“Remember tonight … for it is the beginning of always.”
– Dante Alighieri
Louis was finally asleep on the couch in the living room. Lenore followed Bobbi into the study and watched her stumble as she walked up to a bookshelf along the back wall.
The woman still held the small bottle of vodka in her left hand, but didn’t notice when it fell and smashed on the parquet floor. Holding a lower shelf to balance herself, she reached up and removed a thick leather-bound volume. When she dropped it to the desk, Lenore saw that it was only half of a book.
Hidden behind it was a square object that gleamed in the light when the woman’s shaking hand pulled it free.
“I kept it, hoping it would help Jack complete his father’s work someday. Then the nightmares drove him mad. He began to ask me if I had it but I lied, afraid of what he’d do with it. I thought, if they came again… I’d learned how to use it to make them go away.”
“Yes, I know. Kirsty has one, too. She calls it ‘insurance’, but she wouldn’t let me use it to find Jack.”
“That horrible woman. She judges me for something I don’t even understand, but I can feel it – she hates me.”
“No, mother. Kirsty is just afraid of her own desires, and arrogant – she values her own trials over those of others. She doesn’t understand the puzzle box like I do. They can be used in many ways.”
“Please – just let me see my son again. He must have found another box. I didn’t protect him and I must know if he is all right. I dream of him, calling to me. Couldn’t they take him like they did you, and let him live there?”
“He was taken before me and I wasn’t allowed to see where he was kept, but he is there – no one taken in that manner can easily return.” She held out her hands and smiled sweetly. “Give me the box.”
A phone rang in the kitchen. The servant picked it up. Bobbi’s eyes darted to the doorway, to the voice in the kitchen. “That will be your father. They’ll come here; I told Marta to tell them you were here. He’ll want to see you, and see Jack, too. We should wait.”
“He will bring Joey, and Kirsty. They won’t want us to open the box – they don’t understand things like we do. If they get here and stop us, they’ll take the box away and we’ll never find Jack.” Holding her gaze, Lenore took a step closer. “Give me the box, mother.”
When it touched her skin, a flash of memory almost stunned her. The Favored Son had held this configuration once with his own hands. A sense of his power flowed through her, and with it one of his countless names.
Xipe Totec. She shuddered with longing. Vasa Iniquitatis, I come. Lenore pressed the small round button on one side before turning the box over and stroking her thumb around the circle at the center of the pattern, willing it to open. Bring me into the presence of the Suffragor Filius. Flesh of Leviathan, bring me to my beloved lord.
The sound of the chimes, a soft and simple but haunting tune, made her laugh with delight even as her eyes filled with tears. The circle she had caressed moved and rose. Opening her hands, she watched the pieces move. The blue flash of the Black Diamond’s lightning struck pleasure deep in her body as the puzzle box changed, turned, and reformed on her joined palms. At the first somber toll of the great bell, the wretched woman behind her gasped.
A wind engulfed the room as cracks formed in the wall beside the bookcase. The breach between the twin planes of existence grew quickly, shooting bolts of lightning into the room that exploded and burned things around them.
The chimes had ceased. The woman screamed when the shapes stepped into view, but the tolling bell and the frantic flutter of unseen dark wings drowned out the human voice.
Lenore held the solved puzzle box in her hands as the Cenobite stepped into the room, his arms opened to receive her. Clutching the box in her left hand, she ran forward with a cry, feeling his arms wrap around her, the touch of the golden pins in her hair.
“You have done well, child.”
“Yes,” spoke a hungry female voice behind him. “Very well.”
Opening her eyes, Lenore saw a human woman step around them and advance on Bobbi. Drawing in a ragged breath, she asked, “Who is that?”
“Julia has earned favor with Leviathan.”
“She isn’t the one, is she?” Lenore stepped back as he released her. “Father said you wanted Kirsty – but she isn’t worthy, my lord. She is repulsed by the servants of our god.”
“The Daughter of Hell is not yet free of human emotions? Jealousy I sense in you … and a compassion for this flesh that cowers before us?”
Bobbi fell to her knees, tears streaming down her face. “Please, Renée – make them give Jack to me…”
“This woman, she was kind to me when the others turned away in fear and suspicion … and my father asked me not to allow her to be harmed.”
“Daughter, the being you know as your sire lives in me. You have felt it, and denied it in your heart because the shade still seeks to fight my will. Yet your pledge was to me and you must obey my commandments.”
“Will you make me what you are at last?”
