Faint sobbing whispered inside the wide dome in the Citadel of Tongues. It mingled with the thin threads of bitter incense smoke and the gloom huddling around sparse candles. A forest of cobwebs hid the upper part of the dome, hanging like translucent drapes, and tapestries in green and rust covered the walls. Eyes drawn to the tapestry would flee again instinctively from the furtively vile hints of the art.
The tapestries were familiar, and therefore ignored, by the four .
“Leoric is not coming,” said Avar to the others. His voice was even and smooth, falling flat against the tapestries. A sharp ear would note unusually precise control and diction; the only outward sign of Avar's ferocious internal struggle. He had to keep an iron grip on the horror his soul had become, every waking moment. This required sanity of a sort, and Avar endured, knowing that losing his rationality would break his discipline, and that would be his death.
His companions had the luxury of madness. Avar was stained enough with his own atrocities that he could understand Tancred's fanaticism, or the torture of Julian's visions. But Avar still had a small, howling conscience inside him, the little piece holding him together, and thus Lady Isabeau's madness was something he could not understand.
“Why not,” wheezed Tancred, crouching rather than sitting.
“Because he's gone to the Wound,” replied Avar, glancing at the huddle of mouldering leather and mossy cloth that was Tancred. “He left immediately after Julian told him what happened.”
Lady Isabeau touched her sharp teeth with her tongue, thinking, and then leaned back with a sigh from her repast. The soft weeping came from her long, pale coat; her meal had ceased whimpering a while ago. “Hope's heart recovered, and then destroyed,” she said thoughtfully. “All that we have done, and we could not find it. But these others did.”
“Blasphemers,” hissed Tancred. Tangled red hair hid most of his face, but his agitation was apparent. Avar expected a rant coming. Instead, Tancred bit his lip and glanced furtively at Lady Isabeau.
She did not seem to notice, and turned her small dark eyes to Julian, who sat draped over his chair as if he were a cat. “Who were they?”
“Five,” said Julian, and then jerkily scratched at the base of his neck. Avar imagined the worm was particularly bad for Julian at the moment. When Hope's heart had been destroyed, Avar had held Julian down until the screaming had stopped.
“Five,” continued Julian, turning wide eyes up to Isabeau. “The Lady Knight, the Moonstone druid, the gray paladin, the Durzani astrologer, the priest of Law. They took the Heart from a tomb, and destroyed it in a great hall of hypocrisy. The five provinces celebrate even now, and they were given great regard for their act. Leoric goes to Hope's tree, to discover what we must do.”
“The Moonstone is mine,” rumbled Tancred, rubbing his callused hands together.
“What head we might find, we take,” said Avar blandly. “But we haven't heard anything from Hope yet.”
“Indeed not,” mentioned Isabeau as she dabbed at her lips with a napkin. “Julian, where are the five now?”
Julian wrapped himself in his own arms, his pointed face vacant, and Avar reflexively dabbed away a line of drool starting on Julian's lip. They were frequent companions, bound together by common dedication and the cost of an ordeal. Julian had survived the Augury of Maggots, tying him to the nightmare consciousness of the Wound, and his mind was always full of horror and whispers. He found Avar's presence quieting, and Avar had great sympathy and admiration for Julian's willingness to accept such a burden.
A strange friendship had developed, a balance between a man whose body and mind were wracked with prophetic worms, and a warrior whose body and mind were powerful, but whose soul was rapidly being displaced by an abomination.
“Still in Effernar,” murmured Julian, starting slightly as if waking. “The blood is still on their hands, but it will fade. They will not stay, though. They are restless.”
Tancred looked immediately at Isabeau. “Let me handle this, let me gather my monks and we'll put them down, we'll bring them back to the Wound.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” announced Isabeau thinly. “Leoric is our leader, and we will wait for his command.”
Subsiding, Tancred clicked his long nails together and breathed deeply, taking on the look of some huge, mangy predator who patiently waits for some unsuspecting animal to get within reach.
“We should send Julian to the harpies,” said Avar. “They'll listen to him.”
“Yes,” agreed Isabeau. “Find out what the harridans wish to do, Julian. Do you understand?”
“Beauty's children will know,” responded Julian, shifting uncomfortably. “Beauty may know. I will go.”
Isabeau favored Julian with a slight smile and then aimed herself at Tancred again. “You should get back to work, Tancred. Gather your people and work faster. We need more of the cauldrons and bellows. Increase work at the mine.”
“I will do it,” said Tancred. “When Leoric returns, all will be ready.”
Isabeau and Avar looked at each other.
“The students and teachers here are already organized, but this news lends me to believe I have a number of matters to look into immediately,” said Isabeau, rising as the massive spider she sat on lifted itself from the floor. “Avar...?”
“The army is growing, and it is ready.”
Isabeau nodded, fastened her scarves, and her spider silently pivoted her away and out of the room. Tancred rotted into the shape of a mangy crow, flapping his way up through the cobwebs to exit from the oculus of the dome.
Avar stood, waited a moment for Julian to begin to leave, and then looked at the silvery skin and broken, pure feathers of the angel on Isabeau's dinner table. It had been a meal by stages; the gorgeous creature's torso was nearly empty, and its crystalline bones stripped of flesh on most of the limbs. Isabeau had left the face intact but for the eyes, which she had consumed early on.
That is what I have become, he thought for a moment, and then turned his back, leaving the Citadel to attend to the end of the world.
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