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Chapter LX

The flammenstod represented a class of magic most sorcerers avoided. The version of reality permitting such pernicious weapons tended to leave marks. She could feel its influence burn through her arm, shooting tendrils of flame deep inside of her chest.

She cast her hands forward, a whisper of energy leaping toward the assembled priests. Some of the priests had studied the arcane, and knew enough to attempt feeble counters, the rest died. The Master was clawing at the sides of the palanquin, desperate to call help to his side.

Never had a choice, thought D.

Spaceman raised no counters, or did so much as flinch. A service revolver appeared in his hand and he fired.

D felt the impact as a kind of hammer stroke against the whole side of her body. She staggered, the pain a cold iron vise around her chest and shoulder. Spaceman approached.

“You won’t stop this,” he told her. His voice was distant, almost lost within the cacophony of spreading flame and screaming priests.

A hiss escaped from her lips, words from a language spoken by things without tongues. More of herself traded away for another few minutes of existence. The traitor’s gun boomed, a flaming discharge throwing his thin face in stark relief. This bullet was meant for her head but the bullet became quicksilver mid-flight and evaporated.

D struggled to her feet. Her arm was limp, hanging from her side like a slab of meat. She looked down at it and breathed the power syllable, tak. The pain lessened but she had no greater command over it. She hoped the bullet hadn’t clipped a nerve, not that there was help for it.

Spaceman wisely threw the pistol away and backed away from her. The Master was calling to him, speaking in some obscure language even she couldn’t follow.

“There’s always choice,” D said. “You still have one.”

Spaceman hastened to The Master’s side and propped him back onto his seat. Something passed between them. Both would need to be destroyed. A trio of priests attempted to interfere as she moved closer. She made them disappear.

She could sense the power of the world rippling and condensing around The Outcast and his new servant. The Master had a connection to the ancient arts of a scope and intensity far outstripping hers.

But if that was the way it had to be, then that was the way it had to be. She was here with one thing on her mind. A fight.

“There is another way,” D said to Spaceman as he once more stood before her. “You were Section Starfire. You know what you are doing is wrong.”

“I know nothing about anything,” Spaceman said. “But the Master knows what you intend to do. You want to replace me as the new Vessel. You think this gaudy display will charm him. You have succeeded only in repulsing him. He would never sully his essence in such a tainted body.”

“We shall see.”

D spoke a word so vile even its syllables had been long purged from decent languages. To say the word was itself an atrocity, as the magic released had a tendency to crawl outwards from its target to other members of his family or even innocents who merely shared his name. Couldn’t be helped. This was playing for keeps.

Spaceman screamed. More, she suspected, from the awareness of what she was doing to him than actual pain. That would come later. He sunk to the ground and howled. The sound struck D as the sound of a suffering animal, completely primal and unearthly. No one had suffered like this for hundreds of years. His fleshed sizzled and slid from his bones.

“You should have listened to Marcus,” she said and turned away.

The Master was slumped in his chair by the altar. His eyes were rolled back, his mouth open. As she drew near he stirred into consciousness.

“Congratulations,” he sneered. “I suppose you wish to claim your prize.”

“You will transfer to my body.”

The Master gave a look that suggested he’d much rather wade through excrement.

“Your time will not be long,” the Master said. “A year, perhaps two, and I will find another host. Someone less…tainted.”

“I don’t see anyone else lined up for the duty,” D said. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Kneel down so that I may embrace you,” he said wearily.

She complied, strangely concerned that the last step in the ceremony would be something involving a kiss. Instead, the old man took D’s head in her hands and simply placed it side-by-side with his own. Her chin rested on his thin, bony shoulder; his ear pressed into her cheek. He clung to her fiercely, shivering as though in the grip of a malarial fever. The shiver was contagious, she felt her teeth chatter. Wave after wave of convulsions gripped her body. It was involuntary, completely beyond her conscious control or understanding. She could watch her limbs flail about but couldn’t affect them in the slightest. The two of them pitched over in the darkness and flopped around in the dust like hooked fish.

Gradually the tremors subsided and she could once more move. She did so, standing up and experimenting with her limbs. She was fascinated with every part of her body. The power of the Master had chased away all but the most persistent demons. It was delightful to run her hands down her skin and feel the little hairs rise at her touch.

“This wouldn’t be so bad,” she heard herself say.

Those words brought the first sense of true horror to D. She had not said those words. She had not thought them or made herself speak. There was something in her, something so blended with her personality that it was indistinguishable from herself. And yet this something was not her. It was both separate and inseparable from whatever self she could claim to be.

“Oh, please be calm,” she heard herself say. “There will be an arrangement soon enough. The beginning is disorientating, that’s all.”

But that wasn’t all. When she had heard of the Master’s ceremony and the transformation she had assumed it would be similar to a demonic possession, that the Master would be a separate presence in her mind. To have this alien thing become her was intolerable. She forced herself to walk to the altar and kneel down. The Master let her do this. Perhaps it was too early for the Master to simply take control completely. Or perhaps the Master had heard the parable about the frog in a pot of boiling water. Make the changes slowly enough, and the frog never jumps until it’s cooked through and through. She raised her hands and pressed them together. It wasn’t a prayer, it was a direct appeal. Surely he wouldn’t mistake the gesture, Frankie would know what to do.

“What will Frankie know?” she asked. “What did you tell him?”

Please do it, Frankie. Please, it’s time.


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