Wind lashed the white bear and the Black Swan as they marched across the frozen waves toward the Keep of the Inquisition. In the gloomy darkness, the white bear paused, rising on its hind legs, its purple silk cape flapping behind it, the ends threadbare and tattered after weeks of non-stop storms. Its nose twitched as it turned its head first to the left, then the right, sniffing the air, then releasing its breath in great clouds of steam.
"We’re close," said the bear, its voice a gruff growl. "I smell someone."
"Alive or dead?" asked the Black Swan.
"Alive," said the bear. "Though they’re wearing so much perfume, I can only barely detect the hint of sweat beneath the floral miasma."
The Black Swan climbed to the peak of a frozen swell, the spikes in her iron feet skittering on the rock hard ice. Her diamond eyes whirred as she adjusted their focus, until at last she spotted the white robed figure standing atop jagged rocks on the nearby shore, ghostly in starlight.
No, not standing. Dancing, gracefully, arms lifted, toes barely touching as the figure leap from rock to rock.
"Zetetic?" asked the white bear as he climbed the swell beside her.
The Black Swan shook her head. "Equity Tremblepoint, I think."
"Has she lost her mind? She’ll freeze in this wind."
"I’m not sure anyone who dwells within these walls can be called sane," said the Black Swan, as she slid down the swell and continued toward the Keep.
White flowers of frost crunched beneath the Black Swan’s steel toes as she ascended the pebble beach toward the front gate of the fortress. She glanced back across the trackless ice they’d just crossed, praying to no god at all that their journey had been worth it. It felt like an eternity had passed since they’d fled the Silver City, the air thick with the stench of burning flesh. The last of King Brightmoon’s elite guard had thought to push back the tide of Tempest’s unliving armies by pumping burning oil from massive jets atop the palace walls to consume the seemingly endless hordes of the marching dead. Instead, the burning corpses had continued their march, the front lines crushing against the heavy oak of the wooden gate until it charred, then burned, and finally crumbled. The burning army had surge into the palace, bringing death to all that remained of mankind that could reasonably be labeled civilization.
Reaching the gate, she pounded on the frost-covered wood, hoping her knocking could be heard above the howling wind. Her hope was rewarded almost instantly as unseen chains clattered within the walls and the gate began to rise.
After weeks without seeing the sun, she had to raise her hand to block the radiance that flowed from within the castle. She stepped into the great hall, brightly lit with a thousand glory stones floating in silver cages that filled the torch sconces. After the chill of the frozen ocean, the warmth of the hall felt like a furnace.
The bear stood once more on its hind legs, then shrank until it took the form of a woman with gray hair. For an instant, the frost that had tipped the bear’s fur glittered like diamonds against her nude skin until her purple cloak fell around her. She took a step forward, stumbling slightly.
"Are you okay?" asked the Black Swan.
"I’m fine," said the woman. "After walking on four legs for so long, going back to two feels strange."
The Black Swan moved further into the halls, gazing at the paintings that covered the walls and the eclectic statuary set into alcoves every few feet. It was difficult to discern a theme among the artwork. Paintings depicting church-like piety hung above marble nudes of mixed genders locked in graphic depictions of depravity.
The woman in purple silk paused before a painting of a white haired woman wearing pure white armor. The resemblance between the faces of viewer and subject was striking.
"Queen Alabaster Brightmoon," the Black Swan said.
"With paintings like this around, it’s surprising it took us all so long to realize Infidel was a Brightmoon."
The Black Swan shrugged. "I knew it all along. I just thought the information might grow in value as long as I held it secret."
The white haired woman shook her head. "Does anything have value now? Both of us have spent our life in pursuit of wealth. My estate on the Silver Isles makes this island fortress look like a cottage. You’ve got enough treasure stashed away to purchase the obedience of kings. And in the end, what’s all that money worth? Absolutely nothing."
"I can still buy your loyalty, at least," said the Black Swan.
"You might have got me back into the game with promises of a fat pay day, but, honestly, don’t you think at some point your quest to stop the end time became my quest as well?"
"So I don’t need to pay you when this is all over?"
"A contract’s a contract."
"Of course," the Black Swan said. "It’s good to see that some things remain true even in these--" The Black Swan stopped in mid thought as a drawing of black ink on stark white paper framed in glass caught her attention. It was a likeness of herself, naked, or at least unclothed. She didn’t know if the bareness of her iron shell constituted nudity or not. In any case, she now wore pants of black leather and a blouse of black silk to conceal her metallic form. A broad brimmed hat concealed her hairless scalp. Only her iron feet, fingers, and face revealed her mineral shell.
She picked up the frame, studying the intricate detail of the drawing. Beside the depiction of her current form, dozens of gears, pulleys, and braided iron wires were laid out, along with a pair of bellows. These were what passed for her internal organs these days. Beside these sat a small white skull.
"When did you pose for that?" asked Menagerie.
"I didn’t," she said, the lenses in her eyes clicking into ever sharper focus, until she could be certain that the black lines weren’t soaked into the paper as ink, but instead sat slightly raised upon the surface, crafted of pure, rustless iron filaments fine as hair. "Sorrow’s been here. She sculpted my current body. These were her final plans, the ones I approved." She shook her head slowly. "The breasts look so much better on paper than the final product."
