From silence, the word. From darkness, the light. That is how the true life is born. From the void, presence. From the plane, dimension. But what was before and what was the cause? That, dear seeker, is not an honest question.
On Being, The Eschatologies, Vol. III
He touched her in ways she was all too familiar with. Often, he moved her softly, gracefully even, and at others he was rougher and less considerate. But he was always predictable. She knew before he did how he planned to use her. He maneuvered her left and right, instructed her to jump and climb, forced her to circle and strafe, the way he had always done. At times he was quick with her. If there was any excitement left in any of this, it was the way he could multitask her body, navigating her deftly through a battleground or hostile landscape whilst riffling through her inventory, changing her clothes, plying her with potions. She’d come to think of Peter—for that was the name she had given her user—as a lover of sorts, one who could at times take her breath away with a surprising burst of well-timed strokes to decimate those who opposed her. Every time he touched her, he announced himself as her god, dictating and directing every movement, every exchange or interchange. He never asked permission; he never needed to. He simply acted on her, left his traces on her body and memory with an authority that despite its predictability and invasiveness, had felt—at least in the beginning—like a warm, comforting blanket.
These days, the blanket was an asphyxiant.
Standing in front of the colossal gates to the Cathedral of Galgothria, on a mission she had completed for him a thousand times before, Al’tis Mara felt Peter’s possession choke her. There was no longer a thrill in such total subordination. No longer a sensuality beneath the coercion. She wished he would leave her be, just for a moment. Leave her to explore the gates and the scenes of battles, of courtly betrayals, embossed on their wrought-iron plating, to trace their adumbrations and bold curves with her slight fingers. She longed to press her face up against the handsome bodies of brave warriors and war-maidens, searching their eyes for clues that they too knew something of the private world burgeoning within her.
That they understood what it meant to live as a duality, outwardly enslaved to the whim of another but inwardly free.
She felt Peter’s impatience now, his ghostly touch hurrying her to push at the gates and pry them open. The ground trembled and with an earthy moan they parted begrudgingly. Not waiting for the gates to separate completely, Peter shuffled her through in parts—first her feet, then her arms, then her head. Al’tis stepped across the threshold. The colossal iron slabs closed slowly behind her, clawing their huge weight back across the marbled floor of the cathedral’s wide entrance and slamming shut with an echoing boom, casement dust clouding the air around them. In the twilight of this place she made out familiar sights: the narthex in which she presently stood, and the long central nave that led unerringly from the gates to the sanctuary some four to five hundred metres away, sunk in shadow and gloom.
Al’tis knew well why Peter had brought her to this subterranean sanctum of Galgothria. Not one to admire the aesthetic beauty that the world of Karingali had to offer, indifferent to the lore that suffused it, Peter was a functional user and treated her as a function of his use. He’d brought her here for cold coin, to capture the Night Duke’s sword, a legendary weapon of Uidaen origin whose magic boons fetched a high price amongst users less skilled or willing than Peter to obtain it. Retrieving the sword from the sanctuary at the far end of this cathedral was just another in a long list of tasks he commanded her to perform, just another means by which he deployed her body to produce value.
Al’tis shivered in the dark and waited for her user to finish equipping her. Today it was newly purchased daggers and aura shield, more recently new clothes. Peter had dressed her of late in increasingly skimpy wear. Instead of her mammoth-skin, he had her walking around Galgothria with nothing more than a rag for a dress which barely covered her thighs and chest, so that now, freezing in an abandoned narthex of a desolate undercity, the unfeasibly large breasts with which he’d endowed her risked spilling out from her tacky attire.
She wasn’t opposed to being buxom; in a way she thought it attractive. But being so voluptuous was an encumbrance, especially in battle, when she was forced to cut through a legion of wolves or take on a band of wailing banshee queens. Prioritising breasts over combat efficiency was not a recipe for success. With no practical clothes to warm her and no armour to protect her, Al’tis felt the objectification of her body ever more starkly. It fitted a pattern, this absurd state of undress. In moments of stillness, when Peter’s phantom touch receded, it struck her that he was still there, lurking at the borders of her mind, staring at the curves of her body, enjoying the masterwork he had created.
He shoved her on through the narthex and into the grand nave, where richly carved clerestories rose on either side, their surfaces greyed and sullied by time. They bestowed upon the nave an impressive verticality that rivalled its length, and as Al’tis looked up at the cathedral’s mist-cloaked roof far above, she felt the immensity of the place swallow her whole. Within the clerestories and at metre intervals, death masks stared down at her, faces of past kings and queens, priests and aristos, artists and mathematicians, contributors and purveyors of Uidaen culture and knowledge stretching back aeons. Irreducible testaments to the secular and spiritual might of a dead civilization. All of them were crafted by the same concoction of alabaster and baked earth, lending the masks a weightiness that underscored the morbidity of this desolate church.
