Interlude: Parable of Sophia

The merciless brass beast sped across the endless desert wastes of the dead world known only to its inhabitants as Vessel. The fat, sleek spokes of its obsidian wheels cut deeper into the oozing, puss-gourged wounds of its tracks. They grew fat and putrescent in the bloody rays of the undying sun. Its trestles were built from flat, hollow bones that whistled when the billowing steam from its fleshy vents kissed at their openings. One could only ever hear snatches of its melodic dirge, but it brought a chill to their breaths even within the ever-sweltering haze of Vessel. None could understand its innerworkings, the strange black ooze drooling from its mandibles, or the crimson smoke it belched from its yawning chimney. If such a beast could have had a conductor, then it could only be a conductor for the symphony that was the screams of the damned. There were stops where its passengers could board. Yet all could see their writhing forms in silhouette against the pink screens that adorned every mile of its length. Everywhere it deemed to ride it spewed coals and charred viscera from its caboose. There had been many names ascribed to it, seeking to tame its terror, but the one that most stuck was the title of Worm.

And the Worm was always hungry.

One chilled night, a torso missing both its head and wrists, whose skin had fused with its ribs through fire, was found prostrate before the glass palace of queen Rosalyn. Sticking out from its gaping neck was a summons to the far country of Ichorine, and enclosed within the envelope was a gold inlaid ticket for the brass train bearing the queen’s name. All of Rosalyn’s consorts, concubines, and royal court weeped with fear and mourning as their beloved sovereign was destined for sacrifice to the cruel God that had planted itself on their world. Just one subject failed to fall to anguish, the captain of the queen’s guard. She had been lost in thought. Knight Sofia could not give into despair when there was still time to plot and search for an alternative. The ticket was dated for one month following the summon’s arrival, allowing her precious time to secure her love. In the throes of passion, she caught herself with a rare, terrible idea. An idea that ate at her very soul, yet was sure to be the only means to rescue her wife. She told Rosalyn that she was to make a journey to discover means for her salvation. The queen returned a melancholic smile, fully aware that such an adventure could only be folly. Sofia did not have the heart to tell her the truth.

The royal knight donned her armor of tempered glass, forged from the blood stained shards that the Worm had transmogrified all the sand in its wake. In dim light one could trace every bare curve of Sofia’s body, but under the harsh sun of Vessel’s wastes it shone with righteous fury. In the stables she found her loyal steed Hornet, a proud horse with speckled white hair who was robust enough to carry the amazonian’s height. They secreted away together through Rosalyn’s courtyard, a sanctuary bursting with flowers borne of many different worlds. Some roses could fit on the head of a pin, while there were peonies that rivaled the girth of a whale, and every species, shade, and gradient of flora could be found bursting with life. Once past the iron gates of the courtyard, they were met with the sharp contrast of the wastes. For days and nights without rest, Sofia raced alongside the tracks which led to Ichorine. She refused to sleep, to eat, or to bathe, until her task was complete.

Arriving at Ichorine, she was halted by seven sentinels at the gate. Above the ivory walls she could spy the many intricate clockwork cathedrals stacked one atop the others. New faiths pupated and built upon the corpses of their forebears, everyday blaspheming the old gods for the pleasure of the short lived neonates. Each of the sentinels wore long, intricate tan dresses latticed up from their feet to the tiaras they wore above their heads. Trained from birth for combat, they wielded steel halberds that burned the calluses on their fingers, coating their palms with thick blisters as they twirled their arms about their bodies. They danced with their blades like a procession of swans through a shallow lake, but each crumpled like a sheet ghost before Sofia’s great knife. It was as long as she was tall, crafted from volcanic earth and sharpened to split diamond. It took three of her many well-toned arms to wield its handle, but it sliced clean through the gate’s matrices. Marching into the city, she stood at the steps before the highest cathedral, wherein the iron council of Ur were midway through their ceremonial decade of hibernation. Sofia then chose to grandstand. Her soft, singing voice rang throughout the curved walls of the metropolis.

The sins of Ichorine have brought a reckoning upon my patron, the innocent queen, and the Worm requires an equivalent sacrifice of impure blood. If your soul is free and uncorrupted by the chains of rotten hubris, then run from your homes and do not look back. Only corruption might fuel the heart of this mad Goddess, while all those ensconced in goodness will simply burn within the inferno of her intestines.

Dozens fled from the scene towards the city gates, though many stared up at the spectacle of Sofia. Women and their husbands, children, and most of the citizenry stood together hand-in-hand, all of whom bore liquid silver sclera and pockmarks of white across their bronzed skins. Smiling mad in her wolf helmet, fangs gleaming, Sofia efficiently cut them all down, then their livestock, then their homes and academies and cathedrals. It took three days and three nights to demolish the entire city and, once it was fully raised, she slept for another three pair in a warm pool of blood and gore.

Upon returning to Rosalyn’s courtyard, Sofia and Hornet found the queen cutting the heads off the once beautiful copper dahlias of ichorbine. Fat scarlet tears were rolling down her cheeks. Sofia took her arms and held the queen’s face to her chest, wiping her tears away before kissing her. She whispered to her queen that she was safe, that her hands were clean, and that the train had been fed. Rosalyn gave a soft nod. For a year, the wives and all the denizens of the glass palace laid together in peace, up until the day they were once again met with a summons.

