A Deal with the Devil
They still lingered; some vestiges of consciousness of the Ogdru Jahad remained even after the portal closed. It had taken two of Kroenen's masterpieces with it, the portal generating machine, and his hand. His hand was his favorite hobby, a perfect fusion of bone and steel wires and gears. He had tested so many mechanical improvements on it and later used them in other machines. The portal machine could be made again--he still had all his notes, but the fusion of biology and magic and mechanics in his hand was a total loss.
Grigori had hinted this might happen: that in order to complete project Ragna Rok, sacrifices would be needed. The Master probably hadn't meant himself, but then he had been born and died many times, perhaps he it didn't matter to him very much. Kroenen still felt the demonic power around him, and drew on its strength enough to pull his ruined body away off the twisted machinery. He felt the spar of metal tear his flesh anew as he fell off it, and blood started to flow quickly out of his stomach and down his legs. This was not the sort of controlled pain he liked, but long practice allowed him to endure it silently anyway. And the magic, the magic helped. In truth he would have bled to death by now if he had not drawn on every vestige of power available after the collapse of the portal. Deep in the shadows around the ruined abbey he found a sheltered corner and pulled himself under the wingspan of a stern visaged stone angel. He listened to the rain beat on the stone and to the muffled shouts of the soldiers as they cleaned up their dead. Finally a helicopter descended and took them all away and he was left to himself with the ruins of his plans and the grave of the last hope for the Fatherland. Kroenen's consciousness was spotty as he hauled himself back to the altar littered with fragments of machinery, shards of glass and the pulverized stones of this perverted church. Dawn could not be more than an hour away, and some things worked better in the dark. No, it was no good, he could feel death reaching for him, those icy fingers he'd so often sent for others. He could smell it coming between the raindrops, and with a breath that felt final, he sent up a prayer to his gods, begging not to die yet. His heart stopped. Kroenen knew his soul would stay for a few minutes after his body died. Certain spells he had practiced on his victims would keep it around a little longer. Other spells could trap it there, encased in dead flesh. He could not form the words to hang on a little longer. Then a blaze of dark fire filled his mind, as his bargain was accepted. It would not be life, but neither would it be death. The gods granted his limbs enough strength so he could perform the ritual, but he knew if he stopped for a moment, he would be dead. He reached up and took off the mask. It had been a long time since he had it off outside, and the raindrops felt good, but he did not pause. He reached into his coat with his remaining hand, and drew out his favorite scalpel from his breast pocket. Kroenen's body was crisscrossed with scars from the hundreds of surgeries he had done on himself. Metal running through every limb made him faster and stronger than any man of purely flesh and blood, but he had never touched his face with his knife. He had been proud his face, its adherence to the Nazi ideal, even though he covered it; but perhaps the Ogdru Jahad knew that, and that's why they made this demand. His eyelid fluttered as he placed the scalpel against it, and he wished he had his other hand to steady himself. It hardly hurt, but his mind rebelled: this was meaningless, purposeless vandalism, would only harm him, and not improve him. Cutting his lips hurt, but it was his imagination, providing him with images of how he would look after that made him want to vomit. Soon was done, and he let the bloody pieces of flesh fall to the ground. The unnatural strength left him and he collapsed on the altar. Ilsa watched from the shadows as Kroenen went through these motions. She watched as Karl removed his helmet and his white-blond hair shone like a halo in the remaining arc-light. After he cut his face he crumpled to the ground, and an odd roiling darkness surrounded him. The sky lightened with the first gray of dawn and, the shadows on the altar grew deeper. Something about the quality of those shadows made Ilsa stay away. She stared off toward the sunrise. Grigori was gone. She had built her world around him, and he was gone and Germany would fall. He had told her more than he told Kroenen, saying she would understand. But she had not wanted to hear that this night's work would cost him his life, again. She supposed she must pick up the pieces and carry on with his work, preparing for his return, but now she just wanted to die, to fade away. Finally the darkness at the altar receded and Ilsa gathered her courage and walked over. As she drew closer Kroenen sat up and turned to look at her. His face was a mask of blood, so different from the smooth shell he usually wore. He looked up at her for a moment through lidless eyes that seemed unnaturally large. He raised his hand to his face as if to wipe it off, but then lowered it and reached for his visor. Kroenen sat for a moment, head bowed. He raised an arm to her as if he needed help to stand and made an unintelligible noise. Ilsa had only touched him half a dozen times, and had rarely seen him ask for help, but she wordlessly helped him to his feet. A fine dusting of sand fell from his coat. "I've radioed for a helicopter," she offered as they walked slowly over to the landing pad. "They should be here in a few hours."  Kroenen couldn't remember what happened after the darkness took him, but he knew how changed he was when he returned. He felt dried up and light, like he might blow away on the wind, and all of the pain he felt every day, from every metal part that didn't fit quite right, was gone. He missed it, as he missed his hand. The pain had been his identity; it told him every day how dedicated he was to the task of perfection, and now it was gone. Ignoring the looks Ilsa gave him, he reached into the hole in his abdomen, and felt the gritty sand that replaced his blood. His internal organs felt papery, like the skin of a mummy. The muscles of his face tried to smile, but spasmed instead into the nothingness where his lips had been; he was a mummy now, he realized, or near enough--a revenant. Ilsa turned away in disgust, and he reached further in. He could feel the shattered vertebrae with his fingers. For all that was missing or broken, though, Kroenen could feel a new, darker strength, and new possibilities. The potential for improvements was staggering and he was lost in happy plans when the helicopter arrived.
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