“Collapsed paradise, laid waste to the masses.”
– Lines from Life of Uncertainty by It Dies Today
“Kirsty hopes to reclaim my acolyte and in doing so, save herself. A thin dream, not easily realized – and she knows it.” Xipe Totec fell silent, deep in thought.
He paced the gray expanse of a subterranean corridor with a few followers in his wake. Angelique, Balberith, and Face might have remained at a distance out of reverence, but he doubted it. They despised the creature who walked at his side – the resourceful and nearly restored Julia.
“I didn’t know this girl – is there a danger of her being swayed?”
“Not by Kirsty.” Xipe Totec smiled. “The Daughter of Hell has renounced the influence of the only one who might have changed her course, swearing herself to my service alone.”
“And that of Leviathan, my lord,” Julia muttered, eyes barely downcast as she dared to correct him.
He led them into the massive grand hall where the throng of Cenobites, acolytes, soldiers, creatures, and other denizens of the Labyrinth parted before him and closed again behind his train. Overhead, the ornate arches spanning the hall vaulted into infinity. Every stone echoed the voice of Leviathan beyond.
Seen or unseen, but heard and felt by all, the Black Diamond thrummed with power as the Pontifex approached the dais.
A light touch on the sleeve of his garment made him pause. Turning back to the woman, he gestured to give her permission to speak.
“My lord, your promise…” Julia’s voice drained away in the rising din of the throng. All eyes were on him – so also, they watched her.
“Do not fear. When the time comes, you will have your chance, as well as all the rewards you have earned. Await me in the Chamber of the Schism when this is finished. The time for which we have all labored is almost upon us.”
Embodiment of the will of Leviathan, the being called Xipe Totec mounted the steps to the dais alone. Against the curve of the stairs, a monster stood. The beast growled with pleasure at the stroke of its master’s hand as he ascended, its red eyes closing. When they opened again, it stared balefully out at the minions of the Labyrinth, daring them to come too near – but the chatter of its hideous fangs, as long as the master’s hands, kept the hordes at a respectful distance.
The Prince of Hell turned and faced them, watching their disparate tortured forms as they grew quiet. Here and there, one or two earned a slight nod as he met their gaze.
Newly restored by the Engineer, the three greatest members of his own Gash stood together to the right of the dais. Pride surged to see that they had defeated the aberrant Surgeon’s attempt to destroy them as completely as he had. The alluring female, Falln, gifted him a secret smile. She was ready – they all were.
Finding the gruesome splendor of the Engineer as he hung from one of the main arches, the Cenobite shared a private smile with his oldest comrade-in-arms. The coming victory, whatever path it took, belonged to the Engineer as much as it did the Favored Son. They, two of the elder beings of the Labyrinth, had toiled far longer than any others for the glory of Leviathan.
His words to the host rang out in a sepulchral baritone, heard not only in the arched roofless hall, but echoing through every stone and facet of the Labyrinth.
“For eons we have served, beating back the encroaching abomination of Chaos. Through cracks in the order of the world the enemy seeps, changing the immutable. Now the time is near when we may enter Chaos en masse, expose its living heart, and tear it from its foundations.”
The host roared, stamped, and screamed. He didn’t need to quiet them. Their frenzy was his accolade. His voice rose effortlessly over them.
“In the wake of this martial carnage will come the gift of order. The rites of suffering will bring the few denizens found worthy into the Religion of Sorrows, where their devotion shall increase the glory of Leviathan for all eternity.”
Not surprisingly, the Engineer had disappeared. He was impatient with the ungoverned rabble and had no doubt gone to the private meeting chamber that lay behind the dais.
Many ancient members of the Order of the Gash remained, silent and regal, around the hall. They had grown in both favor and power over millennia. Yet their numbers had waned in the wars against Chaos and Morté Mamme. In this coming war, the vast numbers of the horde would have to suffice – with fewer abbats to lead them. The newest among the Order were not as strong, for the old ways had not been used to make them.
To the left of the dais stood a female and male – two of the ancillary Cenobites he had made in the midst of Chaos to torment Joey. The female watched him with a frenzied adulation as the male coldly observed the throng, his lens bringing various faces in and out of focus. These were two he hoped to set on Joey one final time and they were sufficient for that at least … but such specifics could wait.
“The gate we desire is beyond the limits of the configurations of the past. Once it is opened, there will be no end to our rampage. The enemy will drown in their own blood, and our pleasures unleashed will teach them our sermons. This will be our path, this day or another. First the key to the gate must be found, shaped, and turned. I shall go before you and seek this key, this blood that attempts to defy Leviathan’s edict. If it will not be used, it will be crushed and fed to the Black Diamond. Leviathan shall have the victory, in the envelopment of a great enemy, or through engorging on the children of Chaos.”
He caught Balberith’s eye and her soft smile. The tiny Cenobite female was one of the old ones, and one of those who missed she whom he would bring forth again.