"Please don’t get started on that again," the white haired woman said with a sigh.
"Yes," said a faint voice from behind the two women. "Please don’t start a discussion of breasts until I’m close enough to hear the details."
The turned and found an ancient man hobbling toward them, supported by a stave decorated with carved serpents spiraling along the length. The old man was toothless, his right eye a pure white, sightless moon. But his left eye sparkled as he regarded the two women.
"Ah!" he said, sounding delighted. "I had given up hope of seeing an actual woman again before the world came to an end."
"What of the woman outside?" the woman in the silk cloak asked.
"Equity? She’s no woman. At least, I don’t think she is. Or he is." He shook his head. "Pronouns are the simplest thing in the world until Equity takes the stage."
"Why’s she dancing?" asked the Black Swan.
"To say good-bye to the world, of course," said the old man. "It’s ending within the hour, you know. If we make haste, and disrobe along the way, we can still reach my chambers in time to—"
"If you finish that sentence I’ll disembowel you," said the woman in purple.
The old man frowned.
"We’ve no more time to waste," said the Black Swan. "We must see Zetetic at once."
"Zetetic isn’t taking visitors, I’m afraid."
"Tell him the Black Swan is here to see him."
"And Menagerie," said the woman in purple. "He knows me. We were companions during the quest to slay Greatshadow."
The old man smiled. "As long as we’re naming names, I’m called Vigor."
"I know who you are," said the Black Swan. "You’re an authority on reptiles."
"Yes," he said. "Though my specialty is dragons."
"If you know about dragons, do you know why?" asked Menagerie. "Why are they doing this?"
Vigor cocked his head. "You mean destroying mankind?"
"What else would I mean?"
Vigor shrugged. "I haven’t a clue. Zetetic hinted he knew, but I haven’t had a conversation with him in the last five years where I understood a single thing he was talking about."
"Then let us talk to him."
"As I said, he’s not taking visitors."
The Black Swan’s arm sprung out with spring-driven force and locked iron fingers around Vigor’s throat. "Take us to him now or I’ll throttle you."
Vigor smiled weakly as he managed to gasp out, "Threats aren’t… terribly effective.. in the hour before the world… comes to an end."
The Black Swan opened her fingers. "But it won’t come to an end if Zetetic takes action. Why hasn’t he stopped this already? With a snap of his fingers, he could undo all of this! He could send Tempest’s armies back to Hell. He could free Abyss from Hush’s control. He could at least tell us what happened to the sun, and how we might put it back into the sky!"
Vigor rubbed his throat. "I don’t know why he hasn’t stopped it. I hold out the faint hope that Equity’s sense of stagecraft has rubbed off on him and he’s waiting for the moment of greatest possible peril to make a grand entrance and turn back all the horror."
"It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse than they are at this exact moment," said Menagerie.
From outside the still open gates, above the howl of the wind, came a bone shivering, high pitched shriek. The Black Swan cut her eyes toward Menageries, her iron eyebrows knitting together.
"I knew I was tempting fate the instant the words left my lips," Menagerie said.
Equity Tremblepoint stumbled though the open gate into the hall. Her white robes were torn to tatters as she collapsed dramatically, her figure framed by the darkness behind her. She arched her back and placed the back of one hand against her brow, while her other hand extended to point into the darkness, trembling, as she exclaimed, "The dead! They’ve found us!"
The Black Swan ran to the gate. A trio of dead soldiers stood in the darkness barely a yard away, with shreds of Equity’s white robes still dangling from their skeletal fingers. One carried a black blade that stank of sulfur as he raised it overhead, preparing to chop the Black Swan in twain.
There was a slight tap on the Black Swan’s shoulder as a squirrel used her for a launching pad to fling itself toward the sword-wielding corpse. By the time it reached the warrior, the squirrel had changed into an enormous silverback gorilla. It grabbed the lead corpse by the wrist and swiftly disarmed it, in the most literally meaning of the word. Then, using the dismembered limbs as clubs, it knocked the skulls free from the shambling forms flanking the first corpse.
The gorilla picked up the black blade and turned back to the Black Swan.
"Go! Find the Deceiver! I’ll hold them off!"
The Black Swan peered into the starlight, at the ragged forms lurching over the frozen swells. Their numbers were uncountable, an army so large it was as if Hell had thrown up the damned souls of everyone who had ever died, which, of course, was precisely what was happening. She knew from interrogating the few demons that had been captured that the undead hordes had been promised the earth once the last of the living perished. With their leaders bearing blades forged from the gates of Hell, as each living man fell, the ranks of the damned swelled. As far as the Black Swan was aware, the last living inhabitants of the earth could be found on this small island far removed from any place that could be called a place, occupied only by madmen.
"Why hasn’t he stopped this," whimpered Equity. "I thought he would stop this!"
"Fall back!" the Black Swan shouted to Menagerie. "There’s too many of them. Get back inside the gate."
