A Road of Steel and
Part VI: Chasing Shadows
rom her window in the tiny peak-roof chamber that served as her living quarters, Sister Acceptance gazed out at the cityscape of Stygia. The gothic spires of the cathedral-like building that served as the main Chapter House of the Society of Pardoners rose high into what constituted the sky above the Underworld's greatest city. Sister Acceptance smiled as her keen hearing caught the sound of murmured voices carrying upward from the ground-floor audience hall, which occupied what would have been the nave of a true cathedral.
Brother Tenacious' latest retreat was in full swing, as curious wraiths intermingled with would-be Pardoners and oathbound Guild members. The series of meditations, seminars, readings and exercises would continue for at least three more days. The merely curious would depart after the first day, their fears about the secret doings of their confessors at least somewhat alleviated. From the wraiths that stayed to complete the rigorous regimen of doled information and private introspection, the Pardoners would choose their next batch of recruits.
In a little while, this will no longer concern me. Sister Acceptance repeated the phrase over and over again to herself to let its implications take hold. For the last half-century, she had served as Supreme Master of the Society of Pardoners. Before that time, she had served as Charon's confessor and confidante. Assuming the leadership of the Pardoners Guild was a step down from that august and honored position.
focused inadvertently on the view beyond the ranks of buildings that made up
the Eternal City of Death. Stretching
outward until they disappeared in an opaque, gray mist, the waters of the
That was where it happened, where my world ended in shame and horror. In her mind, Sister Acceptance saw again the cloaked figure sail resolutely from the harbor in his fragile reed boat, as he took the part of a simple Ferryman for one last time. Before him, the waters roiled, malicious and foreboding.
No! Her blackened fingers dug into her palms as tears of hot plasm blurred her vision and turned the whole of Stygia into a watery landscape. I will not think of this - not just yet.
A soft knock on her door interrupted her reverie. Without waiting for a reply, Sister Rapture entered the room quietly. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but you did send for me." The Grand Master of Scourges crossed the room to embrace her superior, a gesture which contained both genuine warmth and sisterly respect.
Sister Rapture had served as Acceptance's confessor for nearly as long as Acceptance herself had ministered to Charon. The women had few secrets between them. But, as always, there were some things that even a confidante could not know. The Supreme Master extricated herself gently from Sister Rapture's greeting. Still holding on to her fellow Pardoner's elbow, she steered the dark-haired, olive-skinned wraith toward one of the two chairs in the room. Seating herself in the other one, Sister Acceptance concentrated on her friend's presence.
"Have you learned anything else since you last reported to me?"
Sister Rapture arched an eyebrow. Even without her raptor mask, her face resembled a bird's, with its sharp nose and shining, dark eyes.
"I have learned that there has been a constant flurry of secret meetings between the Guildmasters, or at least their proxies, since Lord Ember's announcement of the impending search for Charon."
"That doesn't surprise me," Sister Acceptance said. "Have any decisions been made that I should know about?"
Sister Rapture's face wrinkled in an amused grimace. "Well, judging by the fact that suddenly some very high-ranking members of just about all of the other Guilds are making appointments for purification rites, I would say yes."
The Supreme Master's expression grew thoughtful. "So they are really planning to look for Charon in the Labyrinth...."
Sister Rapture nodded. "So it seems."
"And did the Guildmaster of Pardoners vote for the journey?" Sister Acceptance's voice took on a rare playful tone. "Thank Nhudri for his magnificent masks!" Sister Rapture replied, joining in the precious moment of lighthearted conspiracy. "They hide a multitude of sins. At least we aren't the only Guild to send an impostor."
"I understand that Lord Ember attends in person," Sister Acceptance interjected.
"Usually," Sister Rapture agreed. "Only, the last time we met with him, I thought I detected someone else wearing his visage. That disturbed me a little."
Sister Acceptance shrugged. "Perhaps he is beginning to doubt himself. You said there was some disagreement as to the veracity of his evidence that Charon survived the encounter with Gorool."
