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Authors: D.P. Prior

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BOOK: Best Laid Plans
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The dead body came into sharp focus at the end of a tunnel through the cliff face. It was armoured beneath a black coat and a white tabard with the red Nousian Monas. Blue fingers clutched a longsword in one hand, and a broad-brimmed hat lay crumpled beside the head. Black hair framed the gaunt face like a dark halo; the eyes were white and vacant. The body faded away and the cliff grew once more solid and impassable. Shader glanced over his shoulder. The wall of nothingness was still there, a hair’s breadth away.

Something yanked at his umbilicus, spinning him from the path of the Lacunae. He felt the emptiness rushing towards his back, but then his spine arched violently and he was catapulted face first towards the cliff. He tensed before he struck, but there was no impact, only blackness as featureless as the Void itself. The terrible realization struck him that he’d missed his chance and the Lacunae had struck him from existence.

 

 

THE RESURRECTION OF DEACON SHADER
 

H
olding the sword.

Still thinking.

I am.

Grey walls of mortared stone emerged from the darkness. Rows of pews stretched away from Shader down a long nave to the shattered wooden doors of the Templum of the Knot. He was suspended above the altar, the gladius still held firmly in both hands, but its light now spent. He craned his neck to see what was holding him in the air, but there was nothing.

And then he saw the body and the pool of viscous blood in which it lay. The skin was ashen, the black hair slick with gore, and the once white tunic stained crimson. In that instant, as he gazed with cold dread upon his own corpse, he knew that Tajen had been right: he’d not been dreaming—the gladius was proof of that; and he’d not been in Araboth, the realm of the dead, either. The doppelgänger sprawled on the templum floor was testimony that he’d been in two places at once. His flesh had bled out on Earth, whilst his soul was trapped on the brink of oblivion in the demesne of the Demiurgos.

Time stood still as Shader contemplated his spirit body. The flesh felt real enough, and yet it now levitated above the ground. It seemed possessed of boundless energy, its organs harmonized and orientated beyond the usual petty desires and instincts with which he was accustomed. It was a good feeling, exhilarating; but it no longer seemed real. The corpse below him was his anchor to reality, the bedrock of his humanity. It was so clear now; his struggle was not a war between the flesh and the spirit, it was a search for authenticity. For the first time he knew what the Grey Abbot had meant when he’d quoted one of the ancient Paters:
The glory of Ain is a human fully alive.
Rhiannon had been wrong. No, Huntsman had been wrong. Aristodeus had been wrong. Shader felt his muscles tighten, even in the spirit. Rhiannon was no threat to his purity. If anything she was as essential to his being as the beating of his heart.

Fully alive:
not one thing or the other, knight or monk. Just a man.

Nothing stirred beyond the wreckage of the doors. The templum was empty, leaving Shader to wonder at the outcome of the battle with the undead and the Dweller. He turned his attention back to the body on the floor and was about to check its pockets for the serpent statue when a cowled figure materialized in the air above the chancel.

‘It has gone, Deacon Shader. Already taken.’

Shader lowered his eyes. ‘I heard your voice in my head when I fled from the Abyss.’

‘My voice is often in your head, only you never cease your internal chatter long enough to hear it. So, you believe in me now, do you?’

The Archon? Shader had assumed he was just a Templum myth propagated to bolster the supernatural elements of the faith. ‘Well, I have your sword,’ he said, twirling the gladius in his hand, ‘and that seems real enough.’

The Archon laughed—a sibilant rustling sound like a breeze through dried leaves. ‘You find it easier to accept magic than the existence of angels?’

‘Is that what you are?’

‘No,’ the Archon said. ‘But that is what I have been called for centuries. Tell me, what does it feel like to be a being of pure spirit?’

Shader looked from his spirit hands to the body of flesh lying on the floor like a wax effigy. ‘Incomplete,’ he said.

‘Good. A man who finally knows his place.’ The Archon drifted down to stand before Shader and placed a hand on his head. The gladius quivered slightly and seemed to sigh.

‘You must be whole again, Shader,’ the Archon said. ‘The Ipsissimus is coming for the final battle and he will need you.’

Shader pulled away, drifting further back into the sanctuary. ‘I’m out of favour in Aeterna. The Ipsissimus sent the Judiciary after me. He’d rather I was dead than dissenting.’

The Archon turned, sparing Shader the blaze from his face. ‘I’m afraid your friend Aristodeus was insistent on you leaving with the sword. Things are desperate; more desperate than you could ever know. I’ve entrusted him with this move, despite his previous failure. If we lose again, I’m not sure fate would be so forgiving a second time.’

‘What…?’

The Archon held up a hand that appeared to be made from porcelain. ‘I go too far. I have already said too much. Forgive me, Deacon Shader, and grant me one thing.’ Light spilled from the edge of the hood as the Archon tilted his head to look at Shader. ‘Your faith.’

Shader frowned. ‘That’s something I have in short supply.’

‘Understandably,’ the Archon said. ‘These are the times of deception. My brother must be very pleased with his progress. Even the Templum is divided, and it is no small task to keep it on the path of light. Theodore is a good man, but he will not be Ipsissimus forever.’

Shader nodded his understanding. Everyone knew that Exemptus Silvanus was his most likely successor. The Prefect of the Judiciary was a rigid traditionalist, a hard-liner. Shader had fallen under his influence during his formation in the Elect.
The Discipline
, they’d called him on account of the punishments he’d inflict for even the slightest deviation from his particular brand of orthodoxy.

‘Tell me,’ the Archon interrupted his train of thought. ‘Do you believe in resurrection?’

