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“Goddammit, that creepy bastard said he’d be here to meet us,” Genevieve murmured under her breath as we waited in the crowded and baroque lobby of the Triskelion Theatre.

Just like its chief patron and the man we were there to meet, the Triskelion Theatre dated back to our town’s folkloric past before it was officially incorporated in the mid-19th century. It was built on the southern edge of Avalon Park, on the border of what’s now the entertainment district.

Going there as a little girl with my father or on school trips, it always seemed so majestic and magical, like something out of a fairy tale. It felt like it belonged to a more genteel age and that just going into it was like stepping through the looking glass.

Even as an adult, it still retained that atmosphere of antiquated refinement, and it was obvious that had been a deliberate design choice. At a casual glance, nothing definitively modern stood out. The floors were tiled in marble, the light fixtures were all shaded with stained glass, and columns of richly carved dark wood upheld a lofty ceiling, with velvet curtains and enormous mosaics decorating the walls.

And to gifted clairvoyants and studied Witches like Genevieve and myself, it was apparent that the theatre’s otherworldly mystique wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. What the uninitiated would simply take as mere aesthetic motifs, we recognized as strategically placed sigils that made the entire theatre into one large spell circle. Scattered talismans decorated the theatre as if they were everyday baubles, and I’d be damned if the whole place wasn’t built over at least one of the otherworldly passageways that Sombermorey is interwoven with.

“He’s here, don’t worry,” I assured her with a gentle squeeze of her hand. “He’s just schmoozing around somewhere. There are hundreds of people here, and we’re not his most important guests.”

“This lobby isn’t that big, and he wears a top hat. We should be able to spot him,” Genevieve said as she craned her neck around.

“It’s fine, Evie. We’ll speak with him when we speak with him,” I said. “Otherwise, let's just treat this like a normal date night.”

“Believe me, I’d love to, but it’s a little hard to relax when we’re in a cursed theatre owned by an outlandish occultist with a history of botching rituals,” Genevieve sighed. She did try to relax a little, putting her arm around me and drawing me close to her, her face adopting the ‘sorry boys, she’s mine’ expression it often did when we were in public. “You’ve got Elam on standby, I take it?”

“He’s around,” I promised her. “He’ll swoop in at the first sign of trouble.”

“In that case, I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you for him. We don’t offer free seating to spirits, you know,” we heard the posh and pompous voice of Seneca Chamberlin ring out from behind us. “Samantha, Genevieve, so good to see you this evening! It’s been too long!”

“That’s debatable,” Genevieve retorted.

“Hello, Seneca. You seem to be in better spirits than the last time we met,” I remarked.

“And with good reason. With the Grand Adderman dead and Miss Noir so busy in Adderwood, I’m essentially the de facto head of the Harrowick Chapter again,” he boasted proudly. “Plus, I was able to get a particularly persistent Incubus out of my nightmares, so I’m sleeping much better.”

“If there’s anyone who shouldn’t have trouble sleeping at night, it’s you,” I said.

“And it’s all thanks to you, my dear,” he reminded me with a smug smile. “If it wasn’t for you, Emrys may never have been willing to consider letting the Order negotiate terms of surrender. He’d have simply wiped us all out, yours truly included.”

“And is every member of the Ophion Occult Order as head over heals about the regime change as you are?” I asked facetiously.

“Well of course not, but what can they do?” he shrugged. “The Darlings are unaccounted for at the moment, but most of us don’t have our own private basement universe to bunker down in. Emrys’ chains are broken, and his avatar is restored to its full power. All we can do is mumble about it and hope he doesn’t catch wind of it.”

“We’ve heard that Emrys has built some kind of spire in Adderwood to better control and exploit the multiversal pathways that run through it. Is this true?” Genevieve asked.

“It most absolutely is not. Emrys and Petra built the Shadowed Spire,” he replied. “Shame on such a self-exonerated feminist like yourself to marginalize her contribution to so magnificent a megalith, erasing the greater woman behind the great man, or whatever self-indulgent twaddle you usually peddle.”

