Tribute of the Living
Peregrine preceded the Ambasador on his way home from Grandmother Bright’s plaza, incorporeal wings carrying the bird specter through the glass-walled canyons of Chiaroscuro to scout her master’s path. The Daystar was low on the horizon to the west, casting killing rays at random amongst the shattered lattices of metal and crystal, through which she threaded with consummate grace. In the particolored shadows of the city’s skyline, she was all but invisible.
On unseen winds, the ghost crow’s flight sent her circling, spiraling down and around a relatively low structure made all in weathered white marble and adamant crystal, and trimmed in shining gold that never failed to provoke a crow-like fascination when its light touched her eye. The sun shone on it full force, down an open corridor that stretched east and west to the edge of the city, forcing her to fly wide around it, and in through the glassless frames above its columned eastern portico.
The two girls where there, as was to be expected, playing at some sort of game. Mortal, and therefore unobservant, they didn’t notice Peregrine until she had alighted on her customary perch overlooking the stares that descended beneath the old court house’s rotunda. When they finally saw her, they engaged in an unseemly hustle and bustle, as if any last minute preparations made might have some impact on their master’s sense of welcome upon returning.
Thought not generally given to introspection, being a crow, the ghost briefly wondered how they had gone so long without realizing exactly how irrelevant they were to him. When the Cult of the Bloody Night had tribute the two of them to the subject of their fixation a year and more ago, the master’s reaction had been palpable: he could make use of them, but they were ultimately disposable, though the girls’ continued presence seemed to have inspired a sense of paternal responsibility in the master which made Peregrine feel distinctly uncomfortable.
When things had been set in order to the two girls’ satisfaction, they hustled over to the rotunda’s great southern entrance, and put their shoulders into the towering bronze double doors, swinging them open. A moment later, the master strode through, doffing his great coat into the waiting arms of the smaller, and accepting a cup from the elder, who pulled the doors closed behind him.
“The ceremony is prepared?” he asked, and the girls both squeaked out respectful affirmatives.
“Good. That old spirit is cunning, and knows entirely too well how to push me to the boundaries of my oaths, to say nothing of my orders. The Great Ones will not be easily propitiated tonight.”
He descended the steps into what he had made his residence proper. The manse’s lower level incorporated a circular inner hall, sunken half below street level so that one seemed to enter on the mezzanine. Originally envisioned as a public space, rooms – once halls of justice – radiated from its perimeter. Like the girls, the manse had been a tribute from one of his cult’s wealthier members. Unlike them, it was seen by all involved as having symbolic meaning.
When he’d first taken possession, the building had been a shambles. With its ruined furnishings disrupting its feng shui, unharnessed essence had made his skin crawl just being in the place, so he’d hired a geomancer to restore the building, and had it redesigned as a residence in the process. Now he fancied it quite comfortable, on the whole.
The Ambassador stepped into the center of the rotunda – the building’s geomantic center – stripped off his shirt and tossed it over a nearby settee, and cleared his mind, focusing on drawing essence from the manse through the stone set in one of the simple soulsteel amulets that hung from his neck.
Behind him, the younger of the two sisters extracted a knapped obsidian blade from her kit – she had turned out to possess a fine and steady hand as a chirurgeon – and begin to trace a maze-like pattern of neat, deep cuts in the flesh of his back, just as he had taught her. Before him, her elder sibling knelt, and began unlacing his breaches, preparing to handle the more human response that inevitably ensued as the pain from the incisions flowed out through his body.
He didn’t require the shrill squawk of his familiar to know that the woman was there. With a word, he shooed his servants off to their quarters, and began lacing up his trousers. Focusing his mind upon the arts of Concession as he did so, he seemed, suddenly, more real than anything else in the room, and his reality washed calmly out over it. He could feel her presence, and turned to face her as he put the final knot in his garment’s bindings.
A low female voice slithered from the shadows, “Do you suppose it pleases the Neverborn see the ritual performed within the confines of a fane to their most reviled foes, or does is provoke their anger?”
“Has our master some message for me?” he enquired in a carefully neutral tone, ignoring the question Invidious Night had posed. The signature of the other Abyssal’s will – like an infinite wellspring of pitiless hunger – was familiar to him.
She did not bother to release the magic which concealed her, though it was patently clear to both of them that he knew where she was. “When the Lion commands, I obey. A lesson it seems you would do well to learn. Or did you think that your little game of empire building here in the land of the living would somehow escape his notice?”
“And you have been sent to… recall me for reprimand? Why? Our true masters seem more than adequately pleased with my actions here in Creation, Invidious, so why then should I accompany you to the Thousand to be berated by an old man upon whom said-same masters have bestowed clear signs of their continuing displeasure?”
As he spoke, the Daystar dipped below the horizon, leaving the rotunda in true darkness.
“Because I so order it, Deathknight.” The thought arrived in his head before the sound, steeped in the accents of ancient Old Realm, and underscored with the hiss of metal plates sliding against one another. The Ambassador fell to his knees, crushed by the weight of a will that eclipsed his own more thoroughly than he could possibly have imagined.
“Proceed with your mission, Day Caste. Your task here is done, but his cult remains over-large, and lacking in the respect owed his station, however worthless the individual who fills it.”