My beautiful fool, my idiot friend. Nothing I can do for you, now; all the old demons chased away. I've kept them from your doorstep long enough. Other myths calling, begging to be made.
You'll never know; you'll think I was hurt or sick; that I slunk away to die; that I was taken by another, sealed inside a loving prison. Never occurring to you that this might simply be the end.
No long goodbye; no words either of us can give. A last caress, a final look, then out; out into rain and wind and a dark morning. Roaring engines, barking dogs. Growling, hunched, hooded, unhappy men.
The day might never come, for either of us; maybe a car will hit me, maybe a pack of cruel children will kick or stone me to death. Maybe. All I know is that I can't be your friend or protector any more. Too many demons, too many spectres; all shapes, all species. Things born of the death of love; the defeat of art. Things scrawled like black charcoal in the air, knotting and writhing; worms of shadow. I can't fight them; can't hold them back.
After today, I'll just be another of the many miseries you shape them from; as resented as once loved.
The air filled with demons, with ghosts and echoes. So many calling, demanding me. They remember; how I've hurt and denied them, how I've kept them from their mischief. No more; their teeth and claws pass through me; I am smoke, a ghost in the rain. Bright, burning eyes, colder than the moon, roaring through the murk. Clattering, barking; tremors in the ground. All so afraid, so hurt; the demons seething around them. Some so festooned, I can't see them beneath; walking tumors of smoke and shadow. Such pain; nothing I or anyone can do for them.
Away, away; across the still and broken river, when the eyes close and the roaring grows silent. Away, beneath fences, into soft and scented grass, soil beneath my feet. This old place; where I used to play, where I was born. Where so many of my brothers and sisters died. Amongst the dead dreamers; the suffering and demon-haunted. Where the angels weep and hide their faces behind stone hands. Where I first heard them singing.
So strange...none of my brothers and sisters ever did, though my Mother taught me how. How to understand; to hurt them, if necessary. And I have; angels and demons both. A long, long time since I last came here, away from the world, through the mist.
Safe here, amongst my brothers and sisters. They come to me, as they always do; a storm of voices in my mind, begging, pleading; desperate for stories of the world they can never walk. Shrugging them off, for now; their shades parting around me like smoke.
Demons here, too; crouching behind the stones, in the shades of trees, clinging to the ruined walls. Pathetic things; ragged and flimsy, so easily torn, unravelled. The eyes of some turning on me as I trespass, as I leap up on top of a moss-stained stone, shake my head in the rain. Cold burning eyes; like those of the roaring engines on the still river, though crueller by far.
One crawling from its nest amongst the dead trees and ruined walls nearby, stalking towards me spider-like through the long grasses. I know him; have done since I was a babe, barely able to open my eyes. One that my Mother allowed close, out of all of them; one that helped her to teach me. Wizened, withered; one of the eldest of its kind, to hear the others speak of it; see the reverence with which angel and demon both treat it.
Not the master of this place; no such thing, nothing to rule, save dust and echoes, but an authority; one that they all respect and turn to, in their despair, their forgetfulness.
Sighing, a thing of tattered shadow, reaching out its long, many-fingered hand, running it across my head. A cold touch, but welcome, the eyes beneath its hood colder still, burning with the light at the end of all things; the flickering of the last, nearly smothered star.
Welcome back, Jacoby.
A name I'd almost forgotten; not what the dreamer I left called me. Nor my Mother, nor my brothers and sisters.. Can't even recall where I first took it, now.
His voice...a sigh on the breeze, a rustle through the dead and twisted boughs above. So cold, making me shiver; frost-bitten fingers trailing my spine.
Absolom...I didn't know if you'd still be here.
Something like laughter, thin and hissing; reedy and distant, playing between the gravestones, through the tall, unkempt grasses. Something blazing in the shadows of the church; a pale, warm luminescence.
Where else would I be? Nowhere to go, little one; nothing else to be. Only the Circles, and I'm no longer welcome there.
