(Written by Nicola Price, edited by Tarryn Thomas, illustrated by Nikolay Moskvin.)
A heavy silence blanketed the great hall, which was saturated with the metallic stench of blood and bile. The once pristine walls were streaked with copper stains, and claret pooled beneath cooling corpses, their expressions twisted with fear and pain. Only one of the room’s occupants remained upright, stalking through the carnage.
For the first time she could remember, the Barthimont estate lay completely silent, deprived of even the tangible, unspoken tension which usually hung in the air. Yet, as Levia drew nearer to the main entrance of the great hall, she heard the faint, distant sound of footsteps echoing down the hallway lying just beyond the doors.
A slight, pale man rounded the corner, his gaunt face a study in sharp angles and leaden skies. As his steely-grey eyes met Levia’s gaze, his expression turned dour, lips twisting into a grimace.
You.” The stranger sighed, tone dripping with distaste. “I had plans for her, but you—this changes our strategy entirely. No matter; far too late to change that now. You are powerful, in your own way… Perhaps we might use you, instead.” He extended one hand towards her, something clasped within his palm, foolishly ignoring the rage which rippled across Levia’s countenance. When her gaze settled on his outstretched hand, something burned at the corners of her vision, the singe of shadow aether a familiar assault on her senses.
Here was the same power, the same dark influence that she’d come to know so well. Levia could almost hear the Lady’s laughter, could almost taste the black blood on the back of her tongue.
“Come with me,” the man continued, dark gaze falling to Levia’s curled talons. “I can offer you power, make you even stronger. The power you laid claim to today is but a fraction of—”
Snarling, Levia lunged towards the strange visitor, slamming him against the nearest wall. Her clawed fingers cut easily into his flesh, shreds of fabric hanging from his battered skin as Levia drove her hand into his chest, elbow-deep in the man’s ribcage. She felt the staccato rhythm beat against her palm, his muscles seizing as blood vessels burst beneath her pointed talons, and then she tore the stranger’s heart from his chest.
With a wet, disbelieving gurgle, he collapsed to the ground, face going slack as his blood pooled atop the marble. Levia crushed his heart in her fist, letting the shredded tissue spill onto the floor at her feet. The skin on his chest tore easily beneath her talons, exposing his internal organs to her ravenous gaze. Sinking her hands into the pooling blood, she grabbed his organs by the handful, ramming lungs and kidneys and intestines into her open mouth, grinding the viscera between her teeth until they were a fine paste, watery purge leaking from her carnassials.
As the bloodlust faded, hunger sated for the time being, her gaze fell to the glimmer of burnished metal, silver brushed clean by the touch of hundreds of hands. Her bloodied fingers pried the unfamiliar pendant from his grasp, which remained unyielding even in death.
A small, grotesque gargoyle met her gaze, the claws on its hands forming a rudimentary clasp at the top of the pendant. As she gazed down at the object, she felt the telltale etchings of an inscription on the back, rough against her fingertips. When Levia turned the pendant over, she found an unfamiliar script carved into the silver surface.
Some say that those who die come to this:
That which brings both an end
And a new beginning.
For this simple bribe,
An invitation awaits thee.
Another gargoyle, carved of stone, sat before her. Its expression was one of mischief, its cold, unyielding features curled into something almost resembling a smirk. As the pendant came into contact with its outstretched palm, the wall behind it began to shudder and shake, solid stone crumbling before her eyes, revealing a sliver of darkness amidst the blazing light of the rising sun. In an instant, the pendant simply disappeared, leaving only a tiny plume of white smoke.
Levia inspected the opening with a small frown and, with one last glance at her surroundings, stepped through the revealed archway. The grounds of the Demonastery stretched out before her, the earth concealed beneath a thick layer of fog. In the middle-distance, a great, wrought-iron gate stretched toward the sky, formed from the crossed blades of two large, grand winged statues, locked in eternal combat.
