The Grayhaven inquisitor was a tall, porcelain woman whose features hung like a lynched body from the uncaring noose of her face. There was a detached quality about her that lent itself to lifelessness—a stiff, jerky manner of articulation, as though she was little more than a flesh-and-bone puppet conducted by some unseen master.
But no, she was real enough, and without a doubt of her own mind; the oculus revealed no touch of the malignant about the torturer—nothing otherworldly, anyhow. Nor was the voracious hunger present as it had been in Vekka; no tendrils snaking from that lank-haired head, twisting up beyond the reach of clouded human sight and into that great Horizon where the Nameless Unknown coiled in wait.
Hardly nameless, now.
More than just a name: a warning. The end. Hunger incarnate, it lashed at the feeble veil of sanity stretched between the Horizon and mortal reality—a veil the Order was supposed to protect. Instead, the Binders only weakened it further with their arkaene meddling.
It pained Ahmelia that she had contributed to this future, unknowing though she’d been alongside her fraternity of klaerics. It was a pain worse than the protections she’d cut into her own flesh, or the ache of her savaged eye; worse still than the starvations, the beatings and horrors the inquisitors employed in their interrogations.
They were allies, once. What felt like another lifetime ago… a lifetime struck down by a tribunal’s sentence. And though Ahmelia had tried to make them understand that she’d had no choice—that the death of her Oath-Sister was no act of heresy, but one of mercy—they’d had her excommunicated and banished from Korona. The Vox-Arkaeni himself had twisted the brand about her neck, so all would know.
Years had passed since, though how many was beyond her.
She could no longer make sense of time; it may have been days, months or longer since she’d come to them with her apocalyptic warnings. What use, time, when arrayed against a firmament of madness such as the Horizon?
In hindsight, she’d surely appeared insane: carved up, weak with hunger, disheveled, bloody and maimed, rambling about Hungering Names, and the Order’s dead founder alive and lost in a realm of nightmares. Why would they believe her?
No one had before.
The scrape of metal drew Ahmelia from her self-pity. The Inquisitor selected a pair of clamps from the tray of instruments before her. They clacked together like snapping jaws in that black-gloved grip. Ahmelia tensed. The shackles chafed at her bare wrists and ankles.
They sought confessions, these servants of Arkaenus. Confessions she had freely given… if only they would listen.
Vekka had always been one to warn her of her naiveté, and like so many times before, Ahmelia found herself wishing she’d listened better to her deceased Oath-Sister. She’d gone to her former Order hoping for understanding. Instead, all she had was regrets.
And the dream, of course.
Ahmelia Valunkroft had never been one for suffering.
Pain she could handle; Belgraud had been a rough place to grow up, and she’d been a scrappy-enough child, accustomed to bullies and other villains of the industrial sprawl. Being friends with Vekka had only toughened her further: the one-time Vindicator had practically made it her mission. Suffering, however, was another matter entirely.
And it was a matter the Grayhaven inquisitors were well-versed in.
Despite the scars and callouses hardening her flesh, there was little to protect the softness of her heart—something her torturer had been quick to sniff out. Methods were selected, whose effects would be felt for days or weeks, rising and falling and rising again in a never-ending symphony of agony. They stripped her naked and left her to freeze, locked her in boxes set above roaring fires, suspended her upside down until her tongue swelled and her head felt fit to burst.
But their worst cruelties came laced in words: they toyed with her already mismanaged mind, plucked the chords of her emotions until she was raw and spent. There was no respite, no measure of silence between visitations… not even a “between” to speak of.
The only bliss came when consciousness buckled and she slipped away into the cold gray of her dreams where the physical world could no longer hurt her.
She found herself there presently, the clomping of her booted feet lost to the soundless abyss that made up her subconscious, dreaming mind. Doorways stood at attention, an endless row of them, all manner of shapes, sizes, and configurations.
Always the doorways.
As in life, Ahmelia’s dreams reflected her emotions: they were often brittle constructs of pure feeling or repressed wishes. She could hardly recall having so structured a dream in her life. Even the nightmares she suffered during her father’s corruption and death were ephemeral things, never the same.
Not like this.
She brushed the metal trenched into the puffy skin where her right eye had been. It filled her skull with a cold heat that made her back teeth ache: the Voidex Oculus. The things it had shown her… they were impossible, yet true in a way that was undeniable. And like all the other unexplainable truths, she understood it was somehow responsible for this place.
Brushing a lock of white hair from her eyes, Ahmelia approached one of the doors. The knob turned easy in her grip.
It opened soundlessly, like no door ever could. A gust of wind ruffled her great feathered cloak, biting through her tunic: she was restored here, untouched by the ruin of her life.
Ahmelia squinted against the glare, curious to see beyond the threshold, yet ever-hesitant to cross. Never had she crossed.
A snow-capped forest stretched before her, a morning sun piercing through the holes in the graying cloud cover. The smell of pine reached her, and she was reminded of her own times wandering the Frontier. Listening, she picked out birdsong and the scampering of little things through the brush, heard the trickle of a stream unseen… and the crunch of feet in snow.
