Chapter IIShining Spear, Dancing Death
30th August, Yerusahyn
Sentries patrolled the highest points of the surrounding walls, at once beckoning and forbidding. These guardians clanked in their armour, several small Machina patrolled the bridge, and people coming in through the gates received both visual and hands-on inspections. This had not been the case fifty years before, but in the midst of active war, everyone needed to be checked. All had their passes ready, be they legitimate or not, and all were ready to offer up their gratitude to the Seraphic Church for safe deliverance in time of war.Standing above the main gate, looking at the scene below, stood an imposing and yet sorrowful figure most unsuited to such a place. It was a man, perhaps crowning forty, with a thin beard spreading across the line of his chin, and long deep-crimson hair sliding down along and across his bared back like the tresses of a weeping willow. He looked to all the world like a statue, standing there and gazing out across the farmlands, but he lived. His hair moved in the wind, and his eyes looked over the land he had pledged himself to defend for what remained of his life.‘Blessed Seraphim, am I worthy still of your good graces? I suppose it does not have much weight on their scales, even for a Sinbearer.’‘Ask them when you are brought before their alters and the sum of your life is spoken by the Arbiter Mikhail. That is best.’He turned. Another was approaching him from further along the wall, a woman wearing the kind of clothing many associated with male travellers. She tossed her head, shaved bare of any hair but for one long tress that ran down the back of her head and across her armoured shoulders. Such a gay gesture could not fail to raise a smile in her dour comrade. Her following comment raised a laugh.‘I wish I had not shaved so recently. I could make my hair shake and sway even if there were no wind to prompt it. What think you, Grigori?’Grigori responded in a voice lightened by her words. ‘I think, good Nuriel, that your choice in styling is your own. And if there was ever a woman who would not take the word of a man who was an equal, it is you.’Nuriel laughed in turn. ‘A good answer! Come, maybe we should drink on that. Your shift is ending and I am sure your throat is parched.’‘Indeed it is, and I would it were not so.’The two made for one of many stairways leading back into the city. They were about to descend when Nuriel saw another very familiar figure climbing towards them. She stopped, also causing Grigori to halt, and the two watched as the man came to stand before them. Grigori knew him at once, though he had only seen him twice and he had been gone for several weeks. A man in his late twenties, with medium brown hair, now wearing a cloak over the burnished armour and cream-gold vestments of the Church. Grigori stood to attention and bowed his head.‘Patriarch Cassiel. We are honoured. We did not expect you to be back so soon.’Cassiel smiled. ‘You need not be so formal. We are not within the Grand Cathedral, or within earshot of Eremiel. You were going somewhere?’Grigori and Nuriel looked at each other. The answer came to their faces before their mouths, and Cassiel pre-empted them.‘To the taverns?’ they nodded, and Cassiel grinned. ‘There is no need to be so sheepish. You are young, you are new to our life. Well, comparatively. I was about to go for a walk along the wall, and I feel like some company. Maybe I could walk you to the next stairway? I believe that it is closer to one of the better taverns.’‘We would be delighted.’ said Nuriel.So the three began walking together. For a short time, they walked in silence, then Cassiel spoke, again in a light and casual tone.‘How has the city been in my absence? Even I do not receive reports in the midst of such battles as the Shah’s forces wage.’‘Very quiet.’ Nuriel all but sighed. ‘Not even any crime to speak of. There was a minor disturbance with the exposure of a spy for the Shah and his heretic Scions. He is to be executed tomorrow.’‘Are any of the Sinbearers feeling their burden?’‘I believe Sinbearer Uriel is.’ said Grigori. ‘She has been suffering conflicts within her heart. She even now seeks the absolution and solace granted by the Eleven-Fold Glory. I do not entirely blame her.’‘Grigori.’ Nuriel’s voice sounded reproval.‘No need for harshness.’ said Cassiel, ‘We should all pity those who must bear sin for the good of all. But let us leave this subject and turn to another that is bound to gladden rather than weigh on our hearts. Any changes to the Church hierarchy?’‘None. All is stable, and the Grand Cathedral is packed for each Mass with the Lady Sophia. Like ancient tales when we when all knew and worshipped the blessed Seraphim.’