HHH – 10/13
And you didn’t think I’d show.
Continued from yesterday’s posting.
August waited, knowing that the Judicator and the gallery would wait upon his words, blasphemies or not. The thought did not satisfy him, though there was a time that it might have. He waited like the darkness between the stars waited for them to fade out.
“You see, it was only weeks after The Soul had disappeared into the Bending, weeks after her maidenhead breached. She was late back to Realspace, and had been due at Llolth where her very presence was supposed to put down an uprising there.”
Her very presence.”
The Judicator shifted uneasily as if pained. He attempted to take control of the trial, layering authority on his voice as a mother layers sugar on hers. “Let the guilty beware that this account will be weighed in his punishment. Further blasphemies will only increase his burden.”
“I will speak only the truth of things. If that damns me, then I am already damned by what I’ve seen.” August’s voice trailed off, unable to banish the sight of Wren Atrius laid bare, skin in tatters, a bloody banner hoisted in victory. Wren’s eyes had been the worst, the lids cut away unevenly so that he could not prevent himself from seeing what was yet to come. Had he cut them himself?
The Judicator coughed, wet and rasping. The gallery was silent and only the whirring of the recorders like an insect pulse, only that could be heard.
“So Kerishtha was joyous. Somehow they had been chosen to receive The Soul of Empire first. It was an honor that they were not yet ready to bear. Elation and panic to preparedness. Elation.”
August imagined the glorious sight of the mighty vessel rippling into the system, parting reality itself like the seas on its bow. Corona of sunlight dazzling behind it, eclipsing even the local star, stardust its trailing cloak.
It would be moments before anyone discovered how wrong the ship was. The spires of ruby and gold were twisted with glistening green, ropes of mucous that oozed from within the ship itself. Nothing stood straight, angles gleaned from perfection withered and corrupted. Something pulsed and the hull itself bulged like an erupting tumor then subsided.
“The mothers of Kerishtha were the first to feel it. The life that kicked within them spasmed and writhed, tiny limbs pressing against muscle and skin before they stilled. Hellsmaw, for that was the ship’s true name and that had ever been its name, written in Wren’s hand in Wren’s own blood, pressed closer to the planet’s surface.
“It pushed through the atmosphere, clawing through the skies, unfurling winnowing desecration in its wake. The skies themselves bled and oozed from wounds that would not heal. Hellsmaw cast a shadow on the planet’s surface now, caustic and cancerous. It was a mile wide, and anything that fell under that shadow died. Bodies liquefied leaving neither bones nor memories. Cities fell in upon themselves, buildings listing horribly and breaking under their own weight.
“The dead were fortunate. Those that lived, anywhere within sight of the Withering Shade, lost their minds. They gibbered and drooled, soiling themselves, defiling and degrading others. Appetites long suppressed boiled into life, bodies twisting into grotesques, undulating and locked into an orgy of blood and filth. Kerishtha fell.”
“Kerishtha was sterilized by the Serene Wrath as a result of terminal heresy and open rebellion against the divine Solarchy,” the Judicator stated as if he’d been reciting a recipe for a child. “Light’s Council decreed the entire planet corrupted, even the ground itself. It is stricken from the Eternal Ledger. Kerishtha is not the matter here. It is your failure to recover The Soul of Empire that has brought you under my gaze.” Evidently the Judicator had found his own courage, that or he’d taken refuge in certainties and facts, using them to shield himself from the obvious.
August couldn’t feel anger at the little man in the bronze coronet. His world was divided neatly into the light of the Solarchy and everything else. “The Soul of Empire can be no more recovered than Kerishtha can.”
“And yet you walked the decks of The Soul and returned home empty-handed?” the Judicator asked pointedly, incising, splitting the skin of doubt.
“I walked upon Hellsmaw!” August spat. “That other name you speak is meaningless.” He pulled at his chains, finally feeling them biting into his wrist. “In truth, it always was. It had always been Hellsmaw. That was Wren’s desire from the start.”
“How would you know the thoughts of the Solarch’s greatest genius?” The Judicator pointed accusingly.
August merely looked up sadly, though he could summon no tears. “I saw it in Wren’s eyes, in the heart of his own ship. He laid himself bare, making himself an open book, and writing upon that book a thousand secret names for…for hate and for rage and for revenge. A thousand names for revenge, and they were all the same.
“That name is written at the very heart of the avatar of your empire. That name scrawls and gouges the face of the Solarchy. And you and your council and even men like me cannot stop it.
“You’re right. I stood upon Hellsmaw’s decks, decks that were abandoned and empty but for myself and the bravest of my men. I had the abomination within the tow of The Sun’s Hammer. I then let the ship go, under its own power and motivation. I could not keep it and I knew that I could no more hold it than I could hold back mortality.”
“You certainly cannot hold back yours.”
“And you cannot hold back that which comes for your Empire. And that’s all I have left to say.”
Whatever had been burning within August Sune faded to cold ember, like the cold between the stars. And the thing that waited in the spaces between.
The sentence was brief and resolute, but Sune was at peace with it, the same blissful peace that Wren must have felt as the scalpel opened up the truth under his skin and his fingers wrote the names with his own life.
He would be held in a prison of his own making, but never far away enough from the stars.