I climbed the stairs from the underground with my head down, a shapeless hoodie covering my body and face. I didn’t want to be picked up by the CCTV system yet. It was going to be hard to stay anonymous but not impossible. Keeping my eyes on the wet footpath, I pulled my suitcase behind me but caught a reflection of lights on a nearby billboard as they began to pulsate rapidly, talking to me in creaking old voices. It was like lots of grannies all speaking at once. “Love your benevolent Majesty!” the billboard cried. “He loves you!”
My heart thumped in my chest uncomfortably and I kept walking.
“I love our benevolent Majesty!” shouted someone close before fainting in rapture, eyes rolling back into their skull as their faith was siphoned off. They fell towards me and I sidestepped the body before it hit the ground.
“Your benevolent Majesty loves you!” wailed the billboard again, specifically at me this time.
I gritted my teeth. “I love our benevolent Majesty,” I said, grinding the words to ash between clenched teeth. I pressed my hands together and wiggled my fingers above my head in pseudo-prayer. The nano-tech chain in my chest shivered and glowed red. Prayer accepted, no further faith required at this time. The billboard targeted someone else to my right and I trudged away down the grimy street. This was why I hated coming into the city-- personalised marketing.
Ahead, a neon coffee cup blinked on and off, buzzing above the doorway to a small coffee shop, and I paused to look inside. A woman at the counter looked back at me with a serene smile. In the glass, my reflection looked tired. The waitress beckoned me in but I hesitated and turned to look up. It was still cloudy with a hint of rain and other possibilities that swam through the dark sky. I pushed through the door and stopped inside. A bell attached to the door rang once above my head.
“Our benevolent Majesty loves you,” intoned the waitress, gesturing at an empty cup. “Would you care for some hot coffee this evening?” she asked. Her eyes stayed on the middle of my face, not taking in the featuring denoting my caste.
I nodded and approached the counter, sliding up onto a stool. “Our benevolent Majesty loves you. Yes please and a bearclaw.” I tapped my wrist to the scanner and barely felt the payment leave my body. It was only the bigger buys that left a permanent mark.
With due care, she placed the steaming coffee in front of me and then a plate with the warmed bearclaw. I could smell it-- apple, brown sugar, raisins, the hint of lemon in the stripes of icing. My mouth watered a little and I nodded my thanks, wiping the saliva away on my sleeve. She bowed from the waist and pressed her fingers together in thanks. Gathering the pastry and coffee, I moved to a small table beside the front window.
The bell rang and I looked up into a face hidden beneath a hood like mine; eyes burning with yellow inner fire met my gaze, soot darkening the delicate skin around them; they smiled at me. “Our benevolent Majesty loves you,” they murmured as they walked past, my chain throbbed but for a different reason.
I bowed my head and blushed, repeating back the prayer carefully, lowering my eyes.
They returned with a glazed donut, jelly oozing from a large bite, sitting down without invitation opposite me. “Didn’t think I’d see you again,” they said, licking their long fingers.
It had been years, though I couldn’t remember how many. “I didn’t think I’d be back but Dad was murd-- Dad died,” I replied, surprising myself with a clear undercurrent of rage. I tore a piece of the bearclaw off and shoved it in my mouth before I said something damning. My chain chimed and I looked down. It was turning towards blue, purple for the moment. Damn.
“I was there.” My companion smiled and swallowed the last bite of their donut, reaching across the table to take what I thought would be my hand but instead was my pastry. “Careful,” they said gently, “you never know who is listening.” Under the hood, their face turned minutely towards the woman at the counter.
“I don’t know if I can do it.” I fidgeted with a napkin, pulling small bits off it. The first temple was the last place I wanted to go but that was where high-ranking members of the faith ended up in death. “They want me to collect the body.” Family got the bits that no one else wanted. I imagined I’d likely end up with only a thumb in a box or similar.
“It’s just a bit of life-negative biological matter. Stick it in the ground and it might grow back,” they said with a wicked smile. Leaning back, they shoved their hands into pockets. “I can be there if you want me to.”
I wanted them to but memories of our parting reminded me of whom I was dealing with. “What’s the price of such kindness?”
“A favour,” they said, shooting forward in their chair so suddenly that their nose pressed against mine and I felt the heat. The fire in their eyes had never been just for show.
“I need to think about it,” I said, knowing I would agree before I reached the hostel where I was sleeping.