‘Such times were blessings indeed. May they come about again, when this dire war is ended. I believe this is where we must part.’They had reached the promised stairway. Wishing him well, Grigori and Nuriel descended the steps and headed towards the tavern visible on the street corner. Cassiel watched them depart with a smile on his face and sorrow in his heart. Turning away, he continued his walk alone. Guards passed him, but they merely saluted and walked on. Church etiquette dictated who he could and could not talk with in any intimacy. So instead he walked alone in the heat of the sun, glancing out at the fields or down into the city, or even along the wall ahead.Eventually, he stopped. He had come to a point near the Grand Cathedral, where the path along the wall stopped. The wall was built into the Cathedral, which extended out towards the sacred outcrop where Yeshua was said to have communed with the Seraphim. That outcrop was sacred, a place of pilgrimage that very few were allowed to see and none were allowed to touch. To stand within the Grand Cathedral was enough for most, to see the sacred beauty that was Sophia.Descending the stairway, he entered the Cathedral garden through a little-used gateway. It overflowed with beautiful plants that basked and flourished in the warmth of Sur’s climate. Standing amid a large planting of Sun Lilies, her gown lost in the mass of reflective foliage, was the lady herself, holding one of the flower spikes in her hand. Cassiel stood at gaze. With the slight breeze, her perfect golden blonde hair, and the glorious intensity of her oval eyes, she seemed a being not meant for this world. Lady Sophia, living Saint of the Seraphic Church.His staring caught her attention, and as she turned, her perfectly-arranged hair swayed and framed her face. ‘Patriarch Cassiel. I had not expected to see you today.’It took Cassiel a few moments to regain himself. ‘Yes.... Yes indeed. I was held up by some business matters. This war with the heretics to the East is taking a toll on our people. If it were not for the Crusaders’ dedication, I feel we would have abandoned the fighting a long time ago. Even with your blessing, morale might not have held.’‘My blessing only counts for so much. People must look out for their own interests. We all must. So are we taught by our fathers and mothers.’Sophia looked down at the flower spike in her hand. She sniffed deep of the pristine flowers. She turned to Cassiel and held it out to him. Taking it, he sniffed tentatively, then quickly handed the spike back to Sophia and shielded his face let off a gigantic sneeze which agitated his hair so it was thrown about in all directions. Sophia laughed gently.‘I see you are allergic to our beautiful lilies.’‘Only when I am that close to their... scent.’ Cassiel sniffled and rubbed his nose, stifling another sneeze. ‘I had come in the hope that we might pray together in the Grand Cathedral since Mass has finished. I have meetings to attend with the Higher Conclave, and I would sooner experience tranquillity with Lady Sophia than disquiet with some wrinkled Conclavists.’Sophia laughed. ‘May the Seraphim forgive you for such truthful damnations. Even if only a few are wrinkled, I will happily pray with a man who seeks salvation from disquiet. Come.’Laying the flower spike on a small seat erected outside the lily beds, Sophia walked with Cassiel up the path towards the Cathedral’s main entrance. As they approached, they could hear singing from the higher galleries within, vague fragments of verses from the Enochian Chants. Sophia smiled with memory.‘You know, when I first came here, I disliked those singers intensely.’‘Indeed? I have always found the Enochian Chants soothing.’‘Not when they are being sung in the middle of the night while a young and tired woman is trying to get to sleep.’‘Ah. There you have me. Some members of the Lesser Conclave are perhaps overly dedicated in their devotions.’They shared an amused nod. Entering the Cathedral, they were greeted by the sweeping architecture that had taken over a hundred years to build, and a further fifty to ornament and finish. The ceiling was painted with scenes from the Seraphic Creed, the tome that formed the basis of its teachings and beliefs. At the head of the Cathedral aisle, seated on a tall dais just behind the high alter, was the symbol of the Seraphic Church; a fish with eleven fins held suspended in a bow. It was the glorious sun held aloft by the Seraphim; the Eleven-Fold Glory.The two knelt on the hassocks placed before the high alter, lowering their heads in prayer. The Enochian chanting continued in the background, but in their minds all was quiet and serene. They focused on the symbol in front of them so their hopes and dreams would reach and perhaps touch the wills of the Seraphim. None knew whether true physical manifestations of the Seraphim were anything but fever dreams from fanatics and heretics, but all knew that they existed and that they answered earnest prayers.But as she knelt in silent contemplation, Sophia could have sworn that something was watching them. That a presence was slowly moving down from the higher reaches of the nave, above the entrance to the narthax. It moved along the columns, shifting from side to side like a fish in water. As it approached, or seemed to approach, Sophia felt a cold sweat break on her brow. It finally reached the arch between the nave and the high alter, reached down with some appendage no human could rightly call a hand and–‘AH!’Sophia started and turned. Aside from one old Lesser Conclavist moving across from the North Transept on business of her own, momentarily halted by Sophia’s own cry, there was nothing to be see.