In the Shadow of the Anguished Lord
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Gracefully carved pillars lined the narrow onyx corridor. Few knew, even within the King's court, that this place existed. Fewer still came willingly. The petitioner walked the hallway, accompanied only by the taps of his footfalls and the depths of his mind. The horror that had brought him here, it seemed, did not accompany those within this hidden passage of the Anguished Lord. Perhaps it was little more than a metaphor to begin with. He shook the thought from his mind and continued on. Still, the scant lucidity yet within him would not relent.

Away for the first time in what seemed an eternity from the writhing and chatter of the city, he found himself terrifyingly alone with his thoughts. The robe of black feathers, these claws, this skull… Clawtips touched the ridges of his skull with a muted clack. Have I always worn this mask? He set off down the hallway again, quickly. Why doesn't walking ever seem to get me anywhere?

"BEGONE, DISEASED VOICE" The tortured thing screamed, but he heard only his pained caws. Doubling over, he frantically clawed at his unfamiliar visage, desperate to tear apart the thoughts behind it.

This hurts.


Why can't I ever get it to come off?


Confused, pained wails and screeches echoed throughout the hallway; A symphony for the Anguished Lord. Trembling, wet with blood as red as midnight, it despaired that it did not die. It languished, terrified, knowing it was alone.

And then it wasn't.

The Cracked Man approached, in that queer way that the natives of this nightmare city did, such that he was not there until he appeared, looking down at the tortured beast. If he weren't dying, he might have felt bad for it.

"Have you come here, too, to escape death? Or are you just some mad beast caught in a trap?" The man's porcelain cheeks fractured and snapped, tiny cracks adding to his crumbling form with each motion. His face had mostly fallen away already, exposing the hollow form within. His single remaining eye looked out from precipitously close to the chasm that had swallowed its companion.

"Death… death is no matter." The creature's pupils contracted slowly at the noise, until this newcomer was focused in his vision. "But there is a sickness in you. I should know - I should know - how to cure you!" Its body rose as it spoke, and it stared at one bony talon, outstretched towards the Cracked Man. His other talon tried, now lamely, to rip himself free of the body he wore. "Yet I have worn this nightmare mask in this damned city for…" He paused, contemplating the very passage of time in this world of four lords. His breath grew swift and ragged, his thoughts emerging as a small, fearful whimper at the enormity of the eternities he had been lost in the city of strife and sin.

The black beast staggered a few steps down the corridor, which drew a derisive stare from the Alagaddan native's artificially cyclopean orb. He appeared once again next to the staggering creature, his posture and position changed in the time that passed unseen between the seconds that elapsed.

"Speak for yourself, wretch, you seem every bit as sick as I am." It wasn't wrong though. His condition had progressed to the point where he had to be judicious with his words, lest he lose his mouth.

"I am not sick, no, no, never sick. You! Sick and Crack-ed — Crack-ed" it cawed at him in distress. He ached, a man trying to remember a pleasant dream in a waking nightmare. "But my book, I have been here without it for — for so long I have forgotten the procedure!" The raven-quilled healer took another dozen, staggering steps before turning again to face the man, who was watching his strides with contempt. "You. You never told me your name, Crack-ed man."

"It seems you already know it. What bitter irony, that I cross paths with a doctor that can prescribe my name, but not my cure. What, then, do you seek this book of yours in this shadow of a shadow?" He appeared again, hands folded behind his back, eye-to-eye with the beast, or at least as near as its beak would allow. "If you had it, then could you free me from this pain and sickness?" Porcelain shards fell from his splintering lips as he spoke.

The yellow iris constricted the black of the beast's eye to a pinprick. "I could, and there is no doubt of it." The avian skull, covered with a hood of midnight plumes, turned slowly back to the direction he had been travelling in. "Still… it is as though this place is without end. What resides here?"

"That's simple. What brought you here?"

The sight of the terror that had lead him to this corridor filled his mind again. Only in his memory, it seemed, could he see it clearly, and he had only one word for it. "Anguish."

"Anguish." agreed the other.

"Anguish!" confirmed the walls as they melted away, seeming to turn all at once from black marble to inky acid.

The Anguished Lord made his countenance to shine down upon them. From the void of pitch above emerged, as though from an immense distance, an alabaster mask. It glared down at them, impossibly large, twisted at once with sadistic glee and unimaginable agony. The Lord's gaze stripped their thoughts, their egos, their very selves away, and twisted them like puppets.

They both watched in horror as one of the beast's bony talons extended slowly out and tore open the Cracked man's chest, fracturing porcelain with his touch like knives. It crushed the fragments of his body, and reached into the man's very core, where the Anguished Lord had hidden his memory, an eternity ago. His clawtips touched lightly against the familiar, comforting shape of his journal.

The Cracked man fell, twisted and, he hoped, dying to the ground. He felt his back crunch and splinter apart painfully as he struck whatever imperceptible force suspended them in the black void surrounding them.

The doctor's mind sat there, in his hand. Almost afraid to believe it, his other talon reached up, pulling the covers of the book apart. The pages, the writing, the procedure. It all came rushing back, almost as though it had never left, as his hand turned frantically from page to page, needing no more than an instant for each to sear itself back into view from the long-lost pits of his memory.

His purpose returned, he fell to his knees, withdrawing his tools from his bag, working fast to apply the cure he had spent so, so long unable to. His actions blurred the line between earthen-work and medicine, piecing the broken and dying patient back together with a calm and determined claw. He didn't look up when the Anguished Lord drew so near overhead that its ink-black hate dripped into the fractured lines of the Cracked Man; indeed he had been wondering where he was to procure such a rare reagent. He wasted no time filling the beaker he had—

the beaker he had made long ago?

By the time the Doctor's mind found its way from the labyrinth into which it had stumbled, his body had finished the surgery without him.

The Cracked Man stood, his sickness gone, though the black resin of the cursed Lord's hate lingered between the repaired fragments of his form. Judging by the vigor with which gesticulated, his pain was gone as well. He was holding the sneering mask, arguing with it.

"You think what, that I would be so overjoyed at my treatment that I will offer you my very body in recompense? You tyrant, you demon, I will have no part of your schemes. I have my health, and you have my thanks, and those are all the gifts that will be exchanged between us." He flung the mask from his right hand.

It reappeared in his left. He glared at it, icily. It laughed at him, mockingly. When it spoke, its voice dripped with venom. "You act as though you ever had a choice in the matter." Ebony tendrils snaked from its mouth as the lord of Black expressed his only act of loyalty to his Hanged King: "None shall walk Alagadda without a mask!"

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