They pressed a card into my hand, thick old vellum paper with gold printing on one side only. A symbol, no name. “Our benevolent Majesty loves you,” they said, breathing the words into my mouth as their lips touched mine, the barest pressure. They were gone a moment later, out the door and into the night before the bell stopped ringing.
“Four eyed monsters,” whispered the waitress through clenched teeth and a cheerful smile.
I finished my coffee with trembling hands.
I stood at the Table of Offering in the hostel, card in hand. The tiny brazier burned pale blue expectantly. I pulled the worn old photo of Dad from my pocket; we were both younger then. He smiled in that way only he could, and I grinned at the camera, hamming for the photographer with fingers in my mouth. Just a stupid kid, favoured from birth. I shoved the photo back in my pocket before I placed the card on the small wire receptacle. It burned up in a flash of yellow flame, bright and beautiful. I held my fingers to the flames for a moment, just to feel the warm glow.
“Other people need to offer,” said a teenager behind me. They’d been waiting a couple of minutes at most. I remembered myself at that age, all piss and vinegar. I turned and fixed them with a look I’d learned from Dad and they stared back in horror, mouth ready to say something more but unable.
“Someone got your tongue,” I said and opened my hand. The offending organ wiggled on the palm like a very fat slug. I held their tongue until I got back to my room, where I released it but turned down the volume. I lay on the bed, not immediately able to sleep but too tired to think. It took more strength than I should’ve given to impose my will on people and more to take from them. A waste of energy. I willed my eyes to close and stay that way.
A knock on the door woke me; the clock on the bedside table had moved four hours forward, and my eyes were wet. A second knock, then a voice. “Open for the Brotherhood.”
“It’s open,” I replied thickly. It was too late to feel fear. I sat up on the bed and wiped the tears away.
The door swung back and a man entered, another stood in the open doorway. They wore the uniform of their faith and carried the authority of it on their faces. “What is the purpose of your visit?” asked the one standing over me, his hand held out in expectation. His breath held the odour of raw things I remembered from my childhood when I too ate with fierce abandon.
“Collect the remains of my father.” I kept it succinct as I passed him my papers.
“Cause of death?” asked the one from the doorway. His eyes were on the hallways and stairs.
“Patricide,” I replied slowly. Shrugging, I added, “My idi-- my brother killed him in a duel.” A duel to the death officially. Something else unofficially; maybe I would find out when I collected him.
“Ah,” said the Brother in the doorway, two of his eyes studied my face. “I thought you looked familiar.” He inclined his head towards me in respect. “Your father was most beloved by our benevolent Majesty.”
I sighed, an exhalation of sadness and love. “Yes. Is that all?”
“Your display of power, albeit small, will be dismissed this one time given the gravity of your visit.” The one standing over me bent down, finger in my face. Unseen by the other Brother, he passed me another card from his sleeve, similar to the one I had burned earlier. “But no more scaring the natives.” He gave me back my papers roughly. The card disappeared into my pocket before he straightened.
I nodded. “It was a long journey and my tolerance was low. It won’t happen again.”
They bowed at the waist to me and pressed their fingers together. “Our benevolent Majesty loves you. Let them lend you strength,” they intoned.
“And I love them,” I said, bone weary. I pressed my fingers together over the chain in my heart and it chimed and glowed a dusky red. The two men left the door open behind them, forcing me to stand and close it.
The card, like the first, held a single symbol embossed in bright yellow gold.
They waited at the bar, sipping a martini. Hooded still, though this time it was a formal hood edged in yellow metallic thread and attached to a very nice suit. I sat on the stool next to them, and they glanced at me.
“Lovely,” they said. “Brings out the colour of your eyes.”
I had a packed a single garment that was appropriate for the club and the tiny sequins shimmered under the lights above the bar. It draped my body in ways I wasn’t comfortable with anymore but had a generous cowl neck that was wrapped around my head. It couldn’t disguise the size and shape but I felt less exposed for it. I pressed my fingers together and nodded at the bartender. I pointed to a bottle on the shelf behind him and he poured me two fingers of the golden liquor. I loved the fire as it burned down my throat. I held out the glass and the bartender poured again, capping the bottle and returning it to the shelf. He bowed and pressed his fingers together. I offered my wrist to pay and he shook his head. “Majesty keep you well,” he said politely.
