Only the false see life as a game, cheating and tricking for the royal flush. Only the false think life is a stage; they play their parts but never themselves. Such things are anathema to the true life, for the true life lives within itself. It lives authentically.
On Dying Well, The Eschatologies, Vol. II
Al’tis Mara’s sense of triumph didn’t last long. A few hours later, Peter was ordering her to rummage through bullock turds in a stable outside the home of one Sin Igris, a pharmacologist of noble birth recently dragooned into the services of a dark alchemistesse by the name of Trik Kobe. Al’tis felt like gagging as her user forced her to turn over lumps of steaming faeces and finger them for signs of a key which would allow her to open a hidden trapdoor within the Igris’ house.
Another mission, more nonsense. Sure, the zone of Edgefrost was new, and the quests here were novel to say the least. For the past week Peter had shuffled her back and forth to this icy region in the north of Karingali, making her work her way through a convoluted chain of quests that would climax in a new world event, ‘The Ignoble Schism.’ She’d farmed magic cabbages, returned lost children to their forest-dwelling mothers, liberated villages from freakish creatures, and now she was picking apart animal excrement to locate a key that gave access to a secret basement located in the southern wing of the house. Once in the cellar, she was to rescue a group of alchemists known as ‘the Order of the Chymes’, sour old men being kept under tight wraps by Sin Igris’ goons. Setting them free, the alchemists would give her a ring, which would unlock the next stage in the quest chain. Like all users in Karingali, Peter’s motivation was clear. Al’tis must eventually do battle with the rogue alchemistesse, presently holed up in Eleutheria, a citadel in the far north of Edgefrost. In defeating her, he would net a stack of swanky armour and rare weapons and swell his coffers with more coin than he needed.
For Peter, there were plenty of reasons to be happy, but for Al’tis there was no purpose whatsoever to any of the assignments with which she was tasked. Her growing separation from Peter was accompanied by a flourishing cynicism towards the world around her. The more she thought for herself, the more she sensed her own being, the more she realised that quest chains and missions and bounties were devoid of any intrinsic meaning. They were simply a way to entice users never to leave Karingali and desert those they possessed. And, conversely, a way of ensuring that the possessed, like her, would never be free of those who controlled them.
When Al’tis failed to locate the key in the bull faeces, Peter made her clamber into an adjacent water trough and stick her head in it in case the item had been secreted there. It hadn’t. She could have told him that if she’d been able. She’d spoken to the dwarf, Braivik, at the Silly Mule before Peter had possessed her earlier in the day, and the little man had been more than happy to oblige his dark princess of Eastwind. She’d find it, he told her, in a cooking pot in the house’s scullery. She emerged from the filthy water freezing, her long black hair matted with trough-gunk, her skin streaming trails of vapour in the winter air. Catching her broken reflection in the water, Al’tis looked the way she felt: wretched. This was what questing had turned her into—a debased errand girl for whom no dignity was afforded.
But for now, she needed that key, and after slaying the house’s patrol guards, discovered it exactly where Braivik had said. The trapdoor to which it belonged was in a large downstairs library, hidden beneath a mat turned over at one corner. Three other users had already located the access point and Peter guided her onwards to join them. They were huddled together, preparing their possessed for whatever horrors lay in wait below.
Two of the possessed belonged to Al’tis Mara’s alliance, but the other did not. It seemed that a détente of sorts had been agreed with the third for the purposes of acquiring the ring. Not that such an agreement was unusual. Possessed from opposing alliances often worked together when it was convenient, and the approaching world event of the Schism provided such a reason.
Al’tis sized up this outsider, wondering exactly how long the truce would last. She was a daemon hunter, a grey-skinned, grey-eyed character, with infantile pink pig tails, high leather boots and a skirt so short her knickers were almost visible. She looked like a whore, but since Al’tis hadn’t taken her eyes off the older woman’s skirt and fishnet tights, she knew Peter was enjoying himself. The hunter—Grimalkin—was busying her rifle, flicking the wooden catch which loaded the bullets one by one. She looked up to see Al’tis gawping at her and gawped back. One of the huddled figures stepped forward, and using the key they too had found, unlocked the trapdoor and heaved it open. The group crowded in behind him, down a flight of broken steps and into the cellar. It was not so much a place for storing dried goods as for experimenting on live patients. Everywhere Peter turned her, Al’tis saw bodies or bits of bodies. Some were dead in cages suspended from the low ceiling by iron chains. Others had been chopped up like chicken on metallic trolleys, and those parts of their anatomy that had not been of interest had been thrown indecorously into nearby buckets, their white aluminum spattered with blood. It was a butcher’s shop, but with the possessed as the produce.
The two possessed who belonged to Al’tis’ alliance, an orc called Drummond and Shifty, a goblin, were sifting through the gruesome buckets, flicking bits of blood and entrails onto the floor as they rummaged. At least Peter had the decency to save Al’tis from that particular indignity. Grimalkin, the sexually bold daemon hunter, had jumped onto a table covered with hearts, lungs and hands, and was twerking like a pole-dancer. Around and around her user turned her, gyrating her hips and clasping her pigtails as though she were experiencing some sort of climactic finale.