Shivers, twitches and sighs as those perched amongst the stones, creeping through the ruins, shudder at the mention of what lies below; of where they all crawled from.
You could try living out there, amongst the Dreamers. It's easier than you'd imagine...
The demon withdrawing its hand, billowing like a frayed bag in the wind.
For you, perhaps; they adore you. They do not see...but us? No; they'd hate and fear us, as they always have; as we taught them to. And we'd love it too much; it would make us as we were. No...we'll wait here, until the Horn sounds. Until the Circles empty and the Choirs descend. Then, maybe, we'll have an ending to speak of...
Such a sad creature, all of its stories of the same melancholic ilk; stories of ancient days, when the War was new, when Choirs and Circles clashed across time and throughout history; when they were all greater, swollen on the fear and adoration of humanity. When they were believed.
And what will that mean for us?
Something like a smile in the shadows, though it lacks lips and teeth and anything approaching a face to make it.
For you, you mean?; The rest; your brothers and sisters...I forget; the laws are old; there's hardly any that remember them now, even amongst the Circles, the Choirs. Some of the Grigori, perhaps. Some of the First Fallen...
Maybe I should ask them?
The creature wavering, its shadowy rags flaring around it in incredulity.
Amongst the High Choirs, the deepest pits? Of course...of course. Why not? Is there anything any of us could do to stop you?
I don't smile; can't. A trick that has always evaded me. But I blink in amusement.
A slow rain falling. I leap from atop the moss-green stone, weaving a path through the long grass that Absolom follows; a thing of smoke and shadow.
The ghosts of my brothers and sisters playing nearby, their mewling voices soft and distant. My Mother calling, long dead; her shade one of the many anchored to this place.
Be careful, Jacoby, for your own sake and hers. She's been here so long, now; so long waiting...
I know; always strange, every time I've returned in the past; when those who took me into their homes, made me a part of their stories, sickened and died or grew weary of me, when age and illness and fire and despair takes them (and something always does, in the end). Mother having lingered another series of centuries, on this side of the veil, amongst the ghosts of her dead children, the transient angels and their shadow siblings.
Changed, just by being here; no longer the simple creature that gave birth to me. Barely recognisable, the last time; in form, scent or thought: something more like them, the ones outside; the engine-making, barking, soul-sick ones, that Absolom and his ilk love and resent so deeply.
Calling to her in our old tongue; one she likely no longer remembers, the ruins of the church cold and whispering, unchanged since my last return; still fire-eaten from the inside, the saints and prophets and messiahs scorched black, piles of rubble from the collapsed ceiling fruiting with fungus, strewn with cob web.
Spiders and beetles and silverfish stirred by our presence, fleeing from me, swarming in strange patterns around Absolom's feet, the demon reaching down to allow them onto his palm, to play between his fingers. A hiss that might be laughter.
No answer; the drip, drip, drip of rain; whispers of Absolom's kin in the shadows. More than ever before; every corner wretched with them, every half-broken beam strung with them; kin from so many Circles, of so many shapes and forms and conditions... whispering to me; calling me to them, offering so much; relief from the cold, pleasure, power, in return for just a little ride in my skin; a moment, an hour, a day only, they swear.
No purchase on me; on any of mine. Those promises for the sad and lonely ones; those that ache and want and weep.
Absolom silencing them with little more than looks, the lesser of them scurrying away, seeming to evaporate into nothing.
Higher, deeper; other voices; those of birds, the ringing of bells, wind whistling through flutes of bone. Beautiful; like the choirs once raised here, long since silenced.
Absolom hissing at the sound, unable to help himself, no matter how removed he is from the Circles he was born to.
Not to your tastes, eh, 'Solom?
The creature rearing up, taking on a measure of solidity, rags of shadow fluttering around it like ragged crow's wings. A face in the dusk-light, turned up to the rain, the music falling with it. Not the monster one might expect, given the myths and stories he's sewn. Stories that he and Mother used to tell me, long ago; when I was still at the teat.
