Questioning - Part XVIII
esulam was built upon a small bluff overlooking the river Yurdon, the same river that Yahshua himself was immersed within hundreds of years ago. A radiant city on a hall that oversaw the scraggly lands that were the seat of the Ecclesia’s power. To the East, the harsh desert of dreaming flowed endlessly towards the sea and the lands beyond the kingdom’s of men. To the West the Sea of Pyralis washed at the rocky shoals, bringing in ships, spices and woods from the southern continent, as well as wool from the Pyralian Kingdoms, and furs from heathen lands to the North. To the North stretched the Steppe, a thin green line on the horizon that never changed.
But it was the presence of the hill that had allowed for the extensive tunnels beneath the city, and the intricate sewers that kept the streets and homes clean. They all flowed out into the river a good ways downstream, and from there, into the Splitting Sea itself, consigned to sink deep into the bottomless reaches of the ocean. Few ventured deep beneath the city, it was rank with decaying excrement and mildew. The few unfortunate civil engineers designated to remove clogs that developed ventured only rarely down, and usually only after taking a great deal to drink. So it would be of little concern for one man to disappear and never return from those depths – inebriated, they would tumble within the drainage system, and asphyxiate from the bad airs that lingered like vultures over a cow lost from the herd in the desert.
But this man had not stumbled from drunkenness and plummeted into to foul water. Instead, in his yearning to flee from the stench that climbed the rotted clay stones of the sewers, he’d ventured down a side passage that led into the deeper recesses of Yesulam’s catacombs. The air was little better here, but enough that the fetid remains of the corpses dead for centuries before even the Redeemer Yahshua had trod upon the hill overhead were as fresh as a mountain spring. The man, in his curiosity, had crept deeper with those ancient burial sites, noting strange runes marked along the walls, ones that he was certain were fresh.
After travelling a short distance and saying various prayers to his Abba, he followed them until he could see torchlight ahead. He was not twenty paces closer to the light when dark figures snatched him up in their arms, and carried him further, deeper, down winding stairs that were decayed and saturated with lichen and worse. Though the man screamed, and struggled against his captors, their grips were like cold iron, binding him fast, making even his most valiant efforts vain. The runes began to cluster the walls, drawn carefully, with subtle aims and an eye for certain geometries the likes of which were never to be found in any of the Ecclesiastic rituals.
The hapless civil engineer was brought into a larger chamber where stood strange basalt pillars, crumbling from age. They formed a circle about the room, nine pillars in all. Wide lines of dark fulgurite connected each pillar, while another line proceeded from each pillar towards a circular stone table set in the middle of the room. The floor around the table was recessed and dark, while small corners were chiselled into the table, as if to allow for a run off of water or oils.
The chamber was not well lit, and so he could only make out dim shapes of others standing beyond the moulding pillars. The ceiling curved away upwards, the lines of clay and rock cracked from strain. Dust sifted down from above every now and then, but the rocks themselves appeared firm. Only one other figure stood in the area between the pillars, and it was a man that the civil engineer recognized. It was quite shocking to see him here of all places, beyond the passages any sane man of Eli would dare venture, into the caverns that history was glad it had forgotten. For the tubby man with cherubic face and priestly vestments was none other than Bishop Jothay of Eavey.
“Bishop,” the man cried out, even as his captors deposited him onto the table, holding his arms and legs down with the strength of giants. He stared frantically at them both, but could see no trace of their faces amidst the heavy cowled robes that they wore. They seemed more spectres, things of shadow and darkness than true men. The Bishop continued to smile childishly, gossamer white hair streaked with sweat.
“Look what we have here,” he crooned delightfully, stroking at something hidden beneath his alb. The room about the man seemed to throb as if the walls were the strings of a lute being lightly strummed. The civil servant felt a dull ache forming in his mind and chest, as if the stone table beneath him were vibrating with the drone of thousands of bees. “Oh you’ll like this one, I’m sure.” The Bishop then began to giggle as if he were a child who’d found some forgotten toy.
“Your grace, please, what is happening?” the man shrieked deferentially. He could think of no reason or explanation for what he had stumbled upon. All that he knew was that it frightened him terribly. He tried to move his arms and legs, but those stolid shadows kept them firmly restrained and pressed hard against the stone. The throbbing was growing worse, the drone nearing. The pillars themselves seemed to shimmer, dust falling from their cracks. He could now see that something was chiselled within each, some strange agglomeration of lines and whorls. Each one was different, but he could make no sense of any of them.
The Bishop’s eyes fell upon him, eyes that bore no malice, but the familiar child-like innocence that had so endeared the priest to those who’d met him. “Oh it’s feeding time for my friend. He’s very hungry. I was so distraught, I did not know what to give him. Thank you so much for solving my terrible dilemma. It is very kind of you. I will remember you fondly.” He smiled widely then, even as he began to pull back his alb to reveal a strange looking hilt buckled at his side.