“One more thing I will give to you, the faithful,” he added, raising his palms, arms spread wide. “It is long since the blade of the Harrower cleaved one of the greatest of our host. The flesh that dared such a grievous thing still bleeds, held by the bonds of Leviathan’s defeated enemy, Morté Mamme. By that flesh, and by my own, I swear to bring the majesty of the Lady Merkova back to the service of Leviathan. Then shall the halls of Chaos tremble as we lead you all to fight – in a war to end all wars.”
The host capered and screamed, the hellish noise of it pleasing him. His hands lowered and fisted at his sides, as his gaze swept over the hall.
Hear them, my love. They long for your unholy power to bathe and soothe them once again. Without you, Leviathan forgive me, this victory would be hollow, as would eternity. Soon, I will know your touch once more, and when I am again your thrall, refracted in eyes that rival the blessed abyss, I shall turn our enemy into a husk of death – a shell of lost souls stitched in train for our pleasure.
Xipe Totec raised his hands up over them in the form of Leviathan’s benediction.
“Go, children of Leviathan, make ready – and the dark blessings of the Black Diamond be upon you.”
He turned and descended the opposite stair into the wide mouth of a tunnel. The scratch of talons and chatter of teeth followed him into the darkness. Opening the iron doors with his will, he walked into the dimly lit audience chamber with the monster at his heels.
Without looking at the number of his bothers and sisters gathered there, he went to his chair and sat, leaning back with his fingers forming a temple against his lips. The hellbeast curled at his feet, the clink of its metal collar sounding hollow as it rested its head on the stones.
Many promises you make, came the metal voice of the Engineer, heard by all. Can you keep them? He hung from the Arch of Torments that led back to the Chamber of the Schism.
“Listen to what is said between the words,” Xipe Totec replied. “You will find I have not perjured myself.”
“But my lord,” Angelique interrupted, “if the gate proves impossible to open now as before –”
“Then it will be accomplished in time,” Balberith answered with a chuckle. “You are a clever one. Worthy of a politician as well as a priest.” She sighed in contentment. “Ah, to have Merkova with us again – oh, I have prayed that Leviathan would show you a way.”
Face, leaning against a wall near the sullen Atkins, turned from a whispered conversation with the soldier to speak to their leader. “Every effort to reclaim Merkova has failed. What is different now, lord?”
“If ever a soul existed that was worthy of my lady, it is the soul of our long sought Kirsty Cotton. I have taken more care in the teachings and plumbed the depths of her secret desires. I found a creature well able to allow Merkova to return.”
You must bring her to me. The Engineer swayed slightly, his many hands grasping eagerly at the air. The old ways are needed for the rebirth of such a being.
Atkins grinned. “Yeah, Top. No homemade job for the exalted skirt. Can’t wait to see her do her thing again myself.” He crossed his arms over his barrel chest, mimicking the ammunition belts that were woven in and out of his torso. “Then we can get the real war on, with or without the big gate.”
Xipe Totec rose from the chair. The hellbeast picked up its head to watch him. He glanced at Atkins and then at the others. “The real object of the next confrontation with Chaos, Armorer, is to find the current Toymaker. The manner of his death will be determined by his ability to activate the gate. If it is opened, he will be rewarded with the blessing of joining our crusade. If not, I will claim his life and end the bloodline. To this end, I sent my acolyte into Chaos. She is almost finished with her task and I have called her home. When she returns, the Toymaker’s fate, and the glory of our god, will be assured.”
He walked to the Engineer, his pet at his side. Raising his hands to him, the Engineer clasped them with a pair of his.
“For the other matter, I will bring her to you. May Leviathan grant our prayer, and return our most beloved sister to us at last.” Releasing his hands, he turned to the others. “Angelique, Face – accompany me.”
Face strode confidently at his side under the arch. Angelique stood a moment watching the Engineer detach himself and disappear down another twining corridor. She fell in step behind the beast before they turned the next corner.
They entered the Chamber of the Schism and found Julia waiting. Before she turned, the narrow strip of red muscle was still visible in the center of her back, studded with the white points of her exposed spine.
Facing them, the gown she wore was dark gray and elegant, the long hem of it appearing to melt into the stones at her feet. Her smile was controlled, fabricated. She didn’t trust him, as rightly she should not. Behind her, the Schism began to form in the air.
“My lord, I am ready and await your will,” Julia whispered, bowing her head to him.
“The acolyte is not to be touched.” Xipe Totec looked around at them all. “She is mine.”
“What if it is some other?” Angelique asked. “Or she may not wish to give up the Toymaker. He is of the flesh that gave her life.”
“It is she. Do not assume she holds human weaknesses. The Daughter of Hell is more devout than you have ever been.”
Face couldn’t hide his anticipation. “Will the one called Kirsty be with her?”
The question of the Cenobite thespian hung in the electrified air. The Schism split, and Xipe Totec opened his arms in greeting. An indistinct shape through the Lament Configuration’s gate slowly became clearer. Long golden curls framed a pale oval face, and the blue eyes were bright with tears.
A shape in her slender fingers – the box – had not flown from her to complete its movements. Created from the flesh of Leviathan, it sensed the touch of one dedicated to the god.