The penny dropped and I looked more closer at my surroundings. It was a temple club.
My companion smiled around the rim of their glass as they drank and turned to me. “Shall we retire to a private booth?” They didn’t wait for my answer, sliding from their stool and walking into the club proper. I took earplugs from my small clutch and put them in.
I followed the hooded figure into glittering darkness. The music throbbed against the surface of my skin, fighting for a way in, and I ignored the desire to answer it in dance; the mob around me were doing well enough if the unconscious bodies on the floor was anything to go by. For some, this was how they chose to worship. Sweat was easier to donate than blood. Staff removed the fallen as they fell.
The booth was on the outer edge of the dancers and the curtain closed as we sat. A host entered immediately and my companion ordered for us both, I felt it was better this way as I didn’t intend to eat. When the host returned, they left food and a bottle of fifty year old scotch with glasses for two. Pressing his wrist to the host’s, my companion paid with a generous tip.
When were finally alone, they began to push food into their mouth with abandon. “Eat,” they said, “If you don’t, it will be noticed.”
“I’m not hungry,” I replied firmly. I’d never eat the food of the Gods again.
I poured us drinks. “The favour?” I asked, shoving the glass at them.
“Not here. Later.” They ate enough for both of us and sat back against deep cushions, sated. “This is nice, it’s usually all work and no play.” They turned to look at me, the fire in their eyes burning bright. “I’ve missed you. We used to have such fun.”
“Fun,” I repeated. Fun at everyone else’s expense. I both hated and loved those memories. “I miss what we had but for different reasons.” Old lovers were awkward. This one knew me particularly well.
“We should dance,” they said, eyeing the floor full of writhing bodies. “It’s expected, everyone gives a little sweat in respect of our most benevolent Majesty.”
I finished my drink. “I’m not dancing.” It came out a little more harsh than necessary-- half from the scotch, half the emotion, and my chain turned blue instantly. “Okay, I am dancing then,” I said angrily. I hated being monitored so minutely, but all of my caste was. I removed the earplugs and poured myself another glass which I emptied immediately. “Give me a minute.” It took two more drinks until I felt the anger dissipate and a haze of indifference fall over me. The music began to throb in my heart, through my arteries, veins, vessels.
“You’re glowing,” said my companion in wonder.
Did they remember nothing of our time together? “Then it’s time to dance,” I replied.
We left the club hours later and returned to their apartment on the river and the views were impressive even for one of their caste-- I could see the first temple from their living room and fixed on it until a drink was put in my hand and I was led away from the window.
It was always going to lead to sex, which was another type of worship and one I had to forget about if I wanted to enjoy it. I needed the intimacy, the immediacy of touch and warmth, companionship with a lover who knew exactly what I liked. Once, we had been so close, I thought we’d be together forever.
They whispered the favour into my skin afterwards. I balked at the thought of what they were asking just as I knew I would do it. It didn’t stop me fearing the consequences.
“Why did we ever break up?” they said, stroking my hip.
“You couldn’t accept my first transformation,” I replied bluntly. Emotion swelled in me.
“I was a fool! You’re magnificent.”
“That’s the sex talking.” I sighed. It was nice to be called magnificent, it did wonders for my self esteem.
“Not sex-- love,” they murmured, sliding into sleep.
Leaving in the early morning after a shower, studying my face in the steamed up mirror, two pairs of eyes that felt too much looked back at me with disappointment.
They walked me out and kissed me farewell at the door and it was as if all the years between partings hadn’t happened. “I’ll see you later,” they said, kissing my hands.
I took a cab back to the hostel, making an offering on the way to my room, a small token from the club. A door opened along the hall and the teenager I had spooked the day before quickly shut it. I changed into a suit, expensive black wool with a hood edged in green stitching, over a severe white shirt that was open above my heart, showing the red chain. Flipping the hood up over my head, I went back downstairs and called a cab. A black limousine pulled up a minute later and the driver’s window slid down.
“Our benevolent Majesty requests your presence,” said the driver, a no-nonsense-looking thug with a visible ear-piece. The window went back up and the rear passenger door popped open.
The journey to the first temple in the limo was only better than a cab in that I could have a drink on the way. The small bar offered a selection of temptations but I chose a three-times-distilled vodka that was as good as it sounded.
