by GR "Maya" Cogman
The cage rocked again, and I locked my hands about the bars, trying to hold back my scream. In the room beyond the window, three people were locked in a knot of flesh, and I could feel the touch of hands, the movement of bodies. The street below seethed with jealousy, twisted hope, desperate hunger. I felt a child's wish for chocolate, a mother's screaming as she saw her son just beyond her in a Balseraph's coil, the despair of a betrayed lover. Anger cramped in my muscles, and this time I had to scream, my throat long since dry and raw, as it shifted into the caress of skin, the knowledge of hopelessness. There had been a time before this, a place before this. I tried to remember, but there was nothing when I looked back except the eternal present, the eternal seething movement and waves of emotion - nothing of a past, nothing of me.
Light spun around me, flashing across my eyes before I could close them, as something jolted the cage and the iron bars hummed with the impact. I heard someone say, "I want it down now. Orders." Or perhaps I was saying them. Such strange words rose in my throat, stolen from the mouths of others, conversations heard, felt, breathed. I closed my eyes, trying to remember a moment when I had been the only one inside my head. A human soul screamed, and I shut my mouth on the command to bid him silent. Someone else's back was burned by a spill of hot food. Someone else wore silk. There was a shock as the cage hit the ground. I could feel a drift of cold contempt that was somehow familiar. It reminded me of identity.
"Get it open." A female voice, the accents reminded me of Balseraphic pride.
"Look... can we have her back when you're finished? She's a local mascot. I called my place after her!" I remembered a piece of wood that I had seen sometimes when I could bear to open my eyes. THE DANGLING HABBALITE. Was that me? "Perhaps we could come to some arrangement?"
The sound of movement, among the constant movement of this street, and I curled tighter around the pain in my stomach where somebody had been hit. A lock clicked near to my face, and air moved faintly.
"Get up." The earlier female voice, but I couldn't remember if she had spoken or if I had. Disgust. Look at this thing, crawling and curled up and trembling, how could she have been one of Baal's chosen?
"Can't." I felt my lips move, so perhaps this had been me speaking.
"I told you it would be bad." That was another voice, a male one. "I'll have to force control on her till she gets it back."
Something picked me up. It grated and hurt, so perhaps it was real. Behind my closed eyelids light flickered, then darkness, then light again. I was dropped, and felt the brief moment of the fall before the bed swayed under me. Warm hands grasped my shoulders, and I knew that suffocating disgust again. It spun through me like a wind, like the wings of hawks, leaving an emptiness behind it, forcing out the screaming ghosts of emotions and leaving only me there.
I opened my eyes, and saw. A man whose skin was peeled back in rows of gleaming metal rings sat beside me on the bed, his flesh streaked in white and scarlet. He removed his hands from my shoulders, with an air of disdain. Standing by the door, a tall woman whose legs flowed into the coils of a serpent regarded me, her dark sash gleaming with trinkets and glass.
Her voice was crisp. "Caliah. Servitor of Baal."
Reflexes hammered in me. Up. Attention. Salute. I staggered off the bed, feeling the marks of iron bars against my hands, and managed the position.
The Habbalite on the bed, my fellow Punisher, still simmered with contempt, a slow boil of bitterness. The Balseraph said, "At ease. We have orders for you from the Prince."
They had the markings of the War upon them, on their garb and adornments, and they had the manner, and the clearance to release me. I spread my feet slightly, and listened, trying to suppress the impossible hope.
I hadn't been forgotten. There was an end to it, I was free. I could serve again, could make repayment and do penance. My error in the streets of Paris might be atoned for, might be forgiven. Faint, regrowing shields kept my personality alone, and I found a thought to bless the mercy of Baal.
She shifted her coils, a sparkle of golden and black scales, and a hiss like parchment against parchment in a library. The noises from outside were muted. "You are to go from here into the Marches, carrying a message which has been placed in a crystal. You will take that message to the entity known as the Master of the Hunt, who is to be found in the area where the Dark Marches border on the Far Marches. You will give it to him alone, then return to Gehenna at once. Should you be caught, you are to commit suicide before revealing any part of this mission. The message has been designed to destroy itself if any other being touches it."
I controlled the hiss of breath between my teeth. An utterly deniable mission, which would never be admitted to - and could I be sure that it wouldn't simply be easier for Baal to dispose of me as well, after? Then again, it was his choice, and always would be. He was my Prince, my heart between his hands, and I was a ghost upon the wind, a voice which should not be raised, a marked hound and failure.
For the first time in perhaps years I felt my body move and knew the movements to be my own deliberate choice. I brought my fist to my shoulder in salute, bowing my head. "I stand ready to serve my Prince, sir."