As she passed beneath the shadow of the two warring beings, Levia felt the curl of raw aether in the air; she could almost taste the sweet, cloying energies of ancient spellwork on the back of her tongue. To the left of the gate lay a small guardhouse, abandoned, and some deep, unspoken instinct at the back of her mind shuddered at the sight of the decrepit shack.
Turning her gaze away, Levia refocused her attention on the courtyard proper, watching as the mist crept away from her, revealing intricate runework on the river stones. Some of the runes were small, decorating the flagstones with simpler spells, while some were significantly more powerful, bordering the entire courtyard in layers upon layers of intricate spellwork.
After a long moment, the Demonastery itself came into view. A large, imposing gothic manor, it stretched far to the east and to the west; stained glass windows lined its walls, hanging below stone arches and towering spires. The massive front door was cracked open, and dusky light spilled out onto the flagstones. As Levia drew nearer, something within her shuddered at the perfect silence, absent the usual distant calls and eerie shrieks which were wont to echo across the grounds.
...the usual? How would I know what it’s usually like?
In spite of herself, Levia’s feet carried her away from the open doorway, instinctually wary of the obvious invitation. The still air brought a chill to her veins, silence weighing upon her shoulders like the calm before a storm. Instead, Levia turned her gaze away from the entrance, and chose instead to follow the outline of the building.
As she stalked through the grounds, Levia found a part of her awakening, rising to the surface, as if attempting to rouse itself from a dream. A darkness seeped into the corners of her vision, the world turning dim, the taste of blood rising on the back of her tongue. Detached, Levia found herself moving a little faster. The now-familiar feeling of hunger crawled up her throat, leaving her with a desperation which blanketed her senses, overwhelming her mind with the craving for flesh.
Seizing back her train of thought, Levia forced herself to focus on the faint, burning pain which radiated from her closed fists, her curled talons slicing into the palms of her hands. As her breath slowed, the bloodlust slowly began to fade, allowing her to see her surroundings once more.
A sea of green and glass stretched out before her, and a name rose to the tip of her tongue, unbidden; a foreign whisper which allowed her to glimpse the verdant, wild greenery which once had filled this room.
The name rose to the tip of her tongue, unbidden, as if whispered by some long-forgotten echo at the edges of her consciousness. For one split-second, Levia could have sworn she remembered the Venarium in all its former glory.
The once-thriving plants were mottled with blight, an ink-dark sludge seeping down their stems; their leaves were stained a murky grey. In spite of the gloom of her surroundings, the air was heavy with the ironrot stench of black blood and the sickly-sweet stench of decay.
Catching a faint movement out of the corner of her eye, Levia turned her gaze toward the nearest plant. Its leaves had split open to reveal tooth-like growths, stained a deep, congealing crimson. It looked as though it was rotting from the inside out, its torn, green flesh revealing a putrescent liquid, half-digested innards spilling out onto the soil which covered its roots. As she neared it, her gaze drawn to the mutated life form, something deep within her chest reacted to its presence; a deep hunger which needled through her body. It called to her, like to like, a magnetic pull that drew her closer.
The plant bloomed across her face, climbing along her jawline like ivy. The moment it made contact, she could feel its tiny roots trying to burrow beneath the surface of her skin, clinging tightly to the outermost layer of her flesh. Where it touched her it burned, igniting a molten heat which raced along the outline of the plant’s razor-like grip, a searing pain trickling down her throat and setting it aflame, as if something were trying to burn her from the inside out.
Levia’s vision tinted red, the rest of the world falling away as her focus narrowed to a razor’s edge.
The hunger blocked out everything else.
A shrill howl escaped her throat as she lashed out, slashing at the vines with her talons, her eyes flashing with rage as she fought to gain the upper hand. A caustic scent flooded the air as the plant released its toxins, and she felt it burning all the way into the pit of her stomach.
Sinking her claws into its fleshy stem, Levia tore it away from her face, pulling its vines from her throat before they could reach her lungs. With a guttural snarl, she shredded the plant between her talons and ground the remnants beneath her heel, savouring the feeling of the mutated flesh bursting underfoot.