‘What is the matter?’Cassiel had noted her distress. Even whispering, their voices’ echoes carried into the vaulted roof space.‘It is nothing.’ Sophia calmed her voice with difficulty. ‘It just seemed as if something moved along the nave and almost touched me. Here.’She reached up and felt her shoulder. There was no sign that anything had touched her, but still...‘I am sure it was nothing.’ said Cassiel soothingly. ‘Maybe it was indeed a Seraph answering your prayers.’‘Yes. Yes... Maybe.’The Enochian Chant had ceased, replaced by the sounds of shuffling footsteps as the Choristers made their way down from the higher galleries. Getting up slowly, Sophia bowed and headed for the South Transept. There, a doorway led into a passage which took her to her private quarters. Cassiel watched her go, and saw her raising a hand to where she had felt whatever it was touch her. It must have been her imagination, but still... He shivered slightly and rubbed his own shoulder as if it had been touched. He then saw a familiar figure walking down the aisle. A woman wearing a long robe, with a Conclavist’s truncated mitre covering her ashen hair. This in turn framed a face too dark for standard Crusader stock.‘I hope I do not intrude, Patriarch.’ her voice was soft yet pressing, ‘But the matter is urgent, and as you were alone...’Cassiel rose and bowed respectfully. ‘Not at all, Muriel. Has the meeting of the Conclave started? I trust I will not be unduly late.’‘No, not at all. I merely come to inform you that the Higher Conclave is assembling and only awaits your arrival to begin. The most pressing matter is the authorisation of extra guards for the execution tomorrow, and your seal of approval on the body’s removal to the usual burial ground.’‘I thank you. I will come at once.’Muriel bowed and departed. Cassiel looked up at the icon atop the dais, then turned and began heading back down the aisle. As he reached the junction between the nave and the two Transepts, he paused and looked about him. The original architects had created no sculptury with faces, but even so the imagery on the ceiling and the general structure made it feel as if hidden eyes were watching. Shaking off the feeling, he headed for the narthax and the passage leading off the atrium, which would take him to the separate Conclave Building. As he walked, he sighed.‘My signature to two parchments, and a man’s life is both lost and forgotten by force of our faith. Such is the burden of the Sinbearers, and their Patriarch. I, who wield the Shining Spear, who lead the Higher Conclave and answer only to the Grand Pope and Cardinals.... I must bear the greatest burden of all. Alone.’
1st September, Yerusahyn Cathedral Prison
‘Here. Your food.’Without ceremony, the jailer placed a plate of vegetable stew with fresh bread and a cup of good wine. The figure crouched in the darkest corner of the cell looked at it through his fingers. The food was comparatively richer than what he had been receiving before, perhaps to temper his fear and trepidation when standing on the scaffold. But he did not move from his hiding place until the door was closed. Then he slowly moved out into the shaft of light coming in through the window.The face that appeared in the broken sunlight might have been handsome had it not been for the strange expression it held. Not fear, not sorrow, not even happiness. It was a total lack of any definable feeling. As he sat on the bench and ate his meal, he looked up at the segmented square of sky visible to him. But he did not see cloudless splendour, only what he had always dreaded he would see one day. A man’s face, looking up from his arms, blood oozing from a chest wound. An assassination, ordered by the peers of the Seraphic Church. Performed by.... her!His task completed, the jailer returned to his little parlour, where a guard named Anders was having her own breakfast while looking through the window into the yard surrounding the scaffold. Right now it was host to the tiniest gathering of people, but come time there would be a vast throng to see the spectacle. On the further side, a special balcony for Church dignitaries would be policed, in case any aberrant citizen or foul sihr came to disrupt the event. But the yard was not devoid of morbid entertainment. There was a clunking sound as the gallows and its noose were tested. The jailer sat down and looked at Anders, shaking his head.