Pulling off the street down the block from the main temple entrance, the limo passed through several security gates, past numerous armed guards. The flames coming off their swords were radioactive green and they looked right at me through the tinted windows. The car stopped at a security door where a pair of Brothers, not the same as those that had visited the hostel, waited. One opened the car door and offered a hand while in the other hand she held a dagger that smoked with power.
“Our benevolent Majesty loves you,” she said, her face grim.
I inclined my head. “Our benevolent Majesty loves you,” I replied, gripping her hand as I exited the car, releasing her hand again immediately, and followed them into the temple.
Smoothing my suit as I walked the back rooms, I passed a myriad of doors and staff that went about their business. Some were Brothers but most were support or high-ranking faithful. Nobody reached this point without having been scrutinised by many eyes and deemed worthy of entry.
“Wait here,” said the first Brother. He went through a set of double doors and they closed with a loud click behind him. The second Brother watched me as I stood waiting. This far into the temple, there was no natural light and I had little idea of how much time passed but I didn’t see a single face more than once. Time ceased to matter when you’d lived several mortal lifetimes.
The door opened and the first Brother beckoned us through.
My own flesh and blood waited in the atrium beyond, his expression one of entitlement and arrogance. He was not the youngest, nor the oldest; he was somewhere in the middle, forgotten by all, even by me until recently. A pair of Brothers stood near him. Bodyguards or simply guards? My brother’s chain was almost black in his chest, his shirt open wide to display it to any who dared look, a blue-black smear under the skin and bone. His eyes widened and he laughed when he saw me.
“What is this?” he asked the Brothers. None deigned to reply.
I wondered if this is how it had been for my father a week or so before. A clandestine meeting with family that ended in blood and death.
“Surprised?” I smiled as if I knew exactly what was going on. I had a good guess, but one could never really be sure. I clasped my hands behind my back and felt something heavy and cold fit into them. First Brother stood behind me, passing me a dagger from the heft of it. I might have started in shock if I hadn’t had a few shots of vodka to settle my nerves. “Shall we embrace like civilized human beings?” I asked.
He smiled at me. His hands were clasped behind his back, like mine. “Human beings?” he repeated with delight. “As if we could ever be accused of humanity.” His amused expression morphed into fury and he charged me with a similar blade to the one I now held, hoping to catch me unguarded. The Brothers all took a step back and I took one to the side.
A blunt instrument was my brother, and I gave him a tap on the back with my dagger to keep him moving. He was good in the hands of smarter people, a tool that could be pointed at something and trusted to see it through to a violent end. He might’ve been younger and faster, but I had fought more duels than he’d had hot meals. Rusty yes, emotionally vulnerable maybe, but weak in a fight to the death? Never.
I cut him first on the back of each hand, small wounds that bled into his grip and even switching hands wouldn’t change that. He swore at me, called me names, but I’d been called more names than all the half-brothers and sisters who had died by my hand combined.
My half-brother began to die slowly from a hundred deep tiny cuts, and when it grew boring, I finished it, cutting his chain and splitting his heart in half. He bled out in my arms. I smiled and kissed his forehead while he cried like the child he was. “Our benevolent Majesty loves you,” I said. “You are not destined to meet him though.” I wiped his blood from the blade and returned it to the first Brother.
All of the Brothers bowed low at the waist as I stood and straightened my suit. “What now?” I asked. A hidden door opened and an ancient stone stairway led down into the earth. First Brother gestured that I should enter.
I had entered these stairs once before, when I had been confirmed as my father’s spiritual heir. They went on for what felt like miles and hours. It was an illusion that was meant to unbalance, like the screaming from the air, the smell of blood, and the static images of our benevolent Majesty’s enemies staring out at me from the walls with fixed expressions of terror. One had to die a special kind of death to end up here.
It had shaken me to the core the first time, even with my father’s steady hand on my shoulder propelling me forward. He’d had confidence and charisma, my father, and far too many children, only keeping the ones who had potential and offering up the others to-- I almost stumbled, ashamed to be alive where so many of my siblings had not been so lucky.
Fate kept me moving. Fate and a favour.
The stairs emptied out into a cavernous room, exactly as it had been that last time. The back was not so much a wall as space; vast, infinite, not entirely empty. Something existed there, something that would try to break me if I dared look at it, and almost had when I was young. It was restrained by a clear crystalline pane that looked too fragile to contain such raw power.