They glanced at each other, and the Punisher gave her a fractional nod. She fidgeted with the gauds at her belt and removed a small lump of dark stone on a loop of braided leather, offering it to me.
"Place it around your neck. It will seal there, and only the Master of the Hunt will be able to remove it."
I could feel the Punisher's eyes on me, tracing the lines of my tattoos, and the curl of his lips. Yes, I knew, I knew, they were all symbols of Baal and of my service to him. Every last one. My body was mapped out in servitude, and none of it was my choice at all. Even an Elohite had more "freedom" in that than I did. The tattoos seemed to burn into me, reminding me of my Prince's eyes as he stood above me, the eyes that I had hidden my face from. It had not been enough.
I took the collar numbly, fastening it round my neck: it squirmed slightly as it settled itself, then was still, leather warm against my skin. The stone was a cold weight in the hollow of my collar-bone, and it took no heat from my touch, remaining cool.
She fished through her belongings again. "Here is a permit to show the guards at the gates of Hades. It lists you as scouting in the Marches."
I nodded, folding it in my hand.
"Do you understand what you are to do?"
I was surprised by the emptiness of my own voice. "Serve or die."
A faint smile tugged at her mouth. "You're recovering faster than I expected. Good."
The Habbalite swung off the bed, and stretched, gashes opening as he did and a few trickling fresh blood. "She's as ready as she can be." I felt the focus of his perception, even as he doubtless felt the focus of mine. "Let's be moving. There's more to be done."
My salute was crisper this time. He stepped past me to the door, then turned back, eyes a startling blue. "And hear me, fool who called herself _Punisher_. You messed up, bigtime. You failed, and you proved yourself weak. If you cannot redeem yourself, if you aren't worthy of our Prince's mercy - why, your brothers and sisters will punish you as you deserve." Coldness lay in his voice like the breath of a knife, and I knew truth in his heart.
It was a strength to hold on to as I walked into the mayhem of Shal-Mari beyond.
Music shrilled in my ears, and I ducked through a group of acrobats that nearly blocked the street, controlling my wince. The surges of emotion round me pressed against my newly-won control, and I could feel what a fragile thing it was.
The checkpoint to Hades was close: I'd need to be convincing, unmemorable, or both. Still, if I remembered rightly, there were often people going through that way and out to the Marches, right? Shouldn't be that hard. I had been lucky in the past, and had spent most of my missions Earthside. I hoped it wouldn't mean that I was missing any vital information now.
"Buy a candy," a child whined.
"Buy my body for a night," an Impudite murmured in my ear, leather wings stretching suggestively.
"Buy a whipping at my hands for an hour..." whispered a long-tailed Balseraph that coiled among a set of railings. A woman hung there with her bleeding back turned towards me, face hidden by her beautiful hair - it was the loveliest part of her, all the rest of her body ridged and torn.
(Like you, a voice whispered. Look at yourself, nothing but lines. Baal's tattoos all over you. Where's Caliah gone? Where's the Punisher who decorated herself in crimson lilies? Where's the Elohite who was oh, so pale? They've gone. Run, Hound of Baal. You have a mission, and there is nothing, _nothing_ else.)
The checkpoint to Hades loomed ahead. The Djinn at the gate passed me easily enough, clearly more concerned with trade trying to sneak _into_ Shal-Mari. I entered Hades, and paused to get my bearings.
Hades is so quiet against the throb of gunfire in Gehenna or against the pulsebeat of Shal-Mari. Yes, there is the rumbling of the subways beneath the streets, and yes, there are the screams from the open sewers where they flog the new-come souls into the Soul Yards, but there is nothing of the same constant background riot.
It made me nervous. I was twitchy five paces into the place, watching the shadowy windows of the blocky buildings that I passed and thinking I saw little jerky movements behind every pane of glass. My hands curled slightly as I forced calm on myself, and I could feel my face settling into a frown.
Ahead, a group of the Police trooped across the street. Two Calabim, young by the look of it, with six souls following them and carrying sacks. Matter dripped slowly from the seams of the sacks, leaving a dark and messy trail behind them.
One of the Calabim turned to direct a stare at me. "Identity?"
I affected a bored monotone. "Caliah, Servitor of the War. On route to the checkpoints to the Marches." Something in my stomach turned over as I named myself under the eyes I could feel watching me: to give away anything here felt like a defeat.
"Pass." He held out a wide-clawed hand. In him I could feel the spike of lust for action, for something to break the monotony of this place and the constant nagging dread. It was a conscious sensing of another being, and for a moment I enjoyed the luxury of decision, before I pushed the emotion away.
I held the pass so that he could see it, and he squinted at it, dark eyes slitting. Eventually he muttered, "All right. Get along there." He turned, cuffing one of the souls. "Get a move on! And watch that stuff, we don't have it to waste!"
