He was tending to his rituals when the cultist came; making fresh slices in his flesh, collecting, praying and pouring sugar onto the wounds. The sugar burned as badly as salt would, bringing exultant tears to his silver eyes, but it also ensured the cuts would heal quickly so he could reopen them in a few days. He hadn’t bothered learning the name of the slave he’d stolen the technique from but, whoever she’d been, he owed her a debt of gratitude as it brought him much closer to his goddess.
He was conducting this worship in his private quarters, a cave in the lower reaches of the ancient temple his cult stayed in. A dozen mirror shards gave him a complete view of his work and he could smell only his own blood. Candles squatted like malignant frogs around him, reluctantly shedding their light onto his deeds.
Then the cultist knocked, breaking a reverential silence. At least they knew better than to enter without his permission. But the scum committed a grave act against That Which Sins by saying “My lord, Mahrey wishes to speak to you.”
Outrage made him cut too deeply and his blood tumbled to the floor uncollected. He had no name; when he first accepted That Which Sins as his mistress, his gift to Her had been his identity. Addressing him by any name or title was heresy against Her and a believer should know better.
He broke from his worship, secured his black mask to his face and went to the door. The heretic on the other side was a woman, a thin wretch with missing teeth and the first markings of a believer carved between her breasts.
He reached out, snapped her neck, and closed the door before she’d hit the ground.
Just seeing her had made him despair, as did most of Mahrey’s fellows. There were many, many different kinds of sin, a world of nuance and delight for a connoisseur; sin against another, sin against yourself, sin against the world… and such a broad range within even those definitions. And everyone was a connoisseur of sin in some variety; everyone, no matter their piousness, flirted with the spectrum. After all, how else does one choose their own morality than by trying different sins and deciding how they feel afterwards?
Yes, there was a whole world of sin and That Which Sins understood that. Sadly, most of his fellow believers did not and so they go for the most obvious, most visceral forms of sin; sex, violence, breaking the tenets of Yahweh. He actually wept as he imagined his goddess having to gorge Herself again and again on the same tripe, having only the sacrifices of more considered followers like him to spice such a drab diet.
As with all his tears, and indeed everything his body expelled, he collected and drank them immediately. Tears were his favourite.
This done, he sat cross-legged and meditated on how he would best violate That Which Sins were She ever to achieve corporeality. For that was the ultimate aim for their cult, falteringly called The Wastrels, and he would be the one to make Her flesh if it were the last thing he did. They supposedly had the means. All they needed was time, materials and, of course, Her grace.
Hours, perhaps days, passed before another knock interrupted his revery. The rhythm was familiar to him, as was the laboured breathing the accompanied it. Once more he stood and answered the door.
It was the witch. Mahrey, as she liked to be called. Obese and bleeding, sweaty and angry, she leaned over her dead lackey, against the door frame, and tried to catch her breath. When he opened the door, she looked up and stared violent daggers at him. It was tempting to knock her over, watch her hit her head against the narrow passageway’s walls and bleed out over the chill corpse of her follower but That Which Sins would not approve.
“Come in,” he said, standing aside. He didn’t have these cloaking spells on so his voice boomed through the corridor.
Mahrey entered with as much dignity as a fat, naked women who could barely breathe could muster. He closed the door behind her and waited for her to compose herself.
It was not a short wait.
“You didn’t answer my summons.”
“I will never answer your ‘summons’.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Let’s not forget who the leader of this cult is.”
He took a step forward. She flinched. “And let’s not forget whose mess I’m cleaning up.” Then he added. “Mary.”
Even in the candlelight he could see her she flush with anger and embarrassment. That wasn’t a card he’d played since Margaret had escaped so it struck hard. And using her real name just added punch, twisted the knife.
And she deserved every ounce of pain that caused. It was still beyond him that Mahrey could fail so utterly as to allow a Vessel of their goddess slip from her grasp. Her pathetic excuses had boiled down to blaming That Which Sins and he would have flayed her alive for such a suggestion if it wouldn’t have caused the cult to disband . But a man without a name, who eschewed mortal power and relationships, could not keep a cult together. That Which Sins was overall better served by having Mahrey around and that was why she still lived.
The other Vessels were with her too and could present a problem were he to kill her; Mahrey was convincing and charismatic when she wanted to be. But he only needed a charismatic figurehead. If this Chalmers girl could be turned to his side and convinced to replace the witch…
“What did you want?” he said, barely hiding his disdain.