This time, Rosalyn had been called to visit the seaside hamlet of Sharpeyes aboard the desert train, though now only scant sobs resounded through the glass halls. The subjects knew that, through the will of Sofia, Rosalyn would be safe. Many tittered about the silver stains on her glass cuirass, and more than a few had suspected her morbid inclinations, but all of them accepted it as a worthy price to protect their queen. Only Rosalyn herself weeped, and she tended the waterlilies of Sharpeyes that sat at the bottom of the courtyard lake. All the while, her wife and aegis rode off on another grim campaign.

Once again, Sofia followed the Worm’s tracks through the sands, though this time it only took eight hours for Hornet to speed her master to their destination. There were no guards or gate to speak of, just a kindly fishmonger that remarked on the beauty of her armor. The fish woman’s eyes were large and glassy, a kaleidoscope of colors from Sofia’s own armor reflected back at her, inset to a long and drooping face. The woman clasped at a gauntlet with a webbed hand, freckled with lapis scales, and asked as to what might have brought her presence to the village in the dead of night. Rather than give her an answer, Sofia cut the fishwoman about the sternum and rode into town square holding the woman’s seaweed infested hair with her thumb. She threw the corpse into the arms of a statue depicting their primordial god and progenitor, a great humanoid mantaray deep in contemplation. The townspeople screamed and ran and dived into the sea. All of them feared the pain of death. None would escape, of course, and Sofia felt no compunction to warn them. They were all awash with the stench of corruption.

Again, Rosalyn wept with bloody tears as the phthora lilies floated up to the surface, wilting and withering. She beat against her knight and lover’s chest, begging her to cease, but Sofia’s eyes burned with resolute determination. So it went on, for millennia after millenia, Rosalyn’s immortality would be perpetuated through the slaughter of the innocent, the depraved, and the utterly mundane people of a corrupted world. The tracks now intertwined across the sands like pulsating veins, and the courtyard had transformed from an oasis to a cemetery. The queen had long since exchanged her silken gowns for long black robes, no longer a queenly gardener, but instead a necropolis custodian. Only her and Sofia remained at the glass palace, as all the other denizens had long been purged in sacrifice.

Sofia, too, had undergone a drastic transformation. The various humors of her victims were permanently caked to her glass suit, and the suit itself had gradually melded with her very skin. She was more beautiful and terrible than ever, a black and crimson archangel of apocalypse, but there could no longer be any tenderness to her within the crystalline carapace. Her marriage to Rosalyn had grown solemn and puritan, for Sofia could only find pleasure through the dull, bludgeoning thump of her rusted blade. Every civilization that remained knew that it may only have been a matter of days or years before she finally came to impart her inquisition, whether it be to a nomadic clan or a sparkling megalopolis, she was an inevitable force. Many of those who remained had formed tight kinships from the few unsullied souls which she had once deigned to spare. These societies often came to worship her, engaging in rituals of blood which mutated them into pathetic, chittering whelps that could only resemble her in their sanguine desire. It was particularly grotesque to Sofia when she would see rows and rows of these cockroaches bowing their heads before her, singing gospels as she culled them.

Soon there would be no one left to sacrifice, as Rosalyn and Sofia were both aware. The grief-stricken queen sat in a taciturn pew of the abbey that was now her home, the palace walls cracked into mosaic spectacles of carnage. Sofia kneeled before her, awaiting her wife’s sweet caress against her unfeeling glass mandible, and as she received it, Rosalyn used her undue strength to pick up the great knife’s tip and shove it through her torso. Her glassy green eyes told Sofia that she was sorry, though whether it was for this act or her long cowardice in postponing it was unknown to Sofia. The blood knight wailed in the agonizing tone of a dying coyote. The Worm toppled over into the sands before her, its burning heart finally extinguished.

There was nothing left for Sofia in that bleak world now that the only beautiful creature in all of it had become a desiccated corpse. She resigned herself to the fate set before her, wandering forever through the desert and slaying all who were misfortunate enough to stand in her path. However, before she could take the first step of her long funeral gait, a soft touch upon her shoulder alerted her to a new presence. She looked over her shoulder to see a woman in plain speckled white garb, her hair tied back into a long braid, thin spectacles perched atop her nose. Something about this figure struck Sofia as familiar, and the woman spoke into her mind that she had been Hornet, her steed. Before she could inquire into the strange form of her horse, Hornet leaned forward and kissed the snarling head of Sofia’s armor. Instantaneously, alongside the palace itself, the armor shattered into millions of fluttering specks that returned to the sand, leaving Sofia naked and exposed to the cruel, cruel sun.

Except, the sun too had disappeared. It had crumbled into the sands below, leaving the world in a cold, all-encompassing darkness. The only light was the bizarre yellow glow of Hornet’s eyes as she stared down at Sofia. In a whisper, she requested the broken woman’s hand in marriage and, having nothing left, Sofia accepted it. The two newly wed brides eloped into the darkness of the long dead Vessel that had once convinced itself that it was a world rather than a corpse. The dust settled and only the night lived on.

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