I began to trot along the street, turning it into a jog, then a steady lope. Motion made it easier for me to rebalance myself, for then I could sense the boundaries of my own body and feel my own edges. This is myself, this thin body, these ribs, these aching hands, pale skin which serves as scroll to harsh writings, short dark hair pushed back from the face, these grey-glass stormy eyes. Someone had once said that I should be as brilliant as steel, but that was in a time before I heard all the other voices screaming inside my head.
Ahead was a pair of smaller gates that opened on the Marches: they were ringed with barbed wire, ornamented with spikes and glass, and guarded by a much heavier squad than had been on the barrier at Shal-Mari. I settled an air of deadness on my face, and trudged forward into the queue, permit in hand.
Half an hour later, a burly Balseraph was scowling at me, rather more muscled than the usual run of twisted serpent. "And you're going outside to scout?"
Patiently I pointed at the order. "Yes. Outside. To scout." The queue behind me was growing longer. "Orders."
The Impudite perched on a stool behind him scribbled notes. "And whereabouts?" the Balseraph demanded.
I could feel my resonance prickling with his boredom and irritation, and tried to twist a little of it around on itself, feed it back on him. It had been so long since I had done this, so long since I had had enough of myself to separate from the world around me and to direct emotion into another. "General scouting, through the area. No particular orders."
His brows knotted, like a row of braiding down his face, and for a moment the tangled thread of fury flickered between us like lightning: then it snapped invisibly, cascading back at me. Anger ran through my veins and sparked speech, forcing words out. "And if you think that I have time to stand here while a pair of mortal-brained idiots work out how to read and write, you're..."
I impacted on the studded side of the gate stomach first, and arm second where I had thrown it up to shield my face. The Balseraph still had a hold of my ankles, and the world spun around me as I was swung round in the dust, skidding across the concrete. I flailed my arms, grabbing for purchase, and cried out with pain and tangling anger as the rough concrete scraped at my skin and I got swept through the dust and garbage.
A moment's flight, up, down.
I landed the other side of the gate, the remains of training just enough to let me roll and break my fall a fraction. Dirt coated me, laced with the odd trickle of blood. The guards on the other side were ignoring me now, processing the next person along, and the Djinn watching this side were as stony-faced as ever as they squatted by the stone pillars that made this side of the gate. I could feel their slow trickles of amusement, faintly, suppressed and only half-admitted to.
Gritting my teeth, I brushed off dirt as I hauled myself back to my feet. Oh well, at least I'd probably made a normal enough entrance to the Marches, from people's reactions.
Around me, the Marches stretched out in dunes and undulating valleys: sometimes the ground under my feet was mossy or covered with grass, and sometimes it was dry sand that shifted and pricked my soles. The sky was an eternal dimness, with no hanging sun or moon or stars: light gleamed from the swirling spheres of dreamscapes, a thousand tiny rainbows that laid faint shadows in every direction and muted my angles to softness. Beleth's dark tower reared in the distance, a knife that cut at the sky and that seemed to glisten with unpleasant shades.
I had spent some of my time in attempting to formulate a plan, and actually had something resembling one. I needed to find the fae area of the Marches, and clearly I couldn't just ask one of Beleth's Servitors for help. However, it was well known that the fae regularly paid a tithe to Hell every seven years, and that their forces served Beleth here in her preserve of nightmares. All I had to do was find some fae minion, and gently coax it into showing me the route to the Unseelie realms, and hopefully some way to reach the Master of the Hunt.
It wasn't much, but it was a great deal better than hanging outside a brothel in Shal-Mari and screaming into the wind. I picked up my step, and began exploring. Time was wasting, Baal might well have a finger on my Heart, and besides, I wanted to succeed. Even angels have their pride.
Three hours later, I nearly tripped over a Djinn.
It wasn't as if he had been obvious: he had buried himself under the lee of a dune, and was toying with a dreamscape that was pinned under one paw, watching the colours. I had a brief but vivid impression of all of this as the lip of the dune gave way under me, sending me tumbling in a shower of sand right in front of him.
I hit the ground with a bump, and rolled, gasping for air, flashes of light shimmering through my head as I tried to clear it. It seemed as if the plume of sand was rising still, then I realised that it was actually a large dog. No, a boar. No, something with flippers like a toad. No, a Djinn, with a grip on my ankle.
"You made me lose my pretty," he grunted.
I was still trying to get air back into my lungs, and blinked up at his three faceted eyes. They were swirling slowly in shades of blue and green, like unpleasant bruises. "Oh. I'm terribly sorry. Can I go and look for it for you?"
His flipper tightened on my ankle, spreading up my shin as the flesh undulated. "You're new. You're interesting. Got patterns on you."