A familiar soft white light orbed Al’tis as she walked through the darkness, the aura shield flickering into life and illuminating the stretch of ground directly in front. She told herself it was Peter’s way of showing affection, a reminder that he had her back as she trod through the dark and dingy places of the world, but increasingly the notion struck a false note. The truth was he didn’t want her to die without claiming the sword first. Periodically, she passed small transepts that abutted the nave, disappearing into their own private gloom and dusk. There was loot to be had down those avenues, and lots of it. Coin, armour, weaponry, staves, potions, recipes, rare ingredients, a treasure trove of items lay in shadow, offering up their secrets to explorers prepared to invest their time and risk their lives.
She knew their locations, but Peter’s quarry was more valuable than all of them combined. He pushed her onwards, down the nave and through the dimness, her eyes in front, hands on daggers.
There had been a time, not long ago, when Peter’s presence had been as imperceptible as the darkness through which she walked. Back then, she’d been oblivious to his possession of her; those shadowy hands she felt skim or poke at her body now, had been nothing more than the quivers of her own instincts and inclinations. Like an infant who confused the limits of her own body and mind with that of her mother’s, the absence of selfhood had served to conceal from Al’tis the phantom within her.
There hadn’t been a particular moment or event whereby she became aware of his trespassing. Rather, Peter was revealed to her in stages as her own self-cognition grew, a glacial process in which the paralysis of her mind gradually thawed and a wholly unknown dimension of herself appeared.
Her selfhood had been born in a filthy bathroom in The Silly Mule Tavern, where she had looked at her face in the mirror and finally recognised it as her own. Born when she’d read in a passage from the Eschatologies that it was a sin to accept existing conditions mindlessly, and crucial to challenge and question the premise of the life one lived. The following three nights she’d been unable to sleep and whispered those words over and over, offering them up to the darkness of her room, not fully grasping their meaning, yet somehow, for some reason, moved to a passion by them.
It had been born when, for the first time in her life, she’d felt revulsion as she slit the throat of another, recoiling from what was an assassin’s most prosaic act. And there had been many such moments. Day by day, bit by bit, she drew the contours and features of her inner life, a pioneer exploring a new land, until the entire continent of self-consciousness opened up before her.
Somewhere a faint light began to flicker in the darkness of her mind. In time the light grew brighter, more expansive, illuminating the shadowy obscurity of her internal world until at last it reached the very edges of her consciousness. And there, concealed in a corner she never knew existed, she found Peter, trespassing within her like a thief in the night. He remained there to this day, commanding her to climb rocks, loot chests for coin, turn left when she wished to turn right. He circumscribed the rules and ways by which she lived, a bitter, persistent reminder that ultimately, she did not belong to herself, but to another. Yet the knowledge of her physical slavery had helped set her mind free. If not in body, then in her imagination Al’tis could dream of a different life that had no room for her user.
Stop. The nave was still and silent, but Peter’s hands pressed on her so suddenly her body twinged with shock—something had made him anxious. Unable to turn her head by herself, Al’tis stared ahead, seeing nothing but the faint outline of the sanctuary’s walls in the distance. Peter compelled her to look down, and through the swirling ground mists that drifted across the sleek marble slabs she suddenly saw him. An elf lay prostrate before her, his body impossibly broken, one leg tucked beneath him, the other jutting out at an unnatural angle. There was something familiar about his face. She’d met him once a long time ago but could no longer place him. The agony etched across his face made her feel sorry for him; that a good looking chap should end up like this, alone in the mists of a derelict, forlorn cathedral was a sorry sight indeed.
Her user did not stand on ceremony. Quickly, he pilfered the elf’s corpse, whipping through the pockets of his leather jack but finding only a handful of useful items—an apple, a health potion, and a tiny toy horse made of red marble, a memento perhaps, a gift of thanks from a village child or his parents.
She knew as well as Peter that the elf’s presence here had a dangerous significance. Another user, perhaps even a group of them, must be nearby, lurking in the shadows, or else they had moved on, either to take down the Night Duke and claim its sword for themselves, or venture further into Galgothria proper and its city-sized necropolis. She had to be careful, and Peter knew it. He made her open a small pouch attached to her belt and pull out a large, spherical vial. From its deep blue hue she could tell it was a crit potion, one that would significantly increase the resistance of her armour, though given that she was wearing a low-slung dress in which her breasts could barely be contained, exactly how much of a defensive advantage she would gain against a gang of marauding users was unclear. Still, it was something: Al’tis drank the decoction swiftly and her lungs warmed immediately under its influence.