Two people walked by, a man and woman—teenagers, really, clad in fur-lined cloaks and coarse tunics. The girl’s hair sprouted from her head like the gnarled branches of some alien tree, thick knots of braids and dreads decorated with beads and stones that brought Vekka to mind with a painful clarity. But, where Vekka was thick and strong with muscle, this girl was wiry; Ahmelia could see the boniness in the fingers that clasped tight to the weathered sword on her hip. Their voices carried like the rasp of embers on the wind.
Curious, Ahmelia stuck her head through the doorway to listen, cheeks stinging in the cold—
The boy turned, his watery eyes narrowing.
He was looking right at her.
Ahmelia reared back with a yelp and slammed the door shut. Had they seen her? Could they see her? She had no idea, and she stayed braced against the door for some time, fearing the rattling of the knob, or worse.
Eventually, with calming heartbeat and renewed curiosity, Ahmelia detached herself from the door and scurried down the line. Telling herself she was fine, that the strange couple wouldn’t follow her, she nonetheless put several doors between her and her next choice. She might not have opened them at all, except that the black of this central void was oppressive to her; not in a malignant way, but simply that it reminded her of how very alone she was. It was too close to reality, and she preferred not to dwell on that whenever she came here.
The next door she opened was of a thick metal. It had a bizarre handle that clanked when she levered it, and an odd sigil of sorts was blazoned above it, blocked in faded white paint. She planted her feet and pushed; the door was surprisingly heavy, laden with resistance. By the time she’d cracked it open, her arms were trembling and a light sweat gathered on her brow.
She peered through the gap, and what she saw stole her breath.
It was a city—though unlike any she’d seen or ever thought capable of existing. Great blocks of stone and glass rose up into a sky tinged pink with the burgeoning evening; some spired, some flat, others slanted at bizarre angles. All of them mighty and impressive, beyond even the great Korona itself.
Yet, there was an ugliness to this place that Korona lacked, an industrial quality reminiscent of home. Familiar smells wafted up to her: congestion and whiffs of trash, sprinkled atop a salty breeze. At the city’s facing edge there was a great stretch of ashen sand—a beach. And beyond, a vast ocean, steel-gray except where the waves crashed against the breakers. Boats dotted it, but these were no river-rafts or even the tradeships like she would watch dock at Belgraud’s harbor: these were behemoths of metal, painted and with great jutting stacks, churning their way inexorably through the water without hint of an oarman. She heard them call to one another in baritone voices.
Something caught her eye then. She turned from the strange sea-craft and gasped: a falling star! It smeared itself across the painterly sky, like a slip of the artist’s brush. She traced its path and judged it would make landfall in the city somewhere. Though tradition taught her to revere the coming of stars, experience warned her against such childish fancies. Thinking of the moonblight she’d helped quell at Iris, and the tragic, dethroned celestial that had spawned it, Ahmelia offered up a prayer of protection before hauling the door closed.
Ahmelia scratched her nose and moved on, boots scuffing silently against the black as she went from door to door and drank in the myriad sights. Tried to imagine what it would be like to live in each one, but she hadn’t the imagination to build connections with such intangible places. It was simply too… big.
That was, until she came across the room.
At first, she thought it was Grayhaven itself she gazed on, with its dreary stone and buzzing matter lamps… but then she saw the bed, and the people making love in it.
Ahmelia knew she should look away but couldn’t. Bestrode upon her partner, the blue-haired woman utilized the fullness of her body to great effect, guiding him with tender touches and soft, lingering kisses. Ahmelia sensed power from her; but more so, she felt the passion they shared.
She closed the door on their orgasm. Hearing it made her want to cry, which left her feeling stupid and not a little weird. She’d never made love before, and now she doubted very much that she’d ever get the chance.
Ahmelia scoffed at her own childishness. She’d been shown the end of her world, tasked with divine purpose by the Father of their Order, and yet here she was moping about the woes of her bed life. How pathetic.
Yet, she could not disabuse herself of the notion: how loveless, sexual or otherwise, her life had become. Her mother, father, the Arkaenite Order, Vekka… all the people and things she’d cared about; taken from her by the hungering shadow at her heel.
Trembling, Ahmelia gathered about herself and sobbed until her stomach ached and her throat turned raw. She sniffled and stretched her stubby legs out before her, miserable still but lacking the will to fall farther. All the while, the cold throb of the oculus gnawed at her. Incessant, inescapable; like its visions.
Vivid was the memory of the wicked, taloned fingers digging into her eye, clarity going wild with crimson and yellow, then a blotting darkness so complete it nearly hurt worse than the act committed against her. And though she couldn’t see the blood, she’d felt it pouring out, her body going weak and nauseous from the loss. She would have died had it not been for Arkaenus.
Maybe I should have, she thought sullenly. Better to die blind then suffer a sight no one wants to believe.
That left her feeling a little guilty: Arkaenus believed she was the key—insisted that with the voidex oculus, she and she alone would finally reveal the truth to the Order and make them ready.
For a brief moment, she’d mattered again.