Blinking as he stared at the golden hilt, fashioned strangely, with curious scrawling imprinted into the end, the man felt the throbbing intensify even further. His eyes could barely stay open, as its dull pounding echoed deeply inside his mind. His heart found the rhythm, yearning to be a part of the harmony, the beat that smashed all rocks and trees and mountains, the song that would stamp out all other songs. His whole being cried out as he found himself laying there flat upon the stone, no longer able to resist. Every cell in his body found that pattern, joined in the chorus. The hands holding him down had already given over to its metre, and he found himself in concert with them.
Everything seemed so much clearer then, the throbbing merely another expression of himself. It was more than that, he was a part of it, some great thing that was vaster than his mind could comprehend. His own identity was taken in and washed away. Thoughts of family and friends that were waiting for him to return back above in the sun-baked city were smashed and erased under the relentless beat. All of it, memories, hopes, dreams, faces, names, ground to dust like a millstone beneath a hammer.
Dimly, the man was aware of a great golden blade being lowered over top of him, held in the hands of the Bishop. The plump priest was speaking to it, as he would to a child or a pet, crooning delightedly. But the words of that priest were lost to the man, as the pounding of the walls and of his own being were far too loud for him to hear anything else. Anything except the song of the sword. A hymn of ancient sorrows and hatreds filled that sword. Twisted purposes wrapped round it so tightly that they formed the constant refrain, a living counterpoint to the throbbing of the ancient chamber.
And then, the man let out a great breath, his chest opening wide under that blade’s artful touch, flesh separating as if fleeing from the golden sword. But it was not a thing of agony, for all that he was flowed into the beating of the room, joining in that unending chorus, growing louder and louder in his mind, until there was nothing else but the drumbeat and song. He could feel himself absorbed into the blade’s voice, his own tongue working to join the refrain. There was no more man, only golden blade and stone.
Bishop Jothay watched in eager delight as the blood was slowly absorbed into the golden sword. He could feel it pulsing with each drink of the precious crimson, savouring the taste of life from the hapless civil engineer. The corpse was already beginning to rot and wither as the lines of fulgurite glowed a dark maroon, tendrils of smouldering flame racing along to the nine pillars that stood mute as giant statutes.
And then, even as the man’s bones began to turn to ash, the Bishop looked askance, the sword still clutched firmly in his hands. His ghoulish servitors, also claimed by the sword’s power, stepped back, their cowls fluttering in the still air as if touched by wind. But there was no wind this deep beneath the earth. The white-haired Bishop listened for a moment, his smile still present upon his face. And then, with grave dignity, nodded his head, and lowered the tip of the blade. The blood that had moment’s earlier coated it’s surface was now gone.
“Someone to see me! Oh what a delightful treat!” The Bishop crowed happily, sheathing the sword beneath his alb once more. The torches along the path out of the chamber began to burn more brightly, and with a waddling trot, the Bishop followed after them. The corridor led through the catacombs, past corpses so rotted as to turn to ash at the slightest touch and some that already had. It turned suddenly at a narrow staircase, the walls of which pressed closely, as if it was caving in. This stairwell turned and twisted oddly, sometimes opening out into other tombs, but always leading upwards.
Eventually, after many long minutes, the stairwell reached a flat stone wall. Bishop Jothay gave the wall a firm push with one hand, and it slid aside with a heavy groaning. He stepped out into a cobwebbed passageway with high slits of windows far overhead providing shadowed light. He was once more above ground, and not two minutes from his suite at the Great Cathedral of Yahshua, where Patriarch Geshter himself resided. Being from Eavey on the southern continent, Bishop Jothay was afforded a suite while he was in Yesulam on Ecclesia business.
But he was always in Yesulam now, as there was so much to do. He laughed delightedly, patting the sword that hummed sated at his side. Yes, there was so much to do these days.
Sliding along the dark corridor, he made his way between the walls of the Cathedral. He could hear the boys choir singing some distance off through the walls, angelic voices united in praise. And then, instead he was hearing footsteps of guards walking past, and then, a gentle serenade upon a lute in one of the gardens. Finally, the chatter of the faithful as they gathered for daily services. And then, after many twists and turns, Bishop Jothay pushed aside one of the stones, and the wall slid open into his private chambers.
He quickly doffed his alb and other vestments, depositing them carefully upon a chair already stained with the ashes of fire. With great regret, Jothay set the golden blade inside the door to his closet, and shut it softly, letting his friend sleep. Taking up a bottle of incense, he dipped his fingers within, and spread the sweet smelling oblation across his cheeks, arms and neck. Then, he selected a simple white alb, and donned it again, now suitable attired, and freed of the unpleasant odours of the catacombs.
