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Stand Reborn (Before Us All)

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Her name becomes the Deceiver.

It is imprinted in the grid that crosses her face when first he speaks to tell her, "It is done."

The pins are positioned precisely, each angle exact despite the curvatures of what once was human. She can feel the power in them, the age of them reaching back to the moment when the first creature demanded more, ever the folly of all that lives.

This is what she becomes when scraps of skin drift from the ceiling, when bone and blood and muscle twine into a baser form to steal all that made the former priest exquisite.

This is the moment when she upends her predecessor and lays the imperfect flesh that he had desired to waste. She thought herself a savior in that moment, the victor in a game that had long preceded her and determined its match.

It is how she first dons her name and watches as her friends emerge from black cocoons, their bodies misshapen, re-envisioned, and hers to command.

Hell, as it is so often mislabeled, is about the purity of sensation, the hedonistic pleasures that only the flesh can provide when the soul is rendered mute, which allows each breath to sing the full chorus of what it feels.

She thought she would feel nothing, but as she turns and gives her cenobites their first command, she feels triumphant.

~*~

She cannot yet see into Franklin Clay's soul, but from the abyss, she watches him. He is cloaked in shadows, shadows from which he tries to run by lighting a match that offers but a small pool of light.

"Boss?" Carlos Alvarez asks.

It is a rare occasion that he speaks, and for Franklin Clay, he serves as holy man, a priest that offers prayer against what they both perceive to be destruction. Franklin Clay does not take solace in him. He does not yet appreciate the loyalty of a penitent.

When Franklin Clay closes his eyes, hers remain wide open so she can see the shudder that rolls through him.

She knows what nightmares he sees — her hooks, her chains, the blood with which she paints streaked across the walls and floor. She knows that it is her voice that reminds him, "We have no use for the dead. Exquisite sensation requires the ability to feel."

Only two of his team remain, but soon, she will offer the rest such riches if they have the strength to be witness to it.

"We find Max," Aisha al-Fadhil says, and stares at the same unknowable point in the distance that has caught Franklin Clay's gaze, a skyline that is empty and vast.

He lights the match, but it dispels nothing. "We destroy the box."

This is the promise that all Harrowers make, the path that begins it all.

~*~

The Vagrant lives in isolation, his own mind a prison from which he cannot escape.

Once again, he begs for guidance. A victim is not difficult to find, to lure, to trap. This is the purpose of the Vagrant, and he casts runes, drawing them on the floor in blood. It is the same scene that he has constructed since he was first chosen for the task of passing the box from hand to hand.

"It is time to serve," she says, and with one pale finger, follows the jagged line that he sliced into still-warm flesh. His hand is never steady enough.

~*~

Each configuration is as unique as each cenobite is an individual, one perfect, sharp-edged tool of order.

There is no singular solution to the box, no right answer that can be gleaned from its angles. It can be a dance, a gun, an obsession, a word.

This is what has been the folly of so many.

The click, the whirl, the door that is presented, the gift that is offered, the cenobite that steps forth — it varies. But there is reason; there is precision and order in each line, the perfect circumference of the circle that rises when curiosity concludes in success.

She is not released often, but this is not an accident. Oblivion has no place for the chaos of coincidence.

"Mistress, please," the Vagrant chokes, but his task is done.

To Franklin Clay, the box has been delivered.

~*~

Jake Jensen is but a boy as so many are. His curiosity demands the solution to a puzzle that was crafted in the burning bright song of madness. The toymaker continues to scream, but human ears never listen, their flesh too weak to reach into such depths. It is why they touch but do not realize that it is the toymaker's bones that compose a great many of his creations; it is his blood that makes the horses dance and the clockworks spin.

"So final analysis," Jake Jensen announces. "This thing is like a Rubik's cube on steroids."

He will be the first. He will be the gravestone upon which Franklin Clay loses his faith and swears his vengeance.

When at last the puzzle is solved, when the box reaches into the heart of Leviathan and bids it answer, she emerges with a chilled, quiet, "Ah," and traps Jake Jensen's hand to the box with hook and chain, the spray of his blood a delight to lick from her lips. "This is a world we know well."

~*~

It is not ennui that leads her to the bellows, where flesh is twisted and forever screams, the punishment of Leviathan hidden within its belly.

The bodies writhe in agony when she strokes each black and white key, their muscles glistening slick in the pale light that has no source.

She asks, "What deal did he make? The one who came before me?"

The bellows groan, each note a slice of pain that moves through its body, all limbs pinned, one each to the other, by the organ pipes. It taunts her with answers too vague and warnings of what folly will befall her should she choose this path.

UNGRATEFUL, it calls her. UNWORTHY OF SUCH PERFECT GIFTS.