His mental patterns were sluggish, but had the drive of a brutish will behind them. He wouldn't be easy to simply dominate. He was also several times my size. "That's very kind of you. Would you mind letting me go?"
He dragged himself some more out of his dune-cave, and sand went flying, making me cough. "Pretty. Nice patterns." The flipper dragged me along in the sand, and I went limp, restraining myself.
"Who do you serve?" I asked, between coughs.
His brows furrowed. "Serve Belial. Prince of Fire. Think I'll keep you. The dream was getting boring anyhow."
Oh, wonderful. "You shouldn't keep me. I'm on a mission. We'd both get into trouble." I wriggled my ankle slightly in his grip, testing his hold, but it had all the purchase of a very large thumbscrew in a baggy sandpaper mitten.
He paused to think that one over. Slow turmoil, the instinct for possession colliding with the remembered fear of Belial. Eventually, he grunted, "Mark you. Then I can find you again. Want to keep my pretty things."
That did alarm me. I'd seen people "marked" by the Djinns of Belial before: looping intaglios of black and red branded into their bodies, the Djinn's name in Hellscript. Even if I could get the whole patch of skin flayed off me, and that also failed to appeal, I'd have the scar for life. I wriggled again, and tried to widen my eyes - a Lilim would probably have done it better. "You don't think I'd run away from you, do you?"
He blinked all his eyes, evidently taken back. I desperately tried to find some centre of calm in myself to project at him, soothing and reassuring. Brief memories of dark wings and shining spires spun in me as I forced gentleness in my voice. "You're so impressive. I've never seen a Djinn as big as you! I'd like to have a Djinn like you for a friend, if..." I paused artistically. "If you'd want me."
His grip tightened on my ankle till I could feel the bones creak, and I clenched my hands to try and keep my face still. "You... would come back?"
"Of course," I lied.
There was another pause for thought, during which I could hear the sand grains rustling as they slid down the slope that my fall had created. I kept on trying to focus calm, comfort, reassurance.
A dreamscape floated past, luminous in the shadows. The Djinn grunted, "But I can mark you and then be sure you'll come back."
"You'll spoil my pretty patterns," I replied, feeling the sandpaper of his hide rasping against my leg. "You don't want to spoil my pretty skin, do you?"
His sluggish thoughts began to settle into a slow broil, droning down towards apathy. He grunted, "You'll come back?"
"I promise," I said, and tried stroking his flipper to see if it helped. The emotional feedback suggested that it did.
His flipper slowly relaxed. "Come back to Shetsi."
"I will," I promised as I flexed my ankle and pulled free. "As soon as I've finished the scouting mission and reported."
He grunted, beginning to burrow back into the sand.
I smiled gently, and patted him again before I crawled back up the dune. No wonder Belial had let him sit there in the middle of the Marches and not bothered to recall him to service: he was an utter idiot. A strong one, though. My ankle was still stinging as I began to run again, getting my bearings and heading away.
It's strange to think that it was only then when I realised that I could escape. I was alone in a silent world of floating gems and darkness, and the only person who could have found me was Baal, should he set his hand upon my Heart. A thin wind was blowing about me, whispering little cries and shrieks that might have come from the dreamscapes it tumbled, and Beleth's Tower was a silhouetted claw on the horizon, but other than that I was alone as far as the eye could see.
I could try and find a place to hide, like that numbskull Djinn, a little cave in the sands or soil. I could try fleeing to Beleth's forces, to throw myself upon her mercy. I could run for the Bright Marches, forswear myself and seek some form of Redemption. I could try and steal Essence to make myself a body, a Vessel to wear on Earth.
I was cold. I folded my arms about myself, and was reminded again of who I was as I saw the patterns in the tattoos, the insignia of Baal. Sometimes I wonder if anybody other than my Choir realises what the fashioning of our bodies means to us - they're something that we can control, where we can exercise choice and free will, something that we _own_ indisputably and that shows that we are not the weak, pale Powers. They could do as we do, and serve God as we do, but instead they choose to keep their hands spotless, their selves withdrawn.
Inaction is a victory for evil: I serve God in my action, and if I withdrew, if I fled, then I would lose what I am. My tattoos might not be my own choice, but the only answer to that was that I would have to make them my choice, to become a match for them. If I fled, then I was running from myself as much as from everything else.
Free will we were given, and free will we still have, even now, even here. I chose to remain Caliah, and not -
... no matter what a dark-winged Malakite had once dreamed of for me, no matter that I had once been a pale servant of Michael and heard with compassion the talk of humans under my care, no matter that I had erred in a bookshop in Paris and failed my Prince, no matter that he had punished me as was his right and that I might wear these scars till I fell in his service...
- not lose myself. Identity is such a fragile thing, and it is so easy to warp it. I held to myself, alone under the dead skies - Caliah, a servant of the War.