He stepped out from his bedchambers, smiling. The sitting room was unoccupied, wide and open to the air. Tendrils of ivy graced the walls, climbing upwards to the sky above. With care, he took the ewer from its place and watered the soil so that his plants might continue to grow. He spoke to them, soft kind words, encouraging them to blossom. In another month, they would blood, bright purple flowers that would add such magical colour to the room.
As Bishop Jothay finished watering the last of his vines, the sound of footsteps in the doorway caught his attention. “Your grace,” the youthful voice of his page called. The boy was only eleven, but so full of life. Long had the sword thirsted for such life, but Jothay knew that Isaac must be spared until all was ready. Unlike the others, Isaac would be missed.
Turning slowly and smiling, Jothay set the ewer upon one of the sills that over looked the main gardens, a great pavilion lined with golden streets and bright fronds that swayed luxuriantly in the desert breeze. “What is it, my boy?” he asked, his voice full of simple pleasure.
“There is a messenger to see you, your grace. He bears the mark of the Driheli.”
Bishop Jothay nodded his head and waved one hand towards the pillows nestled in the small depression in the centre of the room. “See him in, my boy. Bring him something to drink as well.”
Isaac smiled and bowed his head low. After the boy had left, Jothay glided across the floor and lay down amongst his pillows, settling into their soft embrace. A moment later, a haggard horseman whose chest bore the blue and green cross of the Driheli was let in. He stood a little uncertainly in the wide room, glancing over the wide windows, open roof, and vines that crawled up the walls. His eyes then settled upon the Bishop and he fell to one knee.
“Your grace, Knight Templar a message from I bear,” he said in a quavering voice, his mastery of the northern tongue uncertain.
“I speak the southern language, good rider of Driheli. What message from Sir Czestadt do you bring?” Bishop Jothay replied, his native tongue like fine wine upon his lips.
“Your grace,” the man looked quite relieved. “His lordship, Sir Czestadt wishes to know all that is to be known of the Magyars.”
“The Magyars?” Bishop Jothay asked, his voice rising in surprise. For what reason could the Knight Templar care about those wandering rogues?
“Yes, your grace. His lordship believes the one you seek is amongst them.”
Bishop Jothay let out a pleasant laugh. “Amongst the Magyars! Oh praise Eli, what a delightful turn.” He took a moment to strum his fingers against his chin. “My page will find you a billet for the night. In the morning, you will return here. I shall have a letter for you to take back to Sir Czestadt. Isaac!”
The young boy already had a carafe in one hand, ready to pour the wine for the rider. “Yes, your grace?” he called, nearly skipping back into the room.
Bishop Jothay smiled pleasantly at the dark-haired lad. “Take this man and find him a billet for the night. And then bring me quill and parchment.”
Isaac bowed his head low, being careful not to spill the wine. “Yes, your grace.” He then walked back from the room, the rider following after him. Bishop Jothay continued to strum his fingers against his chin, laughing to himself.
“Amongst the Magyars,” he repeated. Kashin once of the Yeshuel was now travelling with the tricksters of the Steppe. How deliciously ironic. And to think he’d been worried. Leaning back, the Bishop belted out another childish laugh.
Kehthaek sat there and stroked his nose with one finger, watching at the empty door where two hawks had just departed. Beside him, Felsah was drumming his fingers along the arm of his chair, while Akaleth was shaking his head at some voice he alone could hear. The two Yesbearn who stood with them in the chamber had already returned the logs to the firepit and swept up the splinters that the hawk's in their tension had made. The room was still, quiet, a plae of bright but muted colours that waited lifelessly.
After that long pause, and the Yesbearn had stood at their posts for three minutes or more, the eldest of the three spoke, his voice crisp and firm, but betraying nothing of his thoughts. "What do you think?" he asked, eyes glancing first to Felsah, and then over to Akaleth. The thoughts of the first were not known to him, though Kehthaek would wager that Felsah saw this as good news. Akaleth though, his eyes narrow, lines beginning to settle upon his brow, was troubled by something deeper. There was few secrets that Akaleth could hold from Kehthaek, and his contempt for all things magical was one of them.
"We now know the name of Patriarch Akabaieth's attacker if Jessica is correct," Felsah said then, his voice slow. His mind was still poring over all the details that the hawk had shared with them. "It seems that Patriarch Akabaieth's murder is just one piece in a larger puzzle. I cannot imagine a Sondeckis acting alone in this, or even doing this. Some higher forces are at work here. But at least we now know who is to blame. It seems that Metamor is innocent in this matter."
Akaleth shook his head. "I would not be so quick in that. I think that until now we have been lied to about something very important."