Anger boiled in Ahmelia’s guts, sudden and acidic.
“It’s not fair,” she snarled. “I did e’rything I was s’posed to, but those stupid drokks won’t listen! I dinnit ask for this!”
I should just walk through one of those doors.
She’d always wondered what would happen if she did. Were they causeways to other dreams? Other realities? Would she simply wake up back in Grayhaven?
Or, were they portals back to the Horizon?
Fear of the latter had always stayed her. If ever there was proof of something worse than death, it was that firmament of insanity and endless hunger. Even now she could feel its whispering madness gnawing at her mind…
“I dun care,” she said, and meant it. Whatever these doors were, she was tired of being afraid. Fear had ruined her whole life, taken root and infected all those she cared for until they were nothing more than traumatic memories. And now the fear was in her head, forced onto her consciousness via the eldritch machinations of the oculus; the Sight Unbroken. A curse bestowed upon her by the one man she thought might take pity on her.
“Horizon keep you, Gregorin Arkaenus.” With a swiftness she stood, invigorated by her blasphemy, and approached a door carved of weathered wood, inelegant in its design. A charm dangled from a stud, and she recognized the glossy black of the valun feathers, same as those adorning her cloak.
The spirit-folk of the Frontier had been kind to her once, and it was that remembrance which fed her burgeoning courage.
The door opened to a clearing and the scents of the deep wood. A bonfire flickered in the distance, ringed with simple tents and huts of hide and pine. Several men and women paraded by, their feather-cloaked backs hunched with the boons of a hunt.
One of them turned.
This time Ahmelia did not flinch. Their eyes met: the woman’s were a pale silver to match her skin and hair. She rattled her staff, the bones and beads clacking. The others halted. They were heady with the scent of herbs.
Pierced fingers tapped at the feathered garment clinging to the strong frame, then pointed at Ahmelia’s. The shaman offered a hand, as though Ahmelia was an expected guest.
Ahmelia accepted: it felt like waking up.
As she crossed, she gave a glancing thought to the visions, the great task that had been foisted upon her. Another burden.
She was tired of being burdened.
“Take ‘em all,” and she meant that, too.
“I understand you have an Ahmelia Valunkroft here.”
The madame-inquisitor eyed him with something bordering on distrust. It was expected. Agents of the Inquisition were not known for their forthcoming nature, even amongst their contemporaries.
“How much do you understand?”
Under the darkness of his hood, Sylvio frowned.
“About the girl? A great deal. Of her incarceration here, I shall admit, I am at a loss.”
A razor-thin eyebrow slid up her mask-like face. “She is under investigation for consorting with the unfirth, and activities of similarly heretical nature.”
“Investigation.” He let his derision ride heavy on the word. Then, before she could respond, he said, “Not anymore. By order of his eminence, Vox-Arkaeni Ordo IV, Ahmelia Valunkroft is to be placed into my immediate custody.” He withdrew the stamped-and-sealed documentation, waited as the madame-inquisitor broke the wax and read it. He had to give the woman credit; not a flicker of annoyance passed over her oddly wooden features. She surprised him further by finding the faculty to chuckle as she returned the scroll.
“I find his judgment in this matter suspect.”
Most Arkaenites, and certainly klaerics, would never think to speak of the Vox-Arkaeni, their Voice, in so bold a manner. But then, inquisitors were not most Arkaenites. Their station afforded them leniencies unknown even to the upper echelons, and it was they who protected the Order from another Marco the Hapless or worse, Vilana the Bloodletter.
Sylvio sighed inwardly. He’d hoped it would be enough, though he knew to expect otherwise. Still, Ordo had been firm about appearances and their upkeep. But if they couldn’t retrieve the girl…
Sylvio made up his mind.
“Perhaps this will convince you, then.”
He produced the signet ring, its mark intimately familiar to every Arkaenite. It was impossible to possess, protected as it was by the might of holy Korona itself: the ring of Gregorin Arkaenus, Father of the Order.
More than that, however, was what it signified: verification of the rumors coming out of Korona. Rumors he knew Grayhaven had heard.
They were inquisitors, after all.
“He lives,” breathed the madame-inquisitor.
“He does,” Sylvio said. “Now, take me to her.”
Color infused her cheeks, what might have been embarrassment or regret. “Forgive me, brother Inquisitor. This way.”
He took to her heel, eager to be gone. The screams and moans of heretics permeated the stones like a graveyard chill; he feared that every second spent here was another he might be infected by Grayhaven’s odious nature.
The madame-inquisitor unlocked a cell door at the end of a long hall and ushered him in.
“Fear not, she’s simply unconscious…”
Her voice trailed off; there was a sharp intake of breath.
Sylvio frowned. “Ah.”
Mask fractured,, the madame-inquisitor sputtered and cursed, summoning guards, but Sylvio was already striding back the way they’d come. A search fell underway, but it would bear no fruit, he knew. The door had been locked, the prisoner shackled; the stone so thick as to be impenetrable. This was no escape, planned or otherwise.
Ahmelia Valunkroft was simply gone.