“I am the brightest light beaming from the darkest depths. A dichotomy, I am … Illumination.”
– Jaeda DeWalt
They could have been brothers, in some ways. In others, no two beings were ever less alike. Lenore didn’t know if her new connection to Xipe Totec through his blood had given her this revelation or if it was something she had always suspected. What was the meaning of the puzzle?
Elliott had fallen silent after she had told him of the Cenobite’s gifts and his intention to send her into Chaos. In his stillness, the resemblance to her lord was haunting.
“Remember your promise,” he finally whispered. “See how humans live, how they love. Experience the simplicity of it. You don’t know real love; in this place, you can’t know it.”
“I love.” She reached out to touch his hand and held it in hers. “I love you and I love him.”
“The love of a dutiful daughter?” His blue eyes searched hers.
Lenore blushed. “I’m your daughter. I am his acolyte. I want to be worthy of him. I will be.”
“If you follow him blindly, you will never learn what I would teach you.”
“Father, your purpose and his are alike. I am to learn about desire, pleasure and pain … and love.”
“His ‘gifts’ may have already destroyed your ability to judge human pleasure fairly. What of your origins? I’ve told you about your birth world. You have a family there. Will you seek them out?”
“Why should I? My family is here.”
He touched her face with his fingertips, a sad smile on his lips. “Try to find a family named Merchant. Show them the tattoo on your back. If you do nothing else I ask of you, do that one thing. Swear it.”
“Father, I will.” She reached for him and sighed when he held her close. The comforting sound of his heartbeat was loud against her ear.
~ ~ ~
One hundred and thirty golden pins adorned the head of the Favored Son of Leviathan. Ten silver hooks pierced his flesh. He was called Xipe Totec, a name that meant ‘our god, the flayed one’, in the timeless language of the Labyrinth, taught to an ancient race in the realm of Chaos.
Lenore stood at his side and studied his cold grace, his ethereal soulless beauty. What ornamentation might she receive some day? What mark would Leviathan give her … and would it please her lord, make her beautiful in his sight? Elliott had told her she was lovely – a stunning beauty by the standards of men. Yet what did men matter to her? She loved the immortal Chosen One of her god.
In these last days she had perceived a rivalry between her father and this one she wanted to serve, heart and soul. The discord confused her but her path and her choices were clear.
Her fingers stroked the thin white cotton of her shift. This last ritual would prepare her to enter Chaos. She recited the tenets of the Order of the Gash under her breath to calm her fear.
“The Engineer is here,” Xipe Totec said, calling her attention back to the arched doorway.
A creature stranger and more terrible than any she had seen in Hell hung suspended from the arch. Its huge amber eyes with alien pupil slits watched her with an unsettling intelligence.
When it dropped, she saw that it resembled a scorpion, though it was larger than a man. Its bare flesh and many clawed hands glistened with a viscous fluid. The sounds it made were insectile screeches and chitterings – yet she heard its voice in her mind.
The acolyte is ready.
Xipe Totec led her to the stone sarcophagus that dominated the room. She had never seen it before, though they stood in his chambers in a room she knew. He opened it with his unseen power and she saw an apparatus like veins weaving in and out of it, as a chill was released into the room.
He helped her into it and she lay quietly, watching his expressionless face as the heavy lid closed over her. The cold pierced her body like a blade … but there was no pain.
~ ~ ~
When she woke, the world had changed. A stone chamber, a creature born of nightmare, and a being that held the form of a man – these things were strange and familiar at once.
Lenore reached instinctively to take the pale hand of the man. Stepping down to the floor, she shivered.
“My child,” he whispered, the cold baritone voice sparking memories. “This disorientation will pass but the work of the Engineer is – eternally sublime.”
Chaos will take her memory, the Engineer’s mind spoke to them both. Seek a configuration – flesh of the god Leviathan – and know yourself again.
Her hand rose to touch the whorls and runes in the black leather the man wore. No, not man, she thought, awed and humbled. Not human.
The regal angelic being took her hand in his cold fingers and placed the tips of her fingers in the red wounds that flayed his chest. She felt the wet gore with wonder, stroking the perfect symmetry of the six silver hooks that held down the flesh.
“Short is the pain,” he said, bowing his head to touch hers with the shining golden pins that crowned him.
“Long is the ornament,” she breathed the ritual words, though she had no memory of learning them. “My lord … Suffragor Filius…” She fell against him and he swung her up easily in his arms. As he carried her out, she watched the glittering intelligent eyes in the face of the monster over his shoulder. It stared back at her with ancient knowledge. “The Engineer,” she whispered, and then she turned her face to her lord’s chest.
The Favored Son took her to a bedchamber and laid her down to sleep. She felt him watching over her as she tasted his blood again from her fingers. The visions it gave were unclear but she sought the connection it offered, binding her soul to his will with a fierce unnamed need.
