I have traversed the myriad cosmos for so long, from one end of the Teraverse to the next. I have wandered through the gates of infinity. I was wrought by the majesty of eternal chaos. Long ago, I am the master of madness, the black pharaoh, the dark wind. I am every hidden terror mortal and immortal alike fears to voice.
And yet there is one who defies me yet. One who refuses to yield and shatter. We have danced so many times and he is such a delightful diversion. And now the time has come to dance again. He fancies himself a hero, one who protects and defends others. He runs from the truth of what he is and what he has done.
He has not accepted there is nothing he possesses that I cannot take from him. You could even say that's my hobby. I will see him break in the end. None can resist me long. It's all a matter of time.
There is no happiness I cannot steal. No joy I cannot render unto ashes. As he resists, I shall see him break and in the end I shall leave him only two things:
Empty memories and cold graves.
Grete was laying in his arms, wrapped in new cloth. She made a sound between a gurgle and a coo, her small, dark fingers wrapped about his thumb. Hardestadt was sat by the fire, holding his daughter. He could spend hours beside his girl, gazing at her.
You forget...they're ever this small...He smiled softly. Living so long made one forget. Was he ever this small? Had his parents held him like this, ten thousand years ago? "Grete..." he said her name again, murmuring it softly. "Grete," he ran a finger over her dark cheek. "Grete Luciana Alevia..." she made a noise of protest and clamped her toothless mouth around his finger, giving a soft "Gwww..."
"Yes, you're a vicious little wolf indeed..." he said, looking into her protesting turquoise eyes. He leaned in and kissed her forehead. "My fierce little cub. My little starry sky..." He was doing the best he could. He had help from those he'd hired, and from the werewolf clans. Thorunn had ensured her people would assist should anything happen to her.
You'll know of your mother, little wolf...I promise...how brave she was. How strong she was. What a great leader she was...He rubbed the baby's cheek. Thorunn...What would she have said, seeing him with their child, their daughter? There was so much I needed to ask you. I'm trying the best I can with her...the best I-
He heard someone knock on the door, stiffening suddenly. Grete yawned and twitched her leg, Hardestadt rising. He set her into her basket, looking to his sword on the wall. He could feel nothing, no presence without. Had something come upon their sanctuary? Had Siegfried found-
"Hardestadt? It's...me," he heard the voice. "I hope I am not intruding."
But how did she find...foolish question. She has her ways. She always has.
He walked to the door and he opened it. She stood there, in a traveling cloak, white pair poking out from the drawn hood. She pulled it back, soft red eyes gazing at him.
"Milady Cortly..." he said. He had not seen her in years. He had thought of her often with fondness, but he had not laid eyes upon her since Venice, their bond one of the only good things to emerge from that horror wrought by Eliphas Coyte.
"Hardestadt," Eliza smiled at him. "It is wonderful to see you. I wanted to-" she stopped as she heard the sound of Grete's protest at being separated from her father's arms. Her gaze went in the house.
"Come in. Out of the cold," he opened the door, offering a hand. She took it without hesitation, her palm cold to his touch. He grasped it, giving her some of the warmth. Her old hesitance seemed a thing of the past with him now. He knew of her difficulty in the touch of others, the contact of bodies a difficulty she had often struggled with after decades free of even the barest graze of another's skin.
But she trusted him. They had shown that to one another before. He could remember Venice. She was the only part of that horror he remembered fondly. He remembered her trust in him, her faith, the feel of her final embrace. Warmth, courage and kindness were his memories of Eliza Cortly.
"Hardestadt...is that..." Eliza saw Grete, her gaze fixed upon the baby. "Is that..." She looked to him, her mouth open slightly. Hardestadt felt a sudden sense of unusual awkwardness at Eliza seeing his daughter. Eliza had asked no promises of him and he had asked none of her, but still...
"A child..." Eliza whispered. She put a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide. "A baby..."
No use denying it. He walked up and gently took Grete from the basket, still wrapped in her blankets. "This is my daughter, Eliza," he said.
"You have a child..." Eliza said. She stepped closer, her eyes still wide. "She's so small, so...so perfect..." She gazed at the baby, a smile spreading over her lips. "You have a daughter, Hardestadt. A little girl..." She came closer, her eyes filling with tears of sheer happiness.
"Oh, little one..." Eliza reached out, but stopped as if she were nervous to lay a finger upon the baby. "Her name?"
"Grete," Hardestadt said. "Grete Luciana Alevia Delac..."
"It's beautiful," Eliza murmured. "I wished to...I am sorry I showed up unannounced. You said I could always find you, and so I found tracking you easier than expected. I took a horse with some of the money you made available to me. It's made moving around simpler. I even assisted a few other Seers in their awakening after Venice. And I wished to see you-...you have a daughter!" She turned to him, her face alight. She came over and she reached to put her hand on his.
Grete squirmed a bit, starting to cry. Hardestadt gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry, it isn't personal! She's just a little fussy sometimes!" He said over Grete's sudden wail. "I think she's-"
"Please, please let me!" Eliza held her arms out. "Please, Hardestadt, let me try, let me hold her!" He saw her face, glancing at the squirming, crying baby he held. He handed Grete to Eliza. She took Grete in her arms as if she had held her for weeks. She began to rock her gently.
"Shhhh. Shhh, little one," she whispered in Italian. "Mia Stellina," she cradled Grete to her. "Little wolf child...shh..." she began to sing softly in Italian, rocking Grete gently. Grete's wails began to subside to sniffles and then to silence as she looked at Eliza's face. Eliza continued to sing and rock her, moving to sit with her, still in her traveling cloak, her gaze fixed upon Grete's face, eyes brimming with such joy.
Grete curled against her with a coo, Eliza looking charmed. "Oh, Hardestadt. She is beautiful. Wonderful. She..."
"That song?" Hardestadt smiled. "I don't know that one."
"My grandmother used to sing it to me when I was a little girl..." Eliza said. "We were very close..." she added. "You have a daughter. You're a father."
"It's...a long story..." Hardestadt admitted. "I..."
"I hope I am not imposing!" Eliza said suddenly. "I suddenly invite myself in after this long-"
"Never, never, Eliza," Hardestadt smiled. "You are always welcome in my home." Eliza's cheeks colored in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.
"That is...kind of you to say," she said softly. "I...am sorry it took me so long after Venice, Hardestadt."
"I understand," he said. "Have you seen Adam?"
"No. But I expect he is continuing what he has done," Eliza said. She gazed into Grete's blue-green eyes. "Oh, precious one...dear little wolf girl," Eliza looked at him, her face radiant and for a moment even he felt his heart skip. "It is wonderful, Hardestadt. Wonderful."
"The sun is going down soon," Hardestadt said. "I'll see your horse is fed, watered and safe with the rest...but it's no fit time to travel. Will you...stay here tonight? I have...missed you, Eliza," he added.
Eliza gazed at Grete and back to Hardestadt. Her smile softened, her gaze fixed on him. "Yes," she said softly. "I would like that..."
The fire had burned dim, but they had one another for warmth. Grete now slept in the next room, wrapped warmly in her blankets. She was a heavy sleeper, rarely awakening to cry in the night.
Hardestadt had offered to sleep on the floor, but Eliza had not heard of it. They lay next to one another, under the blankets and furs, Eliza gazing at him. He had told her of Thorunn and her final stand, of finding out about Grete. Eliza listened with rapt attention, hearing everything.
"She was incredible," Eliza whispered. "Your daughter will be proud of her one day. And she will be so proud of her father," she added. Hardestadt felt touched at that.
"I'm...trying as best I can," he said. "I've done a lot, but being a father... raising a child? Is new to me."
"I imagine so," Eliza said. "I'm so happy, though. I'm overjoyed for it, my dear friend. There is so much more I must hear. So much I must tell you as well." She breathed in, face settling to an expression akin to peace. "And I am thrilled to be by you again, Hardestadt Delac."
There it was again. He loved her voice, the gentle look in her eyes, the guileless kindness and dedication. Seeing her hold Grete like that, hearing her sing to the child, speaking with her so close now. Eliza reached and brushed a finger over his cheek.
"I spent time in Spain, in in Portugal, in Bavaria...then I made my way to France," Eliza said. "I have thought of you often, though, Hardestadt."
"The sentiment is...returned," Hardestadt admitted. "Grete's mother...she was a friend. A good friend. But we weren't..."