Genevieve glowered at him in barely restrained rage, and I gently placed my hand on her and put myself between them.

“When we last met Emrys – and Petra – they were working alongside an entity who called himself Mathom-meister,” I said. “He was personally after the Darlings, and his people in general seem to have a penchant for slaying gods and taking their powers as their own. Did Evie accidentally marginalize his contribution to this spire as well?”

“Um… yes, now that you mention it, I believe he did provide them with at least some of the know-how on how to better tap into the nexus in the Adderwood,” Chamberlin replied. “What of it?”

“Since this spire was erected, I’ve noticed a shift in the ley lines running over Harrowick County, ley lines which this very theatre was constructed to take advantage of,” I replied. “Tonight’s performance isn’t just a play, is it? It’s a ritual meant to take advantage of the Shadowed Spire’s impact on the Veil.”

“You’re trying to summon another god, aren’t you Seneca?” Genevieve accused. “Mathom-meister didn’t just agree to help with the spire because he wants revenge on the Darlings. He expects regular sacrifices of divine Ichor to feast on, and he expects the Order to supply him with it.”

“Please, you’re both being paranoid,” Seneca said dismissively. “Do you really think I’d try something like that after my fiasco with summoning Emrys?”

“Yes,” Genevieve and I said together.

“Well, you are both sadly mistaken. I can assure you that there will be nothing preternatural about tonight’s performance aside from the on-stage chemistry of the cast. I simply invited you here as a display of gratitude for all that you’ve done,” he claimed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a couple of other guests I’d like to greet before the show starts. I suggest you get your final refreshments and start making your way to your seats. I’ll be sure to wave down from the Emperor’s Box!”

I started to object, but he was already off and tracking down another patron.

“We’re going to have to clean up his mess again, aren’t we?” Genevieve sighed.

“If we don’t, who will?” I shrugged. “Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take three years this time.”

We grabbed some goblets of hot mulled wine and bags of gourmet caramel corn and made our way into the theatre. We had balcony seats, granting us both a decent view of and a sense of security from anything that might transpire below. As we waited for the play to start, I took a glance over the playbill we had been provided.

“I’ve never heard of this play before,” I remarked. “The Wilting Empress – Goddess of all things dying but not yet dead, appearing both to Men on their deathbeds and entire worlds on the eve of their Armageddon, merely to savour the spectacle of their demise. She offers no true salvation, but those desperate enough to escape Hell or Oblivion may enthrall themselves to her in a state of eternal dying. When she and her emissaries appear to a village in the embrace of a virulent plague, its populace must decide for themselves whether to risk crossing the Veil, joining the Wilting Court, or to persevere in the living world seemingly without hope or reason.”

“Sounds pretentious,” Genevieve remarked. “I don’t know of any deities that go by the title of ‘The Wilting Empress’. Have you ever come across it in any of your grimoires?”

“It’s not ringing any bells,” I shook my head, still looking over the playbill for anything that might be useful or interesting.

“Samantha! Genevieve! Fancy running into the two of you here! Chamberlin’s doing, no doubt,” a familiarly jubilant voice rang out from behind us.

“Professor Sterling?” I asked as our academic acquaintance took a seat in the row behind ours. “You were gifted with tickets to tonight’s performance as well, I take it?”

“I’d hardly consider attending any of Seneca’s self-aggrandizing social functions a gift, but I can’t say no to the chance to observe this amazing piece of thaumaturgical architecture in action,” he said, looking up reverently at the Triskelion’s frescoed ceilings. “I assume that you’ve assumed this is no ordinary play?”

“We have, which is why I’m glad we’ve got a member of the Order we can trust sitting with us,” I replied. “Did Emrys order Seneca to do this, directly or indirectly?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say one way or the other. I’m not high ranking enough to be privy to the Order’s inner machinations,” he said. “However, Erich Thorne did give me a heads up that this play came to Seneca from Ivy, and Ivy got it from Emrys. Where he got it from, I can’t say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it came from that Cthulhuly-looking Mathom-meister creature. I wish I could have gotten a look at the script but Seneca’s been adamant that no one get a sneak peek at tonight’s performance. We’re just going to have to stay vigilant for whatever he has in store. Please tell me that’s not wine you’re drinking.”