"Most of the Guildmasters believe him," Sister Rapture said. "A few, however, seem to want to pursue a different line of action. Those who trust Lord Ember suspect the Sandmen of conjuring up some grand drama of misdirection. They feel that a search should be mounted, but not in the Labyrinth." The Scourge Master stopped herself, as if reluctant to say more.
"Where else would they search for him!" Sister Acceptance asked, her breast pounding as if a heart fluttered wildly within it, "Do they think he hides somewhere in the Shadowlands or in the Tempest? Is that where some of them plan to search?"
Sister Rapture gave a quick nod of agreement. "And elsewhere," she replied, her voice suddenly tight.
"Where else?" Sister Acceptance asked. Then it came to her. "The Skinlands?"
Sister Rapture stared intently at the floor, saying nothing. Finally, withering under Sister Acceptance's implacable stare, she raised her eyes.
"I'd rather not - no, I cannot - say," she whispered.
For a reckless moment, Sister Acceptance felt the urge to dismiss Sister Rapture immediately, gather her cache of lanterns and her traveling cloak and head for the edges of the Shadowlands. I can visit every Necropolis, every outpost, and search from there for signs that Charon walks in the Sunlit world. As quickly as the thought came to her, it crumbled into nothing. Her lack of Fetters, a symptom of her great age, precluded such a journey, and she knew this. No, I must hold to my original intent. The honor and delight of finding Charon belongs to worthier souls. I have my own duty to discharge.
Sister Acceptance leaned toward her friend and confessor and placed a hand on her cheek. "Forgive me for my rashness," she said. "I did not mean to cause you any distress."
Sister Rapture lifted her own hand and clasped her superior's fingers tightly for a moment. "There are some things I am bound by our oath not to reveal," she began.
Sister Acceptance raised her already outstretched hand in a gesture of silence. "I understand," she said. "It matters little, anyway. We are not suited to travel beyond the Shroud.
Our work lies here, among the Dead who need us. Let the ones most familiar with the forbidden realms worry about searching for Charon on the other side."
"Does this mean that you want me to cast my vote in favor of the journey to the Labyrinth?" Sister Rapture's voice sounded relieved to return to their original topic of conversation.
"This is what I want you to do," Sister Acceptance said. "Claim that you need to give the matter more consideration. Indicate that you are leaning toward agreeing to search the Labyrinth, but delay as long as possible."
"You don't believe they -we -will find Charon in the Labyrinth, do you!" Sister Rapture asked.
"You know what I think they will find, what I know they will find in the Labyrinth," Sister Acceptance answered, her voice flat and cold.
"Not Charon, but his Shadow," Sister Rapture said. She looked around her nervously, as if afraid of being overheard.
"Gorool," Sister Acceptance replied, her voice breaking with an unaccustomed bitterness.
"You still blame yourself," Sister Rapture said. "Don't. No one could have foreseen the results of our last attempts to purify him. No one. Not even the Lady of Fate herself."
"There is a difference between blame and responsibility," Sister Acceptance said, her words coming in a flood. "No, I am not to blame for the fact that Charon's Shadow slipped out of our control and fled into the Labyrinth to emerge as the creature called Gorool. But I am responsible for it. I let - certain feelings - blind me to the strength of Charon's Shadow. I failed."
“You did not fail!” Sister Rapture’s voice cracked like the whip that hung at her belt. "Charon failed. He took too many worries upon himself. They grew until they conceived a way to break free of him."
"That's enough!" Sister Acceptance stood up, her body rigid as she struggled to control her anger. When she began to speak again, her voice was softer, though it still held overtones of suppressed sharpness. "I have heard that argument given again and again, and each time it sounds as empty and spurious as when I first invented it to keep our Guild from buckling under the shame of what we had done." I must keep my mind on what I have to do. I cannot risk endangering the only opportunity 1 may ever have to undo our Guild's greatest crime.
