art by Prince Satyrn
They kept her in an empty, featureless place without time. They fed her white food and dressed her in white clothes to merge out into the infinity of nothing that surrounded her, and made her blend into it. To keep herself from screaming, she would imagine that she was slowly dissolving into the whiteness. When she could get away with it, she would close her eyes and slowly listen to the sound her body made as it mended.
More often than not, she would scream, uselessly. When they finally pulled her out of there and dragged her, wide-eyed and slavering into the world, it was all too much to bear.
They would not give her paralt or blackblossom. Laudanum was an option, but the chymical imbalance of the aftermath of her transformation caused the fleshsmiths to side against it. The woman (now known among the highest echelons of the Hound hierarchy as Ariachne Logos) was left to suffer through the transformation into the traitor's betrothed.
No matter. She'd done it before. Slipped into another's skin, a foreign mind. Her identity, her very shape had long since been wiped clean in wrought-iron crucibles, reduced to a blank slate to be placed into form-fitting molds, cast into the frameworks of prisoners of opportunity.
Ariachne had abandoned her shape and form long ago, reduced into the essential chymical elements—bile and sulphur and mercury, a poison with thought, a creature that writhed softly in its tube—made to infest the bloodstreams of captured conspirators and drive them around like puppets, right into the arms of the Empire.
The Coiled, the Hounds would call them, in hushed tones. And even among those twisted creatures, their bodies more machine than meat, their brains replaced by endlessly ticking quartz arrays, they were considered subhuman.
It was a traumatizing experience, for most people. Except that Ari wasn't most people. She had broken hundreds under her heel, made them low, crushed their egos and absorbed them into the tumultuous hungry superego that her mind had become.
But this Other, she was too much even for her. Had things gone differently, perhaps Ariachne and the Other would have been comrades, friends; united in the service of Her Majesty. Or (as the woman occasionally thought to herself) they would have followed the Hapsburg-Romanov traitor to the depths of Hell and dissipated, when he was done with them. In either case, they would not have settled for Fulcanelli alone, come Hell or high water.
At the end of the week, the Queen's Psychosurgeon deemed Ariachne field-ready. Following the slightest, half-remembered hint of a fever dream wrenched from the briefest flicker of the Other's memory—(banners waving in the humid wind; a monstrously large mosquito driving its stinger into a dead man's eye; a crowd of maimed and broken penitents crawling on stumps to beg for his blessing)—Ari traveled to the planet Magnus, there to brave the carnivorous jungles and tread the fungi-fields, juggling half-remembered truths pilfered from the Other's conspiratorial past to find the isolated pockets of resistance that had lingered.
From there, to Boyang, the charnel-planet, the place where the zugzwang, great beasts of burden, were bred and slaughtered, their meat carted off to feed the slavering mouths of the Empire. In the depths of a forgotten abattoir, still reeking of a hundred years worth of offal and gore, the Factoti maintained, in their infinite wisdom, the Cult of the Red Lord. Wide-eyed seers had recognized her immediately, but had been unable to peer through the facade of her identity to find Ari's true nature. With the voice of Lady Logos, she helped glean from them the specifics of their faith and the origin of the Red Lord, born of the Habsburg-Romanov line.
The child's inception had not taken place in any mortal womb; instead, the fetus had been grown into a vat hewn from amber, chymically put together from the eggs of the Queen and the seed of some half-forgotten lord. Once grown, the fetus had then been placed into a birth-tank, to be bombarded with orgone radiation until his pineal gland had swollen to a monstrous size.
This, the Factoti believed, had given the child his godlike powers, his mental prowess and mastery of mind over matter. His godlike capacity for prescience and his astonishing intellect. From the moment the child was ejected from his birth-tank, the court of Prague had known: this was the God-King that had been promised in Scripture.
The child that would bring forth the Golden Age that would last until all the stars were cinders. In their rapturous display, the Factoti spoke of the failed attempts at the child's assassination; the growing contempt of the 'little men' against Him; his flight from Terra; and the long bloody war he had waged for ten years against the Dominion. They had bid her to go to Artephius, where he was last seen: bring them a lock of his hair, a drop of his sweat that they might pay obeisance to.
On Artephius, she met the shaman in his cave, the bitter native whose children had perished, abandoned by their strange and cruel champion, scorched into nothing under the harsh glow of a weapon that brought cancerous growths upon the world that it struck. It had brought her all the way to this place, inside an old munitions factory in Fulcanelli, which had once armed the Other's doomed little army. The Other had found places like this across every planet she had roamed. It would seem that the entire Empire was littered with the Other's disruptive legacy. Ariachne's knee pressed against the tiny slit on the Shaum native's exoskeleton, her hands securing his head to clamp it like a vice, fingers deftly holding his mandibles apart to avoid any sudden loss of limb. Leaning over the base of his neck, she whispered in the tiny aperture that their species used for ears.
"Where is the crucible?"
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to read Part VII of
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