“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
– Pablo Picasso
A shadow moved behind the stylized rose of the stained glass window. When the door opened, a woman of exquisite wickedness emerged. Her smile was beguiling, if a little crooked over her mouth. She wore a close-fitting long-sleeved linen shirt the color of blood and the enticing scent of the blood-stained cloth enveloped her.
“My lord,” Julia addressed him, her eyes glancing down coquettishly. “Did you want me?” The crooked smile insinuated possibilities.
Xipe Totec was silent, listening to the howls of rage issuing from the door behind her as it closed with a slow click. Her hands, a delicate confection of bone and red muscle, entwined with white tendons, plucked at the long black silk skirt she had acquired somewhere along the halls of Hell.
“How is Frank Cotton today?” he asked her finally.
“Very well – gullible in his expectations as always. He assumes the flame of lust must rekindle eventually. It gets me close enough for what I need.”
“Allowing you to get to the heart of the matter?”
“Such a rich heart – someday his blood will restore me fully.”
“You strive needlessly.” He pinched the flap of flesh at her left collarbone and tugged the skin of her face to straighten the lips over the white fixed teeth of the smile. “Some would call you perfect as you are.”
“Still, it is my dream to serve in my own way, lord. If I am to bring souls to Leviathan, I must be able to pass as a living human.”
“On that day, I will keep my promise and let you pass through the Schism for the glory of the Black Diamond.” He turned from the door. “Walk with me.” She fell into step with him down the endless corridors of the Labyrinth. “In the pursuit of duty, one can find time for the pursuit of pleasure. My purpose encapsulates both. The great gate will be opened – eventually – and then the agent of its creation will fall at last into my hands.”
“Kirsty.” Her voice couldn’t quite hide the contempt she felt for her human step-daughter.
“The Toymaker, Lemarchand. Kirsty, if she is caught in the same net, will be a rare and much-anticipated pleasure.”
“Is it true what they say? That you hope to bring the legendary Merkova back with the soul of our dear Kirsty?”
He ignored the question and turned toward one of the gardens. They passed under the arch into a glistening array of flesh. The human bodies in myriad states of decay and mutilation gave off a pungent perfume. The Cenobite breathed in deeply.
Reaching up to caress a random torso, running his fingers through its dangling viscera, he stared up into its bright green eyes. The lower jaw was missing but if it could speak, would it plead for mercy or beg for more pain? One slow blink of the eyes told him nothing. Yet the hooks that strung it up had been called forth by the awful majesty of Merkova, long ago.
Hell was wreathed and adorned with such beautiful examples of her work and the touch of them gave a dim sense of her, like a blessed echo.
Without turning, he asked, his tone casual, “Who whispers their interpretations of my hopes?”
“I heard it first from Balberith.”
“The Librarian should know better.”
Julia’s delighted and teasing laughter rang out beside him. “She has only your best interests in mind, I think, like all the rest of them. If I may be so bold, my lord … why Kirsty? She is a simpering chaste imbecile.”
“She is much changed from the child you knew. Blood that once adorned her hands has stained her soul. The sweet scent of her hate is an intoxicant.”
“Murder done to serve revenge or to save her own skin – is that worthy of Merkova?”
“Whether or not, I will take her. It will be for my lady to decide if the flesh and soul offered is worthy to house her exalted essence.” Giving the torso a final fond stroke, he turned to Julia. “Would you not prefer to speed your own purpose by taking from the flesh of this place?” His palms lifted to offer up any of the specimens that hung about them.
“And deny Frank the pleasure of my visits?”
The Cenobite smiled. “Indeed. We must keep Uncle Frank entertained.”
“If you allowed me to enter Chaos now, I could ready myself faster, hastening the glory of Leviathan.”
“The glory of Order is not in haste … and your path is a long one by your own choices.”
“My lord, your pardon, always,” she dissembled. “Had I known the Surgeon would challenge your Dark Grace, I would never have led him into Hell.”
“Perhaps. Yet the commandments are against you in this matter … and there remains no seed of your human life in Chaos to allow you to return before your time – if you were curious.”