My progress had been more cautious since the Djinn, and I was rewarded by spotting a small figure fluttering in the distance, coming in my direction. It was barely a couple of feet off the ground - an imp of some sort, and not going any too fast at that.
My preparations for ambush were duly careful, but hardly necessary. The little creature wasn't watching the area around it. It practically asked to be pounced on and have its face pushed into the dusty soil.
"Whatwhatwhat who letmego! Please! Pleaseplease!" Its voice had a droning undertone, and the wings were like those of a mosquito. I had my knee in its back, and was holding the wings together with one hand: the other hand was in the small of its neck, keeping its face pushed down and away from me.
"Don't worry," I whispered, stroking at the terror inside the little thing. "I only need some information. If you tell me, then I'll let you live. It's as simple as that."
"I'll tell!" it buzzed. "Telltelltell! Don't want to die!"
How practical, how reasonable. "Tell me where I can find the trail to Faerie."
It spat out a list of directions through the dust that was clogging its face: to the north a way, then following a couple of landmarks till one hit the trail. They sounded accurate, and it felt too panicked to have the sense to lie.
"Is it guarded?" I asked.
"Only by the fae," it buzzed. "They guard, they guard. On their side. Nobody knows."
Well, that I would just have to deal with as the situation warranted. "Are there any patrols in this area?"
It had to admit that it didn't know: it was simply running an errand between two Balseraphs, bringing news of some dreamer that they both took an interest in.
I considered my hand on its neck. One little twist, and I would have removed any risk of it betraying me to somebody; and it was a weak, fragile little thing, scarcely worthy of the honour of life. Then again, I had taken it by surprise, and it had never seen me, and how much strength _could_ one expect of something so newborn and tiny?
I pressed on the nerves till it lapsed into unconsciousness, and left it lying there. Some other being could decide whether it lived or died: my business was a more important matter, service to the War. I would be miles away by the time that it woke.
Ahead of me, two trees arched in a graceful curve, their branches interlocked: the air shimmered between them in a mist of grey and lavender, vague and fuzzy. I watched it from the cover of a hillock. The path to it had been wide and spread with lilies, soft to the feet and unsettling - too easy, too comfortable. Nobody had come through it either way for half an hour or so. I wanted to wait longer, to try and get some idea of what to expect, but the pressure of the collar on my throat reminded me that time might be ticking away. The Balseraph and the Habbalite hadn't given me any time parameters on this mission, but then again it could hardly be a case of "all the time in the world". The trees were birches, slender and rustling in the faint wind.
I stood, and walked towards the gate. Best perhaps to act as though I had some mandate to pass. After all, if something vital were necessary, hopefully I would have been told about it.
The shimmers ran around my fingers like warm water as I touched them, blood warm and eddied with fragments of a deeper purple. I could feel the edges of some form of Ethereal power there, not a thing of Heaven or Hell: still, small matter now, I was standing in the middle of it.
My teeth clenched as I stepped through.
I had tried to avoid expectations, but it's always difficult to do so entirely. On the other side it was a clear winter dawn, and I stood in inch-thick snow, a biting wind raising the hackles on the back of my neck. The arch behind me, in peripheral vision, was a pair of holly trees dabbled with red berries: before me was the edge of a forest, thick and dark and spattered with the snow. The notes of a lute cut through the air, as impersonal as the snow or the cold, somewhere to my left through the trees.
I shrugged, and walked through the snow. Some sort of guide or information was necessary, and here was one making itself obvious: why not at least walk into the trap knowingly? My feet crunched in the snow, leaving clear tracks. Such small things, feet, to carry me so far. I felt the cold, but I would not let it trouble me. This was endurable.
The lutanist, when I found him, was sitting on a stump: he might have been sitting there since before the snow, for it was piled against him in small drifts, pale against the crimson and dark grey of his silks. Long sleeves swept little tracks in the snow where they brushed it, and well-cut hose were tight against his legs: his boots were elegant and inappropriate. Dark hair was trained back from his face into a ponytail, and he watched me with eyes like the frozen sea, green and depthless, as he kept playing.
"What, pretty one," he said, "alone here?"
"I come on errantry," I said. That was an answer that might pique the interest of nobles of both Courts. I couldn't be sure, but the setting and his costume suggested one of the Unseelie Court. More dangerous, certainly, but also more likely to know of the Wild Hunt.
"You're a demon." He plucked a minor chord, then resolved it into a major. "Tattooed woman, standing in the snow - I could make a song out of that."
"Surely you need more than that, sir." It wasn't my business to judge him or to act against him. Yet. Punishment could wait.
