scratched at me to get away as I soothed him. A few seconds passed before I pulled it out and slashed his throat.
He gurgled for a second before black blood left his neck and he clutched wildly at anything in the room for support. I walked past him to the bowl and began devouring the decadent fruit, ganache cake and mushrooms. I ate them with speed as his eyes widened and he pointed to me with a shaky finger.
“Pride… comes before… the fall...” He cackled, his body slumping to the floor, face down and motionless.
He was dead.
I rushed to Buck to pull him up, away from the body and to the entrance, begging him to open his eyes.
“Hey! Buck, honey, you gotta open your eyes, please!”
I had his head in my lap as we sat against the open door, hoping he’d just open his eyes once more.
“I beat the odds, we can go home, you just need to…” I stopped mid-sentence, a cracking sound coming from the spot where All Father laid.
His back hunches over and his skin continues to blacken and flake.
He was changing, like a chrysalis.
“You… you can’t always win, Nelle.”
I looked down and saw Buck, eyes open and full of fear. My hand stroking his hair softly as fear rather than relief mounted in me. “Something… something is wrong within me. Whatever the hell The Warden did to me, it’s screaming in my brain and I… I can’t…”
His fists were clenched, and he bit his lip until it bled. He was resisting with everything he had.
“Oh, oh Buck… not like this... please…”
The body continued to writhe, slowly losing its hue and cracking. We had minutes at most.
“Fleshhh…. Prison…” The distorted voice called, something unholy breaking away from the skin. I felt my anxiety mount, Buck starting to thrash at the mere calling of its voice like a moth to an evil flame.
Then, as if right on cue, my iPod started playing the last song on the playlist and I felt my world shatter. The delicate piano tones echoing from my headphones in the quiet chambers. Buck stopped thrashing and his pupils dilated, coming to his senses again.
“I need you to do something for me, Nelle. If this… thing inside me gets out. We’re back to square one. But, with my compendium and all the knowledge I have up in this head… he’s going to be even more dangerous. We can’t let him out of here.” He put his hand on mine and looked at me… truly looked at me. “You need to put an end to it. Now.”
This was what Lady Death had warned me of. The price that would need to be paid. The sacrifice of one to stop the slaughter of many.
Tears filled my eyes and everything I had kept locked up started to fall out of me like a broken piece of fine china shattering on the ground, millions of little pieces spilling everywhere and never forming right again.
“Buck, I’m so, so lucky to have known you. You were my mentor, my friend… my everything.” I stroked his face, trying to memorise the ruggedness of his chin, the small scar on his right eye, the softness of his hair. “I will carry you with me, always.”
He simply smiled and took an earphone from me, putting it in his and closing his eyes.
“Not a bad way to go, all things considered. We had an adventure, shared some stories and most of all… I got to lay in your arms.” He breathed in once and lay still. “I love you, Nelle Lockwoo-”
I clasped my hands around his throat and pressed my thumbs into his windpipe with everything I had. He didn’t resist until his survival reflexes kicked in. He pushed his body up and twisted it. Anything to buck me off, hands clasping at me aimlessly. But he was still weak… and he’d taught me well.
Tears stained my face and fell onto his as I screamed. I screamed louder than anything I had ever mustered in my life. Every ounce of my sorrow was flowing through my hands and snuffing the light that was Simon McGraw out.
““I… Love… You… Nel-” He gasped, his eyes rolling into the back of his head as his body fell limp, starved of oxygen. I didn’t relent as my eyes turned to the now emerging shape from the office, pain-wracked moans and hoarse screams all I had left.
I would not let this thing take him. Not in a million fucking years.
“I am free of this flesh prison. I will be the doorway I was meant to be… so sayeth AMOS!” It screeched, bursting through the roof and perching itself on top, the horrifying sounds as it expanded and lit up the prison with its terrifying abilities.
I only let go when I knew his brain was starved completely of oxygen. Laying him down, I shut his eyes and kissed his forehead softly.
“I know you did, Buck. I know you did.”
Ensuring his body was comfortable, I turned to rush down the hallway. .
Leaving my love behind.
Turning onto the main floor, I no longer saw a fierce battle, no enemies in sight. Nestor simply pointed up; I saw the horror of a large unspeakable form with an almost spider-like face, large powerful limbs and innumerable eyes. It cast its direction upwards as an arc of black light shot up through the prison. The tulpas of the sins stood around it in a prayer circle.
“Where’s Buck? We gotta fucking go!” He called over the noise and carnage.
I looked to the office, tears running anew and a smile on my face as I gave thanks to Lady Death. Buck’s tulpa, Scythe in hand, charged towards Amos with destruction in mind.
“Finishing the job.” I replied, grabbing Nestor’s hand and running for the exit.
With ungodly force, he swung the scythe at the tulpas, cleaving them in two before smashing Amos into a concrete pillar, collapsing it and causing a breach that rapidly filled the prison with water.