In front of the wall was a throne, one tiny ornate chair with its back to the enormity of our living God. A man sat on the throne alone, one leg crossed at the knee. He wore a uniform, fine and crisp in black against a tall narrow body. He stood up quickly and walked to me, taking my hand and shaking it warmly, as an equal. “Our dear,” he said, six green eyes crinkling at the corners. He towered over me just as I towered over everyone else. “You have our most profound sympathies. Your father was beloved by us, so tireless in his faith. Ah, but such sad tidings to bring you home to the fold. We have looked forward to your offerings in lieu of return.”
They looked to be in early middle age. I remember the old Majesty, much older before they was superseded. The old one had been like a grandfather, kindly and gentle. Truly benevolent, only hard when it was necessary; unlike this one who only described themselves benevolent to keep the followers praying and offering. Majesty was only a name that was passed from victor to victor down through the centuries. There was no crown and the power had to be granted from a particular patron.
I wanted to be agreeable for this man, though, desperately. With a flick of his little finger, I would be uncreated. “Thank you, most benevolent Majesty, for your kind words,” I replied as evenly as I could. “My father is most honoured by them, as am I.”
“Yes, of course,” said Our Majesty. “You have returned to collect his remains. There is not much left. That lad was very angry.” He hadn’t released my hand yet, fingers tracing the lines of my palm. “Your mercy to him was greater than ours would have been.”
Inclining my head, I offered a silent apology.
He waved it away. “It’s not important.”
I felt movement behind me on the stairs and two of Our Majesty’s six eyes looked beyond.
“Your favoured child,” said the Brother behind me. They stood strategically with me between them and our Majesty, “has been killed in a street protest. They were dragged from their vehicle and set on fire. Medics could not resurrect them, the fire was too pure. The assassin escaped into the crowd- we pursue but they were most certainly of the blood.”
I’d made a career of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and here I was again. Our most benevolent Majesty’s tentacles began to writhe angrily on their face. To move was to attract their wrath, to stand still was to be an object to be raged upon. An impossible situation.
A chill fell upon us all and a mist began to rise from the stone floor. Our Majesty was exerting their power upon the faithful. Murmurings from their mouth in R’lyehian rose in pitch and ferocity. I felt the drag on my chain, and from the gasp behind me, so did the Brother who braved staying.
The screams of followers rushed through the room, swirling around. The crystalline wall rang like an enormous bell and I fell to the ground as my ears dribbled blood. The floor began to shake and break apart, revealing even deeper caves beneath. I smelt the ocean and salty air on breezes coming from below.
I rolled away from the edge of one and rose to a crouch. The life energy that had been stolen from Our Majesty’s faithful flock was disappearing through a minute crack in the giant wall, the Elder God imprisoned there siphoning it up.
The Brother moved past me toward our Majesty who stood looking up at the God and offering a prayer for vengeance. A naked sword roiling with yellow flame came from beneath their robes. They should have been on fire the whole time but perhaps they had a pocket universe hidden in the lining. Turning slightly, Our Majesty raised a fist of power but I leapt quickly and took the blow meant for the Brother. Falling away, I watched with dying eyes as they sliced through the top half of Our Majesty’s body in a mighty stroke from their sword, cleaving away a screaming head and part of one shoulder and an arm. The room swelled with energy that fought free of the dying monster.
“I’m sorry, Father,” they shouted.
My chain smoked and squealed. A bright light flared out and sputtered. I felt like I was dying twice over as I experienced the death of our benevolent Majesty.
Throwing off their robes, the Brother was revealed; they dropped the sword with a heavy clang and held up their hands in surrender, glancing at me with that beautiful smile I had adored so much. “I love you,” they mouthed to me and turned away.
The God in the crystal case looked them in the eyes and granted them their favour, pouring life back into them and through them into the unseen faithful. They began to transform and I felt profound love tearing my body apart. So close to the godly source, I was getting too much, too pure-- I was going to die for the third time today if I stayed.
I crawled to a hole in the floor and fell.
The cave system exited onto a beach, a familiar one close to my childhood home, and it was dawn when I stumbled free. I hadn’t expected to see another dawn, certainly not through a further pair of eyes. Gulls were crying in the sky, the wind chill against my skin. I shivered, drawing my jacket closer. I felt I might never be warm again but for the chain in my chest, glowing with shining golden light even through my clothes. I closed my hand over the light. It was warm and comforting.
Our benevolent Majesty loved me.