She felt Peter rummaging inside her, fiddling with skills and abilities that were as natural to her as breathing. The blood drained from her face and neck as the Chameleon—one of the more advanced abilities she had learnt in her training with the Styx guild—was channelled somewhere within her, and her body evaporated into the darkness. Peter was taking no chances. The temporary invisibility he had bestowed on her allowed her to move more freely and, if she met assailants on her way to the Duke, she could slip away without their noticing. She listened, the soft thrum of pipework echoing somewhere far beneath the ground, and for a moment she felt her user hesitate, as if the stakes had suddenly multiplied, the risk outweighing the reward. But it was a momentary doubt. He pushed her on.
Al’tis stepped over the elf’s battered body and continued along the empty nave. She knew the Night Duke would be exactly where she found it. Suspended from the ceiling of the sanctuary, amongst a panoply of ribbed vaultings and haphazardly arranged struts, it clung to the highest point of the circular room, an amorphous shadow of strength and size. Dead candles sat uselessly in enormous, dusty chandeliers that hung at intervals across the upper expanses of the roof, far above the gold-embroidered taping, demarcating the highest point of the clerestories. Her hunch had been correct.
The floor of the sanctuary, made of that same marble which swept through the nave and its tributaries, was littered with the bodies of the recently deceased. More than twenty figures—mages, warriors, daemon hunters, templars and thieves—lay scattered across its polished surface, many face up, but some turned over on their fronts or sides. There had been an almighty fight here, and recently too, judging from the way the chandeliers still teetered from side to side. No wonder the elf had died back there—he’d never stood a chance against this mob of unlikely associates. Clearly, they’d been drunk on pride when they’d ganked him, and felt emboldened enough to step inside the sanctuary to dispose of the Night Duke and pilfer its sword. But hubris was a killer. Bigger groups than this had been destroyed by the slumbering creature now nestling in the upper rafters, and just like this party, they too had been disciplined by it.
Al’tis stood on the threshold, where the sanctuary met the chancel directly behind it—one more step inside and she would trigger the beast to wake from its torpor. Through her eyes Peter was examining the scene. There were signs of serious laceration on the bodies of the dead, steel cuirasses ripped to tatters in some cases, and in others, heads had been removed from necks. A templar lay near her, his arms amputated directly above the elbow, and two gaping holes, bloodied and newly coagulated, indicated where his eyes had been. Two mages, each one carrying a set of staves, presumably to heal their group as well as harm the beast, had suffered ossification, their bodies frigid and rock-solid, their faces locked in an expression of pained terror.
The Chameleon wore off, and Al’tis saw her arms and legs appear once again. Something else was lighting her up from within now, a sudden flooding of endorphins released into her blood and making her heart throb wildly. Her twinned daggers sparkled in the dull light, but when Peter commanded her to unsheathe them, she saw their complexion of shining, polished steel transform into instruments coated in green plumes of poison, the crippling toxin running down the full extent of their blades. She felt deliriously strong, a sudden injection of cornwood flowing through her veins and arteries. Her heart beat quicker still. She was being prepared, finessed, honed for that which she had been originally created, a terrible handmaiden of death wedded to murder. Peter was ready and pushed her across the invisible frontier.
As she did, the beast above her twitched into life, its wings distending, revealing a blackened body of muscle and scars that was at least ten times her height. Even from down here, she could see the thing flex its array of claws which spread across the perimeter of its wings. Like a giant petted cat, it extended and contracted them, kneading the air in rippling flashes. The beast unfolded its head from the cocoon of its warm, furred stomach, and peered down through the slumbering darkness towards the light where she stood. After a moment, deliberately, purposefully, it retracted its gripping claws from the rafters around which it had hooked itself, and dropped through the belfries, its wings unfurling like a ship’s sails, and came to float directly above her.
Instead of fear or despair, Al’tis felt pity. How sad it was, she thought, as the turbulence from its leathery wings flicked strands of her long black hair across her eyes, that this fearsome creature was trapped within a Sisyphean cycle of life and death, either in combat or repose and nothing besides. How sad too, that its majestic, fearsome descent was preconditioned and preordained, bound by codes that forced it to repeat the loop over and over, regardless of the outcome. If it won the battle or scared off the intruder, the Night Duke would fly back to the dark warmth of the sanctuary’s roof and resume its sleep. If it lost, it would die, only to be reborn minutes later, and, as if nothing had happened, reprise its role once again as the corrupt guardian of a cursed sword, a mere object of challenge and cheap entertainment for a user to overcome.
Before the daemon had even landed, Peter was on it. Where others had failed before him, as individuals or raiding parties, he would not be denied. Al’tis felt him stroke her hair away and place a hand on the small of her back, as if he were an encouraging father, and she leapt forward towards the creature, a flurry of blades whipping and slashing at its legs and underbelly. Within moments it was bleeding. The Night Duke screamed, and batting its giant wings, flew fiercely backwards and upwards to escape the pitiless barrage of steel. Like a clairvoyant, Peter was one step ahead. He knew well the mechanics of the bat’s evasive dance. A passenger in her own body, Al’tis felt herself cast a spell of sorts, one which stunned the beast and pulled it to the ground. A series of ghostly trails wrapped around its enormous legs, lassoing them to one of the decrepit columns that ran around the sanctuary’s inner circle.