At last the Venarium was silent once more, broken only by Levia’s heaving breaths. As she backed away from the rest of the corrupted plants, she turned her attention to the nearest wall of the manor, only then noticing the tantalisingly familiar scent which drifted through a crack in the facade. As if of their own volition, her feet carried her forward, heading towards the source. When she lowered her head, Levia could only just glimpse the interior of a room through the thin gap.
Levia’s bones began to crackle and snap as her skin writhed, and after a long moment, she managed to get a handle on her newfound power. Her body collapsed beneath her, ribs and vertebrae popping and shifting, her entire skeleton dismantling itself, bone by painstaking bone. As her skull finally fell to the stone floor, her body was finally liquefied, transforming into a tarry, amorphous pile of blackened viscera. It wobbled only slightly as it began to climb the surface of the wall, squeezing through the crack in the stones.
With a series of sickening cracks, her body slowly reformed inside the mansion, and Levia found herself standing in the midst of a large, sparsely-decorated room. Glimpses of the room’s former appearance were visible beneath layers of organic, crimson biological matter. The walls were coated in a slimy, visceral texture not unlike wet muscle, pulsating in the low light. There was something so distinctly unnatural about the sight that an instinctive revulsion brought bile to the back of her throat, her veins burning with the need to fight or flee. Drawing air into her lungs with a sharp hiss, she turned her attention to the hallway just beyond, catching the faintest movements within the depths of the shadows.
The thing staggered forward in an unsteady, lopsided gait, lurching to one side with each faltering step. In the low light of the lanterns, parts of its body looked almost human, with hints of unmarred flesh: a knee here, a finger there, part of an ordinary chest, ribs curving just above its stomach. However, at the edges of its body, changes rippled across its skin, revealing great networks of mottled veins and sharp talons. One good eye stared out of a broken face, a cheekbone sliced in two by a mouthful of needle-like teeth. Its other eye bulged out of a sunken socket, breaking away into dozens of glittering white pustules. The jutting edges of its mandible curved around the base of its skull, a gruesome imitation of a halo, carved from tarnished bone.
As the creature drew closer, Levia looked upon the near-human parts of its face and felt the icy, distant disquiet of familiarity; a name on the tip of her tongue. Another pair of the fiends crept out into the hallway, appearing amidst the gloom. When the first creature drew within range, Levia threw herself upon it with a snarl, claws tearing through its flesh as a ship’s prow would slice through the water. In spite of its malevolent appearance, it bled like any other creature, its ichor red as any human’s would be. It crumpled to the marble floor with a dull crunch, and in the following heartbeat, the second creature lunged for her throat, only to meet a similar fate. With a dull thud, its body collapsed, leaving the one remaining beast in Levia’s path. It stared at her blankly over the corpses for one long moment before it turned on its heel and fled down the hall.
Its hesitant, blundering gait was all too reminiscent of a wounded animal, desperate in its attempts to escape the predator which followed in its wake. Something about its features stirred Levia’s bloodlust to a fever pitch, the familiar sensation of searing hunger seeping through her veins. It inevitably stained her sight a deep, dark scarlet, blotting out her peripheral vision in a haze of bloodied mist. Levia remained oblivious to the difference; driven by hunger, her gaze was fixed on the creature, which raced just out of reach.
Just as her fingertips brushed its expanse of waxy flesh, it burst through an open doorway, dodging her outstretched talons. The room opened up before her to reveal a veritable horde of the beasts, all bearing the same bleary, steely flintlock eyes. Levia tried not to stare at their facial features, the distant echoes of familiarity discordant inside her skull, the faint ringing in her ears only growing louder and more shrill when she looked at them for too long.