He tilted his head, hand falling silent on the strings. His profile was as lovely as his clothing. "Bah. All that one needs is a single theme, and a good musician can make a thousand songs. Each pattern of words is like one of your patterns of lines, lady palimpsest: unique, irreplacable, yet something that can be wiped away in blood and drawn again."
Unseelie, I was sure of it. "I am on errantry, sir, and am seeking."
The grey of his sleeve flashed in the light as he gestured. "If your seeking is in keeping with your theme, then I will escort you myself."
A thread of amusement touched me. I could taste his pride like a dash of ice, boredom like stale water, and malice like acid. "What is my theme, sir?"
"I have made a song about it," he declared.
I bowed my head. "The noble lord does me credit."
He frowned. "Do you doubt me, demon woman?"
I schooled my face to mildness. "It is a very swift thing, then, sir, for we are barely met."
He took the bait, and laughed. "Oh, you do doubt me. Very well. You shall hear my song, and when it is finished and you have apologised, I will escort you on your errantry. Such pride should be rewarded."
I bowed my head again in the shadow of a polite nod, feeling the cold burning of the snow against my feet, and the weight of the stone at my neck. He took it for consent, and began to strum his lute, pale fingers moving on the dark wood and silver strings.
His voice was cool and full of shadows, as he began to sing. "I gave my love a pair of lying eyes / That she might see the world through my despite: I gave my love a pair of lying feet / That she might walk the world and bring the night..."
Lies, lies, they were things of the Balseraphs. We Punishers never claimed other than the truth, and even other angels admit that there are those who deserve to be punished. Why do they slander us so for doing what they are too pure to do? I remembered the choked-back tears in the voice of a Seraph, long ago, as fear drove him to realise what he was, and the fury of others who had seen me, heard me. I remembered the iron paling driving into my chest.
The tune was in a minor key. He was a skilful musician, a gaudy bird against the stark snow. His voice was as empty of emotion or blame as the voice of a nightingale, as he sang, "I gave my love a pair of lying hands / That she might never feel the blood she shed: I wrapped my love within a lying skin / That she might never know how deep she bled..."
No, I would not accept that. I knew that I had killed, knew how many I had killed. I had once said to a forge-hot Malakite that it didn't matter how many I had killed, that the defining act was the first one, and that was what I was. I did not deny the blood upon my hands, but neither did I feel guilt for it. My skin was the truth of what I was. I had marked it with crimson lilies once, calla lilies, beautiful against the pallor. Now I had a truer definition, God's servant, Baal's servant, a servant of the War. It didn't hurt. Not really. Not once you accepted it.
His harmony on the lute had become more faint, and his voice grown quieter to match it. "And now so armoured is my love in lies / That she is angel still and must despise."
The hands on the strings stilled in a final silver tremolo, and he was silent.
Words choked in my throat, and I swallowed them to lie bitter in my stomach, bitter as gall. I couldn't afford to offend him, and I would not acknowledge what he said.
He watched my face, and smiled. "Now I could lie with you here in the snow, pretty demon, or sing for you again, or we could ride on your quest. What is your errantry?"
I said, my voice edged, "I seek the Master of the Wild Hunt."
His laughter was mocking, but self-directed. "Why, you have outmatched me in this: now I am bound to help you by my own word. Still," he rose, shaking snow from the edges of his sleeves, "I will be fair in the other matter, and give you three chances to guess my name."
"Your name, sir?"
He whistled into the forest, then turned back to me. "Yes, my name, demon woman. By the laws of Faerie," he waved a hand vaguely, "you are my property, as I found you first. Unless you can guess my name, of course."
Laws of Faerie, like hell. Still, better to get to the Master of the Hunt first, give him the token from Baal, and then argue the matter out. I showed my teeth in the echo of a supposed smile, and waited for him to act as guide.
His steed came like the wind, rushing between the trees like a black frost, eyes cut-glass and vicious. He flung up a hand to catch the beast's reins, and played with its mane as he watched me. "Well, demon woman, will you ride with me?"
"Ride with you," I replied, "or run beside you, or whatever I must do: I have an errand to be about." Never take his favours, something whispered inside me, a memory from tales of Faerie. Take no gifts here, or you run the risk of being bound and betraying your master.
He snorted, swinging into the horse's saddle: it was caparisoned with silver, as liquid as mercury against its dark skin. "For that discourtesy I name you Swift. Name me in return, Swift, for this is your first chance to bind me as I will bind you." His lute lay behind on the stump, forgotten.
I considered, as I stepped up to stand by his rein. Fury had taken my tongue, and I knew that I had spoken hastily, but even I had my pride. "I name you Blade, then, for sharpness." It was a guess, but it might give me some idea where his name lay. I knew it would be some sort of noun: it was the sort of frivolity that the fae took amusement in.
