Liturgy of Blood - Part V

Duke Thomas excused himself from their presence to oversee some matter that required his attention, and so Father Hough was left to continue the Patriarch's tour of the Keep. Of course, the real reason for the horse's flight had been to allow the Followers a chance to discuss things of a religious matter freely. Hough doubted that Akabaieth would not realize that was Thomas's intent, especially when the young priest broached his first question.

"What do the other bishops think of your coming here, Father?"

Akabaieth glanced over at Vinsah who shrugged, his ancient face long since given over to this plan. The two Yeshuel were impassive as usual. "Only a few of them know, those that had to know. Many of them do not like it. Many of them still think that this place is the home of demons."

"But you said my pastoral duties here were genuine!" Hough objected as they continued on down the long corridor. They were crossing from the more ornate wing of the Keep towards the blocky half, where most things were, including the Chapel that the boy priest so desperately wanted to show the Patriarch. Lothar was waiting there as well, tending to the priestly duties in Hough's absence.

"And I believe they are," Akabaieth replied. "Not all of the Bishops are in agreement."

Hough could not believe the words he was hearing. It went counter to everything he had been taught and learned about his faith. "You mean they haven't simply accepted your decision? But you are Abba's voice in this world, Father!"

It was a good thing that they were alone in the hall, for Hough was becoming quite agitated, shaking his little fists like an angry child told he could not have dessert. The Pontiff simply shook his head sadly, the lines of age showing clearly in that expression. "I wish it were so, but many of the Bishops have begun to doubt my legitimacy. Some have even accused me of being a false Patriarch."

Hough was aghast, tears forming in his eyes at such horrific news. "That cannot be!"

Vinsah sighed and spoke his own piece. "Father Hough, it is the truth. I myself was one very such person who doubted our Patriarch. Though I came with him, I doubted the wisdom of this action the entire journey. I only believed that he was doing the right thing when I saw the faces of your Keepers, and knew them to be true."

"But if you believed us to be demons, then why did you come?" Hough had stepped away from the Bishop Vinsah, staring up and down his ecclesiastical robes, wondering if he still was against them secretly.

"Because I serve the Patriarch, and despite my own misgivings, he is the voice of Abba in this world. Our disagreement does not change that. It simply means that I do not know all that I ought." Vinsah admitted, not gazing at his master, unable to meet the ancient man's eyes. Yet, there was a look of solemn peace on Akabaieth's face, as if his servant's anxieties had been known to him all along.

They turned a corner, and Francis Hough tried to collect his thoughts. Having been the priest of one of the remotest parts of the Follower faith, he had never had much contact with the elite priesthood circling Yesulam. Never had he heard of any of them questioning the Patriarch's decisions, once they were made. At least not in this manner. Certainly he had pondered why the Patriarch had reached a certain decision, and so questioned it to understand it, but never to refute it. From what Vinsah and Akabaieth had described, many of the other Bishops were trying to undermine the authority granted by Yahshua to the line of Patriarchs. It struck the boy as heresy.

"And what of these other priests?" He finally asked, seeing as none of the men from Yesulam were going to provide him with an answer. "Do they feel as you did, Bishop Vinsah?"

"I do not know what is in each of their hearts, but I believe that after this journey, they will come around and stand in harmony with the Patriarch."

"That was another of my hopes," Akabaieth interjected. "I could not tell it to Duke Thomas, as it would only cause unrest in the Followers here. They do know that some of their brethren hate them for what they've become, but they are still part of the body of Yahshua. If we reveal what people like me have let that body become, they will despair, and I do not wish them to face that, not when what we shall do here will start to heal that body."

Hough sighed slowly, his thoughts still a mess. "Then why tell me?"

"Because you ought to know, as you must watch over our flock here." Akabaieth raised one hand to his head, as if from fatigue. The Yeshuel moved a step closer to him, their eyes wary. But the moment was quick, and soon the man had regained his composure. "And also because I owe you an explanation for why I had put off your request to appoint a priest over this place.

"Many of the Bishops who argued that Metamor was a spawning ground for demons pointed out that no priest had ever come here and suffered the curse. Some claimed that only a true man of Eli could face the magic and remain in a way to preserve their position. In other words, it is good that you became a child, Hough, otherwise I could never have legitimized this parish without tearing the Ecclesia in half. Had you become an animal or a woman, all hope for Metamor's redemption would have been lost."

