The uninitiated cannot see the black moon rise over the Demonastery. It mirrors the nighttide, pulsing starward with its invisible light, witnessed only by those anointed in Shadow. Those like Vynnset, the Iron Maiden.
“Life is suffering. Life is sacrifice,” intones Vynnset. “The sacrifice of today to save the suffering of tomorrow.”
A dozen faceless creatures rub up against the Iron Maiden’s armor, clawing at the hard floor like cats kneading a blanket. Her piercings grow warm, thawing thechill of the ritual chamber. In her pallid flesh, power resonates from metal to bone. Her creatures feel it too—the anticipation of bloodshed and retribution.
“Drops to moisten the clay, to raise a dam against the flood, lest the sanguine river drown us all.”
Vynnset straightens, fixing her metal tunic in place for the coming rite, the past welling in her mind like blood from a fresh wound. She remembers back to when she was...
...a little girl with flaxen hair sits cross-legged in a wheat field. She cocks her head, listening, then giggles.
“You’re naughty, Ren.” A look of worry passes over her face like a cloud crossing the sun. “Sol is always listening.”
A lady dressed in white and gold crouches nearby, concealed by long stalks of golden wheat. She too listens, this Solanian lady of means, her expression troubled, growing more fearful by the moment.
“You’re right, Ren.” The girl giggles again. “Sol should mind its own beeswax.”
The lady stands. She’s heard enough. The girl looks up, suddenly afraid. The sun blazes down upon her. She tries to raise her hands to cover her eyes. They won’t move. She screams.
“Be silent, child!” orders the scholar.
The girl struggles in the chair, but the buckled straps hold her tight. Tears stream down her cheeks as the scholar brings the arcane lamp closer. Her face contorts as she tries to close her eyes—a hopeless attempt—pinned open as they are by contraptions of silver and brass.
“A shadow lurks in the recesses of her mind,” shouts the scholar, raising his voice over the girl’s cries. “We must exorcize it.” He looks to the lady of means and meets her tearful gaze. “Without delay.”
Strong hands grasp the girl’s arms. The lady of means bows her head.
The lady moves her lips in silent prayer, deaf to her daughter’s pleas.
Robed matrons carry the girl through a marble archway; Sisters of Octothesia taking the poor wretch into their sanctified care. Only they can cleanse her mind and purify her soul in the Light of Sol.
Her shaved head lolls in the blazing sun, scalp shining with sweat. Her skin is red and blistered, her lips shriveled with dehydration. She lies spread eagle, hands and wrists tethered to stakes that are driven deep into the bare earth.
“Don’t leave me,” she croaks. “Never leave me.”
Her thin frame relaxes at the answer only she can hear. Not the prayers, not the merciless sisters, not the burning Light of Sol—nothing can take that from her. Flesh may burn, but her soul remains wrapped in a cooling darkness.
As cool as the night she slips through, her bare feet padding softly on the polished floor. Years of waiting, and of failed attempts at escape. In that time, she has emerged from childhood into womanhood.
The senior matrons rush to an ‘accident’, leaving their duties to a few inexperienced acolytes. After being watched for so long, the space is palpable; the matron’s domineering eyeballs cast elsewhere.
She freezes at a corner, concealed in shadow, as a pair of gossiping novitiates rustle down the corridor ahead.
“Thanks, Ren,” she whispers. “They won’t catch us this time.”
She uses a stolen key to unlock a side door, and flits like a ghost down the alley to a moonlit courtyard. As hoped, the guards at the wagon are too busy tying down their load to notice the young woman. She squeezes into a gap between stacked breast plates, turns to smile at a shade sitting beside her, identical in size and shape, as the wagon rolls out of Solana.
The wagon stops in a clearing where axes have hewn the ancient trees to stumps. The guards eye the surrounding forest with suspicion. This is the Savage Lands. Where death is but a tooth or claw away.
A knight pulls up the cover to check the cargo and is startled to find a stowaway where he expected only greaves and helms.
“Please,” she rasps, her voice dry with dust and disuse. “Don’t send me back.”
He offers what he thinks is a reassuring smile and reaches with a gauntleted hand to help the young woman down. But she has not experienced kindness in years. She has forgotten what it looks like.
The knight shrieks with pain as a heavy shield falls from the load, crushing his wrist. The woman clambers down the injured man like he is a ladder and turns to face the advancing guards.
“I’m NOT going back!”
Black smoke rises from her slender body. Her eyes are pools of deepest shadow. She dances in the dirt, a dreadful dirge. The guards sweat as the air grows hot, coughing as their breath turns acrid.
A low keening escapes the woman’s narrow throat, so subtle yet so piercing that the guards wince, some covering their ears as the song drives spikes of pain through their skulls. The wagon’s cargo answers to that music. Shields and breast plates rise. Helms roll and gauntlets crawl on jingling fingers. Disembodied pieces form hollow knights that lash out with all the woman’s anger and hurt. Years of judgment and torment, meted out with metallic might. The guards try to defend themselves, but one by one they fall, beaten into a bloody pulp.
One guard lives longer than the rest, though no one would count him luckier. The woman draws his dagger and slashes the buckles of his armor, stripping him naked in the noonday sun. He wails as she carves jagged runes into his broken limbs and shattered chest.
“A sanguine river flows.”
The words susurrate from her tongue, distant, unearthly. Not hers, but the echo of another, carrying up through her throat as if from some abandoned well.
“In the valley of sorrow where flesh of a world presses to flesh of a dream.”
The voice grows louder, striking an accord of its own while the woman paints symbols upon her skin in visceral red.
“A bridge of bone, tethered in vein, where only pain may cross from life to lethe.”
She licks her bloodied fingers with the tip of her tongue.
“I pay this tithe to souls bereft.”
She closes her mouth and swallows deeply. When her lips open, it is her own words she imparts.
“I am ready, Ren.”
She raises the dagger to her face, not a tremble in her hand, and bursts her eyes with its finely honed point.
“Ready to see.”
With unfaltering precision, she drives the dagger into the guard’s heart. The blood boils up from his chest, more than his body could ever contain, flooding, drowning, until it is a rich, red pool into which the woman wades.
From that wound in reality, she emerges onto a mountaintop of inky blackness. From the nebulous sky stares a great black moon. And from that scrutinizing orb descends a creature of terrifying beauty. The woman sees it and more, and the truth of seeing makes her weep red tears of rapture from her blood-filled sockets.
Cool air dries her drenched skin, calming her fevered flesh. The pain fades from the ruins of her eyes as understanding awakens in her soul.
“Soul Harrower,” she states, her voice growing softer as the sanguine river carries her back.
The present returns with immaculate agony. Vynnset’s piercings burn in her sinews. Words of otherworldly suffering seep from her tongue. Her creatures stretch and dance in waves of lapping pain.
“Where flesh meets flesh, upon the bridge of bone, I now walk in the dusk of absolution. Embraced in night, I rise untold, to deny the break of dawn.”
The Iron Maiden rests her palms on the rune-carved stones before her. Rivulets of shadow pour through her armor, amethyst in hue, radiant as the black moon.
“Yes, Nasreth. I am ready.”
Vynnset draws a curved blade from her belt.
“Ready to free the Shadow.”
Written by Edwin McRae and Rachel Rees.
Directed by Robbie Wen. Illus. by Henrique Lindner.