"You do not have to justify anything. I asked nothing of you," Eliza smiled. "I am so happy you brightened one another's lives. That you brought that girl into this world." She reached out and took his hands. She seemed to be wrestling with something inside herself for a moment before she fixed him with her gaze again.
"I...rather know our last pardon was sudden...I was perhaps hoping renew our acquaintance...I had planned to talk with you...before I saw Grete. If you wish-"
"I would love that..." Hardestadt smiled. "Hells know I could use the help I could get," he added. He saw her smile again and she reached to put a hand to his cheek. "Eliza...I missed you. Truly, I did."
"I have not even set a finger upon another person since Venice, Hardestadt," she said. "You grow...used to that absence, as I told you before. But around you, I feel no hesitation. My friend," she added. She took his face in her hands and she leaned up, pressing her lips gently to his forehead. Her lips lingered there before she separated from him.
"Stay here. For a few days. Long as you wish," he said. "It's not much, but it's home right now. Grete and I..."
"I would like that," she confessed. "Indeed. We have much to discuss, I am sure."
"We do," he said. "I look forward to hearing everything, Eliza. I'll take the floor. You take the bed."
"There is no need-" she began. He shook his head.
"I insist," he said. "You have no idea how many night I spend on hunts, sleeping on dead leaves. This is luxury."
"You are going to make me feel terrible guilty," Eliza said. She giggled softly, the smile not leaving her face." She had soon seen the bed, feeling it. "It seems very comfortable..."
"All yours," he said. He took a seat by the wall, folding his arms. "I'm not looking if you choose to undress."
"Why would I mind about that?" Her voice was all confused innocence. "Still we have some time...shall we talk for a while?"
"I would like that."
He had allowed himself to drift to sleep some time later, awakening after dawn. He realized he was alone in the room, but he thought he heard something in the next. He stood up. I'll draw a bath, too. Take the clothes, wash them by the stream later.
He walked out of the small bedroom, the first sight greeting him, as sun streamed into the room through the windows, was Eliza sat there. Grete was awake, eyes bright, contentedly resting in her arms as Eliza held her like the little girl was the center of her entire universe. Eliza looked up then to see Hardestadt and she lifted Grete slightly, whispering in French.
"Look, little one! It's Papa! Say hello!" She giggled and Hardestadt paused, looking at them, a feeling of indescribable warmth spreading through him as he saw the look on Eliza's face. Her white hair fell about her shoulders, her body wrapped in her cloak.
"Good morning, my ladies," Hardestadt said. "It will be a little rough, but...I'll have breakfast ready for both of you."
"Sir Delac, I would be most honored," Eliza said. Grete's little babble seemed to indicate she agreed as well.
Vicente Galvelas saw, for the third time, his life torn to pieces as he beheld it all.
He was dashing across the pier of Antiga, the latest village his death curse was visiting, on the lip of the Iberian Peninsula in the Algarve. The Atlantic coast up ahead was blotted out by the fog that had wrapped around Antiga's borders an hour ago in the morning, shortly before the first of the creatures had broken from the waters of the coast to converge on the little coastal village.
The world was a blur around him, but Vicente saw enough to remember. Clay-roofed houses had already been smashed under the weight of lumbering, slimy slag-behemoths more slime and teeth than anything else, twenty feet long and thirty high each, plowing their way through buildings as though they weren't even there. The waterways going through the village were already drowning in blood, pools of it oozing from rows of ravaged housing, the slag-behemoths prowling everywhere Vicente could see in Antiga, the village church already debris. He couldn't see the market square, or much of the upper half of the town, but he could hear the screams of his erstwhile neighbors, loud and agonized through Antiga. He continued to run, weaving behind an alley to escape the notice of a slender, serpentine thing slithering through the bloodied waters of the closest water.
Vicente ran, for the third time, for all the good it would do him. The City always came to collect its due from him, even though he'd forgotten why he had to pay. They'd come in the sunny town of Ganda, seventy miles from the plain of Póvoa de Varzim, in 1692. The fog had blotted out the skies, wrapped up the town in its death-coil–and of course, Vicente had no logical way to explain to the confused residents what was about to come before the City-beasts did. 1739 bid the same disaster on the Italian town of Vito when he'd attempted to settle in.
Both times, he'd seen it, directing them, leading them to ravage his former homes. What–what had it called itself?
The Shadows' Consultant. The Emissary. Their dark shepherd.
Both times, that thing–masked, shaped like a human but with nothing human about it, always in hand with blades, knives and swords that seemed sharp enough to cut gemstone–had seen him, visited him and seen those unspeakable things from the City take apart everything else.
But it had never taken him. Never.
Vicente remembered his mentor's smiling face from over a century ago as he dove through a window of a shop, deserted by its residents, then out into another street. Atop the roofs of neighboring businesses on the smashed street he stood upon now, he saw another–a large, pale thing, with eight shimmering legs and a crown of flame on its head. From a lamprey mouth lined thin, glistening appendages, burrowing their way into the building it stood upon to attack whomever was inside. This was the Needler; Vicente quickly remembered his teachings, again, and the beasts of the City's cult he had been taught to fear more than anything. Vicente could already see the mangled, half-devoured carcasses of some number of victims–perhaps eighteen though between all the pieces it was hard to tell–as Vicente froze and rounded around the shop he'd just burst through, hoping he hadn't been spotted.
Eliza. Everything she taught you. Everything she told you to prepare you for this.
He remembered awakening to her smiling face, after that trip in Lisbon where he should have died. He remembered two years she spent long nights teaching him in the ambient walls of the Haven, of knowledge only known by his kind–the Seers. He remembered how many times she'd smiled, made him smile, and how many times she'd told him he'd do wonderful things.
He believed her. He embraced his identity as a Seer, even as he cast his old life behind, and wandered in the fruitless hope he'd meet another one of his kind.
How many had vanished? How many thousands, in Ganda, Vito, Antiga, had been slaughtered and their identities ripped from the Earth, all record of them and their homes struck from time's record?
He remembered. He remembered waking up as the Consultant had advanced on him, both times the exact same way, as all the rest vanished. When he woke up, Ganda and Vito didn't exist anymore, and he was in the middle of...
Not even ruins. Nothing. Empty grassland. The second time, the Consultant had answered one of his questions, cut across the length of his right arm and stinging freshly after he had regained consciousness.
Because you were Hers
It had all been because...
Everything you taught me. Everything you told me to believe in.
Everything we became together. You told me you had nothing left to teach me... that you believed I could do this.
Had she been fallible? Of course. But had she been wrong? Did she really understand what she was courting, fighting the Shadows' Consultant and its beasts?
Vicente took a deep breath in.
Then let's fight.
Twice he had been unable to do anything. Twice the Consultant had spared him simply to hurt him.
Vicente gazed outside the window. The Needler had scurried onto the roof of the cottage beside the building it had last been on, red beads dripping from its mouth. Vicente exhaled, then let himself connect fully to the Remeditary.
His body slumped unconscious on the floor of the shop, his mental avatar leaping into the colorless space he perceived the shop as. He whisked himself to the bloodied street, and saw the Needler's slithering tendrils burrowing into the cottage's roof. He peered inside, casting his gaze through the Remeditary into the cottage–and saw, all bundled in terror, seven more innocent people still alive. For how much longer, Vicente didn't know, the Needler's tendrils undulating in the room they were piled in, knocking over furniture and slithering about at the ground.
Vicente focused, remembering the steps of what he was about to do. He saw the Needler in mind-space, felt its presence as he would feel a cold chill in the air, and focused on its mind. He saw bestial, primeval hunger, but a thinking mind he couldn't recognize, at least not in the boundaries of human labels. He tried to perceive it, and he saw confusion within the Needler, frustration with all these odds sounds and sensations around it, almost maddening to it–but a drive to keep doing what it was doing, no matter what.
Because of what the Consultant's... told you all, before. Because of what it introduced to you.
He saw human concepts and words floating around in a mind they had no place in, in a mind that couldn't truly comprehend them. He saw ideals, like Nirvana, and Heaven, and euphoria–but no conception of what they needed to know here, like death, or pain, or choice. He saw, in the ancient memories in whatever the Needler called a brain, the Shadows' Consultant standing before them and other beings, giving its gospel in a strange alien tongue.
The City had listened to it. It was leading them, manipulating them, using them to ravage towns, claim millions and erase them from time. Because...
I see now.