Francis took a deep breath, not saying a word. He'd held those same fears last Spring when he'd still been an adult. But Akabaieth was continuing, and so he returned his attention to the Patriarch's voice. "Even so, with you a child, there were still those who objected to my decision. They claimed that a child could not be a priest, even though there was nothing in our traditions which spoke against it. Some of them accepted however, and so the situation is not nearly as grave as it was a year ago, but the debate continues. My presence here has only brought it back out again."

"But it had to be done," Vinsah countered.

"Yes, you are right, Vinsah," Akabaieth said softly, almost forlornly. "I wish that they would see."

"They will see, once you show them," Vinsah repeated, placing a consoling hand on the man's back. The Yeshuel stared at it with one eye, as if they were ready for it to spontaneously change into a dagger or some other weapon.

"Thank you, my good friend," Akabaieth then said, sharing a bit of personal warmth that moved deeper than any smile he had favoured the Followers here at the Keep with. "I do hope that we are right."

Vinsah returned the smile, his own face having started to show the lines of age. Hough guessed him to be forty at least, maybe even fifty. Nobody could ever guess his own age, for he would always appear to be ten or twelve for the rest of his life. It would be awkward for most to treat him as an adult outside of Metamor, even if they knew how old he really was.

"So the division runs deep in the Ecclesia over Metamor?" Hough asked finally, though he wished that he did not have to.

"The Bishops of the Southern continent don't care about Metamor at all," Vinsah replied tartly. "Their indifference has allowed this situation to grow disproportionately massive. In all reality, the divisions exist on several levels. Only about Metamor though are they so open about it."

"Again, that is why we are here, to show them that this place is one blessed by Abba." Akabaieth pointed towards the walls with a magnanimous gesture. "And what of your parish here? I cannot remember the number of Keepers whom I have greeted so far. How thrives your ministry?"

Hough stood a little taller. "Well, most of them were delighted to know that this parish is now officially recognized by the Ecclesia. It has given many hope that they may one day be able to walk freely in other kingdoms too. Several of the Followers here had been depressed because they felt so isolated from the rest of humanity, but with my appointment here, they have grown chipper again.

"Tensions between ourselves and the Lightbringers are minimal, as Thomas said. The head priestess of their order here, Raven hin'Elric, is quite professional, and does not interfere in our work. As per the agreement Duke Thomas and I reached this last Spring, I've made no attempt to convert any of the Lothanasi, but several Keepers of various sects of our own faith have returned to full union with the Ecclesia."

"Ah, that is good to hear." Akabaieth smiled pleasantly. "It pains me more to see those who follow Yahshua to be divided to the point that we cannot worship together anymore, than it does to see others following a different path."

"As do I," Hough added, nodding as they continued down the hallway. It normally did not take Hough this long to make his way to the Chapel, but he knew that the Keep was giving them the privacy and length they needed to talk.

"Now, this Chapel you mentioned, where did it come from again?" Akabaieth asked, as if sensing Hough's thoughts.

"Well, it just one day appeared in the Keep. Nobody had ever seen it before until Madog and I found it while playing catch one morning."

"Madog?" Vinsah queried, his face a mix of curiosity. "Playing catch?"

Hough blushed slightly at that. "Madog is a mechanical fox. Misha found him about a year or so ago, and has rebuilt him and repaired him. He lives here at the Keep, treading the passages in ways few of us understand."

"A mechanical fox?" Akabaieth asked, his face alight with wonder. "Is he intelligent?"

Hough nodded emphatically. "Not only that, but I believe he has a soul."

"Curious," Akabaieth murmured, running one hand across his chin. "Is it a human soul?"

The boy priest shrugged. "I do not know, it does not feel quite right. I do not understand how it was placed in that body, but there is life behind those mechanical eyes. I cannot describe it, you would have to meet him to understand."

"I do hope that I will have that chance. Madog sounds quite intriguing. There are more wonders here at Metamor than I think I have ever glimpsed before." A distant expression clouded the old man's eyes for a moment, and then it was gone. "What were you saying before?"

Hough quickened his step a moment and continued his story. "Anyway, I was walking the Keep by myself one morning, trying to straighten out my thoughts. And then I ran into Madog, who was clutching the metal ball in his mouth. For some reason, I have always been friends with that mechanical fox, and he with me. I cannot explain it better than that.