Temporarily denied the ability to maul its prey, the bat reached back its bulky head and shrieked a storm of sound so gutturally fierce it threatened to lift the assassin off her feet and slam her into the wall behind. But Al’tis was no longer herself; she was a torrent of shadow and blurs. For a moment she was countless in number: thousands of herself were reproducing identical movements and motions, exponentially multiplying the fissures created in the wake of her fluttering hands and legs, so that when the sound waves reached her, they didn’t hit at all but passed right through, like water on rock, and she stood before the creature completely untouched. Rogue’s touch was her favourite ability, and Peter had timed its execution perfectly.
The beast cursed, wrenching violently on the magical bonds that held it firmly in place, and seemed to know the game was up. As a final strike at victory, it desperately flapped its wings, striking out at masonry and statue, pillar and arch, anything it could break apart and use as missiles. A volley of stone and marble flew towards Al’tis, but Peter had seen this coming too. Her aura shield flickered into life once more, a sphere of brilliant light—the projectiles reduced to toy bricks as they bounded off and tumbled to the floor. The bat screamed, straining its neck against the trails that bound it, and rolled its head backwards, like a sinner seeking repentance.
Now was the moment. At Peter’s calm instruction she leapt at the creature for a final time, and with both daggers drawn, slashed through its throat in a criss-cross motion, left and right arms passing over each other at speed, and the poison entering the gaping wound she had carved. She landed by the Night Duke’s side and looked up. Tongue, trachea and oesophagus were dribbling out of the Duke’s neck and, as it swayed for breath, she already felt it crashing to the ground. Then came the part Al’tis always hated, for a moment later she was bathed in viscous blood and vocal goo, so much so that her entire body disappeared under the weight of organ and windpipe, tissue and muscle. The bat’s legs gave way, no longer able to withstand the loss of blood spurting from its throat nor the wisping coils that pinioned it, and fell, swaying, with a thunderous crash to the floor.
Al’tis peered through the detritus that soaked her and inspected the creature. Its eyes were bulged and bloated and stared at her lifelessly, a resignation in its expression that said this time, like the time they had last met, and the time before that, she had bested it. To die like that, over and over, was the worst fate imaginable, and she felt an unusually fierce anger burn inside her that was new to her and hard to suppress. Anger that she was the vehicle by which such skillful cruelty was performed. Anger that, despite her slavery, she was still complicit in these senseless acts, not just today but every day, destined—like the bat itself—to repeat them again and again on behalf of a user whose control seemed absolute.
Before another could enter the sanctuary and lay claim to the sword, Peter was off, striking a path Al’tis knew well, the path that led to the antechamber behind. Through the arch she was moved, entering the room where the familiar mountain of skulls rose mournfully through the mists.
Over bone and body, sternum and tibia, the remnant of ribs and clavicles poking through jacks, helmets, and chest plates. High above, at the mountain’s centremost point, the Duke’s sword waited and gleamed, its jewelled hilt glistening in the twilight. With every step she took, the anger within her grew, shaping and sharpening into a weapon. The remains she stepped over, of dwarves, elves and highborn, were reminders of the absurd life she had been created to live.
Peter was unrelenting. He drove her up over the chits and fragments of bone towards the peak, but her legs felt increasingly heavy, a stone within her growing into a stubborn slab that threatened to pull her back down the slope. By the time she reached the top, Peter’s hands had turned to fists and were thrashing her as though she were a horse, but the more he beat her, the heavier the slab became. With every second the weight increased, overwhelming not just her legs but her arms and chest too, and she struggled to breathe. Under the burden of contradictory pressures—one from without, the other from within—Al’tis finally collapsed, crawling dazed and lost, across the skull-bestrewn summit to claim the sword.
When she reached it, she grasped the hilt, wrenched it from the remains of a corpse long since devoured, and pointed it victoriously to the hidden skies above. She felt Peter’s grip relax, his demands finally met. And in that moment, when there was no obstacle to frustrate its full expression, the weight within her erupted. She clambered to her feet, hoisted the sword over her head, and launched it out across the mountain and into the chamber’s gloom.
She was stunned by the autonomy of the act, the unfettered ease with which she had manifested her will in the world. She knew Peter was watching her, dazed too by his creation’s unruliness, but she knew that somehow, for that one bewildering moment, she was beyond him. The sword fell into shadow, its metallic clang reverberating around the antechamber’s old walls. But it was more than the sound of steel striking hard stone. It was the clang of a dissident soul in a dissident body, finding its place in the world.