If I can find a way to erase those ideals... If I can think of a way to cut the Consultant's control on them, then I can break its hold on the City. Because I know it's not one of them.
It's worth a try.
Vicente plunged deeper into the Needler's mind, and used the tricks he'd been taught to use in the Remeditary to divert its attention from the innocent people below it. He identified the way it perceived things–aside from the feelers that came from its mouth, the fire seemed to have something to do with it, detecting fine changes in the temperature around it–and made it suddenly perceive a warm spot in the middle of the street, overriding every sense it had.
"Here," he ordered, giving it a voice, a compulsion to follow. "Go here."
The Needler gurgled, too primitive or alien to recognize it was being tricked into feeling the change in temperature, and its feelers slithered back into its mouth. Vicente allowed himself a tiny smile as he directed the Needler away from the building, down the street. "That's it. Follow the warm spot. They're not who you want."
Vicente led it to the middle of the street, made it stop over the warm spot, and saw it freeze in place as it hit the exact spot Vicente had made it think the attractive warmth was. He passed a small spell through his mind, into the bizarre, eldritch mind of the Needler–and felt it utterly pacified, sinking a bit as it went to sleep in the utter, contented bliss Vicente had instilled in it.
"Stay there," Vicente gently commanded, and snapped out of the Remeditary.
He bolted up, instantly alert, sat up and stared out the window. The Needler stood there, motionless in the street and unlikely to move as long as the spell of bliss lasted–hours, if it went correctly. Vicente ran out of the shop, taking one more quick look of his surroundings, trying his best to ignore the screams and the roars and the cracking bangs, and ran toward the cottage.
I'm going to make you proud, Eliza.
Some of the people were already peeking out the window to see the strange, white-haired man coming toward them. He'd dropped any attempt to disguise his identity, letting his flowing white hair and silvery eyes shine bright. It really was the least of their concerns. Vicente saw among them a small, black-haired child, between the arms of his mother and father, and his heart sung a note seeing him scared but alive. He came to the door and opened it, to the panicked seven within, four men, two women and the child.
"You all need to get somewhere safe," he said quickly, in his native Portuguese. "Please."
"What are these things?!" cried one of the women, beside the mother of the child.
"I couldn't explain in a good amount of time," Vicente urged. "But they will not stop because you ask them to. You need to get somewhere they won't be able to find you, won't be able to get to you. Is there a safehouse anywhere near by, a storeroom, anything underground you can hide in, anywhere fortified?"
"Can we not evacuate the town?" one of the men brought up. Vicente shook his head.
"No. No use. Anyone who tries to leave... disappears. The fog takes them. I think it's a creature itself. But I'm not going to let them kill all of you." He looked back, back out the window, to make sure the Needler was still resting. "And they won't attack any one else again, ever."
As the murmuring, horrified mass of people shifted among themselves, Vicente quickly weighed his options. He didn't know if Antiga had any sort of mass safe-house. One of the houses on this street had to have some sort of storeroom, a storage or something for wares and food. It wasn't the best, but he needed some place for these people to be safe so he could start looking for others, finding some way to incapacitate the other City-beasts before they could claim more lives. How many hundreds had perished in the first hour alone, Vicente couldn't and didn't want to think about.
"There's a storeroom in the shop I was just in, I think," Vicente said. "Across the street. There's a trapdoor. We should be able to get you there, for now."
"But–that thing, in the street?!" the same woman cried, pointing toward the Needler. Vicente looked over his shoulder, confident in the knowledge it wouldn't move.
"It's not going to harm you," Vicente said. "I made it go to sleep. It's not going to harm you."
He saw them look at him, trepidation all over them, saw the black-haired boy in front of him and wondered about the kind of life he'd live if he made it out of this.
"I promise," Vicente said. "But you need to trust me. I can't promise you'll be alright, but I can promise you I will do everything in my power to make sure you and everyone else makes it out of this."
There was a loud scream, louder than many of the others, from outside. Vicente looked at the others, seeing them flinch, seeing them weigh if they wanted to place their trust into this man as strange as any of the monsters outside.
Vicente backed out of the cottage as the seven people followed, seeing them cry and mumble among themselves as they stepped onto a street slick with gore, averting their eyes from the maimed remains of their fellows. Vicente kept an eye on the Needler as he hurried the group of seven across the street as fast as he could, his gaze occasionally parting to the ends of the street or the area around him, little else he could see from his current position in the village and the fog obscuring much else.
He thought about the weight of the lives he bore, of all those he could still save. He thought of Eliza, watching him, cheering him on with that immortal smile on her face, immortal despite all she had lost before him.
One of the women suddenly screamed. Vicente turned to look toward the upper end of the street, and nearly sputtered up his own throat.
On bloodied leather boots, clad in a black cloak embroidered with faint white designs, alien symbols and abstract, simplistic pictures of beings he couldn't even imagine, in a hood and a featureless mask that betrayed nothing of what was behind it, strode forth the Shadows' Consultant. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, from the fog, not a trace of blood on its billowing cloak even as every step it made left a footprint of red behind it. It glared at Vicente, purposefully and stiffly turning its masked gaze to him as he and the others froze in the middle of the street.
Vicente stared at it, trying to imagine a face staring back, eyes with which it looked with, a smile it wore as it stared upon the carnage it wrought–but failed. He knew of no face that could orchestrate such cruelty and watch, no gruesome visage he could conceive that appropriately portrayed the thing before him.
"Have you come for me again?!" Vicente cried, heedless of who heard. The Consultant stood there, in the street, watching him with a slightly tilted head. "How many did you murder? How many did you take from Garda, and Vito? How many today? Because... because of what? Of me? Of her?" His voice broke for a second. "...Why? Why did you control them? Why are you doing this?!"
The Consultant started walking forward again, and the people began to scream. It made no attempt to reply, no indication it was even listening, and Vicente decided enough was enough. He stared deep into the Consultant's mind–
–and lashed back screaming, the only thing he could see within hatred, acidic hatred that felt like a burn mark on his soul to look upon. He clutched his head, looking at the Consultant just in time to see its gloved hands move to its hips. From beneath the cloak, it pulled forth a pair of twin longswords, with gnarled ebony handles and blades that gleamed savagely at the edge. Vicente grit his teeth and lunged forth to attack the Consultant. He saw it cross the blades against its chest in an X, then slash out in one blurring motion that took under a second to execute.
When that second had passed, Vicente became consciously aware he was numb from the shoulders down, over both his arms. He didn't realize why–the Consultant was still ten feet away, of course the blades hadn't struck–but as he became aware his arms were no longer obeying his commands, and that he'd just fallen to his knees, the reality sunk like a blade into his breast.
His eyes passed over his two arms, cleanly severed at the shoulder, gushing blood. They weren't supposed to be there, on the ground. There they were. If he could only pick them back up–
If only he could–
A half-choked cry escaped Vicente before he heard the first thud. His gaze turned around just in time to see the second person collapse, everyone behind him bisected, collapsing into two halves around him with splashing thuds and death rattles. The only one he saw untouched, standing there petrified with wide-eyed fear as his mother and father collapsed dead before him, was the child.
If he could only reach out to him. Reach out.
But Vicente's arms still refused to work.
No. This can't be–
Vicente felt the Consultant's grip squeeze around his skull, suddenly, jerking him back to face the masked face as the child screamed behind him. The Consultant stared back at him, holding him there like a pig at the slaughter, pitiless and silent as ever. In one hand it still had a sword, the other sheathed. Vicente stared back up at it in dumb terror, trying to formulate any response in the sheer, overwhelming shock, before he felt something damp on his head. He felt something, squirming and wet, ooze from the Consultant's hand, down the back of his neck, cold and leaving a trail of wet slime behind. He couldn't see what it was, but it felt worm-like, leech-like. The end of it suddenly squirmed its head into his ear canal, and he felt something sharp bite down on it.
His head returned to the hatred. He felt fires his earthly body couldn't stand, his mind in a maelstrom of agony as the Consultant forced words into his mind from the leech, turning his physical head to look at the sundered halves of the six innocent people he'd failed to save. The child stood fettered by his own terror in the middle of the corpses, his eyes glued to the remains of his parents and his shoes soaked in their blood.
"Look at them," the Consultant said, in a voice that sounded like no sound he'd ever heard on Earth, no sound a human throat was capable of producing, something that sounded like the crackling of fire with the intensity of thunder cracking in his ears. "Look at your failure and let it settle. Do you know why I let you live, back in those two settlements?"