He laughed, the tones unduly sweet, and gathered the leather of the reins in his hand. "Close, Swift, but you need to define it better. Now let us see if your feet are as quick as your tongue!"
The horse kicked up snow as it broke into a gallop, and the clots of snow broke into feathers that sprayed across me, stroking my painted skin like silk. The pitiless sky was a pure light blue as the lutanist drove his heels into the horse's sides, tearing across the landscape like the breath of winter. I followed, my breath steamy in the bitter air: he never rode so fast that I could not keep at his heels, but never slow enough that I had an instant to catch my breath.
At length he slowed his horse, pausing beneath a stand of yew. The ground had become rougher, and for the last few minutes I had left a trail of blood where my feet were cut and bruised. I knew that they would heal, so I paid them small mind except where they would hinder my speed.
He swung down from his horse, standing in the shadow of the dark-needled trees. Snow lay upon their branches, a smooth layer of white that seemed to mock the darkness within: a parable for Faerie, perhaps, white silk on sweet-berried poison. "You have speed, Swift. You are a pretty thing indeed."
"As are you, sir," I replied, "all in bright array against the snow." Soft words, I knew, but I did not want to anger him again, not so close. I could feel the thread of danger against my skin here: this was close to some being's place of power.
He laughed, the sound as unhumanly pure as before. "I name you Snowdrop, I think, for you try to be as pure as that little flower here in the snow. Come, now, name me in return."
Fury tingled in me again, and I held it back. "I name you Mocker, sir, for surely you do that and more."
Something showed in his eyes, and for a moment I knew it was fear, and could taste his fear, a crack in his composure. I had hit nearer to the mark this time.
He made light of it with a casual gesture that set his sleeves swinging. "Walk close with me, Snowdrop, for we are about to go into a dangerous place. Then again, does a demon woman fear merely mortal dangers? Surely she cannot be torn apart and worried by the dogs, with nothing left of her but the palms of her hands?"
"I am no Jezebel, sir." My words were as cool as courtesy could make them. "Lead on: I follow." Part of me feared despite myself: perhaps it was meant to end that way, the message borne and the messenger destroyed. Could it hurt worse than what had already been done to me? Probably, yes: that was a futile question. There is always something worse, and only somebody who had never known pain would try and claim otherwise.
He stepped into the shadow of the yew-trees, and I followed him. Here the boughs were thick enough above that the snow did not filter down, and we walked on a carpet of dried needles, brown and rustling beneath our feet. They clung to my bloody bare feet, but his elegant boots stayed spotless.
"What is your errantry, Snowdrop?" he asked, tossing the question back over his shoulder. The shadows mantled him now, darkening his crimson and grey nearly to black, and his face and hands seemed to float as he turned to gesture. "What brave mission have you to the Master of the Hunt?"
I smiled, my teeth showing again, and gave him the truth like a dagger. "I do not know, sir. I bear it, but I do not know it."
"Now there's a paradox," he muttered. "I could make another song of that."
"You have left the lute behind." The shadows enveloped me as well, hiding the twists of colour and line over my body; I could have believed that I still wore my lilies. On the wind drifted faint echoes of growling, the sound of harrying dogs. I thought that perhaps I could smell blood.
"The body is a lute, sweet Snowdrop, an instrument. I hear that one of your Princes understands that very well. Perhaps I should learn to play you, in time, key and sound for my amusement."
How fitting that he should be an admirer of Andrealphus. I might as well have never left Shal-Mari. "I am not yours to keep, though."
"No," he agreed equably. "Not yet."
Ahead of us the trees opened up into a glade. Rock backed it, the edge of an old hill with a cave set into it, and hounds lazed or fought in scuffles across the snowy patch of ground. They were white, red-eared and yellow-eyed: as we stood there at the edge of the glade, they turned from where they lay or scuffled to point towards us, nostrils flaring and bodies tensing.
"Well." He smiled. "So what are you going to do, sweet Snowdrop? If you like, I will let you try to guess my name a third time." I could feel his certainty that I would back away now, and fall into his hand. It angered me.
I breathed deep, tasting the bite of the air, the scent of snow, the scent of blood. It was a sweet scent, and something that I was not sure I expected to breathe again.
"Master of the Hunt!" I called. My voice surprised me, having more of command to it than I had expected, more of a summons. Beside me, the lutanist took a step back, then another. He was truly afraid for the first time, and it ran in him like a current of water, cracking the ice of his composure.
A shadow stood at the mouth of the cave.
I could feel my pulse in me. "Master of the Hunt, I bear a message to you from my Prince." I raised fist to shoulder in the salute that I would have given a superior in Baal's service, bowing my head. The crystal quivered at my neck, a tangible sensation.