"But we would have felt it if they lied," Felsah protested, appearing quite concerned that there might have been some aspect that he'd missed. The expression was faint and subtle, but it was there nonetheless. Kehthaek was very good at reading even the emotions of his fellow Questioners. The Metamorians were often harder to read, given their animal faces, but after a time in their presence, the nuances became clear.
"That is true," Kehthaek said. "Why do you feel the way you do, Father Akaleth?"
The younger man balled his fists tightly. "It is not that they lied in words, but in omission. They have been leaving things out, and I think it may have been the same thing, something that they did not wish to tell us. I do not know why, but it is what I think."
"Do you have any notion as to what this great hidden thing that you speak of might be?" Kehthaek knew precisely what his fellow Questioner was refering to, but it was always of interest to see if others caught onto them as well.
"It is the matter of these two who killed the Shrieker," Akaleth said. The elder priest smiled inwardly. "More precisely, of one of these two. Charles Matthias. I have heard his name before, or seen it." Akaleth then stood up fom his seat. "Pardon me." He rushed over to his room, slipped inside. A moment later he returned bearing a finely bound book, recently fashioned. "This was in my room already, a copy of stories written by these Keepers. I thumbed through it the first evening." He did not mention whether he read anything from it or not, but Kehthaek suspected that his colleague had put the book away in disgust once he realized what it was. Opening the book, Akaleth laid it before them both. "There, a volume of tales by the Writer's Guild of Metamor Keep. The Headmaster is listed as Charles Matthias. Not Zhypar Habakkuk."
"What does that mean?" Felsah asked as he thumbed over the pages. The parchment did not look very old, and the ink was still bright on each page.
"How could this Charles Matthias have defeated a Shrieker if he were only a writer?" Akaleth declared proudly.
Felsah tapped at the book, noting the date with one finger. "It could have been this other, Garigan who defeated it, and Matthias was simply there at the time."
"Yes, but Jessica called him his student. Student in what though?"
"This book," Felsah rested his fingers upon it. Kehthaek continued to stare at it as he leaned forward in his seat. "This was bound winter of last year. So as recently as one year ago, Matthias was still Headmaster of the Writer's Guild. I'm not sure why his presence should be one that we need to know of. What part has he played in this saga aside from killing the Shrieker?"
Kehthaek nodded. "A very good question. What part has he played? How shall we discover this?"
"We could request his presence," Akaleth suggested.
"But he is five hours distant by horse," Felsah pointed out. "And we must leave tomorrow morning. What if he refuses to come? By the time any messenger could return to us with this news, it would time to sleep. We'd be unable to venture there ourselves in time for us to depart from the Valley."
"Then why not go to Glen Avery ourselves?"
Felsah shook his head. "Then we would be unable to report to Duke Thomas as we are bound to do. And we cannot go to the Glen after we give the Duke our findings, because that would put us in the Valley more than seven days. We'd be vulnerable to the Curse then."
"So there is no way we can speak with this Charles Matthias ourselves," Father Kehthaek declared. "It is a pity that we were unable to talk with Jessica until this morning. Her name was another that the other Keeper's were reluctant to provide. How then, if we cannot speak with Matthias directly may we discern what part he played in this matter?"
Akaleth shrugged as he sat back down in his seat. "We could always ask Duke Thomas. He'll certainly know." A sneer crossed his lips then. "If he does not feign illness again."
"I would rather we knew something of it first," Kehthaek said, his voice firm. There could be no arguing with him, and both of them knew it.
"Well," Felsah reasoned, closing the book softly, as if afraid he might damage it. "If he was Headmaster of the Writer's Guild, then ought people know his name? And if he killed a Shrieker, wouldn't that make his name more readily come to the lips of Keepers?"
"We need people to have loose tongues," Akaleth said hotly. "They will tighten up if we just go speaking to any one we meet."
"But if they do not know it is us they are speaking to," Felsah said slowly, "then what reason will they have to keep still their tongues?"
"Are you suggesting we go disguised amongst them?" Akaleth looked indignant, sitting further back in his seat like a startled snake.
Felsah shook his head, and then pointed towards the two Yesbearn standing next to the door, their faces slack and expressionless. "No. I am suggesting they go disguised amongst the Keepers. They should visit tavern and inn to hear what they can. It will be noon shortly. The nature of man will bring many to those taverns at this hour, and quite a few shall stay and drink and talk. We might learn much that way."
Kehthaek tapped his nose with one finger and then nodded. "Very good both of you. And it will not violate our agreement with Raven either. The only thing that we must be cautious of is that they do not meet any of those we have already questioned. Though I doubt it, they could be recognized as with us. But enough of that for now. Let us begin." As one, their heads turned to the two Yesbearn who had stood silently through the discussion. They came forward then, ready to serve their charges however they were asked.
|Talk to me!|