The leech burrowed a little bit deeper, penetrating deeper into Vicente's ear canal violating his being with its presence there.
"Because you were hers. Because she taught you that you could be better than a simple anomaly. You can pledge yourself to her morals, you can pretend yourself a hero, and you can act the role of a savior–but in the end, I will always claim those you seek to protect. Because that is all you apes deserve. Because that is all you deserve, Vicente–you and all her wretched disciples."
Vicente shuddered, unable to talk or react from the monstrous pain enveloping his being. He saw the child scream again, and this time back away from the bodies as he stared at something behind Vicente and the Consultant, something he couldn't see. The Consultant's hand was iron clutching the back of Vicente's head, holding his gaze to the child as he fled. Vicente saw the boy scampering to the other end of the street, wailing as he ran as fast as his little legs would carry him.
He hoped he would make it, for a second. He naively dreamed of the life the boy would have, could have lived here.
"If only you hadn't shown up, Vicente," the Consultant whispered as Vicente saw the Needler run over him, toward the boy, scuttling at speeds impossible for its massive size. "If only the fault hadn't been yours."
As the Needler's tendrils captured the child, a mere fifteen feet away as the Consultant kept his gaze on him as the Needler brought his struggling body up, up towards its slavering jaws, Vicente screamed.
Once again, Vicente's life burnt away before him and he could do nothing about it.
He had arrived recently back in Bavaria after his visit to London. The previous year's debacle in the Colonies, specifically Rhode Island, was still fresh in his mind. Soon after that, he'd been putting down one particularly vicious sect of worshipers of the Defiler and then he'd instantly been embroiled in dealing with a group of redcap bandits. Being back in Bavaria had left him in a decent mood. He'd enjoyed a large dinner the prior evening, taking a bit of time to appreciate the culture. He knew little Grete was in Paris now with her uncle, her love for that city overwhelming at times. A letter from her had been awaiting him on his arrival, desiring for him to come see her and retrieve her soon. He pocketed it with a smile after reading it, thinking of his daughter. She was still young and he worried for her, but he knew he needed to let her have her own life. He did not want her to be caught up in the hunts, not yet.
Things had indeed been quiet for some time with his hunts. He had mapped out his next locations, kept any requests where he was needed at his side. He thought briefly of his friends in the Americas when a knock at the door interrupted him. He paused and glanced up, detecting the familiar warm presence. He gave a wide grin before he realized it, trying to compose himself as he moved to the door.
Her ability to find him no longer surprised him. Now he simply looked forward to her visits, her presence, the time they spent together, the sheer joy and love she gave to his daughter. He moved to the door, opening it. "Milady Cortly," he said simply. He had not seen her since the Colonies a year ago.
She stepped up, seeing him as he beheld her. Both opened there mouths. "I missed you," both said at once. Eliza beamed charmingly, stepping back as she beheld him, the radiance bright on her face.
"I arrived here not long ago. You did mention you were planning to visit Bavaria last year, and so...I figured as long as I was in the area..." Eliza grinned ever wider. "Surprise!"
"And what a surprise," he said. "You look fantastic as ever..."
"A rather talented seamstress made this dress for me, actually," Eliza said happily. "The bank accounts have...assisted, thank you."
"It's nothing," Hardestadt did not bother to keep track of his accounts now. He knew he received a fortune every month from his aunt still and had ceased to try to persuade her otherwise centuries ago. Why not share as much as he could with Eliza? "Come in, I'll make tea."
"That would be delightful!" Eliza said as she stepped into the house. "What lovely quarters, too. I admit I am constantly impressed by how many residences you have set up."
"Well, I keep a lot of places to live," Hardestadt admitted. "I keep other housings as well for people who need it. It's just a way to make sure the money goes to something useful...anything new and unique with yourself, Eliza?"
"As a matter of fact, I assisted a Seer a week ago in Bohemia," Eliza said. "He seems quite adept. But besides that? It has been a...quiet year since we last saw one another."
"Well, I hope you haven't gotten used to quiet..." Hardestadt grinned at her. "Since I was thinking of attending the opera hall tomorrow. I believe they're playing Omphale..."
"Oh, you cannot be serious!" Eliza grasped his arm suddenly. "I would love to!" she said. "I found myself missing your companionship," she added quietly. "Truly. I've had nobody to discuss these novels with, for one! I did finish Mr. Cleland's novel. It was simply scandalous-"
"She says with that little gleam in her eyes," Hardestadt chuckled.
"Oh, hush, I did not say I did not like it! And I still have to return that copy of Gulliver's Travels to you! Not to mention that signed copy of Candide you lent me."
"The one you lost?" Hardestadt added, raising an eyebrow.
"I would not say I lost it, Hardestadt, merely that I...temporarily misplaced it!" Eliza protested. "I plan to find it! Honest!"
"Of course," Hardestadt smiled. Seeing her enthusiasm over certain things always warmed his heart. Seeing her being able to just appreciate books and music, able to put aside the terrors she had lived with for too long, even if temporary, brought him a measure of peace as well. "If I loan you a few I picked up in the west, will I get them back? They're a bit of a darker style...ever heard of Euphemie? The Castle of Otranto? You did love Vathek..."
Eliza gave a shiver. "Oh, so luridly entertaining! I would love to read them!"
"Will I get them back?"
"Absolutely! Probably," she added. She took his arm. "Perhaps there would be room for me to stay here...?"
"There's always a place for you wherever I go, milady Cortly," he said with a smile. "And the opera hall tomorrow eve?"
"I would be thrilled," Eliza said. She looked at him with a smile. "And perhaps we shall see what else we find."
Everything is for the taking as long as you know where to look. As long as you know how to deal with those in your way. Nyarlathotep truly believed this, perhaps more than he believed in anything else.
Something he had never truly admitted? He enjoyed walking, far more than he did reducing his body to insubstantial shadow or simply warping himself about the globe. Walking was so relaxed, so personal. He enjoyed the chance to savior the world, from the warm rays of the sun, the pale light of the moon, the crunch of gravel under his feet. You could never tell who you'd meet along the way, either. That was probably his favorite part.
He had prepared a meal along the way. He had come across a carriage upon the road or rather it had nearly collided with him. The horses had panicked, but he had calmed them with a brief whisper in their minds. Animals rarely appreciated his presence and he had to remember to make the effort to calm them. A man had emerged from the coach, yelling all sorts of things at him. A well-dressed fellow. Nyarlathotep liked the clothes. He had peered into the man's mind, seeing all manner of intimate details. He had silenced the fool's tongue with a thought and walked to him. He had whispered a few suggestions in his ear and sent him and the coachman on their way without further harm.
He would return to the man at his home shortly, to find all the lovely ways he painted the halls with the blood of his servants. He would likely find him sitting in a corner, babbling inanely, decorating himself with organs and maybe painting his face with carmine red. Then Nyarlathotep would enjoy the treat he had cultivated, suck him dry of his madness and leave a new mystery for humanity to fear and obsess over.
He sometimes remembered the beauty that had been Egypt, where great temples had been built in his honor, when he had glided over the cool sands of night. Of all the great nations in the history of this world, it had been one of his favorites, even after they had taken pains to eradicate all traces of him with the silly notion that removing his worshipers would remove his attentions. How wrong they had been.
He was walking still. He'd been walking for a few months now. He had all the time in the world, really. The stars would likely not be right for another few hundred years, and he was in a mood to amuse himself. He could feel his old strength returned to him now, and he reveled in it.
As far as his little projects went, he had returned to the Dreamlands not long ago, playing at being the god of Leng yet again, sowing terror and nightmare for the sheer delight of it as he taunted the mild gods of the earth. He had added a few new precious little gems to his trophy room and had visited a few of those he'd kept tabs on.
One had been, delight of delights, a Seer. He loved Seers and their wonderful little minds; such delightful things to twist and break and bend. But when he had been plundering the Seer's mind after driving him quite mad, he had seen something that intrigued him: a name he recognized, one of his other little projects.
Eliza. The one who so annoyed his beloved little rainbow.
Nyarlathotep had barely bothered to keep up tabs with her, but after he'd turned her student into a husk, while making sure to devour his mental self just to finish the job, he supposed he had better start. That had been some time ago, and he was starting to trace her steps. He'd had quite a devil of a time with it at first. The woman was good at covering for herself. With his rainbow on her trail, it was a necessity. He spent his time tracking her exploits, growing to learn more about her. He devoured information of those who had crossed her path before, consumed their memories of her. He delved into the Dreamlands to learn more, but he still had a difficult time tracking her. He could have found her in an instant if he chose, but why take the fun out of the challenge?