“Well, it’s served hot, so some of the alcohol’s evaporated,” I said apologetically.

He rolled his eyes before reaching into his pockets for a pair of the Order’s Omni-ocular Opticons that he swiftly pulled over his head.

“If anyone asks, these are opera glasses. Prescription, if they get especially nosey,” he said. “Since we’re sitting next to each other, we can compare notes between your natural clairvoyance and what I see with these.”

“Ah, sure, of course,” I agreed awkwardly as he began scanning his head back and forth while slowly turning the ouroboros-shaped dials on his goggles.

“Hm-mmm. Definitely a good place for a séance but I’m not picking up any spectral entities yet,” he agreed. “Hold on, I think I got something. There’s a source of ectoplasmic condensates just to your left, with a Chthonic aura to boot! It’s a Damned spirit summoned from the Underworld by some kind of necromantic – wait, that’s just Elam, isn’t it?”

“Mm-hmm,” I hummed, turning to my spirit familiar and giving him a warm smile. “Find anything?”

“You were right about the Cuniculi. There’s a passage right beneath the stage, with a trapdoor leading straight into it,” he reported. “I tried shadowing Seneca for a bit, but he knew I was there and he didn’t let anything sensitive slip. The cast seemed a bit nervous about the play, but I didn’t get the impression that any of them were in on what Seneca was up to.”

“What’s he saying?” Sterling asked. “These things don’t have audio and I can’t read lips.”

“He says there’s an entrance to the Cuniculi beneath the stage,” I replied. “If it’s opened, then this whole theatre will become a psionic resonance chamber, like the one under Pendragon Hill.”

“This place is already laid out like a spell circle, and every person in here will be a living node inside of it,” Genevieve said. “What if he’s planning on sacrificing all of us? Maybe we should just pull the fire alarm and evacuate the theatre.”

“Call me naïve, but I don’t think even Seneca could get away with mass murder on that scale,” I replied. “We’re part of the spell circle, but I don’t think the audience is the sacrifice. We need to see what he’s up to, see this Wilting Empress for ourselves. I say we stay.”

“Fine,” Geneieve relented, taking a sip of her mulled wine. “Elam, don’t go too far. We might need you if things get ugly.”

“Don’t worry. Being dead’s still not enough to make me want to let my guard down within gunshot of Seneca Chamberlain,” Elam said, settling his stance as he prepared to stand guard over me. I held out my bag of caramel corn as a thank you, and he discretely took a few kernels.

“Should he really be doing that here?” Sterling asked, raising his goggles to see what a ghost eating caramel corn looked like to the unaided eye.

“It’s dark, and no one’s paying attention,” I assured him, offering him some of the corn as well.

“Seneca’s here. The show must be about to start,” Genevieve announced.

We all looked up and back at the Emperor’s Box and saw Seneca standing at the edge and waving to the audience. As promised, he waved at us in particular, and even shot a melodramatic finger wag at Elam for sneaking into the performance.

“Is that Raubritter sitting up there with him?” Genevieve asked in disdain.

“Looks like him. Who else is with him?” I asked as I strained to get the best view I could without drawing attention to myself.

“The guy in the red glasses is Mothman, the guy who owns the auction house,” Elam said. “I don’t recognize the woman though.”

I could see that the woman had long, midnight-blue hair and a matching dark stripe – either make-up or a tattoo – running across her eyes. Despite the dimness and distance between us, there was no mistaking the Sigil of Baphomet branded upon her forehead.

“That’s Pandora Nostromo. The Nostromo family runs a Chapter House somewhere in the Alps, so she doesn’t come by Sombermorey too often,” Sterling said. “Good thing, too. She’s one of the Order’s most powerful Baphometic Witches.”

“I already told you; Baphometic Cultists are not Witches,” Genevieve hissed at him.

“Not the time, Evie,” I whispered. “Whatever you call her, her presence here tonight is concerning. I doubt she came just to catch a premiere.”