“My desire is to serve Hell, not to escape it, my lord.”
“You would serve better in the Order of the Gash.”
She took a step backward. “I am not worthy, surely. Restored and alive, I am free of certain binding laws that would slow my collection of souls – all the better to serve.”
“Not worthy, indeed – you are still blinded by the lies of human pleasure, human senses.” He regarded her in silence a moment and then turned away, leaving her in the garden of flesh, watched by many who had lacked the favor of Leviathan that she enjoyed. “Plan your next campaign carefully, Julia – if you fail again, the pleasures of these,” his fingers swept wide to include the extensive garden as he walked away from her, “may be all that is left to you.”
~ ~ ~
When the Schism opened again, he sent the Cenobite Face to play with the fallen one who had solved a very different puzzle. Watching the inventive play he made, Xipe Totec was caught up in the scarlet drops that ran down the threads of the giant loom. Warp and weft, they dripped together to form a spreading pool.
Shimmering there between the strands, a taunting mirage waited – a shadow that could have been the equine profile of the one that eluded him.
Do you make me wait out of some game of your own? Or has the Harrower’s blade that sundered you left you unable to consume another soul and be reborn? What if the soul of Kirsty is not enough?
Her name tugged at his thoughts. Was she dreaming again? He had not felt that feather-touch of her mind since she had consummated her bargain – when he had gone to collect the final gift she offered: the soul of her adulterous husband.
Following the sense of her, he found at last a dream of strange and enticing promise. Kirsty walked there – a thing of flesh and restless desire, tormented by hungers her waking mind could not accept as her own.
A smile on his cold lips, he slipped into her dream with such skill that she did not perceive his presence.
The image of the blonde woman Tiffany was familiar but her face was shifting into the visage of his acolyte – if she could lure Kirsty, all the better. Then the form changed entirely into one that surprised him. It was male, dressed in a uniform from one of humanity’s countless wars. Devoid of the dark blessings of Leviathan, this incubus wore his face.
I never got a chance to thank you for saving us, her dreaming mind whispered.
Her hands slid up his shoulders. Eyes closing, her lips parted, she waited for the being to move and embrace her, to take his pleasure in her. Yet the dream fought her and the image of the male did not respond. Her own unconscious guilt held it back.
Xipe Totec stepped into the image seamlessly. What would she reveal to herself if her desires were acknowledged?
Modulating his voice into the crisp British dialect of the being he wore, he smiled and answered her, his arms rising to crush her against him in the course manner of the children of Chaos. You are welcome, Kirsty.
She relaxed in his embrace with a sigh of longing. Elliott… The Cenobite said it wasn’t a gift freely given. I can’t give him my soul – but I could give you … whatever you might want.
Come now … surely the souls you gave him were enough? Such a mystery you are, so afraid of your own hungers. What do you want?
Control. I want someone incapable of betraying me.
Subjugated to your brutal will … yes … you could be worthy of my dark angel. He bent to kiss her shocked face.
Her fear as she struggled to break free of sleep was exquisite. When she woke and escaped his influence, he could still taste her desire – the denied drives that her own mind called perverted but his called ecstasy.
His hands gripped the cold stone of his chair, fingers stroking it in memory of Merkova’s diamond-hard black cloven hooves.
What time had passed since he had felt the touch of her talons or the silken flesh and fur of her thighs pinning him as her hooks tore his blood from delicious rents? How long had it been when her long tongue lapped the blood through the muzzle of bone sewn to her face? Turning his gifts on her until her delicate tall frame had shuddered with waves of pain. The song of his many names in her throat echoed in his memory, pulsing like the voice of Leviathan as their coupling gave worship unto him they served.
Leaning his head back until the jeweled pins struck the chair, he closed his black eyes. Shades around him shifted, feeling their master’s restless pent desire. Yet not one dared to offer itself to him for his pleasure. All knew that the Angel of the Abyss awaited the return of a fearsome and singular creature – and all the blood and pain in Chaos or in Hell was not enough to take her place at his side.