Shader was taken aback by the question and scrabbled about for an answer. ‘It’s mentioned in the Liber.’

‘Not as much as it once was,’ the Archon said, white fire flaring from his cowl. ‘The Liber has been altered, but there is still gold to be found there if you know where to look.’

‘But…’

‘Another time. Resurrection. What is it? A new life? The same life restored? The raising of a spiritual body?’ The Archon flashed a look at Shader. ‘Or is it something altogether more subtle, intangible? What would happen, I wonder, if you were to touch your own flesh? Come, try it.’

Shader floated down to his double and knelt. The sword shifted restlessly in his grip. He bent over the body and reached out a hand. As he made contact he felt a sickening thud and found himself staring up at the ceiling. Something damp and sticky clung to his head. Reaching up he felt it was a lock of his own hair slick with congealed blood.

‘How do you feel?’ the Archon asked, looming over Shader. ‘Resurrected? Or something else?’

‘Heavy. My back hurts like the Abyss.’

‘Excellent. So there is no difference between how you were at the moment of your death and how you are now. You are still fully human.’

Shader forced himself into a sitting position. The wound in his back began to seep more blood. He felt queasy and started to swoon. The Archon leaned in close and pressed down on it with his hand. Immediately, the flesh knitted together, the pain faded, and warmth flooded back into his once dead body. Sparing a quick glance at the oddly purring gladius, Shader hurriedly sheathed it and rose to his feet.

‘What am I?’ he asked. ‘Another animated corpse like those that serve Cadman?’

The Archon dipped his head for a moment before making his reply. ‘You are the same man risen, Shader, but you have seen things no one should see. I am not convinced that Aristodeus is right about you. You are the desperate plan of a desperate man, but it is the best we have. You may not have found your faith, but I will make you the gift of mine. Find your friends—they have fled this place; take counsel, and do not be swayed by power for that is the chief weapon of the Deceiver. Fulfil your task, Deacon Shader. It is a long road you must take. If it is the wrong one, then the error is Aristodeus’s, but the guilt is mine for permitting it.’

‘But why me? Why can’t you…?’

White fire consumed the Archon, coalescing into a ball of flame and winking out of existence. Shader was left staring at his boots, feeling leaden and exhausted. It took all his will to lift his eyes and scan the emptiness surrounding him, the wreckage of the doors through which the Dweller had forced its entrance.

Tajen’s contorted face came unbidden to his mind, flesh peeling from his skull, the blank look of despair filling his eyes. Shader shook his head and the image dispersed like mist in the breeze. Clenching his jaw, he drew back his shoulders and set off down the nave. All he could
think of was the urgent need to gain some distance from the desolation of the templum.

 

 

PLANS AND PREPARATIONS
 

S
hader made his way through the deserted streets of Sarum. Occasionally he would glimpse a face peering at him through gaps in shutters, and once or twice he spotted dark clad vagabonds rifling the bodies of the dead. None approached him; he felt like a lion among hyenas.

He made for Arnbrook House with the intention of enquiring about the fate of his friends. Passing the stone Arch of Welcome that had stood as long as Sarum’s ancient spires, he pressed himself flat against a wall as he was confronted with a gruesome sight that turned his stomach. Cadman’s deathly troops had apparently found new recruits amongst the plague victims. A vast undead army now filled the square before the council offices, spilling into the adjoining streets. To the rear of the horde he could see the horsemen of the Lost. In all there must have been a thousand rotting and animated corpses assembled, all waiting with the patience and stillness of the grave. Muttering a curse, he retraced his steps. If the others had survived, if they weren’t among the numbers of the walking dead, they’d have found somewhere to hole up in the city. The priests would stick out like diamonds in dung. Somebody must have seen them.

In spite of the rule of undeath, the city had started to come back to some semblance of life now that the plague appeared to have relaxed its grip. Sarum’s drawn and haggard populace began to creep forth from their dwellings, still wary at first of contact with one another, still frightened and grieving. Here and there a market stall was erected where those with the foresight to store and preserve their wares now profited from the desperate hunger of their fellows. It was from such a stall that Shader learned that the priests were hiding in a dilapidated townhouse in Edgebriar. Apparently a fat man in a white robe had come this morning to purchase rations.

Cadris screamed when he opened the door to Shader and then started blubbering about Nous and resurrection. Soror Agna almost genuflected, but opted instead for an open-mouthed look of astonishment. Ioana, when at last she came downstairs, looked for the wound in his back, noted its disappearance, and simply sniffed.

Once the initial shock of his arrival had passed, Shader was bustled up three flights of stairs and a flimsy ladder to the attic.

Gaston was sitting with his back against a joist. Soror Velda was stooped over him adjusting the blood-stained bandages that were wound about his torso. Her spectacles kept slipping down her nose, causing her to tut and shove them back up. Shader felt his mouth curling into a tired smile—it was like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. The smile turned to a frown as he remembered it was Aristodeus who had told him the story. The philosopher claimed it came from his homeland of Graecia millennia before the Reckoning.

Maldark mooched beneath the eaves, his chin resting on the stone head of his war-hammer. His eyes widened slightly at the sight of Shader and he almost smiled.

Rhiannon had an open Liber in her lap, her lips moving silently to the words of a prayer. Shader thought how drab the white clerical vestments made her look, and for a moment entertained the image of tearing the garments from her and unleashing her great raven tousles. The image startled him. It was the first indication that all was not pure and uncomplicated since his return to life. Rhiannon looked up abruptly, as if she’d read his thoughts. The colour fled her face and her mouth hung open.

BOOK: Best Laid Plans
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