Before any of us could say anything else, the curtains on the stage were pulled and the play began.

As we had inferred from the playbill, the play was quite dark. The opening scene had them tossing bodies into a mass grave. Some of the characters turned to God in their desperation, others to science, but many were angry at both for failing to deliver them from their plight. There wasn’t much action in the first act, just people suffering and philosophizing about it, with most of them succumbing to despair and hopelessness. It wasn’t until the end of the first act that we had the first mention of The Wilting Empress.

A teenage boy named Osmond, desperate to save his mother from the plague, starts having visions about the Empress. Most of the other characters dismissed him as delusional, if not mad from the plague himself, but he develops a growing Messiah complex as he prepares to summon the Empress, planning to save not only his mother but the whole town.

The third act opened with Osmond digging up the mass grave under a bloodred full moon. He was rambling in a perfect blend of mad hysteria and theatrical monologue, communicating with the audience while maintaining the fourth wall. The scene reminded me of when I had found Elam digging up the grave in my cemetery, and I suddenly got a very uneasy feeling in my stomach.

I watched with mounting dread as Osmond hauled up a corpse from the mass grave. As he tore away its wrappings, the audience was horrified at the reveal of a disturbingly realistic body. I brought my hand to my mouth to stifle a gasp, not because of the dead body, but because this was not the first time I had seen that body.

“Samantha? Samantha, what is it?” Genevieve whispered as she clutched my other hand.

“That’s the immaculate corpse Sheather took from my cemetery two years ago,” I whispered back. “The one Artaxerxes substituted for himself in his deal with Persephone.”

Sterling shot forward in his seat, finetuning the dials of his Opticons as he analyzed the body on stage.

“Oh god. This is bad, this is really bad,” he muttered.

The audience gasped as Osmond pulled out a consecrated athame and began carving a sigil into the corpse’s chest. Just as it had when I had prodded it with my athame, the body shot to life and reached out to strangle its defiler. Unlike me, however, the actor playing Osmond was prepared for this and wore some kind of protective collar that kept the corpse from crushing his windpipe. Osmond chanted foul-sounding incantations as his blade carved deeper into the undead corpse, and I could see dark forces starting to coalesce around him.

I looked up behind me towards the Emperor’s Box and saw Pandora standing at the edge. The sigil on her forehead was glowing, and she was mouthing the same incantations that Osmond was. Seneca glanced down at me and smiled, seemingly unconcerned with this turn of events.

“Should we stop this?” Genevieve asked.

“It’s too late,” I gasped with a shake of my head.

Just as I finished speaking, Osmond had finished the sigil on the corpse.

The stygian blue blood gushing out of the lacerations formed a seal that looked vaguely goetic, though it was hard to say for certain from that distance. A torrent of dark energies came gushing out of the sigil, blowing Osmond aside and pinning the corpse to the floor. An aged and feminine voice began screaming so loudly the whole theatre began to vibrate and I clutched onto Genevieve as I feared either the roof or the balcony might collapse at any minute.

Incorporeal beings of dark mist shot out of the sigil like cannon balls. While their front halves were gaunt and skeletal humanoids, long and frilled tails undulated behind them as though they were some sort of sinister, spectral mermaids. There were thirteen of them, I think, and they settled at a buoyant altitude and began slowly circulating around the theatre, one coming so close that I could have touched it.

Pandora, I noted, did touch one, and it recoiled from her hand like a struck dog.

Once the entire Wilting Court was in place, the Empress herself emerged. Like her court, she was skeletal and spectral, but in place of a visible tail, she was instead clad in a dress of enormous wilting flower petals, and she wore an elaborate headdress made of the same material. She grew to an immense size, several times the height of a regular mortal. When she was fully emerged, her screaming came to an abrupt end as a deadly silence fell upon the theatre. No one said anything, most of them likely uncertain of what they were witnessing and if it was all just a part of the show.

The Empress hunched over, her head darting from side to side as she appraised her situation. With a snarl, she looked up at Pandora and began to speak.