As we made it to the elevator, pushing the emergency button and the staff still running about as aimlessly as the other inmates, a great roar rang out below us. Whatever was happening, it was escalating. Anxiety mounted in the three of us as the elevator climbed.
“Hey, Stian! Get your drunken ass over here, pronto! We’ve got a situation!” He yelled into his phone.
“Aye, I’ve been made aware. Landing in 5. Is the Madame listening?” His gruff, oddly melancholy voice called back. Nestor confirmed, and he continued speaking;
“And the stately ships go on To their haven under the hill; But O, for the touch of a vanish’d hand, And the sound of a voice that is still!”
The elevator reached the entrance, and we made a dash for the exit, a huge blackened tendril smashed at the elevator shaft, a guttural roar followed that chilled me to the bones. A mass with eyes began crawling out of the hole it’d made.
“I am… the doorway… and it will be… opened!” It bellowed, the horrifying cacophony of inhuman vocal arrangements chilling my blood, before it was dragged back down and into a furious battle below.
“Not today, it won’t. Goodbye, Father.” We ran for the landing pad, jumping onto the plane as it took off, the scene of Tempestra prison filling with water and a raging storm around it fitting the destructive nature the institute had wrought on us all.
““Break, break, break, at the foot of thy crags, O Sea!” Stian called out as we made distance. As the structure sunk beneath the sea, a thick light shone out from underneath as if a depth charge had gone off, the entire building sinking into a huge whirlpool as lightning and high waves engulfed the area. Stian finishing his sombre poem with some of the most appropriate lines I’d ever heard;
“But the tender grace of a day that is dead Will never come back to me.”
The first two weeks after losing Buck were incomprehensibly tough. Everywhere I went, I would be reminded of Buck. From the accomplishments set out and reminisced upon by his colleagues learning of his passing to the many upstarts in Sturgeon he’d inspired. I stopped going out, stopped doing much of anything that wasn’t drinking or crying.
On the 15th night, a knock rang out and refused to cease until I answered it. Dragging myself from the study where I’d made a yurt of old memories and a sleeping bag, just to be near Bucks things and his scent, I put on my clothes and answered the door, fully ready to cast out whichever inconsiderate ass had disturbed my rest.
Looking through the peephole, I saw nothing save for the faint glimmering light of the lantern slinking back into the darkness. As I opened the door, a small note had been left.
“Tomorrow at midnight. Memento Mori. - LD.”
I slept feverishly during the day, making sure I looked and felt the part for a long journey. After the first trip on Caracossa Airways, I knew I’d need the energy. For some reason, I always felt the need to dress up for an occasion, something my grandparents instilled in me, I suppose.
Even if I was going to something unexpected and entirely unwanted.
Nestor met me at the entrance to our establishment, taking note of the FOR SALE sign in our front garden.
“Going anywhere nice, Nelle?”
“Mm, not sure. Maybe a little place by the beach, though I hear there’s a dentistry far from Sturgeon where all manner of beasts and nightmares gather to conglomerate and get themselves fixed up. Maybe I can find a Genie among them to grant my wish…” I sniffed, shaking my head at my own stupidity. “Who am I kidding, it’s a one-way trip. Nothing more to it.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s quite that simple. Come on, Lady Death wanted to talk to you and there’s a very excitable idiot son of mine that wants to preen you.”
I chuckled, and he put his arm around me like a big brother as we got into the taxi and headed for the landing pad where the plane sat. While we were in transit, Nestor told me to shut my eyes while he applied some face paint, said it was “necessary for the night’s rites”, lord knows what that meant. Edgar sat in my lap in the car, almost still and expectant for the journey, cawing softly and occasionally saying;
“Mama. Time. Precious.”
As if he knew what was coming.
I’m not totally sure what I expected when I boarded, but a soft orange light, beautifully painted skulls and marigolds lining the entrance with fairy lights was not it.
“Dia De Los Muertos… of course.” I sighed, taking in the majesty of the plane, walking down the aisle to near the front. “Nestor, aren’t you busy tonight? Need some help with unruly passengers?”
I shook as the plane began its soft ascent, heading for the nearby ocean and travelling across it.
“Oh, I don’t think I’m all that unruly, just a bit cheeky when I’ve had some wine, love!” A loving, booming voice rang out from the furthest front row, that hair in the same bun from before. But as she stood up, I saw her properly for the first time. She was older, the tiredness across her face and still irradiating beauty I’d admired as a little girl.
“Mum, I thought you’d…” I choked. She walked down the aisle towards me.
“You thought you’d killed me or what was left of me in that prison, that you’d never get to see me again. Well, sorry to disappoint!” she laughed and held out her arms, letting them drop with an audible slap. She was real. “I’m still here. I was there, too, but not the same. The Warden… Amos, as he is truly known, is a remarkably gifted creature. Always was, I suppose. With his own pride disease riddling you, he knew you could be weakened. Who better to use than me? Oh, I tried to resist, but so much of me was lost in that… that place, that there was so little left. But I remember what we talked about, I remember what we promised. And I still mean it, Eleanor.” Mum stepped forward and her hand brushed my face, my heart sinking into my stomach at the realisation this truly was her. “I missed you, so very much. I’m so glad I could see you again, one last time.”
