10 Descending Water
As ever, the first step within the citadel brought a sudden sensation of stability. Impossible as a matter of logical the black basalt floor was perfectly, totally level and ever unchanging. This could not be so, as that floor, indeed the entirety of the citadel, rested on a pulsing, squirming, tormented mass of flesh dwarfing it in size. At the very least the citadel ought to rock slightly, as a ship upon the ocean.
But it did not.
The woman who walked across those ice-cold stones now did not deny the practicality of a floor that remained in one place despite its generally unstable perch, but she did not especially welcome it either. That unmoving surface was a demonstration of power, specifically of the mighty magic of the one being who truly ruled in this place, and it was a selective power indeed. She fully believed that at any moment the floor might buck and rage tossing every inhabitant save one about as helpless as the toys inside the dollhouse of a spiteful patrician child.
As she was not that one being, she could never shake the sensation of being nothing more than a toy when here. A dark voice in her mind chose that unfortunate moment to hiss in bitter laughter. Perhaps we are all toys then, she reflected from that inspiration.
It brought no solace.
Good, she thought. Safety is an illusion, happiness is a lie, purpose is a falsehood, and all reality is naught but random accidents of mad energies, crashing together, endlessly seeking nothing. Her failure to revel in discomfort was simply a sign of limited enlightenment.
With some regret she turned away from such thoughts of overwhelming entropy and focused back on the task at hand. Practicality must come first, after all. The mask remains until the climax, and that was yet a very long way off indeed.
So she ascended the steps of the winding path to the principle tower of the citadel, forced to climb stair after stair as a monument to little more than vanity, wasting time to no good purpose. The long climb was supposed to impress and awe, and to allow the fear of lesser visitors time to cook into fully risen dread before they reached that tower room. Those were emotions she had long striven to purge from herself, and this walk had only aided her in that regard. So while she did not look forward to this particular destination, the terror of the journey was something she had surpassed.
Her travels were not alone, those steps were wide, and serviced many destinations in the great dark citadel. Any number of lesser forms slid past, most dead, some not, all deferential. The train of her dress shushed slightly upon the stones, and the many thin silver chains adorning wrist, ankles, neck, and delicately wrapped across her bodice and waist suppurated a semi-somber sound of cool depression as she willed them to; her personal theme, deftly suppressed yet still heard. She was a known presence in this dread place, and even among such horrors as wandered its halls it was known that this one in the black-flower lace hood was not to be troubled without cause.
The tower room possessed a door, a massive thing many times the height of a man, wrought with symbols of ancient arcane power. It was not designed as a barrier to interlopers, there were other, less ostentatious measures in place for that, but simply as a display of authority and a curtain of privacy.
It was unnecessary in countless ways, but she knocked even so. He considered it a measure of respect and courtesy, and that was the only criterion that mattered now.
"Enter," a malformed voice whispered from somewhere undefinable within that great door. A dead mind broken to the singular purpose of determining whether the door was to open now or not. It was a display of such arrogance she could not comprehend. It inspired no fear, only puzzlement at the waste.
The door, for all its terrible size and her small frame, opened at the slightest touch, sliding upon soundless hinges forged from the souls of fallen heroes. Some overt symbolism was inevitable in a place such as this. It was also unworthy of notice, considering the means of construction it had all the true significance of paint color, or so she felt, no matter the scale.
The room was not gaudily outfitted at the moment, though that too was illusion, for it could change to suit the will of its master at but a thought. Instead there was simply an empty circle and a great and towering throne of frigid black, light-sucking soulsteel. It was an impeccable piece, a baroque masterwork utterly suited to project the image of the conquering warrior-savant, exactly how its occupant wished to be viewed.
A singular personage occupied that throne now. He was a towering figure, just taller than the tallest man you might ever meet, and wrapped in billowing robes of perfect black, though matching the attire of no nation yet extant in Creation or the Underworld. His face was a false one, a mask, but it was such an impossibly beautiful face no one, not even one such as she, could care for that distortion.
"Master," she dropped to one knee upon entering, and set her hooded face to the dark stones at her feet.
"Widow," his voice had a beauty to match the face, but this lie was more easily falsified, for with every word harsh whispers, unintelligible and below the threshold of hearing in any case, began to echo through the bottom of her mind. It was ever so between them, and she could not know why. She feared that there should even be an answer.
"You have requested an audience," her master spoke, and then suddenly his whole body contorted, the pleasant face replaced with one of demonic fury and unspeakable horror, the wise ruler dissipated into the persona of the murderous tyrant. "Why?" He thundered.
She did not blanch. He thought such parlor tricks useful, and they were, against many, but not only had the Seven Seasons Widow long become inured to his little gags, she had practiced such things herself since her childhood. "There has been a setback master," she did not try to overly minimize, for she could not hide such secrets from him in person, and saw no need to increase his wrath.
"Explain," he demanded, still the voice of terror.