~ ~ ~
Lenore felt strange when she woke again, almost heavy. The room was familiar, though it seemed to be part of a dream she hadn’t shaken.
At the foot of the bed, the Cenobite stood. His face was lit with a dark glorious light and the knowledge drifted slowly into her mind – it was the mark of one who had been blessed to stand in Leviathan’s presence. Yet his face haunted her, beyond the blessings that marked him.
The set of the eyes, the cleft of the chin… “Father?”
“That one cannot speak to you now. You no longer dream.”
A wash of regret and need passed through her, numbing her. “I wanted to say good-bye.”
He turned away, his measured steps echoing off of the stones. “It is time. The Guardian has found a supplicant that serves our purpose.”
Lenore hurried to follow him but her movements were sluggish and she almost fell. Her body felt awkward and numb. He faced her when she reached his side. Wordlessly, he offered her his arm and together they left his private chambers and entered the Labyrinth.
So many things had changed. Her senses were dim, her perceptions mixed. She traced the pattern on his leather sleeve with her fingertips to calm herself but the comfort it had always given was muted.
A deep tolling thrum settled in her ears and throat like pressure. Its longer and shorter notes overlapped and became a chant without words.
“What is it?” She clung to his arm, feeling both wonder and fear.
“The voice of Leviathan, whom I serve – and into whose service you go.”
“What is wrong with me, my lord? I’ve changed … it’s all different. Why?” She felt tears wet her eyes as he stopped and faced her.
Two fingers, one a touch of flesh, one of leather, brushed the tears away. “Such beautiful suffering – desperate to understand, unable to perceive. You are human, child. The clarity and grace of dreams is ended.”
Lenore reached up and touched his face. The pallid flesh was chilled, glowing with the ethereal light of his god – her god. His black eyes absorbed all other light, drawing it into the emptiness inside his ancient and eternal form.
“My body is different, too. Is this the change you spoke of, before I could share in your work?”
The rounded tips of the pins touched her fingers as he gave her a slight smile. He only stood a few inches taller than she did now. “It is not. The Engineer has transformed your body to match your dreaming soul. You remain all too human.”
“I want to be like you.”
“Patience. There are things that must come before, trials and lessons to prepare you.”
Her fingers slipped to his chest as she bowed her head. “Afterward, if I am judged worthy…?”
“Then you will serve Leviathan at my side, ascended to an exquisite emptiness, wreathed with dark blessings. The true beauty of suffering will transform you one final time – and you shall crush eternity beneath you.”
“And I will be yours,” she whispered, afraid she dared too much.
His fingers tilted her face up to his and his mouth covered hers in a sacred touch, presenting her with his gifts again in a glorious mix that left her deliciously weak. When he released her, she could still feel the press of the pins against her face.
“In the moment that I claim your soul, you will know your true name – and all of Chaos will tremble.”
He led her down the corridor, through the song of the Black Diamond, to the Chamber of the Schism.
Lenore had never seen it opened before. The breach between the worlds began as a tear in the air of the room, and then the Schism took the form of a brick wall that shook and separated. The force of the breach destroyed many unseen things beyond it, opened wider, and finally shuddered still.
Xipe Totec stood before it. With his will alone, he summoned chains. They issued from the substance of Hell itself and erupted into the human world, barbed and lethal. The screams they dragged from the living, bleeding being in the room beyond were deafening.
When he moved into the breach, Lenore started to follow. Then she found Angelique at her side and the woman’s pale and mutilated beauty, the form of a female Cenobite, froze her in fascination.
“Wait upon his will,” Angelique intoned, her voice full of dark echoes. “You shall follow after – but this one’s blood belongs to our lord.”
She watched him claim the skin, the blood, and finally the soul. The pain of it was numbing in its glory but a twist of human jealousy grew in her at the sight of it. This being, this flesh, gave the Cenobite pleasure – as intensely as he had given it to her.
The will to be worthy burned in the withering heat of her rage at the human male who had shared this intimacy with Leviathan’s Chosen.
Xipe Totec turned, his hands uplifted to receive her. She passed through the Schism without a thought or fear and reveled in the pleasure of his touch as he drew her into his arms, soaking her shift with the blood that clung to him.
“I shall leave you here, in the care of one who will find you. Do not fear the veil that will cover your memory – seek the patterns of the Lament Configuration and you shall know again who you are and who awaits your return.”
“I obey, Vasa Iniquitatis.”
“What are the lessons, child?”
“Pleasure … and pain….”
The Schism swallowed him and without his strength of will, she fell to her knees on the blood-soaked floor of a strange human structure. Swaying, her mind falling into a fog, she stared at the place where the Cenobite had stood. As his name fled her thoughts, she slumped to the floor. A crushing loss claimed her, spinning her into darkness.