She coughed, tried to retain her dignity. “The mercenaries you hired have activated the Chalice, using more blood than they ever have before. They have gathered many beings from the Aether and now march on Crucifix. I wanted you to know that their victory must surely be at hand.”
“At last,” he said.
“Yes. At last.”
He ignored her pointed tone. The mercenaries had not proven as effective as he’d wanted but there hadn’t been enough time to check references; those men had been willing, affordable and nearby, key attributes once he’d tracked the escaped Vessel down to Crucifix’s chapel.
Thinking of that place and that damn man, that lapdog of Yahweh, made him unconsciously mime a hex with his fingers. If not for the priest, this whole matter would be over by now. It was still difficult to believe a follower of Yahweh could command such strong magic, protect not just himself but a whole town. But he treated the experience as a lesson from That Which Sins; he would not be caught out by such again.
“And he will suffer too,” Mahrey said upon noticing his curse. “I have promised the being which returns this Father Kilkenny to us alive a great reward; his soul.”
“It doesn’t feel like enough punishment,” he growled.
An uneasy silence fell between them. “Was there anything else?” he asked.
“The Chalmers girl,” Mahrey said.
“What about her?”
“She’s close, I can feel it; maybe only a few hours until she’s ready to join our ranks.” The blood dripping from her cuts flowed faster for a moment. “And then we’ll have another Vessel. We’ll only be one away from…”
He cut her off. “We’re two away until we have Margaret.”
Mahrey sneered back at him. “Why must you always look on the negative? The priest of the false God won’t last the night and we shall have her back. I am sure of it.”
He admired her faith but had his reservations. Mostly about the Vessel herself; if Margaret were still in the chapel then the townsfolk were being very understanding in sleeping under the same roof as her night after night. Whilst troubled times made strange bedfellows, that seemed almost too strange. It was possible she had been snuck away but to where? Where could they hide her that no Wastrel spy could find her? Or any other cult for that manner…
Well, That Which Sins hadn’t punished them for their failure and no others had contacted them to mock or ransom so Margaret was neither dead nor captured by another sect. Logic told him she must be alive and in that chapel. But his gut told him not to be so sure.
“I am sure of nothing but the glory of That Which Sins,” he said. He marked her symbol, a pierced heart, across his chest.
Mahrey did the same. “Surely you can at least enjoy the prospect of being close to making her corporeal?”
Of course he was excited. But he put a lot of stock in caution. “This is where we differ. I am not even sure that we can yet. Whose word do we have that the rituals to make an Avatar will even work? That Omnis cult? Can we know that they haven’t sold us a dud? Or worse, a ritual with an ulterior purpose?”
“I trust the Illuminati,” Mahrey said, dismissing his concerns with a wave.
He narrowed his eyes. She and two of the Vessels were the only ones to have met the Omnis cult and he had to wonder whether these ‘Illuminati’ had blinded them with drugs and sex. That was another fault in those who follow That Which Sins; they think they should indulge themselves all the time and never stop to consider whether doing so would actually harm their mistress’ purposes. As he did whenever he was tempted to kill Mahrey.
“Besides,” she continued, “I have examined the rituals in detail and they are sound. You needn’t worry about their authenticity. Remember, what I learned from them helped us make the Chalice and that works well enough.”
“Not so well that we have the Vessel back in our control,” he reminded her.
“Well enough that we soon will!” she roared back.
An urge to slap her down rose within him. He flexed his fingers and took a deep breath, knowing it would not help for him to do so.
Mahrey was an angry red in the candlelight, her great bleeding bosom heaving as she stared him down. Sweat plastered her hair against her face and the waters of her vagina had become a mere trickle. She too was trying not to start a fight but she did so more to protect her own life than the integrity of their cult.
They kept staring at one another, their animosity not fading. There was only one thing they could do, much as he did not enjoy the prospect. He stepped forward and grabbed the nipple Lust’s Tooth was lodged through, twisted it. Pleasure shot through the witch, forcing her eyes half-closed and drawing gasps from her.
His presumption angered her when the pleasure faded and she went to strike him, snarling as she did. He easily caught her arm, then the other when she struck again. It didn’t take much to force her against the cave wall. She shivered, the rock’s warmth and her lust seeping through her, and then tried to knee him in the groin. It was what she always did so he easily stepped inside the attack, pressed his crotch against her.