All has already faded into the oblivion of the abyss, into the dark and endless maw of Leviathan. Her folly is writ in the lines that do not bleed, in the pins that have pierced deeply enough to bind her soul forever to the moment that she agreed to her predecessor's bargain.

"Give me my answer," she says, and smashes the keys, demanding that the bellows speak whatever discord they'll sow and what truth she can glean.

THERE IS NO ANSWER BUT ONE, it screams.

She understands: this is the cycle that oblivion demands. A worthy servant must be replaced with another.

~*~

Make the blackness bleed.

She recalls reading it in a letter, but her memories have become imperfect, sharp only in the ecstasy of the flesh, the moment of her conception when her predecessor had pressed scythe to scalp and made his sacrifice.

How foolish she had been.

Here, in the dark, in the bowels of the flesh, the blood pulses fresh. It is a fount that does not stop, and she dips her fingers into the stream, feels the slick, hot skin that she tore from human form so she could transform it into something more delightful. Beyond, down the string of halls, a scream answers the one that she forces from Jake Jensen's ruined throat. It is an echo that reverberates through the porous walls constructed from the remains of his skin and muscles.

It takes the eyes of the foolhardy to see past this prison. It takes flesh to see.

She uses the broken pieces of his gun and the pins from her own face to pluck Jake Jensen's eyes from his skull. She holds them in her palms, where the lightning-streaked sky can illuminate what lies beyond.

"Do you see, Jake Jensen? Your friend and commander?" she asks from the deep.

~*~

Franklin's Clay misguided belief summons them again, but theirs is not human flesh. Destruction, for them, can be transmuted into pleasure. It is simply one more sensation of many.

When they are unleashed once again, Edgar stands behind her, his promise of forever now written in the jagged edges of his teeth, the blackness of his eyes.

"He failed," he reminds her, ever the faithful servant.

"No," she says, and peels back his flesh, but Leviathan crafted the layers too deep. She cannot find what once she knew, a body she had loved. "I did."

~*~

Franklin Clay continues to search for answers.

In her mercy, she provides them.

He is, as she was, ungrateful of the gift that she offers. It was not Leviathan who spoke but another god who said that blood is the life. So she gives it in plenty, pooled at Franklin Clay's feet, steeped deep enough that he must wade. If he were to look more closely, he would see his friend and once lover cracked open all around him, exposed so that he would never again have to wonder what the skin and eyes can hide.

When she is done, presentation complete, William Roque is no longer a mystery. He is glistening slick, his organs pulsing while her servant plays the strings of his intestines as one would a harp. The creativity of humanity — it has understood that it takes something living to create song. These notes, however, are much cleaner and sharper, the scream one that does not allow Franklin Clay to doubt.

"Listen, Franklin Clay," she says from the depths, and drags her finger over bone and muscle until her hand is drenched with the gore that remains of him. For him, she paints, but it is important that Franklin Clay hear. "There is a symphony to Hell. We have all been human. We all sing our tragedies, eternally, in the depths of our souls."

He shoots, but the sensation of a bullet tearing through her shoulder, her cheek, her chest is not a new one; it provides neither pleasure nor pain.

When Franklin Clay runs, it is inevitable, and she does not follow. She cups William Roque's cheek, where the scar runs long, and lets her hooks carry her up so she can press a kiss to his cold, wet mouth.

"Do not worry," she whispers, and carves through his chest, layer by layer, peeling back muscles and fat and bones until she finds the cradle of his heart. He is in pieces, strewn across the whole of the room, but his heart continues to beat as strongly as it did when she began. "Franklin Clay will return for this soon."

~*~

Beneath her, the ground upon which she walks is weaved from skin, the air full of breathless whimpers, and it is important that Franklin Clay sees. This is the world that lies within the box, the world that transcends it, the world where he could be reunited.

"Every chapter has its end, Franklin Clay, as every story must also have its beginning."

Her chains are quick, unbound as they are by the limitations of walls. Her hooks have captured more than Franklin Clay can imagine, and she draws Carlos Alvarez to her, listening to Franklin Clay scream his loss. This is the map that he will follow, and she leaves Carlos Alvarez's teeth like bread crumbs through the maze.

His cheek is rough with stubble, so human in its fragility, when she sets her hand upon it. He is a priest that has need of a new prayer, one that requires better vision. So she takes the scope of his rifle and carefully screws it through his skull to provide it. Then with one single pin, pulled from her own cheek, she carves the beginning of him.

~*~

They call themselves the Losers, but they do not have the true word for what they are yet. She recognizes them as Harrowers once she sets them upon the path. They are those who cannot anticipate the depths of their own hatred nor that such hatred can be twisted as easily as flesh.