Pale, weary; the features of a poet drained of all inspiration by disappointment in the world. Eyes dark; pits of the deep void that lingers between stars. Stains of tears on his sculpted cheeks.
Not a matter of "taste;" their light and music...the weapons they used against us, when we were still at war...so many scars, my boy; so many loved ones lost...
Is there love? In the Circles, I mean?
The creature turning its darkling eyes on me, the coldness of them enough to make my hair stand on end.
Oh yes, there's love; even amongst the deepest and most despairing. In many ways, it was love that damned us; that ignitied this idiot war...
Another call, cutting through the angel's elegies; the cry of something wild and rabid, the shadows scattering, as though afraid of being caught by its bloodshot eye.
Talons clicking against the broken stones, something lame dragging its carcass through the ruin.
I know, before I see; the creature raising its rag-swathed head, sharp eyes catching the evening light. A scent of cold disease; an infested body, a rotting mind.
The sound she makes...something in pain, something that should never have been allowed to live. A drool of black filth from beneath her hood, strings of matter descending to the ground.
My brothers and sisters...emerging from their nests and play-pens, going to her, calling as they swarm around her ankles, as she bends to them, running many-fingered hands through their lack of substance.
More. Far more than I remember; others answering; similarly distorted things sloping from the rafters, from behind shattered statues...still living, still flesh; scrabbling on all fours, worming to her like slugs, the stink of them, the sick, broken sounds...
Pausing, Absolom watching with me as they congregate around her, as they coil around her wrists and ankles, reach out to caress her bandaged, seeping frame. My original kin not troubled at all by their malformed sibling's presence, the more monstrous amongst them playing with the ghosts, hooting and whooping as they sift between their fingers, from their grasping hands, as they leap up to latch onto their hunched and rippling backs.
Wondering if you should have come back, Jacoby?
Knowing; reading me as he's been able to since I was barely born, before my eyes even opened and drank their first vision.
Backing away, praying to no god or demon that I can name for them not to see, to recognise...
Her bandaged head rising, numerous, mismatched eyes shining beneath. A seepage of filth; congealed tears, blood and bile. The stench of her...
A sound that almost puts me to my heels; that rakes through my innards like claws, that opens me up, splays me out and leaves no inch unknown.
No words; my name likely long forgotten to her, now. None necessary; a wave of unspoken affection, accusation: How could you, sweetheart? How could you abandon us for so long..?
The others stirring, their eyes on me, too, blazing with accusations; with envy, resentment. The only one of her still living children able to walk in the world outside; in the lives of dreamers.
Holding them back; hoots and hisses, a slurred chatter of garbled nonsense.
So unlike the creature she once was; twisted and transformed by time; by the lovers she's taken, the Fathers of her twisted children...by the children themselves, dreaming their toxic nightmares in her belly.
Shambling towards me, leaving a trail of steaming filth across the stone. Reaching, with thought and fingers, her long dead children leaping and twirling around her ankles.
Come here. Come to me, child. I can't see you.
Absolom silently urging me on.
Padding forward, into the amber moonlight (not morning here; another state, another dream), the falling rain. The angel's music stilling, their attention searing down; lances of Summer sunlight.
The thing my Mother has become hunkering down, joints cracking, creaking, foul fluid leaking from her torn skin. A smile, splitting the wrappings around her face, her features themselves; black, worm-eaten gobbets falling to the ground, snatched up and fought over by her still-living sons.
Never any different. No matter how far you roam, how long you leave us.
Not sure if a compliment, condemnation or neither; not caring. Straining my neck in the dusk, the rain refreshing against my up-turned face.
Do you want me to stay?
Laughter, my many siblings hissing, chortling; some of the closer, the most distorted, baring their broken teeth, talons twitching.
Let us have him, Mama; let us open him up for you. We could share him...
So many gone that way, over the years of my absence; cannibalised in moments of delirium, in the agonies that blasted her thought and form.
This...a rare moment of lucidity; one already slipping.