"Should I leave you now?" Sister Rapture asked, not unkindly. Once again, Sister Acceptance marveled at how easily the Master of Scourges shunted aside feelings she considered unworthy.
“Not just yet," Sister Acceptance said. "There is one more thing that I would ask of you before you go. I would like for you to purify me." Abruptly, she dropped to her knees in front of Sister Rapture and let her robe slip away from her Corpus, exposing herself to her Confessor.
"Bless me Pardoner, for I have sinned," she began, intoning the Rites of Purification made popular with the coming of Brother Tenacious.
With a grim look on her face, Sister Rapture unhooked the whip from her belt and stepped behind her friend, now her Supplicant.
Purified, Sister Acceptance struggled to her feet, her corpus weak and burning from the ministrations of the Master of Scourges. Sister Rapture helped her pull her robes about once more and tried to guide her to her chair.
The Supreme Pardoner waved her away shakily. "I will heal," she said. "Thank you for all you have done."
“I’ll stay, if you want me to," Sister Rapture said.
"No, there are some things I must do here, and I would prefer to be alone to do them."
"You intend to go into the Labyrinth by yourself, don't you?" Sister Rapture asked. "That's why you want me to delay my decision, isn't it?"
Sister Acceptance smiled faintly. "I suppose I should have known that you would discover my purpose in asking for Castigation. My Shadow always was a snitch."
"And you know that my oath prevents me from revealing what I know to anyone else," Sister Rapture said. "This is madness, you know. No one goes there alone."
"Charon did, when he brought Lord Nhudri to Stygia." Resigned to Sister Rapture's continued presence, Sister Acceptance worked as she talked. From a small chest in one corner of the room, she extracted a half-dozen iron lanterns and hooked them onto her belt.
"Those are Soul Lanterns," Sister Rapture said.
"Yes, they are. I had them specially made for me by an Artificer who owed me a very large favor."
"Are they filled, or empty?"
"Three are filled. The other three are waiting to store the Angst I hope to collect.
"You're going into the Labyrinth by yourself to find - and Castigate Gorool?" Sister Rapture's voice betrayed her incredulity.
Sister Acceptance nodded. "I intend to redeem Gorool. When the others - the ones who are going to search the Skinlands - return with Charon, I will have his purified Shadow waiting for him."
"Then why are you taking Soul Lanterns that are already filled with Angst..." Sister Rapture's voice trailed off, as the expression on her face changed from one of disbelief and sorrow to one of barely contained hope. "Have you finally succeeded in discovering a way?"
Sister Acceptance smiled. "I believe that I have," she said quietly. "I have left behind a book of notes concerning my studies and experiments. I think that they will help you codify a workable method for converting Angst to Pathos."
"Have you actually tested it?" Sister Rapture asked.
"This will be my test," the Supreme Master replied. She pulled a long cloak over her robes. The cowl concealed her face in shadows, while the cloak itself hid the bulky mass of the Sou1 Lanterns. "Keep up your impersonation of me until I return, if you can. If it looks like I won't be coming back, then get together with Brother Tenacious and decide which of you is better able to take my place."
"I thought you had always considered Brother Tenacious your successor," Sister Rapture said.
"I had," Sister Acceptance admitted. "But you have managed to acquire some useful experience."
"Enough to know that I agree with your preference," Sister Rapture replied. "Besides, if I take over the Guild, who will come looking for you?"
Sister Acceptance opened her arms and gathered Sister Rapture into a fierce embrace.
"Now I will insist that you go," she said.
After Sister Rapture had gone, Sister Acceptance stood in the room she had occupied for over fifty years, for perhaps the last time.
Am I doing the right thing?
From within her, she received an answer; one she hoped came from her higher self, her Eidolon. You're doing the only thing you can do. Charon's Shadow waits for you, and you alone, to finish the job you started so long ago.
She sighed. There was only one way to discover the truth.
The door slammed behind her as she left. The echoes stayed with her, however, for a very long time.