Linwood Porteous whimpers in the dark when Edgar tells her, "This is a mistake."

Edgar's claws press to her face, drag hot down to her throat, splitting apart the veins. She arches in ecstasy, in mourning, her soul sick with disillusionment.

With one curl of her finger, William Roque steps forward, made anew, his hands removed and replaced with the precision of the knives that he'd cherished so much. Linwood Porteous is then made to understand how deeply a friend can cut, and William Roque slices long and deep, following the lines of shadows that she casts over skin. Each inch he takes from Linwood Porteous' legs is earned until at last each fragment of bone and sinew has been removed.

When the wheels are rolled through the field of bodies, Linwood Porteous is made as perfect as the others.

~*~

"Kirsty Cotton."

Unlike her predecessor, she remembers her name. She remembers who she once was, ages ago, when time still had meaning. So she lives two lives — that of the Deceiver and that of Kirsty Cotton, whose missions are at odds with design, the soul that will not recognize it has been shattered and devoured.

"Your sins are legion," she tells Clay in reply.

Sins for which they both must account.

So she takes the last of the pieces, Aisha al-Fadhil, and carves for this woman her vengeance, tenting skin and using hooks to bind her ears to her shoulders. She replaces Aisha al-Fadhil's imperfect mouth with the more precise edge of two razors.

With her portrait complete, the first kiss that they share is exquisite, and she can understand the appeal of all this rage. Aisha al-Fadhil fights to the end, lets herself be stripped of skin but not muscle, re-imaged but not re-purposed.

"What delights you'll bring," she whispers when she is done, and seals another soldier for Franklin Clay in sleep.

~*~

This is the perfect square box that Franklin Clay opens, his sorrow the key to unleashing her. As she was offered, she offers him the path, the scythe and the darkness, her place in the fold of the abyss.

"Your servants await."

She reaches into the blood and pulls them from themselves, each one as she took them, remade in perfect order. Franklin Clay gasps when Jake Jensen emerges, eyes replaced and veins redone with wires. William Roque was simpler in design, blades that peek from skin, the weapon embodied. Carlos Alvarez required more finesse, but now his vision extends before him and behind. When at last, Aisha al-Fadhil emerges, Franklin Clay crumbles to his knees, his devastation that much closer to completion.

"The ones who would be your kingdom," she says.

Shaped and given form and now wrapped in the ecstasy of sensation. Their hearts beat as one now, exposed in the caverns of their chests, but they are unique, if only Franklin Clay would look; they are easily defined within the molds that gave them this eternity.

Franklin Clay mutters his curses, and in answer, Carlos Alvarez parodies the sign of the cross, his jaw-less face incapable of verbalizing any prayer.

"They are yours, Franklin Clay. Behold."

At last, he steps forward, and she extends a hand to accept him, to give Leviathan what it will always demand, and in giving, to finally end the tragedy that has ensnared all who bear witness to the box's delights.

Within the heart of Leviathan, Franklin Clay presses a machine to her temple and tells her, "No."

"It is too late," she says, and waits.

He persists, however, as everything human does. "No, Kirsty. Your problem is you made the wrong fucking choice. I'm not going down that road."

It is a rare occurrence when Leviathan shudders but shudders it does, the quake felt throughout by all worthy servants and the unfortunate alike.

It is in this fire that she understands at last. What has always been ageless cannot be swallowed whole.

Her name as the Deceiver has never been more fitting than in this quest where once again, she fails.

~*~

Carlos Alvarez is perched silently on the wall, but it is Franklin Clay, Linwood Porteous, William Roque, and Aisha al-Fadhil who will coax blood from skin and lay waste to the room that will become an altar.

The Vagrant chokes on bullet and blood when Franklin Clay demands, "Where's Max?"

"Here," the Vagrant says, and from his vest, he delivers the puzzle to Franklin Clay, gives it with dying breath and streaks of blood, his life one of many that seals the bargain. "Mistress, please."

But his task is done when Franklin Clay's fingers close around the box and wipe away blood to reveal the gilt surface beneath.

~*~

This is how it ends. Franklin Clay burns in the bomb that he created, but she reaches forth and lets blood wash flame, capturing him with hook and chain until the roar of the fire has been quenched. Leviathan is pleased by this surprise, and Kirsty Cotton dies with the last of her hope. The dawning awareness of Leviathan's desire is as painful as the scythe that scalped her.

As cenobite and faithful servant, priest to pleasure and to pain, she drags her nail down Franklin Clay's burnt and blackened skin.

"This is the road that we chose, Franklin Clay."

And of his flesh, she carves Leviathan's wish, and from his body, she pulls muscle from bone, waste from organs, and the most exquisite sensation, building for herself and Leviathan, an army that can feel.