“You shall stand before Leviathan and be judged. If it is to be, the Engineer will initiate you into the Order of the Gash. If you are worthy. The choice before you is the same choice you made once, with reservations in your heart. Serve me now without question or forsake my sermons forever.”
The points of the box pricked her palm and fingers as she tightened her grip. Her tears fell as she bowed her head. “What must I do?”
“Give this flesh as a gift to Leviathan’s servant.”
Deaf to the sobs behind her and the hands that reached for her, she whispered, “She shall have it, at your will, Vasa Iniquitatis.”
Lenore turned, feeling his cold hands cup her shoulders. The woman named Julia bent, displaying a wide gaping wound in the skin of her back. Her hands pressed to the sides of Bobbi’s head, the touch making her scream.
The woman who had given her birth in this world seemed to blacken and melt. The greed and triumph shining in the other woman’s eyes was manic, starved. Faded beauty was crushed into ugliness between her hands as the terrible red wound in her back slowly healed. The screams were silenced long before the skin of the back was smooth. Dropped to the floor, the corpse was nothing but a dark and dried husk.
“Is she a Cenobite?” Pressing herself into his body, she felt his lips at her ear.
“No. Julia was human, killed by another who had escaped us, taken in this manner by him, as she has taken many and will claim more. Leviathan has allowed her to return to Chaos to bring him souls.” His gift of pain seeped slowly, deliciously, into her body from his. She felt it invade her soul. “But you – are mine,” he breathed.
“Yes…” A memory jolted her and she turned to face him. “My lord, the others are coming here. The other woman, the servant, told them I was here.”
“Once again, Kirsty seeks another only to find me. Go my daughter, stand before Leviathan – but do one thing first. Take me to the Toymaker, the heir of the Merchant line. I feel him near.”
“Louis… My lord, he is only a baby. He cannot threaten us.”
“His existence threatens Leviathan himself – yet a babe cannot complete the configuration begun by his father.” He turned away from her at a distant sound in the house. A door? “Take him, child. Bring him to our god as an offering for your judgment.”
“Vasa Iniquitatis, please – will you not come? Your teachings, the creatures of the Labyrinth –”
“A Hunter waits in the Chamber of the Schism to guard you, and Angelique is there to welcome you home along with one other. They will see you safely through.”
She caught his right hand and kissed his fingers swiftly before she ran from the study, wiping away the human tears that shamed her. The living room was changed by the Schism, too – ripped by a wide breach in the far wall.
Louis was awake and crying. He held out his tiny arms to her and she scooped him up, letting him sob into her hair. Approaching the breach, her heart leapt to see Angelique holding out a pale hand to her.
Holding the child and the box, she couldn’t take the Cenobite’s hand. The moment of hesitation was shattered by the door crashing in and footsteps running to stop her. Dropping the box to the floor, she reached out and grasped her old teacher’s hand firmly.
“Lenore! Oh, God, no!”
Kirsty had cried out, but Joey and the man named Tom had burst in behind her. Lenore stepped through the breach and turned. Their faces were full of horror. A twinge of regret for their earlier kindness haunted her, but her path was clear, the choice made.
“Louis! Don’t take my son!” The man pushed beyond the women standing frozen with fear.
“He is not of your blood. He belongs to my god now.”
She turned away and found the others ready to protect her. The beast that crouched near, ready to spring if commanded, was a horrific thing. Trusting in the Pontifex, she passed by it holding tight to Angelique’s hand.
“They will try to take him. I’m to give him to Leviathan.”
“Come. Face and I will guide you swiftly down halls where they cannot follow.”
She only looked back once. The face of Kirsty Cotton was etched with anguish and a strangled desire – but she wasn’t following, and she couldn’t be made the consort of Xipe Totec without the Engineer. Her voice called out, but not to the lover who fled from them all. Whatever they had once been to each other, they were enemies now, and rivals.
The stones of the Labyrinth seemed to melt and flow beneath her feet. Was it the power of the Cenobites who helped her? Her human vision blurred, her thoughts torn apart in confusion as they propelled her into the presence of the god.
Lenore gasped when the sensations stopped. She gripped the child tightly to her chest, feeling his fists locked around her neck. A throbbing hum hit her body with a power that drove her to her knees between the two pale and mutilated figures. The child screamed in her ear, but it made no sound over the song of Leviathan.
The roving black lights emanating from the giant diamond, circling eternally, fell over her and the child. The light bathed her bowed head in dark blessings, showing her every desire in her beating heart, every dream and secret wish in her flayed and supplicant soul.