"Anyway, his presence brightened my mood, and so I would roll the ball he had, and he would go chase after it, and bring it back. He accompanied me all the way back to my quarters, and then wandered down this door I had never seen before. Inside of it was the Chapel, as if it had always been there."

"So how did it come to be there?" Akabaieth pressed, ever so gently.

"Well, the Keep made it essentially. You know of the magical structure of this place. Things move around and reform at a whim almost. Not quite at a whim as things are pretty constant most of the time, but you may never take the same path to any place in this Keep if you wish, no matter how many times you go there.

"Madog told me that Kyia, the spirit of Metamor, had built this place for me. He'd asked her too if you can believe that. Knowing Madog and this wonderful place, I do believe it, even if others only think it a tale one tells children."

Kashin raised one eyebrow whimsically as he gazed at the boy priest before him, but said nothing. Vinsah cast Akabaieth a concerned frown, but the ancient priest only nodded solemnly. "And who is this Kyia? A servant of Eli?"

"I believe so, though the Lightbringers claim her as one of their pantheon."

Vinsah snorted, "They'd have claimed Yahshua too if they could."

Akabaieth held up his hand, and gave his aide a sharp look, one of the first that Hough had ever seen the Patriarch give. In that moment, Francis understood how this gentle grandfather of a man could have been a warrior for hate and persecution in his younger days, for the fire of it was still burning behind the mask of solemnity. "We are a guest in a house that is traditionally theirs. I wish to bring peace between us, so we must be understanding of them if we are to expect the same courtesy from them."

Vinsah looked terribly ashamed of himself, his face set in an apologetic moue. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned against you and our Abba in my hasty words."

Akabaieth nodded and placed one of his ancient hands against the man's face, stroking the weary cheek. "You are forgiven." He then turned back to Hough and offered him a consoling smile. "And you believe this Kyia serves Eli?"

Hough thought for a moment. "Yes, I do."

"Does she help the Lightbringers as well?"

"From all that I have heard, she assists all the Keepers, no matter their faith."

"Interesting," Akabaieth said, running his hand across his chin, eyes turned inward.

"There are books about her in the library I believe," Hough offered. "I am sure that you could peruse them at some point during your stay if you wished."

The Patriarch shook his head gently, smiling familiarly at them all. "No, I do not believe I will have much time for study while I am here. Tomorrow I will take a brief tour of the library before I meet with Raven hin'Elric, but afterwards I want to walk through the town and see the people, be they of our flock or not."

Father Hough nodded as he saw the double doors to the chapel finally. The private entrance to the beautiful hall was still through his room, but the Keep had provided with main doors for the rest to come through, so they would not disturb the privacy of his chambers. The doors themselves were made from thick, stout, oak with crossbeams of hickory. There was a locking mechanism inside, but Hough had never seen fit to use it.

"Here we are, I'm sure Father Lothar will be delighted to meet you finally."

"The new Ellcaran priest?" Vinsah asked.

"Yes, that is him. He arrived this morning asking if you'd shown up yet. You may blame him for revealing your coming." Hough winked playfully at the Pontiff, feeling his boyish spirits rising yet again. Sometimes, there were advantages to being a child, such as the fact that his mind was too excitable to stay worried for long over some lurking threat leagues distant. Then again, becoming distracted when he saw a kite flying outside the chapel windows while giving his Homily did tend to embarrass him.

The Patriarch gave out a little laugh at the returned good humour, but said nothing else until they had passed through the doors and stood in the Chapel. His eyes traced the rows of pews, all the way up to the altar and the crucifix hanging behind it. Then, he scanned the vaulted ceiling, the rather echoing sound that came back with each breath, and then the stained glass windows along each balcony. Everywhere he met colours and patterns that were so familiar to the Ecclesia, yet with an added twist. Many of the depictions featured animals in the guises of men, much like life at Metamor. Only the crucifix itself portrayed an unaltered human, a fact noticed by all.

"It's beautiful," Iosef said, unable to stay silent in the face of such splendour.

The Patriarch's eyes had returned from the clerestory, and was once again gazing at the pews, in which sat a few Keepers, kneeling and praying to towards the altar. "Very beautiful," he affirmed in a quiet voice, taking a few steps forward across the tiled stones. His eyes settled on a man in priestly cassock sitting with a woman who appeared to be more of a dog. She appeared to have been crying. The two of them then embraced in a light hug, the woman's tongue reaching out to lick at the man's ear reflexively. Akabaieth's voice was soft, barely audible as he said, "Very beautiful indeed."