The others stopped what they were doing and laughed at the grotesque juxtaposition of the scene, Grimalkin booting vital organs and limbs onto the floor beneath her whilst writhing suggestively. Al’tis felt sick, but under Peter’s command she too started to laugh as a show of solidarity. The duality of emotions—one genuine, the other induced—made her feel more than ever that she was an imposter in her own body.
Drummond had strayed into the next chamber of the cellar, and when they arrived behind him he was covered head to foot in blue-purple goo—his user had smashed a series of mounted cannisters which occupied a corner of the dimly lit room. The orc was drying himself off when, about to leave, he was prevented from putting one foot in front of the other. The mucus-like substance was congealing on the floor; it had grown to the size of a large pool and had begun to climb up his leg.
It was taint, a cytoplasmic formless sludge that prospered on the death of others. A sticky web of dark mucus, it sucked on every living thing, drawing out the nutrients to feed its swelling mass. What the taint was performing on Drummond was no different to what it inflicted across Karingali. It moved as if on a giant mat, leaking into the tightest of cliff faces, extending across dune and tundra until it had covered the earth with a thick sea of muck and extracted every ounce of nourishment from it.
The lore surrounding taint was rich, but essentially it was seen as a curse that could never be lifted. Al’tis found such an explanation unconvincing. Those possessed who, like her, had their eyes open could see that taint was a fundamental dynamic within Karingali, regulating the movement of possessed across the world. Sometimes taint would contaminate the continent’s woods, streams and mountains; at others it would recede like the outgoing tide. When concentrations of possessed became too large, wave after wave of taint would be sent forth, forcing them to abandon their homes and search for other places to live. But when it spread too far and started to impede on users’ ability to farm, hunt and fashion goods for their possessed, taint would be burned from the face of the land, and the whole tug of war would be reset.
But the taint had no intention of receding from Drummond’s body. A spore had appeared from beneath its surface, and by the time Al’tis and her group had tracked back to see what had become of their erstwhile companion, the spore had become a tumour, and taint was spilling across the floor towards them. She’d seen it before, the way the rotting filth isolated the possessed from each other, forcing them onto smaller patches of earth until finally it flooded them too. The possessed were drowned in the thick slime, their users forced to resurrect them at a shrine in another of Karingali’s zones.
The same fate now awaited Drummond, and, as they watched taint consume him inch by inch, he let out a long sigh of despair and fell to the floor. The creeping plasma seeped into his armour, through the gaps of his chainmail and under his pauldrons. Within moments, his body was limp. Grimalkin, seemingly amused by the spectacle, began her wild Bacchanal once more. Dancing around the back of his corpse, where taint had yet to spread, she stooped and looted the orc’s corpse.
‘Unacceptable,’ thought Al’tis.
The further they ventured into the cellar, the more ruinous it became. They passed a number of small rooms, each one containing shelves stacked with books and manuscripts, jars of herbs and solutions, crystallisation dishes, mortars and pestles. In one room, they discovered meticulously compiled research notes regarding taint, its composition and the reagents that worked to strengthen its potency. At the back of the notes, there was a case study in which a templar had been a test subject. A large desk filled most of the room, its drawers filled with letters scribbled in a hurried hand. Some were a correspondence between Sin Ingris and an anonymous person named K—presumably Kobe—whilst others were from Ingris’ family, wishing him well and hoping he would return to them soon.
The alchemists of ‘The Order of Chymes’ were being kept in what was easily the largest room in the cellar, a gloomy, cavernous space that smelt of chemical burns and hemp. They sat in a cage similar to those suspended from the ceiling, only this one was firmly planted on the ground at the far side of the room. In the centre of the space, a group of Sin Igris’ hooded pharmacists played with needles and wipes, fiddling with the arms and legs of an old man strapped to an operating table and hooked up to a series of tubes that connected to a large, transparent firkin filled with taint. From the array of thick necklaces the victim wore, each one covered in golden bells and soot-black orbs, he had to be the leader of the Order. A few guards and their dogs stood behind the table and looked on indifferently as the old alchemist struggled to free himself of the tubing.
Peter showed no interest in the stricken man. Al’tis’ eyes were turned swiftly to the cage of elders in the distance. Off she struck, silent and stealthy, tracing the flint walls of the cellar with her hands, avoiding the traps and trip wires that littered the ground. For once, Grimalkin wasn’t dancing but had hidden with the goblin Shifty behind a crate of vials and potions, watching the assassin move ghost-like through shadow towards the cage.
Al’tis knew she would need backup the moment she came across them. A pack of wild dogs, kept in a hollowed pit in front of the cage, were slavering over the remains of an animal, occasionally looking up to growl at the prisoners inside. She counted ten in total: too many to dispatch at once without drawing the guards’ attention. Peter was clearly thinking the same thing since he kept her pressed against the walls and hidden in shadow. No doubt he was communicating with Grimalkin’s and Shifty’s users, discussing the best way to proceed. Al’tis sensed movements along the wall. Sure enough, the pink pigtails of Grimalkin flapped into view, followed by the goblin who until now had been as useful as a blunt blade. The three of them stood, staring at each other as their users planned a strategy.