‘Come sit, woman. There is nothing to see yet. It is not as if you will be stripped of a prime view. Are you not one of the guards who will escort Elathan to his death this coming noon?’Anders nodded and sat down. ‘It is just intriguing to watch people gather. I am always fascinated by that contradiction.’‘What contradiction?’‘We who strive to live are drawn to death.’‘That is not a contradiction, just curiosity. We seek to view death so we might avoid it. Believe me, I have seen many die by the noose and the sword, and I know how I wish to die.’‘How?’‘At a good old age in my bed, after a useful life.’‘Useful.’ Anders gave a singular chuckle, ‘I cannot clearly see how being a jailer to the condemned and reviled of Yerusahyn is “useful”.’‘I give some kind of succour to prisoners who have lost hope. Let us face it, who else would give them kindness? Who else would ask if they wish to unburden their consciences to one of the Church before death?’‘We could do that.’‘The guard is the stern armoured figure who ignores their plight, Anders. The jailer is the soft intermediary that relieves it while they can.’‘You have a strange view.’‘Maybe. But it works. Oh a curse on that scaffold.’ another loud clunk had sounded outside, ‘Can they not make the thing quieter? And why are they doing that so early? It is hours yet before the execution.’‘Why are you so agitated by it?’‘It makes me think too often of botched executions. I have seen none myself, but I have heard enough tales not to wish for one.’‘The reason they make that sound is so such botches do not occur. I doubt the people will come to see the noose take the man’s head off.’‘At least they make sure the sword is sharp at a more proper hour when heads needed to role.’‘Unless you were Aeshma, and always kept the blade dull.’The jailer winced. ‘Aeshma was a sadist. The Church is well rid of him. I am surprised they did not make him endure one of his own executions.’‘That would have been to become like him. Banishment is enough punishment for a Sinbearer. For many, compared to wandering this world without hearth or home, death would be a mercy. Even the Sinbearers have limits.’The jailer nodded at this. The Sinbearers were the Seraphic Church’s military and covert arm. They carried out the darker side of the Church’s rule; war-related duties, assassinations, executions and the like. They took these tasks upon themselves as a lifelong duty, to spare others from the sins they would mount upon themselves. These “Bearers of sin” prayed to have their sins forgiven every day, and lived with them only in the hope that they might indeed be pardoned and granted eternal bliss for their selfless suffering. His eventual reply was as Anders had come to expect from him.‘Indeed. Sinbearers do not kill people who are merely ill in the mind. On that strength, all too many must fall to their blades. But they do good works for our people. For that, we should thank them.’Anders laughed, a bitter ripple on dark waters. ‘Yes. They are indeed blessed in their duties.’‘You speak so coldly.’‘I speak the truth. They are soulless beings.’The jailer started, shocked at Ander’s near-blasphemous implication. ‘How can you say that?’‘Tell me. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a Sinbearer?’‘No?’ a question lay almost unspoken.‘I have.’‘When?’‘Ten years ago, when my unit was inspected by one of them. Sinbearer Eremiel, I believe the name was. He is a Higher Conclavist now.’‘What was it like?’Anders took her time in answering. ‘It was.... like staring into the maw of the Void. Nothing lay beyond the surface of his eyes, no sign of energy or conscience. Time and the deeds for which he asks forgiveness had eroded his soul. I was so terrified that I almost dropped my weapon. That is when I decided that I would never become one of them. I never wanted to have eyes like that.’The jailer burst into a fit of laughter. ‘You sound like some wine-addled poet. How can anyone as mighty as the Sinbearers lose their souls? They would not otherwise be entrusted with tasks so crucial to the Seraphic Church.’‘I know what I saw.’ Anders was emphatic, ‘All I saw in those eyes was an empty husk, the ghost of someone destroyed by ill deeds.’‘We shall agree to let this lie, otherwise we would likely argue all through the execution. By the way, when is that to happen?’‘When the sun touches the tallest tower of the Grand Cathedral. Near midday.’‘And where is the sun now?’‘Somewhere near the first tower. Another three hours before he is due to be brought to his death.’‘You know, he asked something very funny.’‘What?’‘He asked that the hood be put on him while he was still in the prison, or that he could wear his mask.’‘What? Is he addled in the mind? Surely he would wish to address those who come to see him die.’‘He cares not to see anyone. Or maybe it is... he cares not to let anyone see him.’