Still, once he set his mind to something, the only reason he ever struggled with it was because he enjoyed a challenge. Tracking her had merely been difficult, not impossible, until Eliphas Coyte had provided him the means just a year prior. That boy had potential, Nyarlathotep thought cheerfully. It was only a matter of time until his hungers brought him to the Crawling Chaos.
Still, he was more interested in Eliza, and Coyte had given him enough to go on. His own business had kept him up until he was arriving upon the Cortly lands. And what a name it was. Cortly? It was elegant, and coupled with her first name, he rather appreciated it.
There were men posted outside. Nyarlathotep paid them no heed, walking forward. He looked, to all the world, like a handsome noble. He had borrowed Daemon's face again, though he had kept the hair black, wearing it long, even tied elegantly behind him.
"Halt there!" One of the men said in confusion.
"No," Nyarlathatep answered without slowing his stride. One of the men opened his men in sheer shock at the audacity and reached to seize Nyarlathotep's arm. Now Nyarlathotep did pause and his eyes blackened, turning to the man with a smile.
"Sebastian," he whispered softly, using the man's name. "Getting in my way is a mistake most fatal." The man's eyes were wide and he drew breath to scream. His body was dragged down suddenly, dragged into the very stone. He did not have time to scream until he was swallowed utterly, no trace he had ever existed remaining. The other guard looked at Nyarlathotep, frozen in place.
"Stefano de Cortly. Conte de Valer. Am I in the right place?" Nyarlathotep asked. The man seemed incapable of talking now and Nyarlathotep sighed heavily.
"I'm practically doing humanity a service tonight." He seized the man by the throat and lifted him off his feet. "You have one chance to survive this, Roberto. One chance and it depends on answering my question: am I in the right place if I am seeking Stefano de Cortly?" He relaxed his grip to let the man answer. Let nobody claim Nyarlathotep did not offer fair chances.
"Y-yes," the man's legs twitched. "M-Merciful God above, please-"
"Now stop that, he's not listening. The only God here tonight is me." He dropped the man calmly. "But I am nothing if not merciful. Your household should be honored tonight. A Conte having a visit from a Pharaoh! No, a God! Are you not honored?" Nyarlathotep's grin widened, too wide for a human face. "No? I should have known. Few people ever give me the proper deference when I show up, but then I am unannounced I suppose. Where is the Contessa? Where is Eliza Cortly?" The man stared at him, mouth opening and closing like a fish. Nyarlathotep's patience evaporated.
"I asked a question."
"Sh-she's gone. She's gone, she left, left, please, please...please I won't say anything, I won't-"
"You know something...I think I will spare you," Nyarlathotep said. "But don't thank me yet." The shadows rushed in, converging on the man and swallowing him. Nyarlathotep made certain he was secure and conscious before he continued walking.
He walked into the splendid manor, altering his clothing to appear a bit more regal. A long black coat, his hair more immaculately combed–how did Daemon get his own so perfect anyways? Nyarlathotep had never managed to get that answer from him–and rings upon his fingers. He wove a minor spell around the place and extended across anything that so much as knew the name Cortly in the region. He had calculated exactly how many humans there were.
Though the place was not doing as well as one might have hoped, Nyarlathoteo observed idly. The Conte was a businessman, but Nyarlathotep was suspecting that the man's former wife had handled most of the actual affairs. Without her, the place was going to dwindle to irrelevance.
"Sir?" he heard a man's voice, seeing a servant approach. "Sir, can you be helped?"
Nyarlathotep ignored him. "I had expected she was gone," he mused out loud. "Though I hope someone in this damn place can point me to the right spot..." the human gnat was buzzing in his ear as he rubbed his chin. "Unfortunately I probably can't depend on that boy Eliphas to provide me answers even if I-" The human was still talking and simply not letting him think. The Crawling Chaos's gaze snapped to him.
"Shut. Up." Nyarlathotep said in the tongue of the Elder Things. The man's mind shattered upon hearing the words and he collapsed, curling into a ball, hugging himself as he wept brokenly. Nyarlathotep heard the shocked gasps around himself, weaving the necessary spells anew. He walked to one servant, an older man with a shaven face.
"Contessa de Cortly. Where?"
"What?" the man asked his eyes wide and terrified. "I don't know-"
"No, you don't, Rodrigo," Nyarlathotep smiled. "You were kind to her. I see it in your memories. She liked you. I have no reason to harm you." He let a look of hope dawn on the man's eyes. "Tear yourself open and eat everything you find until you get the heart. You won't die until you do. Bon appetite." Nyarlathotep turned from him as the man set to his gruesome meal. He walked to a woman in a maid outfit, seeing her tremble. "Eliza Cortly."
"N-Nobody knows...she left. Please, Please, I have a son-"
"Go home and kill him. Strangle him with your own hands and then throw yourself into the waters. Never emerge." Nyarlathotep walked to the next man, asking the same question with no answers. The man was better dressed, with the arrogant bearing of a noble. Nyarlathotep smiled at him.
"Now, now, Giacomo. You're not like the rest of them. You're a noble, a friend of the Conte's, no...? This can't be your fate. You're better than those silly little underlings. I agree with you, this can't happen to you. I see it in your eyes." Nyarlathotep took in the scent of his fear. "The servants fear your words, the taste of the lash when you are displeased. I hear the sobs of those who you find alone in hidden rooms, I taste the tears...you think you can do anything you want. I'm just amused you insects hold yourselves above one another based upon...accidents of birth. I am above all of you. Which means I get to do anything I want, no? Is that now how it works?"
"Please..." The man whispered. "Don't hurt me-
"Please, please, please," Nyarlathotep purred. "Don't hurt me..." his voice altered, becoming feminine. "Pleeeeease," he added with a trill to his voice.
"I have money...I can pay-"
He laughed. "I don't want money, human. I want your pain. You, you and you." He pointed at several servants. "Kill him in the ways you've longed for. My treat!"
He left them to it as he sat on the couch, basking in madness and misery. The whimpering of the first servant, driven mad, began to annoy him, so he extended one hand into a long, ink-black tentacle and tore his head free before setting back on the couch. The rest of the household was unaware of him yet. These little appetizers had put him in a decent mood, he had to admit.
"Oh, you." He pointed at a servant. "Where is de Cortly?"
"I-in his chambers...sir..." the woman's legs trembled. "In-" Nyarlathotep advanced upon her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sobbing freely as Nyarlathotep stood before her. He reached up and pat her cheek gently.
"Thank you. You have been most helpful. Finally, someone just answers me. People these days!" He walked past her down the halls, through the building. He passed multiple rooms feeling the lives within, masking himself and his little entertainment from all of them. He found the room he was looking for, a woman slipping out, hastily adjusting her gown as she did so. He paid her no heed.
He debated if he wanted his entrance flashy or not. He stopped by the door and pondered it. That was the trouble with this sort of thing: you only got to make the decision once. He pondered it for a good ten minutes, debating the pros and the cons. At last he shrugged and opted for the less flashy route.
He opened the door normally, letting it swing open. The handsome Conte de Cortly was sat at his mirror, looking at his reflection as he smoothed his hair. "I told you, I will not require further-"
"Stefano de Cortly," Nyarlathotep said. "You don't know me, save in the occasional nightmare, and I have little interest in you as it stands now, save for several questions."
"I beg your pardon?" He looked up, surprise on his face. "What is this? Who are you?"
"My name is Nyarlathotep," The Crawling Chaos said.
"How did you get in here?"
"Alright, now I'm getting bored of you already. That's not good." Nyarlathotep crossed the room to the desk, the boldness leaving the idiot dandy standing there blinking. Nyarlathotep sat back upon the desk, folding a leg over another. "I am here to talk, my dear," Nyarlathotep said. "What happens next depends entirely on what you have to say. So, my first question-"
"This is nonsense. Who let you in here? How dare you simply- where is everyone?"
"You are clearly not hearing what I am saying and I really recommend you start listening before I lose my famous good humor." Nyarlathotep said. He folded his arms. "This is-"
"I am demanding you leave! This instant!" The man looked like a particularly indignant peacock.