As though that would make any difference...no, child; I don't want you to stay. You remind me of him far too much.
The creature shambling closer, silencing its other children with a glance, a glare. Absolom sighing, stepping back, as though repelled by the sight of her.
No eyes for him; only on me, those not dark or milky wth disease burning bright as stars in her head.
Your Father, child; so much like him...
You remember him?
Throwing back her head, croaking vile laughter, Absolom snarling beside me, the angels in the floors above losing their rhythm, their hymns disturbed. My dead and lost and murdered brothers and sisters...tumbling away, scattering, terrified by her outburst.
Remember..? You think me that much of whore, do you?
A concept I don't even understand; one learned from her lovers, from the outside; from the stories they told her. A dreamer's word.
Yes, I remember him...when he first came here; when he made it what it is.
I have wondered before; why angels and demons flock to this place, why so few dreamers ever walk here. Asking Absolom before, in the past. No answer that he was willing to give; no story she would ever tell.
Absolom slinking forward, her attention flittering to him. A flaring of the stars in her skull, a hiss, bared, broken teeth, something squirming amongst them, in the black mess of her gums.
Be careful. Be very careful, Liliana...
Never having heard him use the name before. One taken during the years of my absence, or one she's always known, but never allowed me to hear?
Why? What will you do, old Scratch? Old Shadow? You and me...we're nothing, now. But him...he can walk in the world; he can change things...
My eyes and his meeting, such sadness passing between.
Is that what you want, Jacoby? To change the world? Maybe to break it..?
Not knowing; never knowing. Only what instinct and immediacy demand. Going where I want, answering when it pleases me. Little more than a shadow myself, in love with the state.
You...you can find him, child; you can make him remember us....
Fluttering in the rafters above, strobing rays of sunlight. White feathers falling, the angel's songs silent. Whispers and hisses from the shadows; pleas for me to be still, to stay; to leave and forget.
Tell me how.
Absolom sighing, wavering beside me, the scraps and tatters of his body seeming to deflate.
Summoning me to her, a flick of over-long, foulness-laced fingers. Every instinct railing against it; my hackles raising, a hiss building in my throat.
Countermanding them; reigning myself in in a manner my siblings and cousins have never been able.
Padding towards her, through the glares and unseen lashes; the phantasmal rakings at my mind and meat. My ghostly brothers and sisters emerging from hiding, playing about me, mewling welcomes.
Not like them; not one of them. Not ever.
Her grotesque hand extending, its coldness pressing to my head.
A sudden bolt of black lightning, sick cold suffusing me; the shuddering of some awful fever. Poisoned billows behind my eyes; clouds of confusion, the like of which I've never known before; the old certainty, the old instincts, crumbling away, leaving my mind bathed in black fire and grey smoke.
Hush, hush now...we're almost done.
Convulsions, every spasm searing my nerves, breaking my bones, shredding muscle and ligament. Pain. Pain unlike anything; pain that eclipses the world, that reduces me to a scream in the dark.
I'm nothing; no animal, creature or dreamer; a maggot-thing, endlessly pecked at, endlessly burning. My mind...this confusion, these endlessly bickering, contradicting thoughts and imperatives...I know it; have seen it before.
A dreamer's thoughts, those that walk in the world but never know it. Quivering in her grip, snarling, spitting, biting. Nothing that makes her loosen, no matter how much of her foul flesh I tear and spit away.
Rising, hoisted up more cruelly than ever before; no memories of Mother's arms, here; only the black fire in my thoughts, in my belly; the lightning in every muscle.
Absolom, tearing me away, his shadows enveloping me, smothering the fires. Too late; already kindled in me; burning forever, now.
The thing that was my Mother slurring laughter, her children echoing it.
Take him. Take the bastard away from me; I can't bear the sight of him.
Absolom muttering as he bears me out into the rain, its touch soothing; the incantations he whispers even more so. Down, into the soft grass between the gravestones, where the dead lie, happy to be amongst them.