Mahrey’s eyes met his and there was fire in them; in her own rituals and sexual observances she was always in control, even when she involved creatures from That Which Sins’ realm. It was only with him that she had no power, no ability to stop things if she wanted, and that was what she needed to do her most fervent praying. Just as he needed her to hold the cult together, she needed him.
He reached down and undid his jeans, let them fall to the floor. With a force of will, he made himself erect. There would be no kissing, nor any other romantic allusions. This would be sex, mindless and remorseless, between two people who hated each other.
That Which Sins would be proud.
Just before he penetrated her, she said “Wait.”
He ignored her, naturally, and shoved himself into her. As usual, she was soaking and the act was simple, if somewhat disgusting.
But instead of thrusting back she tried to writhe away. “Seriously, wait, something’s wrong.”
“Like that matters,” he said. But something in her tone made him hesitate; this wasn’t a usual part of her game.
She looked at the cave’s ceiling and cocked her head as though listening to something. “It’s your mercenaries. Something is happening with them. It… it feels like one of them has died.”
He let her go, pulled out of her. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know!” she snapped, readjusting herself. “My power is not precise enough to see what is happening to normal people. All I can tell you is that some of the Chalice’s entities have been killed…”
Pulling his jeans up, he felt his temper rising. “By what?”
“I…” she frowned. “One of Her beings has just died. Now they are splitting; some are being led to Crucifix by one of the mercenaries whilst the others are protecting the leader.”
He buckled his jeans and tried to control his temper. “What is attacking them?”
“That can’t be right,” she said, frowning.
“What? For the love of Her, be precise, you stupid cunt.”
Mahrey looked up and her face ran pale. She did not chasten him for the insult; instead her eyes searched what she could see of his face. “They’ve been killed by an Indian warrior. But what’s more, I feel another presence in Crucifix. It… it feels like…” She looked away after trailing off again.
The witch took a deep breath. “Like the Wanted Man. He is in Crucifix.”
He laughed when she nodded. That was too funny, too perfect.
“How can you laugh?” she asked. “He’s not supposed to be here yet! We haven’t had word from the Illuminati. This is all against the plan.”
“Omnis always plans. It’s rarely right.” He tried to be serious so he could settle her fears but couldn’t hold back his delight so he kept laughing. After years of waiting and wondering with only faith to go on, it had finally come to pass; Resistance’s bitch was within his reach. In that, at least the Illuminati had been true to their word. That Which Sins had smiled upon him, letting him resolve The Wastrels’ problems and fulfil his destiny at the same time. She must’ve known about Margaret and so had a plan, one that would let him ascend as he had always wanted.
Mahrey frowned when he mimed That Which Sins’ symbol again.
He couldn’t let this opportunity pass by celebrating it. Not after waiting so long. He controlled his laughter, straightened his clothes and gathered his own artefacts, the Nameless Mask and the Darkening Cloak.
“You’re going to fight him now?”
He shook his head, giggled. “I’m going to capture him now.”
She jogged after him, followed him up the cavern. “But what about the other cults?” she asked. Her tone had much more dignity to it now. “Won’t everyone notice you going into the Badlands, let alone you fighting the Wanted Man? Won’t that cause people to examine Crucifix? And won’t it invite a counter attack? We were supposed to let the Illuminati weaken him first so you wouldn’t have to openly fight!”
“It’s too late,” he said, breaking into a jog and ignoring the rampant panic in Mahrey’s voice. His voice rose in rapturous joy as he spoke. “Others will have noted the Wanted Man’s involvement by now anyway. Our only hope is to scare them off, which I will do when I’ve captured him. Then none shall stand in…” he tempered himself again, “our path.”
Mahrey made a token effort to keep up with him. “But now you’re the one being hopeful. How can you know that will happen?” she asked, panting.
He turned, running backwards for a minute. “Because this is part of what That Which Sins promised me when I gave Her my identity. And, as I told you, I am sure of nothing but the glory of That Which Sins.”
“Remember, though, that she is out there.”
“I will!” he called back.
Mahrey stopped following him then. That was when he received the message from her, the Illuminati cultist; he knew where to go to find the Wanted Man. Happy as a boy on Christmas, he ran up through the caverns and out to meet his prey.