Kee found himself before the Duke's personal chambers. He'd been looking for Thalberg, and he'd wound up here, so knew that the alligator must be inside talking with Thomas. The two guards saw him, and recognized the coyote instantly for who he was. One of them knocked on the door, and opened it calling out, "The messenger Kee is here."

Thomas's voice rang back, "Let him in."

The guard held wide the door, and with a nod of thanks, Kee passed through, his tail flicking nervously behind him. Thalberg was sitting in one of the Duke's ancestral chairs, his long tail draped over one side, his yellow eyes peering at the coyote curiously. Thomas was standing next to his Steward, a small tumbler in his thick fingers.

"Is something the matter, Kee?" Thomas asked, noting the coyote's nervous trepidation. "You look like somebody just threatened to dump their ale down your trousers."

The coyote wagged his long bushy tail in agitation, but could not help but to laugh at the bizarre analogy. "I've two messages for the Steward, but it is good that ye are here, for they would be well spent on your ears as well, my liege."

"Well, no need to keep us waiting, Kee. What terrible news has you in such a bunch?"

"Well, it is not really terrible, it will just interfere with your plans for the banquet this evening," Kee admitted, scuffling his paw along the rich maroon carpeting. "The first is that we just received a letter from Lorland stating that Prince Phil will be late returning from the castle. Apparently, their business there is taking longer than expected."

Thalberg and Thomas exchanged glances for a moment. They both knew that Wessex had asked for Phil's company while at the dead Loriod's estate. They also knew that the boy mage was there trying to restore Macaban to humanity and free him from the feral state those old spells had left him in several weeks ago. If he were going to be late returning, it was likely that something had not gone as intended.

"Well, how late did the letter say?" Thalberg asked, the first to speak. "I can easily delay the banquet for an hour if necessary."

Kee shook his head. "It did not say how late he would be, only that he would be late and to start without him if necessary."

"The Patriarch wished to meet Prince Phil, and if it is my power to grant, I will," Thomas declared intently, as if moved by some unseen force. "Yet Thalberg is right, we cannot delay the banquet forever. If need be, we shall start without the Prince and hope that something can be arranged later." He appeared thoughtful for a moment, his equine head gazing towards a window. Kee noted that the Duke had removed the ceremonial robe and was now dressed in the undershirts, still fancy, but hardly as ostentatious. "You said that was the first thing you had?"

"Oh yes, the other is that Zhypar Habakkuk has declined your invitation," Kee added, again scuffling his paw across the carpet. He could see that Thalberg was most upset with the refusal.

"But he's a Patildor!" The great alligator objected. "What in the world is possessing that marsupial mind of his to reject such an invitation!"

"Come to think of it," Thomas murmured, "I didn't see him at the greeting either. Could he possibly have taken ill?"

Kee shook his head. "He was in his office at the Writer's Guild. He'd locked his door, and wasn't coming out. He may be ill, but he sounded fine to me."

"Even if he wasn't Patildor, he is the head of the Writer's Guild. He should attend the banquet given in honour of such a dignified leader as the Patriarch. Metamor's chief trade is its books after all!" Thalberg continued to grouse.

"If he refuses to come because he is ill, that is one thing," Thomas gave his Steward a warning glance. "But you are right, it is extremely rude of him to reject the invitation without explanation. I shall go talk to him myself."

"Oh course, my liege," Kee nodded and bowed. "Are there any messages you wish for me to deliver?"

The Duke shook his head, "Not at this time, no. Wait, find the Patriarch and inform him that the banquet will be delayed for a short while." In a quiet voice he added, "I cannot imagine he will complain."

Again, the coyote messenger bowed. "Of course, my liege. He will know in minutes of your words." And with that, the humble servant returned back through the doors and sped off down the corridor, nearly falling to all fours to run.

Thalberg breathed heavily. "This wouldn't be the first time that kangaroo has made life difficult for others you realize?"

"Yes, he seems to have changed a great deal in the last year." Turning to face the alligator, the horse lord added, "But everyone changes as the years pass. I shall speak with him myself. You instruct your staff to keep the meals warm while we wait for Prince Phil's arrival. I want to be notified the moment his carriage is spotted."

"I will see to it that it is done," Thalberg inclined his long snout, closing his yellow eyes momentarily. "Shall I have Zhypar's place at the table changed?"