This was a good beginning, for he was prone to rages when faced with setbacks, an emotional tempest not entirely irrational. Of course, it was always partly irrational, for the Widow knew that like all Deathlords the Mask of Winters was quite mad.
She did not particularly care, the universe was naught but a cosmic dice game in any case, only less ordered.
"One of our zombie talons on the Island of Thistles has been lost," she kept her voice steady as she explained, neither performing nor excusing, simply stating things. She believed he appreciated this. "There has been no communication since the lieutenant stated his intent to attack. It has been four days." There was no need to explain the precise meaning of the lapsed time. "I must assume they met some unexpected resistance and were destroyed."
"A pity our lieutenant has not returned," the deathlord grumbled even as his face and form shifted back to perfect pleasantness. "If he has surrendered to either of the calls, simply an unfortunate chance, if he has fled..." he did not bother to explain, and the Widow did not attempt to guess. She had learned, in a fashion most terrible, that her mind could not even come close to imagining the barest fraction of the horrific punishments her master might devise.
"But no matter," the deathlord continued. "One nemissary is irrelevant, as are a hundred zombies, ultimately. Unexpected resistance was always a possibility, and it may even be a boon to encounter it so early."
"How so my master?" she rarely questioned, but when it came to military matters he had demanded she expend the effort to learn, so inquiries were tolerated, at least to a point.
"Recalcitrant elements shall always rear their heads in any enterprise," that perfect voice took on the manner of a chiding father. It was the phrasing she hated more than any other from his mouth. Master she accepted, parent, she did not. "Early identification allows for prompt elimination." He focused his eyes upon her. "This you shall do. Find whatever agency was responsible and destroy it. I shall leave you to your own devices regarding the appropriate manner of such a demise, but it is to be done with all haste. Additionally, you are to accelerate your campaign with all due haste, you must not let survivors spread words of hope and defiance."
"Of course not," she agreed, understanding this point perfectly. It was her campaign, after all, though he had provided considerable 'advice' to the plans. "Have I your leave to journey to the island in person then?"
"Yes," the deathlord allowed, removing one barrier the Widow had long desired destroyed. "But you are not to reveal yourself. That time has not yet come."
"As you command, my master," she accepted this with as much grace as she possessed. It was reasonable, and so far he had presented no punishment. She hoped to leave accordingly. This problem ought to be easy to solve.
"Go then," The Mask of Winters commanded. "I leave this in your hands for now, Widow," he intoned. "Prove your competence against further problems, or be prepared for subsequent tasks suited to one of," there was a pause pregnant with one thousand hideous eventualities. "Lesser talents."
"I hear and obey," She did not want to consider what those words portended, though one possibility immediately suggested itself. The Physician desired her, in more ways than one, but she would see him perform his experiments on his own flesh, rather than hers.
It was a clear dismissal, and the widow scuttled out from the room. It was a motion lacking in grace, but one did not turn their back to a deathlord. Ever.
Emerging into the hall she allowed a single steadying breath, not out of fear, never that, but simply to take in the suddenly less oppressive air. The proximity to such a nexus of power as her master was a draining experience.
In the next moment she discovered she was not alone in the passage.
Not that she was ever precisely alone here, where terrified ghosts swarmed steadily on various business, but she was in the presence of something more than those insignificant entities; an unexpected and unwelcome development.
"Oh, so you're the reason I had to wait then, Seven," a coy voice giggled from her side.
The Widow declined to look at the speaker. No one, not even the Mask of Winters, referred to her as Seven. Only this insolent whelp dared. Fool miserable sadist, the Widow felt nothing but contempt for her erstwhile rival. A rabid dog on a leash you are and nothing more.
The Widow walked past the murderous child known as the Maiden of Mirthless Smile without so much as a wave of an eyelash, casually ducking under the daiklave that swung in her face as a challenge. Imbecile, she thought. Even in a universe without purpose there are still some things known. Among those was the bare reality that the master of them both would destroy utterly any Deathknight who struck at another within his citadel. The Maiden's bravado was pointless, and born of no reasonable source. It was well known that the brutal girl-killer hated the Widow simply because she felt their names placed one above the other.
Such matters are madness itself, the Widow thought as always, but today added a sly smile. Perhaps, after I complete this mission that you, for all your potency in the martial arena, never could, I shall ask for your leash as my reward. Yes, she decided. She would enjoy that very much.
It was nice to have a motive.
Her task being imperative, she wasted no time in leaving the citadel, walking swiftly through the horrific remains of juggernaught, unseemly in its eternal death throes even to one such as she, before standing upon the wasted grounds of the once fine fields outside the city of Thorns again. Not far from the fallen behemoth waited her small retinue of immediate pawns. Not that they thought of themselves as such, but the Widow knew them in true fashion.
All relationships eventually die, what use bonds not utilitarian in purpose?
"Mistress, we welcome your return," Sereni, the Widow's ghost-blooded maid, was the first to greet her. "Did the meeting go well?" The child-like half-dead woman wisely did not ask for details.