Nyarlathotep stood and waved a hand in frustration. "This is a disappointment! I make an entrance and you just stand there gaping like this? This is always the part where Daemon says something so wonderfully dramatic!" He threw his hands up. "What was it last we met? Oh, I remember. 'I will burn away your shadow from the city.' I got chills at that one. 'I demand you leave this instant.' Ugh, I knew you were an idiot, but you're delving below even my lowest expectations! I should have sent Eliphas Coyte a divine revelation to arrange that little accident for you for the sake of humanity."
"I said I insist–Nyarlethy or whatever your name–"
Nyarlathotep's eyes flashed black and the mirror exploded, shards flying through the Conte and leaving a bloody mess upon the floor. Nyarlathotep paused for a moment, staring at his handiwork.
"...Ah. Whoops." he said. He didn't usually lose his temper to that extent when he meant to draw things out, but hearing his name said so dismissively by this idiot fop? "Oh...shoggoths," he grumbled. He sighed and left the room, taking a moment to find and butcher several of the servants he'd left paralyzed. "Already making me do more work than I wanted, that's going to have a price later..."
About an hour later after a ritual involving essential salts that Nyarlathotep had not quite expected to need that night, Nyarlathotep was looking at the shocked Conte again.
"What is, where are–"
"Are you ready to listen? Because–"
"You! Are you still here?! What sort of–" Nyarlathotep's eyes turned ebon black and he let the idiot fop peer a bit deeper into them, deciding that he was sick of playing games.
"I can kill you again. And again. And again, and again and again, in ways humans do not even have names for. Or you can shut your mouth." The Crawling Chaos's eyes burned with the light of stars as he gave the human a warning glance. To his credit, the fool was beginning to realize the position he was in. Nyarlathotep faced him without a trace of amusement in his eyes.
"To think...that such a priceless little starlight was forced to endure you," Nyarlathotep murmured. He smirked, his lips turning up into a mockery of human friendliness. "Her trail led me here, Stefano de Cortly. Your wife."
"Eliza?" Confusion consumed his shocked visage. "What does this have to do with that worthless–"
"Worthless?!" Nyarlathotep's gaze snapped back to him, the fires flaring up as rage filled him. "Did you say worthless?" He seized the Conte by the throat and lifted him, slamming him against the wall. The human went speechless with fright as Nyarlathotep's face pressed close, twisted in sudden rage. "That one shines brighter than you can imagine, you mortal. She has achieved a great deal in the span of ages without succumbing to the typical despair or the rot of the soul that infests your kind. You have no idea what a siren song such things are to me, Stefano de Cortly. To look up that which is untainted, which shines like a diamond in the dust. And you call that radiance worthless? Oh, what I will do to you...I despise cretins who cannot recognize value."
Nyarlathotep released him and stepped back. The human felt his neck, staring with eyes that showed increasing fear. Nyarlathotep gave a soft laugh. "Ah, nobody's made me lose my temper like that in a while. You are such a trying little thing! But, you know, I love aristocrats," he said. "You all think you're invulnerable. Contempt for those who hold themselves above others so absurdly is one of the few things Daemon and I have ever agreed upon. It offends me, my dear, humans holding themselves too high."
"What are you?" He whispered, staring into Nyarlathotep's void-touched eyes. Stefano de Cortly was shivering now, seeing the shadows on the wall break apart, the tendrils snaking about.
"A creature far, far older than you can comprehend, a true god of the void," Nyarlathotep answered. "But enough about me. Eliza. Eliza, Eliza, Eliza...lovely name, yes. Tell me about her."
"Please...please, I don't know what this is. I haven't–"
"I never make the same demand twice, Stefano de Cortly," Nyarlathotep grinned. "I can hurt you very, very badly if you try to make me. Tell me about Eliza."
"We...we were wed...for several years," he said. "I thought she was happy–"
"I'll wager you rather didn't much care about that, actually," Nyarlathotep chuckled. "No, I'm sure you didn't. Too busy with the man in the mirror." The Crawling Chaos felt the old enjoyment creeping back, the look upon the man's face making him hungry with anticipation. "Truly, a feat of inhuman endurance to deal with such a wretched little thing such as you. When did she leave?"
"Several years...ago...she just up and left, after we had...after she had been stubborn, and–"
"Oh, I'm sure that's how you remember it," Nyarlathotep said in a silky tone. "Honestly, it's a feat of positively incredible forbearance that she did not abscond within a week."
"She was my wife!" Stefano snapped, forgetting himself in anger. "We had an arrangement! She took the same vows, she was to stay by my side, at my arm, to give me an heir to Cortly, to–"
"Oh, yes," Nyarlathotep grinned. "Vows, indeed. It's such a tragedy when someone you trust makes a vow to you, and then breaks it, leaving you filled with burning rage. Not that I'm bitter about anything," he chuckled softly. "Ahhh, no, not bitter at all. Where did she go?" His eyes snapped back up.
"If I had known, I would have had her fetched, caned her and confined her until she saw reason–"
"Perhaps I'll find answers in someone else's mind," Nyarlathotep muttered. "Well, I'll have to study things here thoroughly. You don't mind if I stay here for a few days?" He folded his hands before him "Of course you don't."
"St-stay...here?" Stefano paused suddenly. He began to shake slightly. "But–"
"Well, honestly," Nyarlathotep said. "I should have mentioned the terms here. My mistake, so sorry, that was just careless of me. The options are dying quickly and dying slowly based on your cooperation with me. Well..." he stopped short." I should probably define what I actually mean by that. Quicker might be the better phrase for it. Like, probably between the time it takes to grow one's hair to a decent length versus the time it takes for a mountain to grow...something of that nature, I may be off by a few years. Oh, and the pain, the pain's going to be a thing, that goes almost without saying. I don't want there to be any ambiguity, no screaming 'you lied' later on, which can be somewhat enjoyable, but it gets a bit old the billionth or so time I hear it."
"But..." the human looked like he couldn't comprehend what was happening.
"Cortly. Cortly, it is such a lovely name," Nyarlathotep mused, no longer seeing him. "Eliza Cortly, yes. It does befit her nature, I'll give you that, Stefano. I'll have to make sure to cover my tracks properly here. Take my time and amuse myself here before I get back on the trail." He seemed to remember Stefano's presence. "I suppose she might even thank me for the newfound widowhood. I doubt anyone else will miss you, Stefano de Cortly."
"But...I haven't...done anything..." his eyes filled with tears. "I haven't done anything to deserve this."
"You know, that's honestly a debatable point," Nyarlathotep chuckled. "I suppose then we're getting into all sorts of philosophical discussion of what sin justifies what punishment, but I think the important thing to note? I. Don't. Care. I have found myself here for reasons related to nothing but my dark little whims, and your fate was sealed the moment I decided to jaunt over. You see...I'm going to kill you. But first I'm going to hurt you, little philistine. Don't think you can escape me in madness, either. I'm going to make sure you feel everything."
"I can pay you. Whatever you want. Please, Eliza- I'm sorry! I didn't mean it, any of it, I'll tell her, I'll tell her I'm sorry, please, please, let me talk to her, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll never-"
"I don't want to be paid, human," Nyarlathotep clicked his tongue. "And my interest in Eliza extends as far as her entertainment value to me. No, I'm afraid you cannot bargain or bribe or beg for once in your miserable life. Let me phrase this in terms you will understand: this is happening to you for three reasons, Stefano de Cortly. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it.
"And because I can."
They decided to walk back to his home once the opera was complete. Hardestadt paid the coachman well, requesting he leave as they walked down the streets. "Sad story, no?" He asked.
"Oh, sad, but so much fun! You can forgive so much with a wonderful singing voice, even if my eyes were hardly dry at the end," Eliza giggled to herself. "You have wonderful taste there, you know."
"Not so bad yourself," he answered. The two had barely stopped talking since her arrival, and Hardestadt had handled cooking. Eliza seemed at peace whenever she stayed with him. He could still remember the nightmare that had been Venice, the pain Eliza had endured there.
Seeing her at peace means so much to me...I can barely explain it to myself, he thought as they walked along the streets. Eliza was someone who refused to break, no matter what she endured. He remembered her sorrow at the death of her beloved student who had been almost a brother to her. He remembered the lost, sad look in her eye when she had asked to spend an evening at his home, taking the bed as he had lain against the wall. He had always adhered to his vow, to never lay a single unwanted hand on her. She was better with touch at certain times moreso than others. Sometimes she could hug him, feel his hand, but other times she preferred to keep a distance.