“You dare summon me here?” she demanded hoarsely. “I am a cosmic vulture. I feast on dying worlds. Do you, small, sad little creature, so enamoured with your own suffering, truly believe that this is the end of your world? In your singular experience of an ephemeral mortal life, can you not tell the difference between dying and waning? Nature, Civilizations, and even the gods themselves wax and wane in accordance with their own cycles. Dread the winter if you must, hate the winter if you must, but do not call upon me because in the depths of your despair, you have convinced yourself that it is the only winter, or the worst winter, or the last winter, even if the spring is one which you will never see. This World and its people have many long and storied ages left before them. There is nothing here for me worth feeding upon, nothing for you to offer me! Release me now, and retreat back to your dark recesses until your own demise takes you, and take what solace you can, as inconceivable as it may seem, that the World will go on without you.”

“Fascinating - apocalyptic deities have no patience for doomers,” Sterling remarked.

Nothing about the Empress’s monologue seemed out of place for the play, aside from the fact that it was being addressed to a member of the audience. Pandora, for her part, did not seem moved by the Empress’s appeal.

“Empress, I have not summoned you here to barter,” she said coldly. “I did not bring you here to forestall an apocalypse, but for the thousand bygone apocalypses you have gorged yourself upon already. Your ichor is potent, and I now serve those who would drain you of every last drop of it. Submit now, and spare yourself further humiliation.”

The Wilting Empress wailed in outrage, and without warning her Court began swooping down and assaulting the audience. Panic immediately broke out, and people began storming towards the exits en mass.

“She’s not strong enough to keep that thing her prisoner!” Genevieve declared. “We need to release the Empress before she destroys this whole building!”

“If we can get to the corpse and desecrate the sigil, that should be enough!” I cried. “Elam, keep the Court off us the best you can! Sterling, distract Seneca and the others so they don’t interfere!”

“On it!” he replied as he jumped from his seat and made a dash towards the Emperor’s Box.

Geneive and I jumped up from our seats and began racing down the stairs, weaving our way through the crowd that was still trying to make their escape. Several members of the Wilting Court swooped down at us, but each time Elam was able to deflect them. Whatever they were made of, they did not like Chthonic energy.

As we made our way to the stage, I glanced back up the Emperor’s Box to see what was happening. The Empress and Pandora were still locked in a battle of thaumaturgical wills, but I could see that Sterling had climbed up and was hanging on the railing. I couldn’t hear them, but it looked like he was deliberately trying to break her focus with his good-natured banter. Mothman was yelling at him, but Seneca was just shaking his head and laughing. Seneca’s eyes, incidentally, were the only eyes focused on Genevieve and me.

As we arrived on the stage, the immaculate corpse was spasming about uncontrollably.

“Hold it steady!” I shouted as I grabbed for the fallen athame. Genevieve got behind the corpse and held it down at the shoulders, but as I charged towards it, I felt an arm reach across my neck and grab me in a chokehold.

“Samantha!” Genevieve shouted as she ran towards me, only to stop the instant I heard a gun cock next to my head.

“Drop the athame!” a weary voice ordered, and I could see in the periphery of my vision that it was Osmond.

I thought of doing what he said and kicking it to Genevieve, but I knew she’d be too concerned about me to desecrate the sigil herself, if she even could with it moving around the way it was.

“We have to stop this!” I implored him. “Pandora can’t control that thing, or be trusted with it if she can!”

“But the Zarathustrans can!” Osmond claimed. “The more spilled ichor we give them, the more ichor shall be spilt, until all of creation is awash in the blood of tyrant gods and reality is ours to remake in our own image. You heard her! She won’t help us unless we’re already dying! That’s not a god anyone needs! The Zarathustrans took their fate into their own hands aeons ago, and they can help us do the same.”

“Get that fucking gun away from her head!” Geneive screeched, angry tears in her eyes as she took a step towards us.

“Stay where you are!” Osmond shouted, pointing the gun towards her instead.