‘What do you mean by that?’‘Have you not seen him? He is always crouched in the darkest corner of his cell, hiding his face from anyone who may enter. It took until a few days ago to even get a few words from him. Most of what he says to me he says in writing.’‘You let him have pen and paper? Is that not dangerous? Suppose he attempts to thwart the executioner.’‘No fear. He seems willing to face death, but he does not seem willing to take the step himself.’‘So he should be. Self-destruction is the ultimate sin.’‘In our faith. Not in his.’Further conversation was interrupted by the approach of armoured feet, along with a softer pair. The jailer and Anders rose, and the door opened to reveal two more guards and a Sinbearer. The light shone through the window directly onto the woman’s face, and the jailer instantly saw that his companion in talk had not been speaking in fancy. The eyes that stared from her otherwise divine face were dead and hollow, as if her soul had been burnt from the inside out. Her voice was fresh and bright, but the subtle life all voices normally possessed as their heart was completely missing from her own.‘Jailer, Guard Anders, I understand the prisoner will soon be ready.’Anders started. ‘But I thought the execution–’‘It has been moved forward. Patriarch Cassiel feels that it would be better for as few people as possible to see the man’s death.’‘I see.’ the jailer shuffled uncomfortably, ‘He was just having his last meal when I saw him. I will go down and check his status.’‘One of my guards will accompany you.’‘He requested that he wear the hood from the cell onwards.’‘Unusual, but not unreasonable. I have heard something about his condition. He may wear the hood. It is not as if there will be a crowd to appease.’‘Thank you. And...’‘Yes?’‘May I speak to him alone? I have developed a rapport with him, and he is nervous around strangers.’‘This too I understand and have heard. You may do so.’The jailer nodded and made his way back down to the cell, one of the guards following at a discreet distance. Once he reached the cell door, the jailer peered through the observation window and saw Elathan finishing his meal. When the bowl was put down, the jailer gently tapped on the door.‘Elathan?’He kept his eyes on the prisoner. Elathan was gently turning away, hiding his face. The jailer entered slowly, as if approaching an alarmed cat about to leap up out of reach into the higher bows of a tree.‘Elathan.’ he said gently, ‘They have moved it forward. And, if this pleases you, they are willing to agree to your request.’Elathan shifted slightly, his breathing becoming suddenly shallow, as if a sigh of relief had been quickly caught and suppressed. ‘I... That is good. The hood. Please, pass me the hood.’He reached out, one arm still hiding his face. The jailer turned to the guard, who stood at the door holding a hood of soft black cloth. The jailer lowered it gently into Elathan’s hand. It was almost snatched away and Elathan was quick to pull it over his head. He then really did sigh in relief, uncurled himself, and rose to his feet. As might be expected, his lack of vision caused him to slip on an unseen damp cobble, and the jailer needed to steady him. The guard pushed past the jailer, pulling belts from her satchel to fasten Elathan’s wrists and arms. The guard took a firm grip on the bonds holding Elathan’s wrists, while the jailer placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and began leading him forward.The journey up from the dungeons was unsettlingly easy, and as they passed the room where the jailer had been conversing with Anders, the Sinbearer began following them. When they were a set distance ahead, Anders decided to follow in turn. There was one momentary pause when an unevenly set step tripped Elathan and he nearly fell. The guard holding his bonds yanked him back onto his feet with enough force to cause welts in the skin beneath his restraints. As they approached the daylight, the Sinbearer abruptly turned and stared at Anders.‘Do you wish to see death?’Anders stopped, quelled by the Sinbearer’s sudden emotion. ‘I... Well...’The emotion faded as quickly as it had come. ‘I understand. You wish to satisfy curiosity. And perhaps I will allow it. If you wish to have such visions, then follow.’Anders realised that the Sinbearer had a point. She had never once seen or even heard the sounds of an execution, nor even used her weapons training against another living being. This would be her first sight of violent death in a human. After this minor pause, the group continued their ascent. The stairs were a special passageway connecting the dungeons to the scaffold area. It was a neat way of avoiding taking prisoners due for death through over-enthusiastic crowds who might decide to take justice upon themselves in defiance of the Church’s will.The yard before the scaffold, colloquially known as the “Dancers’ Yard”, was very quiet. Only a very few people were there, including a figure in a dark cloak leaning against one of the gatehouse towers leading into the yard. Anders came up onto that scaffold just as the jailer went down again as quickly as decency permitted. Just the thought of the upcoming spectacle and turned his face an unsettling shade of grey-green. Anders moved to the near corner of the scaffold, where she had a sidelong view of the prisoner. He was standing erect and quite still a few paces from where the noose dangled. Despite his seeming willingness to die, a sickening fear clung like the miasma from a sewer.The Sinbearer stood beside the lever that operated the gallows mechanism, and as she motioned, the guard who had guided Elathan gently pushed him forward to stand on the trapdoor. It was designed with one edge of the frame missing at the front, so an unbroken spectacle and warning of death was visible to all. As Elathan’s weight came down on the trap door, it creaked slightly. The noose was pulled down, then slipped around his neck and tightened. Even as this happened, Anders was disconcerted to see the briefest of shaking, and a slight dampness around Elathan’s crotch.Additional belts were looped around Elathan’s ankles and above his knees, then the guard backed off and turned away. There was a long pause, and high above, there could be heard the scratching of claws on stone. A few doves were pecking at some grass seed that had blown up there in recent high winds. They neither knew nor cared what was about to happen. Her eyes closed and her consciousness separated from the world around her, the Sinbearer took a firm hold on the lever. Elathan’s breathing was shuddering, infused with involuntary fear. Even as her stomach twitched and lurched in protest, the Sinbearer yanked the lever back.There was the shuttling of unseen mechanisms, the trap door fell away, and Elathan dropped the short distance the rope allowed. It was no long drop, so death would be from slow constriction. Even as Elathan was rendered unconscious and his convulsive struggles began, the Sinbearer covered her ears and jumped down from the edge of the scaffold – she began running for the side entrance to the Grand Cathedral. Anders wanted to run, but her eyes were riveted to the grotesque sight before her, even as her own bowls attempted to tie themselves into a noose to choke her heart. There was little to no sound, and after a brief period the convulsions all but ceased. He would remain there for the following half hour to make certain, but to all intents and purposes, Elathan was dead.The doves had been startled into flight by the working of the scaffold, but now they flew back to their original perch, oblivious to the scene. The cloaked figure by the gatehouse did not stir until all movement had ceased. The face just visible beneath the hood was twisted into an unpleasant smile, cold and cynical, like someone laughing at mortality itself. It also expressed a unpleasant voyeuristic satisfaction. She had watched Elathan’s preparation for death, the Sinbearer’s actions, and Ander’s continued staring at Elathan’s dying moments. And she had enjoyed seeing the awful spectacle from a safe distance.Satisfied, the figure turned and headed out through the gateway, passing between two Machina. They stirred but a fraction as she passed them, unaware of who she was and what power she held. All around her walked on in innocence, ignorant of her true nature. As she passed through the final gate and began crossing the great bridge linking Yerusahyn with Sur, a point where even larger Machina stood guard, she stopped and glanced down at the river below. This line of water, running across between the city into both annexed and unconquered lands, would soon be the bearer of momentous events and pitiable sights. Along that water, that very evening, a body would be brought in a nondescript boat, for burial in an unmarked grave.‘But,’ she said aloud in barely a whisper, ‘no burial will take place. Nor will I be the one to forestall it. For rest assured, that reed swinging from a string on the scaffold, so broken in spirit and body, will find new life when grasped anew by the benevolent hands of... Power?’The woman smirked, flicked away a fly that attempted to drink of her sweat, and carried on across the bridge towards the farmland tracks, aiming for the distant mountains beyond.
Sunday, 8 April 2018
Preview - The Leviathan Chronicle; Chapter 2
The following is the complete second chapter of my upcoming novel The Leviathan Chronicle; Genesis (provisional title). To see the first chapter, click this link. As battle rages in the heartlands of Sur, other events unfold in Yerusahyn, sacred capital of the Seraphic Church...
The Leviathan Chronicle; Genesis is set for released in Q2 2018 as a downloadable e-book and physical edition. The second part of the story will release before the end of the year.