Words failed me spectacularly, and when looking at myself in the mirror, I saw the skull makeup adorning my face. I turned and hugged my mother with everything I had, nestling myself in her and evoking those securities long lost from my childhood.
“I owed you a courtesy and a favour, Nelle. I keep my word, always.” A soft, alluring voice called from the cockpit. Stepping out of the shadows, a long gloved arm holding a flame in her hand was Lady Death. No longer a skeletal figure but instead a beautiful young woman, her face hidden behind intricate skull makeup, an alluring figure that hugged tightly to her frame as she walked towards us, Mum parting with me to let her pass. “You fought for so long, you were owed… ARE owed a kindness. But, I must admit to something…” She gestured for me to take a seat opposite her, I obliged.
“There’s a reason Nestor and Edgar were tasked with assisting us, wasn’t there?” I asked, speaking plainly was all I had left at this stage. She nodded, and the flame opened to show the same deaths of those I didn’t know but somehow loved.
“You changed the cycle, in ways that I cannot fully foresee. But, so much lays ahead of you now as the guide. Your path will be a difficult one, Nelle. It is owed to you as the daughter of the unbounded to know this before you embark on it.” She takes in a breath and shakes her head as the images in the flame shift again. “So many cycles in so many places. All of which you will come to know directly or indirectly as their guide; A Bar Between Spaces, a Hotel of alternate worlds, a Mortuary that dissects anomalies and scourges… An estate with prophetic tarot cards, A home to childhood secrets in Static, a battleground of Nightmares… and then…” I see an older me, standing in front of a creature of bone and malice, shrouded in locusts and charging towards me with my arms outstretched. “Death. You bring the cycle and go out with it. Great change goes through you, Nelle.”
I gulped, unease setting in but unsure of how to even process it, my head feeling foggy.
“I… is that the end of me? There in that pit?” I clutch at my skull as it burns.
“You cannot retain what I show you, this is a kindness I offer that you will hold in your subconscious, only coming to the surface when your time nears. To what end you are dead, I cannot say. But when you are close, you will know. I wanted you to know this path before you set off on it. And to give you an easier start… Memento Mori, Nelle Lockwood. Nobody does it alone.”
As if on cue, I heard the trudging of steps from the lower level and the unmistakable frame of Buck, the glimmer of the moonlight cascading down on the ocean and refracting through the windows, basking him in a glow that made him look downright radiant.
He smiled. I smiled. The simplest exchange imaginable.
Then we ran towards each other and kissed. The kind of kiss that comes along once in a lifetime. A first time kiss with someone you’d known and loved for years, an “I do” kiss at a wedding where one of the participants has limited time, a “I’ll see you soon” kiss when you know it’s not possible… a kiss that steals as many moments as it takes.
“I told you it’d all work out, didn’t I?” He said, grinning, eyes glistening in the light. “I got my tulpa, grabbed the scythe… thanks LD, smashed those weirdos into the next dimension and poof… here I am.”
“Buck Nasty McGraw, you still live up to your name even in death, don’t you?” I pressed my head against his, laughing at first but then breaking into tears. “This is really it, isn’t it? You’re the sin I will carry, the one I can never devour.”
“Yeah. I am.” He said simply, his voice hoarse and full of regret. “But, I will always be with you. No matter where you go and what you do on the hunt. I’ll be there…”
The plane started to slow as the orange lights grew in brightness, the outside turning to black. We’d reached the end.
“Until you’re ready to come home.” His voice cracked with pain, tears in his eyes as we held one another for a while. When he broke away, he grabbed something from his bag.
“Are you giving me an engagement ring, Buck?” I jested, trying anything to keep the mood light in these final moments, my heart shattering with every passing second. He sniffed and shook his head.
“Nah, I’m giving you something more important and binding… The Compendium. I’m the last keeper… the last McGraw. You’re The Last Sin Eater… seems fitting to me and only right that you should have it.” He placed it in my hands and kissed my forehead. “It’s all on you, now. Until we’re reunited.”
Mum walked over and did the same, passing me one of her rings as she did so.
“I’ll be waiting for you. We’ll have that Sunday Roast. I promise.”
I stood there, unable to do anything as they walked to the exit, Lady Death standing by to place wreaths of Magnolia flowers around their wrists and whisper something in their ear, kissing them on the cheek as they passed over.
The blinding light filled the front of the plane, but neither of them seemed deterred as they smiled.
My last image of Buck and my mum walking off the threshold that of pure joy, four words escaping Bucks lips before the door closed, and I bid goodbye to the two most important people in my life;
“Oh, I’m finally home…”