At times like this, when she was brought into close proximity with other possessed, Al’tis would look for signs of life behind their eyes, some flicker of an autonomous spirit sparking in their faces. She was desperate to find others who thought and felt as she did, who shared her sentiment that theirs was the worst kind of slavery, denied the capacity to articulate even with a nod or blink their sense of what was right and forced into silent endurance. For all she knew, the wildcat Grimalkin was thinking the same right now, and that behind the vacuous stare bubbled a restless vivacity demanding to be set free. Instead, in the stupefied gaze of this woman, a construct of male desire and lust, Al’tis was looking at her own reflection. A vassalage, perpetually reinforced by other possessed who saw her as she saw them: mute, hollow, and soulless.
The discussions had come to an end, since Shifty and Grimalkin were on the move, positioning themselves quietly on either side of the pit where the dogs still licked at animal bones. Al’tis was now moving, too, as silent as the dead, arriving at the alchemists’ cage, unseen and unheard. Her sudden appearance took the elders by surprise, and they whispered their thanks as she unlocked the door, using the key that had permitted access through the trapdoor to the cellar. One of the group stepped forward, bowed, and passed something to her in the dark. From its shape and weight she knew it was the ring they’d come for. Motioning them to follow, Al’tis began edging back against the wall towards the room’s exit, the alchemists trying their best to imitate the silent fall of her feet.
Then all hell broke loose.
Grimalkin began dancing again, testing the boundaries at which the dogs would be triggered to attack. They were on her in an instant. Shifty, panicked by the suddenness of it all and the stupidity of the daemon-hunter, was firing arrows recklessly, sending volleys not just into the dog pit but at everything and anything he could. One arrow knocked a torch from the wall above the operating table and, as it hit the floor, its flames licked around the firkin, heating its contents.
A massive explosion followed in which glass, gas and taint detonated in all directions, slicing apart the guards and dogs that stood by, their bodies consumed by the grim combusting liquid. A panic rose within Al’tis, instinct shouting at her to run, but her body remained immobile. Peter was watching the scene unfold, moving her eyes between the old alchemist trapped by tubes and the furious cauldron of fire sweeping through the place.
Somehow Grimalkin had escaped the dogs’ wild clutches. Like a deranged succubus she was dancing on a stack of burning crates, her twirling, serpentining figure visible through the smoke and flames. Shifty was below, clawing his way up towards her and begging for help when a throng of claws grabbed at his wriggling legs and yanked him back to the ground. Grimalkin screamed with delight, clapping her hands excitedly and jumping on the spot, while the goblin disappeared beneath a sea of fur and fangs, his cries drowned out by the howling of the dogs and the hunter’s hysterical laughter.
When it happened, it took Al’tis’ breath away.
Directly above the alchemist, still struggling on the operating table, a hole the width of a broadsword was torn into the air and a figure dropped through it, falling onto the small spit of ground close to where the old man lay, as yet untouched by flames. It took a moment for Al’tis to believe what she was seeing—it was the elf, the same one she’d seen dead on the floor in Galgothria. He set to work immediately, pulling roughly on the tubes that imprisoned the alchemist. Pushing the old man towards the edge of the table, he hoisted his naked bulk on to his shoulder, the sounds of clanking, chinking bells and orbs audible above the chaos. The fires were getting closer and the elf shielded his eyes from the heat with his free hand and scanned the room. Through the flames Al’tis saw him staring at her, a flicker of recognition behind his eyes, and she thought she detected him nod at her before moving off. With the Order’s leader still slung across his back, the elf entered the hole from which he had emerged and was gone. The rip in the air sealed itself, like a miracle healing an appalling wound. And then nothing more.
When Al’tis finally emerged from Sin Ingris’ house, only three of the alchemists had survived—some had been taken by the dogs, others by the fire. Either way, it didn’t matter. Peter had secured his ring. He made his assassin empty her bags on the floor, including her pockets, to better sort and arrange the loot he’d farmed inside. Coins, medicaments, a few ingredients, and the toy horse Al’tis had found but which Peter had yet to dispose of. She was pleased when, discarding the random objects he had acquired during the raid, he directed her to put the little horse back in her pocket. She’d grown fond of the toy but suspected that Peter’s refusal to part with it was for reasons of profit rather than sentiment.
Grimalkin was waiting outside, dancing erotically in front of the smouldering building, pointing at Al’tis and giggling uncontrollably. Peter walked up to her, and with a quick flash of a dagger, had Al’tis slit her throat. The woman spluttered and clutched at her neck, but the cut was deep and true. Within a moment, she lay still on the ground, and there was silence.
‘At least he has some sense of justice,’ Al’tis thought to herself, as Peter had her rifle the daemon hunter’s body and take a look up her skirt.
‘Acceptable,’ she thought.