Some of the fiends could almost have been entirely human, if not for the distinct slimy coating on their skin. Grainy with ocean-salt, it was as if they had risen from the depths of Death’s Knell itself. Some looked like creatures from a half-remembered nightmare, only partly formed, their disjointed body parts strung together in the wrong order. The largest among them was a massive amorphous being whose ivory, gelatinous flesh glistened in the low light. A number of tentacle-like appendages sprouted from its pale form, holding aloft a single, disembodied head.
Gleaming white bone lay exposed on one side of the head, the face split by a gash stretching from the top of the browbone to the corner of the mouth, lined with scarlet muscle and ivory sinew. The open wound revealed the edges of his reddened eyeball, his pupil dilated from the pain. And yet, as much as the creature fought to tear his face apart, the flesh continued to reform beneath the touch of its tentacles, as if stuck in an endless cycle of regrowth.
The man’s wide, pale green eyes locked onto Levia’s from across the room, his teeth bared in an expression raw with both anger and agony. Without warning, an unfamiliar voice echoed within her mind, a tangible feeling which translated itself readily into words.
Free me. If you wish to avoid meeting the same fate as I have, free me, and I shall share what I know.
In that same moment, the beast turned its gaze towards Levia, its face contorting with an expression she recognised as bloodlust.
Free me now.
After a split-second’s hesitation, Levia hissed under her breath, surging toward the colossal beast which now reached for her, tearing through its appendages and loosening its grip just long enough to rip the head from its grasp. Tucking it beneath her arm, she turned and lunged for the open doorway, a deep rumble shaking the floorboards beneath her feet as the beast roared. She could feel the vibrations underfoot as it rose, clawing its way down the hall, hot on her heels in pursuit.
Even as the head’s disembodied thoughts directed her through the labyrinthine network of hallways, Levia’s feet were guided by pure instinct, chasing her far away from the gargantuan creature which threatened to consume them both. Bursting into the entrance hall, her gaze landed on a doorway at the opposite end, a pool of writhing shadows which flickered ominously just beyond the threshold.
Levia distantly heard the protests of the disembodied voice, the head calling on her to turn around, but with the beast surging behind them, she ignored it. Pushing herself to run harder, move faster, she made for the doorway, aware of the ground quaking beneath her feet. She felt the moment the beast blasted through the stone archway, heard the distant crackle of its amorphous mass reshaping, and the burst of air as its tentacles streaked through the air, aimed directly at her disappearing figure. In the split-second before it wrapped her in its grasp, she leapt through the gateway, tumbling through to the other side.
A visceral, crimson landscape stretched as far as her eyes could see. Levia’s feet came into contact with layers upon layers of rotting carrion, her gaze greeted by writhing fiends and decomposing corpses.
Blasmophet’s domain was a sea of gluttonous waste; consumption incarnate, a hunger for power only sated by devouring the bodies of friend and foe alike. Yet when she turned her attention to the head hanging from her fingers, its teeth were bared in a snarl.
This is the worst place you could have run to. Do you have any idea where you’ve just taken us?
Levia’s gaze fell upon the contours of the crimson hellscape, a path of blood and bone curving into the distance. Something unfamiliar swelled within her chest, sharp and grating, stealing the breath from her lungs. It took her a long moment to recognise the bubble of panic which threatened to overwhelm her, her limbs turning cold and unresponsive as stone.
What is this?
The surrounding landscape seemed distant, her own body foreign territory; Levia had been set adrift from herself, overwhelmed by a great, unmoving wall of fear.
“This is not mine,” she hissed, feeling her lips curl with distaste. She had learned to abandon her fear long ago, an emotion now so alien to her that she had almost assumed it to be some kind of malevolent influence. Against her will, she found her eyes drawn to horizon, where unfamiliar beasts gathered around fresh carrion.
Are you listening?
That same fire which had blazed within her just days before, the very same that had driven her to behead Lady Barthimont, now awakened in the pit of her stomach, determination steeling her nerves.
“I bow to none.”
The head swung wildly at her hip, his distant voice hissing distaste, as Levia turned towards the horizon, set her sights on the beasts which gathered there, and struck.