Tonight, she was in fine spirits, clearly relishing the chance to simply appreciate life with him. She took a breath and faced him. "Well," she asked. "How is the little darling?"
"Grete is well," he said. "My elder brother, Azmodan, is in Paris now. He tends to live on Earth most times these days. He and Grete have a good relationship...I dropped her off with him. I told her it would be a little while and to be a good girl till I came back...the work I've had to handle..." he shook his head a bit. "I can't involve her in that. If certain people ever knew about her...her life's hard enough as it is..."
"I recall," Eliza said gently. In the Colonies, she had seen how some people gazed at Grete's dark skin with barely disguised contempt. He remembered the dark look on Eliza's face then. Seers were above most human bigotries, as beings of the mind, and Eliza had lived so long as to leave human prejudices far behind. "She is a wonderful girl, Hardestadt," a smile spread over her face. Hardestadt had seen the sheer delight on Eliza's face whenever she had played with Grete, whenever she had held the girl or sang her to sleep. She adored his daughter and the feeling was returned. "You should be proud..."
"I am," he said. "I'm so proud to be her father. I just..." he looked up at the night sky. "I keep going on and on. I want a world where Grete can grow up free, safe, happy, where she never has to hide from anything. Where she's safe." He sighed softly. "I know. Impossible dreams."
"It is important to have them," Eliza said. "You know my own dreams, after all. I would love a world like that one. A world for Grete, a world for Seers, and everyone else. You've gone on so long, Hardestadt. How do you keep doing it?"
"Would you ever stop, Eliza? Saving the Seers? Protecting them? Teaching them?"
"Never," she said with conviction. "I suppose that makes us very similar. I...was a human being like any other once, Hardestadt. I know how we can be...you must love humans a great deal to continue on."
"I try to," he said softly. "I really do, Eliza. It's not always easy. You know what I am..."
"I was relieved...when you told me," she admitted. "I truly, truly was," she said. "It made me happy that you trusted me with it..."
"I guess we've learned to trust one another," he said. "I've told others, Eliza. Some close friends. My wives..."
"I first saw you through the Remeditary in the 1670s," Eliza said. "Alongside her. Kanti, you said her name was?"
"You would have liked her," Hardestadt said. "She was strong, dedicated, fearless, brave...you would have liked Maria, too. They were one of the finest warriors I've never met. Not a woman, nor a man...just Maria. Passionate, living every day to the fullest..." he saw Eliza glance at him and her hand came up, pressing to his arm.
"Does it ever stop hurting?" she asked softly.
"You know the answer to that," he said. "Bittersweet memories, Eliza. That's everything I have now. Maria died of the Black Death in 1351. Kanti got sick in 1697...Hild passed in 723...each time I just...leave after I've never been able to stay."
"I can...hardly judge you for that," Eliza said. "I have not returned to Venice, I'm not sure if I ever can now." She moved closer to him. "I know what losing someone is like. I know what hope is like, too. You made me smile more than anyone else has in hundreds of years. You helped me win that hope back, my dear friend."
"Thank you, Milady Cortly," he said. He looked at her, seeing the gentle look in her eyes as she shifted them from blue to red for his benefit. "You're a brave person, Eliza. You're as brave as Maria or Kanti were. People like you, truly good people, are so, so rare...I've come to treasure seeing you. Knowing my daughter has you means so much."
"I have grown to treasure our time together as well," Eliza admitted. "A great deal. You...respect me. In ways many others would not."
"That's who I want to be," he said. "Even if we're just talking about operas, or music, or books, or silly stories...we suddenly got rather serious tonight, didn't we?"
"Do you wish to rectify that?" she asked. She reached out to his surprise fingers brushing his hand, a shy cast over her features. He turned his hand out and she grasped it. The two walked, hands clasped together now. Hardestadt felt her soft skin, the evening air whistling around them.
"I'll make tea when we get back," he said. "Eliza...thank you for coming by so much. Seeing you gives me a lot to look forward to."
"It helps me as well," she confessed with a sidelong smile. "Thank you for being there for me as well, my dear friend. My kind devil."
The warm scent of tea hung in the air, now, as Eliza waited patiently, sat upon a leather chair as Hardestadt worked. She found many subjects hung on her mind, now, many of which she hadn't thought about since the last time she'd seen Hardestadt's face the past year.
Chief among them, at the moment, was the young Grete Luciana Alevia and her health. She wondered how Grete had been getting along in Paris, and how she'd been without Thorunn. A chill went down her spine as she remembered Hardestadt's recollection of Thorunn, her life claimed by the savage cowardice of the werewolf warlord Siegfried Gunmarsohn–yet she had entered the halls of Valhalla a hero, her claws an inch from the red-furred craven's throat before she'd expired.
The world was poorer without her, that much Eliza knew, but she had all the faith Grete would be a worthy daughter and more as she grew up. She wished the wolf-girl didn't have to grow up in such circumstances, but she had Hardestadt as a father, Thorunn for a mother, and she had already seen a latent spark behind Grete's adorable curiosity that would blossom to something grand.
It had been an honor to see her grow up, by Hardestadt's side. Eliza had always wondered what it would be like to see a child of her own grow up; the mystical feeling that must have come with being a mother.
"Tea, milady Cortly," Hardestadt said, suddenly coming with a steaming cup of white china, filled with a creamy, thick tea. It was on a plate with small, crumbling cookies at the side, and in Hardestadt's other hand he held a teapot, hand-painted with violet rose designs. Eliza took the plate, dipping her head appreciatively.
"Quite appreciated," she said, sitting the warm plate on her lap and taking a sip of the tea. It was strong, strong indeed–but with a pleasantly surprising sweetness that tickled her tongue. She smiled, a bit quizzically, as Hardestadt rested the tea down. "Oh, this is new. Is this a native brand?"
"From East Frisia, actually," Hardestadt said. "The teapot, too. Sad as it is to say, most of this country favors coffee beans. But Frisia? You add a candy called a kluntje to melt in the tea and lighten the bitter taste, add some thick cream, and mix. How do you like it?"
"It's unique," Eliza said, dipping one of the cookies in the tea and biting into it. "Mmm. You are indeed a man of taste, Hardestadt!"
"I'm glad you've received it so well," Hardestadt said, with a sincere smile. He walked over to Eliza, his eyes met with hers. "Please. Anything I can do to make you at home."
"This is quite enough," Eliza said, savoring the next sip of tea. "Oh, but this is all lovely. The opera, the tea, the accommodation... a very pleasant place. How did you find it?"
"First time my business was needed in Bavaria," Hardestadt said. "One of many that serves its purpose. There's a story attached to this one, though... from some decades ago. I came down for a day or two to a hamlet, west of Nuremburg along a strip of farmland. There was a flock of nachtkrapp from the nearby wood, aggressively trying to pick off children in the dead of night. Nothing that couldn't be taken care of... but six months later, past midnight, when I was returning? Right outside the street, some bastard pounced on me–" Hardestadt swept his hand downward as Eliza listened intently, sipping her tea, "–from the roof. It was a nachtkrapp. It had been there, waiting, in the dark of night, knowing I'd be there, and nobody had seen it... it only lasted three seconds. But I could tell from the scar along its breast that it had been one of the ones I thought I'd killed back in that hamlet."
"And it chased you all the way here?" Eliza said.
"Over six months," Hardestadt said. "The persistence of some things truly is admirable, sometimes."
Indeed, Eliza thought. She thought of how long she'd continued on, time after time again, and thought the same of Hardestadt and a past she still knew so little about in the grand scheme of things. She wondered about what must have driven that monster, to drive it for six months across Germany, to die at the same blade that killed its flock.
She found her mind on the tragedy what happened when those persistent things stopped.
"Something on your mind?" Hardestadt asked, instantly seeing the small change in Eliza's happy demeanor. Her gaze fell away from Hardestadt for a second, a tea-dipped cookie still in her hand.
"Just letting my mind wander," she sighed. "Grete. She truly is...?"
"As well as can be," Hardestadt said. "I promise." He studied her look for a second, then came a bit closer.
"...You must miss her, don't you?" Eliza said, finally. "Thorunn. To think she'd have to grow up without a mother. She has a wonderful father, though."