"You’ve seen how quickly they can inside a fortress," Menagerie growled. "I can hold out longer than an eight inch thick slab of oak."
"Not alone," said the Black Swan.
"He won’t be alone," said Vigor, hobbling forward on his staff.
Menagerie’s gorilla eyebrow’s shot up. "No offense, but I’m not sure how much help you’re going to be."
Vigor began to disrobe, struggling to pull his shirt over his head.
Equity sobbing despair turned into a rueful chuckle. "There was no chance at all the world would come to an end without Vigor taking one last opportunity to show us off his genitalia."
But it wasn’t Vigor’s crotch that caught the Black Swan’s attention. It was, instead, the elaborately inked tattoo that completely engulfed his torso. The tattoo depicted a dragon in minute detail, and the dark lines seemed to pulse with light as Vigor pulled a small flask of powder from a pocket as he tossed his robes and staff aside.
On wobbly legs thin as sticks, he shouted to Menagerie, "Do you think you’re the only person who ever studied blood magic? For three long years I lived with the scion of Greatshadow. I collected blood frequently, telling him I was studying the effects of the various medications I gave him to heal the wounds he had suffered in infancy. He had no reason to suspect I had plans to study draconic biology from a vastly improved perspective."
He popped open the cork on the vial and tilted his head back, shaking the powdery contents into his open mouth. The wind snatched away much of the dark black powder, giving the air the scent of blood. Vigor coughed as he strained to swallow the dusty mouthful. Red spittle flew from between his lips. He coughed again, more violently, and a jet of flame shot ten feet out from his open mouth. The flames seemed to have melted his face, which grew longer, more narrow, and the heat covered his skin with vivid red blisters, crusted with black. His body bulged as he dropped to all fours. With a horrible rip, his paper-thin skin split along his spine and two long red wings unfolded from between his shoulder blades.
In ten seconds, the transformation was complete, and a dragon larger than a bull with wings the size of mainsails stood facing the armies of the damned. He opened his crocodilian jaws and roared. An inferno billowed over the waves, incinerating the front ranks of the undead army.
Menagerie grabbed the Black Swan by the shoulders, refocusing her attention.
"Go!" the gorilla shouted. "Only Zetetic can stop this now!"
The Black Swan nodded, turning, grabbing Equity by the waist and slinging her over her shoulder as she ran into the hall.
"Where can I find him?" she shouted.
"Put me down before I throw up!" Equity shouted back.
The Black Swan put the aged thespian back on her feet. Equity responded by pointing at a stairway at the back of the hall. "Zetetic dwells in the uppermost chamber of the main tower!"
"And you’re sure he’s there?" asked the Black Swan.
"Of course not. He’s probably long gone into an abstract realm. Even if you find his body, I don’t know that his mind will be with it. But what choice do we have but to try?"
"I’ve been asking myself that for close to two hundred years," grumbled the Black Swan as she ran toward the stairs, he feet clanging like hammer blows on the marble floor. She took some comfort from her certainty that Equity was wrong. If a portal to an abstract realm had been opened within the last few days here on the island, she’d still detect the echoes. As someone familiar with traveling to different realities, she had a sense, just a bare pressure in her head, faint but unmistakable, whenever she was near a dimensional veil that had been breached.
She raced up the steps to the floor above. Flames flickered through a window. She quickly glanced out to see Vigor nearly a quarter mile out on the ice, spewing flames, spinning as he blasted the armies massed against him. Unfortunately, from her higher vantage point, the vastness of the army behind the flaming corpses was revealed. As large as the dragon was, he couldn’t protect the Keep from being overrun by the advancing army.
She ran on, resisting the temptation to look further upon the battlefield. Her only hope lay at the top of the stairs. Her tireless legs moved with machine precision to propel her upwards, leaping three steps at a time.
At last she reached a locked door. She hoped beyond this she’d find Zetetic. She pounded on the door with her fist. "Open up! It’s the Black Swan! You owe your life to me!"
When no reply came, she threw herself against the door. The thick wood cracked, but held. She threw herself again, then again, until the door came apart and she stumbled into the chamber beyond.
It was a room lined with paper. White as snow, in sheets large enough to drape a bed, the walls and ceiling and floor had been lined with the material. In the center of the windowless room, devoid of all furnishings, sat Zetetic, cross-legged, his head in his hands, staring at a small object before him.
She stepped closer, and saw it was a pencil.
"Zetetic?" she said, softly.
He said nothing.
"Zetetic, it’s me. The Black Swan. You know me. You know I’m the one who paid King Brightmoon to spare your life when you were captured by the Church of the Book all those years ago. I greased the palms required to let the king trust you with saving the sun, and paid the necessary fees to have you take possession of this keep. You owe me a favor."
Zetetic didn’t even look up.
She moved to a few feet away. She crouched, her iron joints squeaking. Studying his face, she saw he was awake. He blinked, but never lifted his face to acknowledge her.
She reached for the pencil.
The Deceiver’s hand shot forward and grabbed her wrist.
"It would have been far better if the church had hung me," he whispered. "I owe you nothing."