The first of Blasmophet’s creatures were small, wyrm-like beasts, having barely sprouted legs and teeth. Like crustaceans, they scuttled along the earth, yet they were half the height of a grown man and still posed a threat to the unaware. Levia pulled apart their gelatinous forms with her bare hands, ripping through their bodies, and snapping their spindly limbs.
The second class of Blasmophet’s creatures was larger: some bipedal, some on four limbs, others moving along the earth on a series of insect-like legs. Whether they bared teeth or barbed tongues, Levia tore each one apart, cramming their flesh into her mouth and devouring them piece by bloody piece.
The third class of Blasmophet’s creatures took was well-mutated, picking up several traits from their prey. Multiple heads, mouths filled with razor-like teeth; great, writhing beasts whose faces were a mass of feelers, ripping their prey apart by their limbs. Levia cut each one down, finding their weaknesses and striking them into the earth, to feed her unending hunger.
The fourth of Blasmophet’s creatures was an abomination, with great, bulbous bodies, multitudes of limbs armed with prodigious claws, sprouting extra bodies from their backs or sporting layers of toxic flesh. Their mouths were lined with hundreds of teeth, ready to devour their prey; they were killing machines fuelled by the need to consume. Levia attacked them mercilessly, using her speed and strength to her advantage, bludgeoning them and mutilating their limbs until they could no longer move, and she could bring them to their knees. Some attempted to consume her, but Levia persisted, tearing them apart from the inside out.
The fifth and final class of Blasmophet’s creatures were the beasts of old, colossal and unyielding—yet Levia used their size against them, climbing their amorphous forms and ripping out great chunks of flesh, devouring them piece by piece, claiming their power one mouthful at a time. Yet still she hungered, consuming more and more until she finally had the strength she needed to face Blasmophet’s Harbinger.
Devoratum lingered at the centre of Blasphema, watching over the empty throne. Almost four times her height, the colossal fiend towered above her, its grey, fleshy body twisted and misshapen. Dozens of eyes sprouted from the top of its body, reddened and glistening in the light, their dilated pupils locked onto Levia. Multitudes of slender, frog-like limbs supported its immense weight, allowing it to scuttle along the earth like a centipede. A gash in the front of its body constituted a kind of mouth, opening to reveal a great, gaping chasm lined with hundreds of razor-sharp fangs, its dozens of tentacle-like tongues covered in a corrosive saliva.
However, even in the face of this horrendous brute, Levia did not falter. After hunting and devouring enough creatures to become a beast in her own right, Levia went toe to toe with the Devoratum, propelled by sheer rage and bloodlust, lunging at the being’s immense mass of a body.
Levia tore out one of its eyes with her bare hands, snapped limbs with the weight of her mace, buried her talons into a writhing tongue and ripped it from the beast’s mouth; she left great gashes along the side of its body. The massive, six-headed mace she wielded was a grounding centrepoint in the midst of the ravenous bloodlust, gouging great crimson wounds into the beast’s flesh.
Piece by piece, blow for blow, Levia clawed out chunks of raw flesh and crammed them down her throat, gaining half a step for each mouthful, siphoning power with every bite. Finally, finally, it began to slow, yielding to Levia’s sheer determination, her teeth bared as she ripped another one of the tongues from its mouth. It tried in vain to escape her grasp as she dealt the killing blow, and consumed the Devoratum in its entirety. The mass of gelatinous flesh disappeared past her lips, organs staining her chest as she devoured the beast, claiming its power for her own.
When Levia stepped back through the gateway, she could smell the difference in the air, could feel the quiet give of power as the balance shifted in her favour. Yet, as she stood there, she felt the slow swell of an oncoming storm, felt static flood her limbs, paralysed by some intangible force. Something came to the forefront of her mind, a presence not unlike the distant, detached voice of the disembodied head she still wore at her hip.
Thank you for your assistance… I can take it from here.