The Master stepped half into the sunlight: the edges of his armour caught the light, flashing bitter steel, but for the most part he was tangled in mosses and old skins. His helm had a stag's horns rising from it, proud and branching, or perhaps it was his head that was horned. Something numbed the edges of my vision, and I knew that I was only seeing a part of what he was. The smell of blood and musk, though, that was real, and I recognised the fragments of human bone that the hounds were gnawing amid the snow.
His voice tolled like a bell, and I felt it inside my skull and chest. "Come forward. Present your message."
The lutanist remained where he was as I set one foot in front of the other, pacing through the rumpled snow. The hounds drew back, some fawning around their Master's feet, others stretching and wandering towards the edges of the clearing. Hot breath hung around their mouths in clouds of mist.
I was standing in front of him too soon. I would have preferred another few steps to try and calm myself. I had to tilt my head to look up at him, and while I may be thin, I am no child in height: he loomed like a dark overhang, eyes flat and slitted in an armoured face.
His clawed hand closed around the token at my neck, and I could feel his tendons clenching against my collarbone as he pulled, feel the leather grow tight until at last it snapped. Small things seemed important, and I tried to fill my mind with them: the scent of the dogs, the cold burning of snow on my feet, the growing thread of fear from the Unseelie who still hung back at the clearing's edge, the aching of my legs. Small things, small things, keep me apart from this hungry darkness that is too close to something I could understand.
He drew back a step, the crystal in the hollow of his hand. It was as dull as any pebble.
"My hounds need prey," he said.
I felt the Unseelie's panic mounting. His voice was lazy, from behind me, as he said, "Take the woman, then. Her errand is done."
Fear ran between us like a cord, as I tasted his and in return let him know my own. The hounds began to move again, drifting round us, some moving towards him, some nuzzling at my hands and body. Their breath was rank. The emotion rose sharper, clearer, and I could sense his disbelief and growing horror. I was supposed to break, to run. He imagined me running, imagined my fall, the dogs tearing at me. He imagined their teeth in my flesh...
He screamed, a raw sound, and his sleeves flashed colour as he turned to run into the darkness of the trees.
"Prey," said the Master, his voice holding absolutely nothing of kinship. The hounds seethed, bloodlust a tide dragging at them, and at me with them. They churned around me, a rising heat and desire: I knew the wish to taste my quarry's blood, to feel the speed of the chase and the fear of my quarry. Yellow eyes watched me, as they nudged at me. I was a Punisher, and this was punishment. Hound of Baal.
That brought me back. Baal. Not this Master, I serve another Master.
The Master of the Hunt had been watching me as his hounds twined about me. He made a dismissive gesture as I looked at him again. "Go. You take no part in this hunt."
The dogs still moved around me as I walked away, but they ignored me as possible quarry now. Their growling rose and fell in waves, like the surge of the blood in my veins. They gave voice to my anger and the lust that I felt - yes, lust, and not Andrealphus' lust, but the desire for speed and pride and for bringing down prey. They spoke for me, and I was glad of that, for I was alone in the snow as I left them behind.
Through the wind and snow, I heard the baying as the Master set his dogs to the chase. Perhaps there were screams, but they were small things and soon gone.
The paths of Gehenna were home, the mud cool and gentle to my feet, the constant harmony of pain and struggle in the air something familiar and baseline. I presented myself at the gates to the fortress, and was admitted.
Then the long waiting in a room where the floor was tiled and had channels for water or blood. There were no seats, and I could not tell who might be watching. I stood at attention, watching the door.
The Djinns that came for me were silent. I was led up a flight of stairs, into a small turret room. My feet had healed by now, and I left no tracks on the carpet. Cramps knotted my stomach, the twists of fear, as I thought how few people knew I was here, and how few cared. If Baal wanted to make sure that the mission remained a secret, by far the easiest thing was for him to remove all traces of it.
At the table sat the Balseraph, her form entirely human this time. She gestured, and the Djinns left the room, still silent. Her emotions were controlled, only a faint curiosity showing through.
I kept my mouth shut as I waited for her to speak, hands folded behind my back, feet planted firmly.
Eventually, she said, "Messenger corps." There wasn't any more than that. No debriefing, no questions, no warnings. She knew what would happen if I spoke, and I knew it, and we both knew my duty.
I saluted, turned, and left. Nobody was waiting outside. I only passed the usual, expected people in the corridors as I found my way towards the barracks for the messenger corps. Every corner might have sheltered some assassin set to put period to the matter, but none did.
It didn't help at all: I could not relax.
The bench that I was allotted was cheap iron, the room was small and stank of the Calabite who had been sleeping there before. The general assembly room was full of a mass of demons waiting to carry some message for Baal or his officers, low-voiced grumbling broken by the occasional announcement. I thought of snow, of sand, of an empty sky.
I wanted to run again, to find my definition again.
Hound of Baal.
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