The instant the gun was off me, Elam rushed Osmond from the side. He immediately began spasming and screaming as the cold and dreadful taint of Elam’s Chthonic form coursed through his flesh. As Genevieve went for the gun, I wasted no time jumping on the corpse, pinning it down just long enough to lash the sigil with the athame.

As soon as the center sigil was desecrated, the spell circle was broken.

With nothing holding her back now, the Wilted Empress unleashed a shockwave of telekinetic energy that sent Pandora flying backwards. She then dove back down, punching her way straight through the stage and into the Crypto Chthonic Cuniculi down below. Her entire court dove down after them, one after the other, but the very last one took a slight detour and possessed the immaculate corpse instead. We stared on in horror as the revenant moved in spasmodic but now purposeful movements, springing to life and jumping down into the pit below after the Empress.

“Stop them! Stop them!” Pandora screamed as she ran towards the stage. She likely would have chased after them had Mothman not been there to hold her back.

“Now now, Pandora, you know full well running off ill-prepared into the Cuniculi is suicide,” Seneca chastised her as he approached the stage himself, pulling Sterling by the ear along with him. He threw him towards us and then snapped his fingers at a pair of his guards, who rushed to remove the semi-conscious body of Osmond.

“Your leading actor just held Samantha at gunpoint!” Genvieve shouted as she angrily waved the gun around. Now that I could get a better look at it, I saw that it was an ornately engraved, antique flintlock pistol, the kind that Seneca himself was infamous for possessing. “This is one of your spellwork pistols, isn’t it Chamberlain?”

“I swear I’ve never seen that gun before in my life,” he said with a smirk. “But feel free to keep it as compensation for your troubles. I’m just glad you two are alright.”

“What the hell were they doing down here in the first place?” Pandora demanded. “If they’re the reason we lost the Empress –”

“You were never going to be able to hold a spirit like that for long and you know it!” Genevieve shouted. “If we didn’t break the spell circle when we did that thing would have destroyed the whole theatre!”

“Did you put them up to this, Seneca?” Mothman demanded.

“I told both of you that I had multiple thaumaturgical experts in the audience in case the ritual went awry and they needed to intervene,” Seneca reminded them. “I knew you’d be far too proud to admit defeat if the Empress proved too much for you to handle, Pandora.”

“Now we have nothing to offer to Mathom-meister!” Pandora hissed at him.

“And we would have nothing to offer him if the Empress had killed us,” Seneca countered. “Perhaps next time he’ll make more reasonable requests of us, if asking for the ichor of a fallen Titan can ever be considered reasonable.”

Pandora snarled at all of us before storming off, with Mothman following close behind.

“Samantha, if you’d like to lay any charges on that actor I’d be happy to –” Seneca began.

“No. You roped him into this the same as us,” I said with a disgusted shake of my head. “Tell me, though; who was that gun intended for?”

“Not for you, of course. An ordinary gun would have been sufficient if that had been the case,” he insisted. “No, it was simply better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. I am truly sorry that you were ever at the receiving end of it, my dear. You’re the last person I would ever wish any harm upon.”

“Because I’m so useful to you?” I asked flatly.

“Useful and insightful,” he quipped back.

“Seneca!” Raubritter called from up in the Emperor’s Box. “We need to be reporting this, yes? We should be leaving.”

“Of course. Ladies, Professor, and the late Mr. Crow, thank you so much for attending this evening. I can’t wait to see you all again,” he said as he made his way out of the theatre.

“Seneca, wait! Where the hell did you get your hands on that corpse!” I demanded, but he was already out the door.

“Should we go after it?” Genevieve asked.

“No, Seneca was right. Going down into the Cuniculi unprepared is suicide, and we’d never be able to track them anyway,” Sterling replied as he knelt over the hole in the stage and adjusted his goggles.

“Even if we could, we’d have no way of subduing it now that it’s possessed by whatever those things are,” Elam added. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“I guess you’re right,” I sighed reluctantly, leaning over Sterling to wistfully stare down into the Cuniculi below. “And considering how connected it is to Artaxerxes, I doubt Seneca is just going to let it go that easily either.”

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA