Anthony permits himself to believe this much: nothing is real, save his sustained consciousness and pain, and he has failed. Retaining the latter in mind reminds him that not an aspect of this fate is undeserved, and the former is out of an absurd wish to retain some part of his moral, mortal mind through cognizance of his insanity.
He thinks he can hear still, and that some of what he can hear may as well be real, because some of it is right. The voices of the demons and the false priest Augustus never change—always the same voices, even among the demons. He hears them talking in the chapel and waits for the door to open with his sword at the ready and tells himself that he is going to cut them down now as atonement. He wants to. God knows, he will never, never stop wanting to, kill for Charlemagne now, it's all the service he can provide, and he hasn't been released, God, God knows, please, I'm sorry, I've failed, I was needed, I tried, and I still let my liege lord die.
He fails at that, too, and he doesn't have an inkling as to whether he's watching himself fail or whether he's too confused to fight harder, as he doesn't have eyes to see with. They burned away waves ago all at once. Like the sounds of demons and doors, he doesn't reject the perception of the room or those come to confront him, as they're appropriate and deserved, and necessary. He's had visions enough of the orange sun and green grass and running horses and wind and birds and human faces—human faces—and he's dropped to the floor, clutching his face and the holes where his eyes were to prove that he can't see and begging them to pass without assuming he has any business invoking God.
Sometimes he wonders if they have moved him. The idea's of no import, for what he's seeing—should be seeing, and therefore lets himself believe he is seeing—is a trial. The room is a cell around a cell; it's the room where everything was lost. He hasn't won his way out of it—not to freedom, certainly, but from the failure.
He's alone, which is right. The Empire fell, and time has moved. His world is gone, and his identity (maddened but not gone; he knows he's mad, because he knows what should be, and these are not it, hold on, hold on) is the one part of it clinging to this punished non-life, pinned to the chapel as something stolen from what he couldn't save.
He doesn't want to be, but he does, because he should be.
He's aware of both parts of this, and madness knows how to tease one part of his mind and horrify the other.
That is why the figure of a woman is standing in the corner of the room, or he is making himself see her—against his will. She doesn't belong there. He has no eyes, but there she is, and the light on her is unnatural. There is no light in this room—except for her. She's made of it, blue like the rune of Ulyaoth (he remembers that symbol, certainly, like a carving in bone and filled with grindings of stone; of course he could will himself into fooling himself into seeing it), shaped short, the face of a girl possibly his age, or the age his face was before it started to come off. Barely dressed, but standing reserved.
She might be a spirit, or a feverish image of an angel. He wants badly to believe that she could be an angel and yet cannot quite—not can't but isn't quite, mind tired, gaps in thoughts. Therefore it seems plausible that that's what she's supposed to be.
He shouldn't be looking. He knows to bid figments away. This one's brighter than the others, because it doesn't feign what isn't, in everything about his mind's surroundings through to his body (the ones in which he is outside frequently renew, to make erasure of his mistake and appropriateness in the world of life complete). It's burning—the interior where his eyes used to be, perhaps, beginning to burn spots onto retinas which he doesn't have.
That's what he should know, but forgets; this is new, and is taking some time to know. It'll take a proportional while to dispel it from his knowing, once he's done.
Standing. That is all that she's doing, statuesque with purpose. Brightness. Steadiness. It suits.
He watches her, in what way he can say that he can watch anything. He fixes his focus on her, and stares at it like a man watching a fire catch up the edges of a curtain. The light spreads.
She continues standing.
He can't tell if her face changes—her eyes are black-dark from where he is, up on the steps on the opposite side of the chamber.
The light hits a screaming pitch and he ducks his head—the spots in his eye sockets are blue, not yellow. He waits until they've faded; perhaps she'll have faded, too.
He bids her to fade, quietly—he thinks not real, not real, go, please, without the conviction to carry it into articulation by what's left of a tongue.
When he turns his face back up, one of her feet is forward; she draws back, ducks down, and a tone in his head screams, is she going to kill me, no, I'm not finished, I can't, can't be finished, please, Charlemagne…! He paws the ground for his sword, trembling around the lack of anchor by a heartbeat…
"Please!" she calls.
It rings with newness—it isn't a voice he's ever heard before. And yet it doesn't ring; it reaches straight to him, and echoes inside his head, not off the walls.
She won't kill him. She might be here to kill him, but she won't succeed, because she's not real. If she was—no, perhaps she could. Perhaps she could, but it doesn't matter, because she's not real. Not real. She probably will try. Everything else does. Demons, traitors come as priests. Kill them. Don't kill her; resist her. She's not real.
Her lips are a note darker than the rest of her face, from the light reflecting in on itself. The corners are upturned. Is that a smile?
She begins to straighten. Her head tilts, and her hair falls all to the same side, like real hair would. Like a real person. He watches on out of lonely fascination. Real person.
Here for him. She hasn't looked away, and her face is plainer to see now. Her eyes are hollow, like his.
Her voice rings in again, clear as if in his ear but soft as a distant bell. "It's all right."
It's an absurd thing to say, incongruous as her voice to his memory. He wouldn't have made it up, because it's meaningless, but he has to have.
She's on her knees now, in the middle of the room. He catches one look—smile there, hair hanging perpendicular to the floor under her, shining like a hope—and looks away. He scratches his hands against the grip of the sword, yes, there. He's still here—kill her. Kill her demon traitor kill her. Don't kill her…
He gulps to ground himself. The walls of his throat scratch against each other.
She speaks again, and he sinks to cover his ears with his arms. It's less than effective.
"You're so weary, aren't you?"
He's been asked a question. His neck makes to nod, automatically—a tugging at the pulley of a winch, a yank and jostle. She can't know that. He can't let it be true. He is weary. He isn't done. She doesn't need an answer.
He doesn't fully restrain it. He shakes his head, instead. Stop talking. Please, go. Away. Away.
"You've done well. I—you don't know that you have. I know. I know… I know. Now. Now that I've been released, just as you will be…"
She is wrong, about the first part; if he had done well, he wouldn't be here, still, or seeing her. It hurts, however, the consideration of the contrast. It hits him as a pang that makes him wheeze and that he focuses on to understand it, if not remove it.
She cannot kill him. She can hurt him. This is flogging, in between the painful revivals that Augustus or any of his demons brings on. He will take it.
"Anthony," she says.
He isn't surprised that she would do so at all, let alone less surprised at that than anything else she's said. An imaginary apparition would know his name; an angel would know any name she wants.
He swallows and lets his head drop down, to acknowledge and submit. Trick. Don't. Shake your head. Don't. He doesn't shake his head. His arms go tense under him. He thinks cover your face, cover your ears, stay back, and doesn't do any of that—fixed. Waits for her to talk again.
"You know me," she says. "You haven't seen me—but you have seen my statue. You're like us. You're going to come with us."
Perhaps he has, he thinks to the first; he doubts the—a branding torch to the brain; his gray jaw locks and he hisses through his teeth at it—he doubts the second very much. Very much. She's not real. She's not from anywhere. It doesn't matter, but he wouldn't be going with her if she was.
He doesn't give her a word, or look at her.
He sees her face in his head through her voice alone, a twist in the brow, a question with the eyes.
"I'm Ellia," she says.
The name hits a bell in his mind and it sends echoes going and coming.
That also makes sense, he thinks—it doesn't but it does. Something familiar. Grown out of something familiar. The Ellia he imagined. He could have made her.
"I read the Tome," she says. "Before you."
Affirming for himself, perhaps, remembering, testing himself. Yes. That's who she is—is based off of, rather. Apparition of Ellia. Angel, perhaps. Figment, absolutely, test, ear for thoughts it already knows to twist and turn. Twisted and turned.
Don't humor it. He already knows; he can humor it still.
The light shifts. He creaks his head back up to catch it automatically; she's put one of her hands on the ground, leaning on all fours. Close now. He had guessed her face right—it isn't asking a question, however, rather than requesting room, and moving into it. He hasn't the place to allow or deny, and keeps to saying absolutely nothing.
"I was like you," she says, her voice shifting low. "Trapped in my own body. Waiting to rest."
He would be telling himself this, too. About her. A means to keep it talking.
He continues to listen.
"It will be your turn, soon," she says, bobbing her head further in. Her hair swings forward and fans. "There is a place for you here—I mean, it's where I came to you from. I am sorry that you're trapped…"
He isn't. He doesn't understand, and he can't begin to search himself for where such a thought would have come from; it's absurd in a way that doesn't even hurt, as it doesn't even touch anything, and therefore it's foreign, no meaning he can pull out, invading, some other design. He shakes his head again, to shake her voice out.
Isn't really happening. Isn't. Leave me…
"…but there'll be rest. Trust me." Emphatic. Much, much too emphatic. He refuses to look at her—head held straight and downward like a long since half-broken beam where air can't reach—but he sees her again, nodding forward with her hair bobbing like she's offering that trust out on her hands.
The silence is complete. Anthony looks back into his own eyes to wait until he's had long enough to fail to resist. In sleepless, dayless time, it could be minutes that pass, or weeks, or months. It couldn't be longer, or the demons would have come in at least once.
There's a breath outside, and—it's hers. "I know you can hear me," she says. "But I don't know if you can understand me."
Of course it wouldn't have been time enough
"When the Heart of Mantorok was bestowed to me—no. When Augustus killed me… Please, listen."
He heard. Don't listen. Do listen. Don't—he bowed his head down lower, face turned further away. I won't. It is still, however, a response.
Both notions win. Both notions lose.
The light shifts again, on the stone between them. He wills himself not to think he sees, and fails, and instead blocks himself from thinking of it. Lies that she hasn't moved. That'll be enough. He lied. He's lying. He cheated, weak, resist. She isn't real.
"Please." It shifts again. No, it doesn't. It doesn't. Yes, it did. Do not look… "I knew that I had been given what I had wanted since I first laid eyes on the pages of the Tome… I hadn't ever read before at all. I never learned… I knew that I'd been given the chance I'd always wanted. I had thought that I'd be… not—older. Younger when I'd die. You do understand, if you can understand anything I'm saying to you, Anthony."
He doesn't. He hears the words, and understands what they mean in and of themselves. It's nonsense. The Tome's weight isn't on him anymore. He doesn't carry its ciphering Magick. He can hear past the meaning to the words, and the shapes and sounds in them—they're not Franconian, and they're not Latin. Tongues or a trick of his head, and he doesn't understand their purpose. God, please, don't let him understand, trick, test.
She isn't real.
And she doesn't leave, continues to speak—his bones are shaking.
He is resisting. God, give him strength. He hasn't got a right to it.
God. God. There is none. Not for you. Don't think that way. Please…
"But you will know, too. You won't have gotten what you wanted, but you are part of something bigger. Bigger than that, and you have served it well…"
This is treachery. Traitor—internal pound, an electrical seizing that jerks his head back and his hand down to push himself up, treachery. No. He tries to say it—he only croaks, and the apparition, illusion, the girl watches him stand.
She stands up, smooth and silent, like a feather tipped by the wind, hands up, mouth indistinctly open.
His hands shake at his sides and tighten in at—nothing. Pressure, weight, he should feel. He still can feel those things. He left his sword on the ground.
He looks down. He could be fooling himself. His eyes cannot work. They're not there. He could be holding it, but there's his sword, on the ground, catching her blue light, foolish, foolish…
His lungs seize with his arms, the latter catching for something, going straight to his cheekbones and digging at them without nails like the edge of a table, the former not prepared to protest anything; they force up a whine, and no shame in dwelling upon shame, as he is the only one here.
He is sorry…
The light is directly underneath his eyes. Coming up through and behind his hands, like the sun through the bars in a window.
The windows in the chapel. Motes of dust, warm for the winter, orange shafts through brown struts—a creature roars. Downstairs. Downstairs.
He can't look down to catch it and looks up instead.
Her face is directly in front of his, slightly downturned. Looking in. Her hands are still lifted, and with lightning sensations jerking under his skin he understands. They're on his face. He can't feel them. They're made of light, but they feel him, fingers flush and even. Her smile isn't for him but for her. It's knowing. It's knowing, and he doesn't know—he screams in his chest as if willing his heart to hammer.
Don't touch me. For her, or for you, Anthony? Fear? Shame? Guilt? Distaste?
Treachery. Distaste—resist. Disloyalty. Higher. Not mine, no, not my lord, already gone, I am faithful, failure but faithful, nothing if not faithful…
He doesn't move away, as if she's going to tear his head in half and leave the curse burning through him without mending him for the rest of however long this will last. (If it's an appropriate fate, it's an appropriate fate. Maybe he should move, if he wants to.) Temporary thrall.
"Trust me," she says, again.
And she starts to withdraw her hands. Don't move away. He still doesn't feel them, and yet does, can tell where they align, follows them, leans in, not looking away, now, letting the blue light open and take him in. Do what you will…
Their foreheads touch.
Don't touch me! Please, please, please—don't dare, no—
Not for him.
Not to take. Turn away. Don't be fooled. Pure light.
Please, he tries to say.
His mouth can't shape it. He exhales with a hint of voice. He tightens what's left of the skin around his eye sockets to shut her out with nothing; his legs buckle, and he falls through her.
She isn't real.
Relief that blows him over, hands and knees again.
The blue light isn't gone from the floor.
He imagines, again.
He sees her stepping. One bare leg of light stepping around him with a slow-motion dancer's step, or a deer's. Similar grace inherent to either. Ellia was a dancer. This would make sense…
She would be looking down at him, and then leaning down onto her knees to look closer. Getting lower, as she had done before.
She was like him.
But he knows that, he would expect that (would he, from a single chapter of a book?), and this is not her.
He draws his knees closer up to his hands and crosses his arms in front of his head. The sword. It isn't close enough.
He breathes, in case he needs to prepare to speak, and listens to the sound.
Her voice is just a trace louder.
"I cannot promise anything," she says. The silence slips back in, and then out. "Except—that all will make sense, when it is your turn. And you will not be alone like this much longer."
It all does make sense, and it will. Everything that has happened makes perfect sense. He understands well precisely why he is in here, do not insult me, do insult me, I'm sorry, please, dear God, don't make me forget it…
Why. He knows why, and he thinks the word, and it forms instantly. Copies instinctively like the letter "A".
"Charlemagne," he says. There is voice in the air that carries it out.
She knew why already. He is imagining her. He knows it. She would know it, too, and that's what she's here for. What he's seeing her here for. He braces himself for another lash or burn.
"I am sorry, Anthony," she says. "But I know—it had to be that way. You will see… And the guilt will go. You could not have done anything even if you had been anyone else."
He doesn't let himself look at the question once he's asked it. He's asked a question and the lash comes—faithful. Faithful. Failure but faithful. Question nothing. You're mad—apparition.
He will not let the guilt go. The guilt is his—please don't, he thinks again, and again can't form—
"I will see you again, somewhere ahead in time," she says, and she has started to turn, take light dancer's steps away.
Her face is the last thing to turn, and he can't pull his own away, now. Where. Why. Why now. Her eye sockets are still empty and dark but they are full of sadness, sadness doesn't look like anything, why would she be sad, she can be anything, she isn't real, and he—
-reaches after her.
He breathes in once, rattling, and then breathes out.
He is lifting himself up on one hand. The other is held out to a gray, dark wall.
He watches himself bring it down. It is shaking. He is shaking it without trying. Mad, possessed movement.
He reached after her.
Fake, traitor, nonsense, questions.
Anthony's vision tips one way, and then it tips the other, and he doesn't realize that he's stood, or that he's failed to take his sword again; he assumes he's seeing things when the wall ahead bobs closer even as he presses himself against it, screaming.
He doesn't know if he is really screaming. He is.
He hears it, and he pulls himself off. The screams die and slow to steady scrapes.
Then the other.
Cold, dark room.
The blue light is gone.
His empty eyes stare forward, his jaw hangs loose, and his bones rattle in wind forcing in and out of lungs. In, out. In. Out.