In an instant, Levia recognised the voice, felt the sharp sting of anger as she bared her teeth.
You. I killed you. You should be dead.
You should know better than that. People like you and I, we do not die so easily. His reverberating laughter stoked the tight burn of her rage into a firestorm, and distantly, Levia felt their—felt her hand curl into a fist, talons biting into their palm sharply enough to draw blood. Now, surrender to me, and I might just let you remain.
This is my body, and you shall not control it.
You think you can fight me for it? Again, she felt the caustic sting of his sardonic laughter. Try.
Distantly, they both heard the scuttle of half-formed footsteps echoing throughout the room, as the waxy creatures emerged into the entrance hall. This time, Levia could recognise their features, and finally placed why the beasts had seemed so frustratingly familiar.
You… What are they? What are you?
My creations— our creations, I suppose. Though they will not recognise me in this form. Despite not being able to see his expressions, Levia could sense the wry amusement, could almost glimpse his irritating smirk. Give me control, or they will attack.
No. Give me back my body.
That’s not how this works.
Levia growled, overwhelmed with raw fury.
The struggle for their/his/her body was indescribable, the sensation of wresting a parasite from deep within her chest, pulling the very air from her lungs with her own two hands. It burned, a caustic compulsion, like trying to breathe under the surface of a lake and only drawing in ever more silty water, drowning in mud and filth. She could almost get a grasp on his presence, could almost wrap her consciousness around his, but every time she came close he would writhe and slip out of her clutches, slinging his own thoughts back and poisoning her mind.
As if through a great layer of fog, Levia heard the low, reverberating hum of the gateway behind them; felt the static energy in the air as something else emerged. Together, they moved their head just enough to glimpse the newcomers out of their peripheral vision, conjoined for one split-second by the need to sense what stood at their back.
A man emerged ahead of the rest of his companions, black hair curling through the air like mist as he pulled through the surface of the veil. Faint runes blazed violet on the pale expanse of his skin, glowing beneath the straps of armor which covered part of his chest. His robe dissipated at the edges like a half-remembered dream, a chain whip slowly coiling, the segments reconnecting to form a sinister blade. His dark, severe gaze flicked to the creatures before them for a split-second before he turned his face to hers, expression unreadable.
“While your face is unfamiliar, I recognise the shadows under your skin. I see that Graves wishes to take control, but that coward lacks the power. Watch and learn.”
With a flick of his wrist, his sword separated once more, blades slicing through the air between them with a sharp crack. Like lightning, the very air seemed to spark and cleave itself in two, revealing a nebulous silhouette, framed by raw aether.
The hunger made itself known, striking her with the force of thunder. She felt the exact moment that his control weakened, seized back the reins of her muscles, and with the speed and might of a gunshot, snapped the revealed soul between her teeth. Graves’s consciousness was a fine wine on the surface of her tongue, slipping easily down her throat. Levia heard his voice fade with a deep sense of satisfaction, baring her teeth at the stranger in a rough approximation of a grin.
He chuckled darkly, and for an instant, she glimpsed the presence which lingered in his shadow, eclipsed by the arcane aura which surrounded him.
“You’re like me.” She laughed, the sound harsh, and felt the creatures behind her cower, slinking back into the shadows. “What are you?”
“You can call me Chane. I found my patron beyond the veil, but it seems you found yours through… other means. Tell me…”
“Levia. Tell me, Levia, is your hunger satisfied by these pale imitations?” He gestured to the creatures, lingering at the far end of the entrance hall, which only moments ago had been poised to strike. “Your… Shadow. You both require a meal far more substantial than this, do you not?”
“What did you have in mind?”
He grinned, gesturing to the other residents who now milled behind him, watching their interaction with thinly veiled interest.
“We seek to strike at Solana—the city would practically be a banquet for a power like yours. Even Sutcliffe desires to take a power like theirs.” Chane gestured to the head at her hip, hands outstretched. “Join us, Levia, and devour the Light.”