“Most people who deal in death came to it out of some form of tragedy or another, even if that tragedy is simple absence of distinction,” the Black Lotus said. “I regret to say I am no exception. Indeed, my story is, if anything, unexceptional.”
“Go on,” Çrom invited.
“I sought the Fountain of Youth,” Lotus told him. “I sought the Dark Queen’s Chalice, the flesh of the Riddlespawn, the Horn of Bulek. I sought eternal life.”
“Riddlespawn meat only keeps you alive as long as you’re eating nothing else except Riddlespawn meat,” Çrom said vaguely, then blinked. “And I wouldn’t call any of that unexceptional,” he added. “Your life has been one of impressive achievements and associations.”
“Achievements and associations,” Lotus’s lip curled. “Oh yes, I’ve elevated myself by being close to those who have already attained my most dearly-held goal. Clinging to them, following them, basking in their light like a parasite and pretending it was my own. The success of my life can be measured only by my collection of stories about truly successful people.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“I travelled far and wide, searching for different ways mortals might become immortals,” Lotus said, the anger in her tone fading to weary amusement. “All I managed to do on my quest for immortality was to scrub a decade of precious life off my ledger. All I learned was how easy it is to tear the soul from the flesh and send it into Limbo’s uncaring embrace. All I earned were these scars, these aches, these chalky bones aged before their time. A crone at four and thirty,” she grinned. “Do you believe it, young master Skelliglyph?”
“I would have guessed younger, except for the sheer number of adventures you’ve managed to fit into so short a time,” Çrom said gallantly. “Travel is not a friendly or easy prospect, for a human. And the rest – your work, bringing rest and relief to those who wish to die-”
“In truth, I am bitter,” she said. “I envy you, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph. And I know, that makes me a fool. I have sought out all of the famous immortals, and eternals if the distinction means anything to you. Many of them speak as you do, about the curse of a life everlasting. But then there are those for whom a single lifetime would never have been enough, whether it was the meagre centuries of a human, or the millennia of a Molran, or the Ages-long doze of an Ogre. Those who never tire of it, but who relish every day and every hour of their eternity, spend it enjoying all of the wonders of the urverse, and adding to them with creations of their own.”
“You can hardly be surprised there are different types of immortals,” Çrom noted. “There are mortals who weary of life at a hundred years, or fifty, or four and thirty. The ability to maintain enthusiasm for life beyond a certain point is … is brain chemistry as well as whatever specific sort of immortality you get…”
“Do you know the first immortal I met, long before my first steps along the path of dark science, long before my career began, when I was a mere student of folklore?” she smiled. “Patroclus DeColt, the so-called Mad Alchemist of the Ice Wall. The myth named him a mortal consort to the Dark Queen, with whom She had fallen in love as a result of his fantastical brews. The tale says She granted him a sip from Her famous Chalice, granting him a life everlasting so that he could carry out Her wishes and share Her bed. Do you know what I found, when I dared the journey to the edge of the Void?”
“That the Ice Wall Department of Immigration and Pest Control has a vigorously proactive stance on preventing the spread of the human species,” Çrom guessed.
“Well, yes,” Lotus admitted. “But I was part of a research team travelling under diplomatic protections.”
“Ah,” Çrom nodded. “You mean the Ice Wall sent a group of students here to gape at the Eden Road and write condemnatory papers about the Pinians’ dalliances with mortals, and if you’d been killed then someone over here would have taken a rolled-up parchment to those students, and they would never have scuttled home to their big hairy-legged Ice Mommy again.”
“Exactly,” Lotus said. “I had no plans to see a myth in the flesh, but DeColt must have heard that there was a human among the visitors.”
“And instead of a legendary lover of Dark Goddesses, you met a dissolute and desperate rapist whose mind was long since fried by his own concoctions,” Çrom said.
Lotus nodded, her ravaged face pale behind the grime. “He begged me to smuggle him back to the Four Realms. He wept. He drooled and soiled himself. When I refused to aid him, he … did his best to force himself on me. But he was so very weak, and his…” she shuddered. “The cold had devoured all that was man in him.”
Çrom nodded too. “DeColt was a phenomenal alchemist. The experiments he conducted on himself may very well have extended his lifespan,” he said quietly, “but they also enhanced his strength and his vitality in ways that overwhelmed his socially-imposed self-control. It’s hard to see people as people when they are so very inferior to you. He became a beast, and when it was no longer enough to force unthinkable defilements upon his fellow humans…” he shivered. “He was exiled to the Rooftop, and somehow found his way to the Ice Wall with the avowed intention of exercising his will upon the Dark Queen Herself. This … turned out to be a tactical misstep.”
Lotus laughed dryly. “You might say that. I don’t know what actually happened between DeColt and the Dark Queen, but I learned that his eternal life came from neither his alchemy nor from the Chalice. He was simply … denied death, forced to live on in a ruined body and with a broken mind, while the Dark Queen’s multitude of children tested their venoms on him. And wrapped his paralysed body in their webs so he might feed their newborns. And worse things, that he didn’t dare tell me even in his madness and desperation.”
“Look, I’m not saying there aren’t worse ways to spend eternity,” Çrom said reasonably. “Ghååla generally do it better, and more effortlessly, than Gods. And I’d be lying if I said I had much sympathy for DeColt. If anything, his dementia is a blessing he hardly deserves.”
“I looked into his eyes,” Lotus said. “His dementia is a shredded rag against the blizzard, offering no real protection. He might have been my first client, had that work been my purview at the time. Had I not been little more than a child.”
“How would you have killed him?”
Lotus shrugged. “Hiding him from the Dark Queen’s many eyes,” she said, “would have been the only real challenge – and not an insurmountable one. She watches all things in Her kingdom, and DeColt is a favourite plaything accorded special scrutiny. He is not permitted to injure himself too severely. His is not a perfect immortality. It cannot be, for Her purposes. Hiding him for a time, cutting off his head, and taking it somewhere beyond Her reach, would grant him the peace he craves.”
“Would you ever go back to offer your services?” Çrom asked. “Killing Patroclus DeColt would be quite a feather in your…” he eyed her wild, matted snarl of hair, “…nest.”
Lotus smiled. “I have returned twice to the Ice Wall,” she said, “but not to kill DeColt. Nor have I ever been contracted to do so. The waivers remain unsigned. I am not sure I would take the commission were it offered to me. He was, and is, a despicable creature.”
“The romanticism of his myth always annoyed me,” Çrom admitted. “People forget the evil in favour of cheap titillation. My myth may not be very interesting, but at least it’s got a couple of solid morals in it,” he raised his thumb. “Don’t fuck with Ghååla,” he added his index finger. “Decent walking boots are an investment.”
Lotus rewarded him with a laugh. “In any case,” she said, “the Dark Queen was aware of my budding reputation by the time I returned, and so I was given no opportunity to cause trouble. She was curious about me, but not so much that She honoured me with a personal audience.”
“Gods are snobs like that,” Çrom noted. “I bet She didn’t let you use Her Chalice either.”
The Black Lotus laughed again.