"It went," the Widow replied. Sereni was useful, mostly, and more than a maid besides, but for all her helpful talents it would not do to let her get too close. "Plans have changed, we make for the Field of Fallen Blades with all due haste." she stepped up into the black coach that was kept waiting, nodding to her driver. The ghost-blood hopped aboard only a moment before the team whipped into motion. "Summon Returning Burn Sereni," the Widow instructed. "I must relay commands."
The maid had the advantage of being a modest necromancer, not powerful enough to be a threat, but providing her mistress with the resource of a few spells. As a result she was a valuable tool of coordination and travel.
Of course it was not possible to summon up a ghost with sorcerous power while riding in the back of a carriage, but even the aborted attempt was sufficient to make it known to Returning Burn his superior desired his presence. The nemissary had tricks of his own to cover distance swiftly, and it took no more than an hour's journey for him to appear.
The Widow did not in practice travel with dead companions, but Sereni was part of the way there, and so it was possible for the nemissary to easily control her body when needed. Regrettably the maid would not remember anything said, which meant the deathknight was forced to take notes at times, an irritant, but the benefits outweighed the costs.
The maid's eyes rolled back into her head as the ghostly rider swarmed over her weakened grave-tainted soul, and she began to speak in a voice far from her own past blue lips.
"You called mistress?" the nemissary questioned when he arrived, slightly challenging. They were not fond of each other. She could not like nemissaries, useful as they were. Jumping from body to body like that, it defies that natural order of things. They should not be able to endure so. Returning Burn's reasons were far less cerebral. He hated the Widow because she had supplanted him, nothing more or less.
"I am departing to the Field of Fallen Blades," she explained imperiously. "We are accelerating our plans. You must move troops into position accordingly. I shall be taking personal command on Thistles, there is a small matter to resolve there."
"As you command mistress," the nemissary acknowledged. "But such a large movement will violate the terms negotiated with the Endlessly Virtuous Host," he snickered at the name, and even the Widow could not help but laugh at its ridiculousness.
She had to admit this point. "I will renegotiate," she decided. Those fools would not dare their recalcitrance against her in person. "Move the troops."
The nemissary made a messy grin of Sereni's delicate porcelain features. "By your leave," he enjoyed destruction. Too much, the Widow thought. It was a common failing of the dead, savoring bloodlust for the mere sensation of the killing. "Have you other instructions?"
"Yes," The Widow did indeed have an idea he could implement. "Acquire some suitable bait for the monsters of the Sea of Shadows. The coastal shadowlands may be too small for anything practical, but a symbolic measure could be equally effective."
"It may be difficult to find good candidates in Thorns mistress," her lieutenant cautioned, expressing a problem that had been growing for some time.
"Purchase them from the Guild then," the Widow decided. "We might as well waste coin rather than energy."
"As you command."
"Go then," she dismissed the miserable ghost. He made a competent assistant, but she did not desire him gaining ideas of his own importance. He must believe she had not destroyed him when she took his place because it amused her, not because his skills remained necessary.
It took Sereni a short while to recover from possession, long enough for the small party to arrive at the shore. The still, black waves of the Sea of shadows extended out from Thorns now, night had fallen. "Summon the vessel." The Widow commanded.
So the ghost-blood sang, and her dirge brought forth a bone-hulled ship with sails of human skin. A small device, truly not more than a dinghy, but swift, serviceable, and warded against the dangers of that black water.
The Widow followed Sereni aboard, bringing only her coachman, a nondescript man of many modest talents, and a scribe, a mute youth who had been trained to perfectly take her dictation. All were mortal, she had found the advantages of ghostly servants did not outweigh the drawback of properly functioning in only one of two essential realities. Mortal men had greater flexibility.
The ship sailed at the necromancer's will, and they set out for Thistles. The Widow felt a twinge of anticipation at the black shadows of the island's high peaks in the far distance over the empty underworld air. I am done playing games with petty horse thieves, she thought with relish. My master reaches out his hand to claim another realm. It is not Thorns, she acknowledged. But it will be mine to claim. That any adulation her name might receive would be ultimately meaningless did not mean it would not be sweet.
So, canon characters, yes... Obviously the Mask of Winters is a canon character, and he's a bit tricky to handle, being dead, insane, and of nigh-unfathomable power and intellect, so we take the dance lightly. Seven Seasons Widow is also, technically, a canon character. She is mentioned in CoTD: the Scavenger Lands as one of the Mask of Winter's deathknights. That is the extent of her canon representation, so aside from the name I'm creating her more or less whole cloth. The Maiden of the Mirthless Smile (she of brief cameo appearance for the moment), is also a canon character and one considerably more developed. Her little rivalry with the Widow is my own invention, but it seems appropriate for someone of her level of sociopath.
A few of the tricks involving Sereni and Returning Burn are predicated on ghost-blooded mutations. The spell used is canonical.