He hears more and more of himself in it. Hear something he can recognize, re-ground himself. Re-ground. Here. She isn't—she's gone, he moved. He leans against the wall. There is nothing to it that anyone could have gone through.
Then why—did he try to stop—he tried to stop her.
No. He couldn't have tried to stop her. She wasn't real, he had barely moved. He knew better than that. He couldn't have kept her back, not with that.
But he moved to stop her.
He falls against the wall wheezing.
She wasn't real—she had lied. She had tested him. He had failed, asked questions, God knows what they were, God, be there, still, please, about things that were unquestionable. And he wanted her to stay.
He hurls himself against the wall again, listens to his voice jolt out, listens for a bone breaking.
Why, why, why did he want her to stay.
She isn't real. She wasn't real. She isn't real. This is real! She wasn't real!
He throws himself against the wall again and pounds it, scratches, no nails to scratch with; he strikes it with his head. Real. Real.
What was it he wanted…?
He's sharply aware of his own voice again. He's gasping, to no end at all but to hear himself.
His gets louder and shakes.
Hers was soft, and even. Talked nonsense. That wasn't it. He hadn't wanted it—he couldn't have wanted permission to consider his fault not to be. It is his. Hasn't changed, like the scrap of his mind he's got that knows that he is called Anthony, and that he is a servant of the Holy Roman Empire. Not was. Is. The loyal one, the one who failed. He is the one who failed.
It wasn't light that he wanted. When Augustus enters with a staff and strikes him down for the stone, he wakes up burning, wrapped in light. He conjures kinder light, more compatible light, for himself all the time, in the visions of the outside. Daytimes on fields, afternoons turning orange like the one on that day, the day the loyal one did fail, the motes of dust gone from the sunshafts, chapels without black-robed demons in them. He lets those pass. It is easy to let them pass because they're too unreal yet much too simple. Light simply is; it doesn't talk to you.
But she did not change much. One light in a dark room, the appearance of an angel. She talked to him, called him by his name.
You've done well, she said.
He'd done what he needed. She knew. That is what she claimed.
Praise was what he wanted. Worthiness. Done well.
That was it.
One more time, he screams. The wall. It connects. It's real. He's real…
Was that what she wanted—she hadn't wanted anything, because she wasn't real.
He understands. She doesn't. She had said that she did, but she doesn't.
She made it about him. That's what she did. How dare he. Begone, begone.
His clothing drags down against the wall, slowly. Slowly, down. He settles, and he knows.
It isn't about him.
He let it be about him. That is why he let himself want her to stay. That is what made him see her—unholy angel. Touched the Tome. There didn't need to be a God. She knew, and she affirmed, and she called him by his name, and said that he had tried. She said she knew.
It isn't about him. Knowing—the prospect of knowing, for she knew nothing—does not change anything.
He failed. Failed, failed, far too late for him to have done well. Unworthy servant. So he was, so he died, and it's much too late.
When he is done, it'll not be for him, and he will go nowhere. He'll have killed them, the demons, not for him—there's no one left to honor, here and no. There'll be no thanks and no affirmation. But he will do it, in the name of Charlemagne, and he will stay until the curse dusts his bones to finely his soul can't catch in them or perhaps forever. What fate he's earned, he's earned.
He remembers now, and believes it.
He let himself go truly mad, there, for God—God is real, but I can't reach him—knows how long.
In his mind, he lights a torch to keep the fake angel light away.
He won't fall to that trick again, he tells himself.
Not so long as she keeps away, for as long as this lasts. Another dead hundred centuries or
He is not Anthony, anymore. He has been stripped of his right and means to identify himself as such. He has no one present to serve, he has no face, and he no longer messenges. He does not speak, either, and does not have any need to use or be called by a name.
He is still of the Holy Roman Empire, and he was a servant of Charlemagne. Is. That's all he needs to remember. He is more and less sane. He slipped—but shuffled, fixed himself. He is more right now, and it will not happen again. He is alone, and needless. He will take his pain.
And please, please, don't let her come back.
If she does, he will not see her.
Cross-posted to AO3.