Thomas shook his head, his tail flicking between his thighs. "No, not yet at any rate. Let me talk with him and see if he will not change his mind. I cannot think of the last time a visitor of this stature came to the Keep. I'd hate for anything to go wrong, especially when it is done from stubbornness."

"Of course, I am sure you will make your point clear to him," Thalberg nodded his head again, and rose from his seat and left the room. Thomas followed after him, closing the door behind him. Two of the four guards standing out the door fell into step behind the Duke as the lord of Metamor and the Steward went in separate directions.

He was joined by two more guards rather quickly, and the procession of the five of them continued on their way through the halls of the Keep until they found themselves in the courtyard outside, walking towards the old barracks where the Writer's Guild made its home. The tiled roof shone brightly in the late afternoon sun, while the heraldic quill appeared to have been freshly painted. The back door though was where they entered. Two of the guards stopped and stood outside, while the other two followed their liege on in.

Habakkuk occupied the largest of the three offices, as his new station demanded. Prince Phil made a point to spend at least one or two hours a day here, but of late, that had proven impossible. Thomas idly wondered how long the rabbit would let that continue before stepping aside to let another take his position.

The kangaroo's door was closed of course, and a gruff voice responded at the Duke's knock. "I'm busy, can you please come back later."

"Zhypar, this is Duke Thomas. I was hoping you could explain to me why you refused the invitation to the banquet this evening."

The sound of something falling over and crashing to the floor could be hear beyond the door. One of the guards stifled a laughed. Soon, the sound of feet shuffling to the door could be heard, and then the sound of a bolt turning. Thomas wondered why the kangaroo felt it was necessary to lock himself inside. When the door opened, he saw that the face before him was uncombed, and haggard. "Duke Thomas, I was not expecting you. Please, come in."

Thomas crossed the threshold, while the two guards took position outside the door. "I rather doubted you did. I don't often come here after all."

Gazing about the room, he saw that the desk was arranged into neat piles of papers, most likely stories he had either read through and critiqued or stories waiting to be read. His stool was overturned behind his desk, and a few papers had fallen to the floor as well. A fresh piece of parchment was soaking up a bit of spilled ink as well, obscuring the first few letters written there.

"And you want to know why I turned the offer down," Habakkuk added, his long tail marred by a bit of ink as well. He turned to look at it and grimaced, running his paws across each other. "I'm not very presentable right now in case you hadn't noticed."

"The banquet is not for another hour at least, and besides, Prince Phil is going to be late arriving. We cannot start without him either. You'll have plenty of time to clean up. It must be something else."

Zhypar turned away, unable to look the Duke in the eye. There was something in the marsupial's voice that set Thomas on edge, but he could not quite identify what it was. "I just do not wish to meet him."

"But why?" Thomas held out his arms, his expression of befuddlement genuine.

"It would be too hard to explain. I just do not wish to meet him. Is that not reason enough?" Habakkuk growled angrily, his upset showing through clearly in the way he stood there, crossing his arms.

Thomas returned the gesture, his hoof like hands nestling between his elbows. "No, it is not. You are the Head of the Writer's Guild. That position carries with it a responsibility. You have agreed to meet those responsibilities, and one of those is that you will be present to entertain visiting dignitaries. Now, it is not one you will have to fulfill often, but when the time comes, you will do it if you are so able. Were you ill, it would be one thing. But you are healthy, and so I will not have you ruin one of the most important meals we shall ever have here at the Keep simply by refusing to dignify the Patriarch with your presence. Don't make me order you to come, Zhypar. I do not wish to do that."

Habakkuk stared back at his desk, as if he were only dimly aware of the Duke's presence. There was something else, some other world filling his vision for a moment. And then it was gone, like a bit of dust reflecting the light until it landed in the still waters of a nearby lake. "I probably could make myself sick rather quickly."

Thomas whickered angrily now. "You will clean yourself up, and you will be at the banquet. Do you understand that?"

Habakkuk nodded slowly. "Of course. I will be there."

"Good, now don't delay. Phil may arrive at any time." And with that, Thoms turned on his hind hooves, and stomped out of the room, leaving the kangaroo alone in his office once again.

Zhypar sighed slowly, stepping back over to his desk, clumsy on his large feet. He righted the spilled ink, and set down another sheet of parchment to soak it up. He'd been writing something, but the black ink had blotted it out. For that, he was glad.

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