The Dust called to him in dreams.
It dry whispers caressed his mind until he woke screaming and sweat dripped from his pores, reaching for the flagon of wine he kept by his bed.
It amused itself by alternating between grand visions of realised ambition and prophecies of agonised failures, perfect recollections of defeat designed to mock him until he would stride down into the bowels of the castle and confront it. Despite the subtle tortures of age, Paul’s capacity for suffering was infinite. He stood in its cell and recited the chants to reinforce the barriers which held it in place until his voice gave out and he carried on in a series of dry, wasted barks.
Laughter drifted to him from the darkness and he stood with his head bowed.
‘You’re not the man we thought you were.’ It said.
He raised his eyebrows.
‘Your wit is invaluable.’ Paul said.
It chuckled like the bubbling of blood from a slit throat.
‘We are searching for them. A little joke at your expense amuses us.’ It said.
Paul breathed in through his nose and glared at the shadows.
‘I thought you might have picked up on how they got past you.’ Paul said.
The Dust lashed out at the barrier which made purple and white lightning crack like a whip against the cobblestones.
‘We could ask you the same thing but we know the answer. Your love of the little blonde boy makes you weak.’ It said.
Paul swallowed and turned away, gritting his teeth to hide his anger and fear.
‘We will find them both, Paul. Our covenant is sacred.’ It said.
Paul’s breath became thick like broth in his lungs as he sucked in the thin, cold air to gain control of his emotions.
‘Don’t hurt Eilhu.’ He said.
The Dust laughed at his request but Paul recited a chant which made The Dust squall with discomfort.
‘We understand. Hurting us does not make us any more compliant.’ It said.
Paul was drunk with exhaustion but his will and fear kept him alert. The Dust was quick to take advantage of any weakness in Paul’s defences.
It was a terrible ally but a wondrous weapon to possess. Paul had scoffed at such things before but time and circumstance had made his words into ashes, bitter to the last swallow.
‘Any more than mocking me will allow me to loosen your bonds. This aperture is enough for the both of us.’ He said.
He smiled at the shadows.
‘I have given you my children, Paul. Will you give me yours?’ it said.
Paul shook his head. Ernst had crossed the borders of their lands, or the thing Ernst had become and with it had gone Paul’s hopes for a subtle, quiet resolution to their troubles.
They had not acted within the borders of his lands. His arrangement protected the people from the worst depredations of The Dust and it was one of the slender notions which allowed him to believe himself in control of the situation.
The wound in his shoulder throbbed and as he pressed his palm against it, it gave off a suckling, damp heat.
‘I’ve given enough.’ He said.
The Dust laughed.
‘We decide.’ It said.
Its voice was not singular. Paul heard a choir of different ages and pitches. The frail pleading of an elderly supplicant, the shrill calls of a cornered child and amongst them, some of the sacrifices made on his path to the present.
The Dust knew when to place them ahead.
He heard his brother’s voice now, set like an insect in amber to the volume and tone he used before he died.
Calling his wife’s name as his brother watched the poison take effect.
Her voice was a mocking chime of denial. Laughter at his passion and presumption. She had seen through his use of pity as a weapon to the glacial ambition underneath too late.
She died first because he loved her more than his brother. He wept for them at his coronation.
Fatherhood changed a man. Not for the better, in Paul’s case. A single spark of joy set him ablaze and the years in secret had stolen the light from his soul, made him into the man who would find the names of great and terrible powers and make deals with them.
Paul walked out of the cell. He vowed to find his son and bring him home.
Eilhu would succeed him, even if Paul had to destroy a kingdom to do it.
The call came to him in his dreams and he went down to the cell, eager for news.
‘They found his friend but Eilhu got away.’ It said.
Paul’s heart leapt with hope and he asked if they had captured the Wild Man. He wanted to know the trick of resurrection performed before his eyes.
‘And did your by-blows bring him to ground?’ he said.
The Dust told him no, they had not. Paul’s hands clenched with thwarted ambition.
‘One forest spirit resisted your weapons.’ He said.
The Dust roared with petulance and anger, tested the wards against it until the air shook with its anger.
‘A forest spirit? Do you believe it’s all He is?’ it said.
His sister-in-law’s voice. Beneath its bonds, the Dust knew how to hurt him. Much like she did.
Paul gasped as a bolt of pain travelled up his arm and went into his head, slapping him to the ground beneath its force.
When he awoke, he was not alone in his head anymore.
The Dust was with him.
He tried to speak the wards but his lips sealed shut.
The Dust giggled, close as a lover inside his head. Paul wept but his eyes were dry and when he left the room, something else looked through his eyes.
It’s terrible ambition dwarfed Paul’s and its love, black as pitch, was waiting for this moment. Paul watched it all happen and hoped Eilhu would escape over service to the things which lived beneath his skin.
Paul had sought to rule Hell itself but not become it.