"It's a tragedy she can't be here, with us, to see what our little wolf is becoming," Hardestadt replied, somewhat ruefully. "I've already told you that I didn't love her. Not in the same way as Maria, or Kanti, or Hild. But she was... a good, good friend. One of the best I've ever known. Of course I miss her, and of course I wonder about the life Grete could have lived where Thorunn could have... seen her." He smiled, suddenly. "But that hole hasn't been completely empty in her life, you know."
"It hasn't?" Eliza asked. Hardestadt put a gentle hand on her shoulder–and she noted to herself he seemed utterly pleased when she didn't flinch in the slightest in response to it.
"Eliza... I am enormously grateful for your presence in her life," he said. "I can say that as many times as I have to. She trusts you. She looks up to you. And I'm happy you're the one she's looking up to. You never have to hold yourself to any of the other women from my life, Eliza. Honest."
Eliza's smile came back, even though it seemed slightly heavier. "...I'm honored, Hardestadt. Truly, I am. To play however small a part in your life, and hers..."
Hardestadt squeezed her shoulder gently and leaned down, taking his hand in hers. His violet eyes were non-judgmental, as earnest as she'd ever seen on a man. "This isn't a small part, Eliza. Not at all."
They held each other's gaze for another moment, the scent of tea still in the air, as Eliza contemplated the things she felt when she looked into his eyes–the fires, fires almost seeming rekindled. She hadn't felt like this in so, so long–feel like what?
Some part of her denied it. She remembered Aisling, of that freckled face that must have been holding out for her. She remembered the promise she'd made to her.
But she could be anywhere. She could be dead.
No. Aisling was better than that.
But here I am...
...and I have no idea how to feel anymore.
She wondered if he was just as confused about this as she was.
Vicente sobbed quietly in the sands of the Atlantic coast, some number of miles away from the barren area of moorland that had, in a time not remembered by Earth anymore, once been called Antiga.
This was the third time he'd woken up, spared, merely for the thrill of seeing him run some more. Once again the Consultant vanished with the fogs, erasing any identity of the victims in the real world, nobody to remember or mourn the thousands lost–all over again, like always, like always.
His arms had regenerated, at least, but the Consultant had once again left the scars to make sure they weren't free; from his right shoulder down to his mid-arm had been engraved, deeply and crudely, the word "NEVER." It stung like fire in his skin like it had the first time, the salty ocean water spilling into the wound as he writhed in the tide like the devil's spit in his wound. He couldn't summon the strength to stop wallowing at the cusp of the Atlantic ocean.
He'd ran, ran, ran, then collapsed with nobody around for miles to see him sob and break on the coast of the Algarve, the sky dark and the beach around him shrouded with briny fog. Seaweed draped over him as he wailed out, collapsed by the tide.
Vicente so sincerely wished the tide could have taken him into its dark, suffocating embrace, and then that would be that. The regeneration seemed more a curse now, than a convenience. It had already occurred to him.
I can try this again as many times as I want and keep humoring that thing. I can try to fight it as much as I want. I can do what she said; keep getting up, and up, and up, for that one sliver of a chance I can make it.
And I can fail over and over again, and thousands will die each time.
You were wrong, Eliza.
He felt disillusioned and mystified. He'd known Eliza for two years, but he'd gotten traces of the pain she'd left behind her. Always she'd mentioned there had been so many disciples before him, and so many times Eliza said with such terrible sadness in her beautiful face, that not all of them had made it.
Yet she pressed on. For how many years, she had pressed on.
For what? To save a Seer, while everyone else dies? To continue watching that masked creature destroy life after life while you run from it all, and resigning yourself to helplessness–uselessness?
He didn't know how, or why, or what worth she saw in doing so anymore. Antiga and the screams of all those in the town, of that little boy in the grasp of the Needler before he'd–and now he was here, a pathetic wretch breaking down in the water, after the third time he had seen this without being able to do anything about it. He couldn't even say his effort had done anything.
But how many times had she seen a village burn to ash, or elude the grip of the Consultant while her student paid the price? She kept going on, kept telling all the others to keep going on–he couldn't do this. If he tried to live a normal life, thousands would pay for it and the Consultant would toss him back again, laughing silently behind that damn black mask.
How does she do it?
The spark he felt in himself when he envisioned her smiling face was gone. Vicente felt slighted by the memory of her happy face, now, how she still had the power to smile–when he had the lives of three towns, and nothing else to show for his attempt at a successful life. The masked face stayed in his head, mocking him with its faceless silence.
He was her property. That was all he'd amounted to.
Then you lied, Eliza.
As Vicente scrambled further onto the beach, dropping the urge to dunk his head into the salty ocean water and drown himself, he collapsed when the sand became dry and silky. His clothes were waterlogged now and he was freezing cold in the night air. He shivered and sniveled, ineffectually huddling up to himself as he wondered and blamed and hated.
The fog seemed to grow thicker, thicker yet before Vicente noticed a shape within in. His eyes were blurry with pain and tears, and his focus was destroyed. The searing pain in his right arm from the tag carved into him distracted him further, as he squinted into the fog, seeing the shape coming closer. He tried to push himself up, and groaned as he rolled over onto his side, what little energy he'd retained in his depressive breakdown refusing to come back.
As he stared at the dark and cloudy sky, his breath hot and his body cold, he saw a face in the blurry fog. He strained before the blurry face leaned closer, and Vicente suddenly felt a cold hand on his sodden chest.
"Come, Vicente," commanded a voice, a new and beckoning voice, oddly clear to him even as his hearing remained muffled. "Up now. There's hardly anything my little rainbow can do to you that can't be undone with a flick of my wrist."
"Who–" Vicente said, before gagging on a sudden cough. He was helped up by the strange man with the melodic voice, and suddenly realized his senses were clearing up. He felt his breath return into his lungs easier, the pain in his throat and chest welling down, as his head cleared of the numbness and muffles and his sight returned. Vicente became consciously aware of the hand that had helped him up, and tapped his chest, was now clutching his shoulder, his grip firm but gentle, calculatedly so.
The fires in his arm were going out. He felt his skin closing, the blood seeping back within to his skin, the bloody red word closing itself up–until not a trace of red was left in his arm, and he felt the pains all cleared away. He looked at his mysterious benefactor, stunned.
"There," it said, proud of its casual restoration of Vicente's body. "You can hear me now, can't you? Excellent."
His skin was pale, as white and bloodless as Vicente's own, and his eyes a beady, dimly glittering black. He stood tall, slender in the fog, seeming untouched by the fog as he stood there grinning at Vicente. He wore a suit of extravagant black, deep violet gems of some exquisite rarity pinned showily to his packed sleeves. He looked at Vicente as though they were already well-acquainted, his grin frozen on his face as he tilted his head in response to Vicente's wordless shock.
"Well?" he said, clicking his tongue. "She didn't take your tongue too now, did she?"
"Who are you?" Vicente tried again, his voice more clear than I was expecting.
The grin the dark-eyed man wore drew up a bit higher. Vicente stared at his face, and almost felt like he recognized it, but there was something off he was struggling to place. His face seemed wrong, almost distorted subtly, his eyes the wrong size, his smile too uneven. It was like a double-image; not quite one face, not quite the other, hovering between the two uncannily. The man smiled with a self-awareness of his own oddity, offering a polite hand in greeting to Vicente.
"You may call me someone with an interest in your health, Vicente," he said, with a voice as smooth as milk. "You may call me... a friend."
He saw them through the eyes of Eliphas Coyte. He saw them together as one. He saw them united. The Seer, Eliza Cortly, Coyte's obsession for eight decades. She was as radiant as he had believed she would be, with her white-silk hair, her cherry red eyes burning with the spark of hope after years of pain. This one, who held fast to her hope after so long.
And him. It was him, it was him! Standing with her, at her side, it was him. His precious, beloved, most treasured plaything. It was Daemon, his Daemon. He never imagined it, never imagined them being brought together. He saw Daemon rise for her, fight for her. He saw the way they looked at one another. He saw the smoldering embers there.
It was more than he could have hoped for. It was amazing, it was splendid, it was...
He began to laugh, long and loud. He threw his head back, roaring with laughter more intense than anything Eliphas Coyte had heard before his final fate. His laughter rebounded over the Remeditary, through the Dreamlands and through the world, bringing nightmares to millions of troubled souls. He laughed, and when he finally stopped, he wore a grin of savage triumph.
"Truly," he said. "Truly. Fate is such a wondrous, splendid thing!" He leaned back, recalling the face before him, remembered those emerald eyes, that pitying smile.
"Don't you think so, too...Aleviel?"