estled in the crook of the overhanging banister in the choir loft, Vinsah stared down at the assembled Keepers filling the pews. His brown animal eyes scanned along the floor of the Chapel in Metamor and found the boy priest Father Hough dressed in the bright purple robes of the Advent. He was standing before the altar, the phylacteries spewing incense about him, a familiar aroma that was strangely sweeter than the raccoon recalled it. His small hands lifted aloft the wafer of bread, and began to call out the traditional blessing, and Vinsah found his own muzzle moving with the words, long since committed to memory.
He’d left Healer Coe’s apartments several hours earlier, sneaking along a small railing outside his window to a parapet a few ells away. With the wind and snow howling about him, he’d barely made it across without slipping, but his sharp claws had a firm grip, and for once he was grateful of the form Metamor had given him. However, this ceremony was special -- the Yahvice as it was called still in Yesulam – the celebration of the birth of their Saviour Yahshua.
Though he mouthed the words, as best as his full animal shape allowed, his mind was not upon them. It was a week more before the New Year was upon them all, and he still had yet to decide what to do. Healer Coe’s demand that he rejoin the world by then was his only concern, and the two options that lay before him were not ones that he wished to employ. The first was to reveal that he was indeed the Bishop of Abaef, transformed into a raccoon, a mere animal. Yesulam would likely be furious, condemning Metamor and he as well as Akabaieth’s mission.
Of course, it did not help matters that the former Patriarch had been murdered on Metamor’s soil. Whoever the new Patriarch was – and with a tinge of regret he realized that if he was still human, it would have been him – he was surely not going to look favourably on this northern province of the Midlands, no matter what Vinsah did. Yet, to have a Bishop be struck down as he was, would be interpreted as a sign from Eli that this place should be destroyed or at least, something akin to that. Grimacing, his dark nose turning in distaste, he realized that had he been in their position, he probably would have done the same thing.
Pushing such unpleasant thoughts to one side, the other possibility that he could embrace began to fill his mind. Brian Coe had suggested he abandon his old self and take on a new identity. Nobody would question it, and even if they realized that it was a lie, most would respect his wishes to keep the reality a secret. And, it was an attractive idea, except for the fact that it involved him telling lies – though apparently he was half-way decent at it – and choosing a new name. The one that instantly sprang to the front of his mind was one that he wished to avoid.
The worst part about it all was that he had already called himself by that name, by Elvmere. That other raccoon Rickkter had been most insistent that he give a name, and that had been the only one that would come to his lips, as if it had pushed its way to the front of his tongue, keeping the rest back. How many would remember that name and his face? How often would people call him that after he did reveal himself? The thought of such was unbearable.
And so, Vinsah had come here to the Chapel for the Yahvice, hoping that the familiar ceremony would calm his mind, and focus his thoughts. Yet, all it managed to do was bundle them tighter and tighter into knots, and get his fur soaked! He did not know how much snow he’d shaken from his grey coat when he’d settled himself in the choir loft. He’d spent the first ten minutes of the service shivering and curled up as tightly as he could as it was!
How he longed for the warm sun of Yesulam, it would dry his fur quickly. Of course, were he in Yesulam, he would not have fur to dry. He would still be a man, Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef. Yahvice would have come and gone already, for the day comes sooner in that land than in Metamor, being many leagues eastward. In fact, he would have been standing out on the streets of Abaef, facing the desert with his congregation all about him, holding bright white candles to the stars and singing praises until the morning sun diminished those twinkling lights.
With a bit of a chuckle, he recalled how one Bishop had thought that such festivals should be done away with, as their origins were found in other false religions. While the Festival of Lights was something that existed elsewhere, Vinsah always enjoyed standing with his people in choruses of affirmation for Eli. The Yahvice time may have been decided upon to coincide with pagan holidays, as had been accused, but what better time to bring the light of Eli into the world than upon the day of the year with the longest night?
Even as he dwelled on that bit of symmetry, he felt a cold shiver race up his tail and spine, settling behind his rounded ears like an uncomfortable itch. It was not the same chill that permeated the air outside, and throughout much of the Keep, at least, where there were no fireplaces. His own room was a bastion of frost, despite the abundance of covers and cloth that he draped himself in while there. Many nights he would bundle tightly, shifting into a smaller more compact form to hold in his own body heat, sharp teeth chattering while his black nose peeked out from under the agglomeration of quilts that nearly threatened to smother him.
Yet Vinsah knew that the bit of ice that had come across his back was not the sort brought on by the weather, no matter how far north one travelled. This was a different sort, the kind that presaged the arrival of things that were best not mentioned. He scanned his dark green eyes about, the whites showing at the corner of the mask he wore. Placing his small five fingered paws atop the granite railing, he peered about the Chapel, scanning the dark stained glass windows and the colonnades before them. Things stirred about them, silent, silvery shapes that twirled about their crenellated surface, darting and winding down towards the base and the pews where sat the Keepers, unaware of their presence.
Vinsah opened his muzzle, fright filling him with that same icy, leprous touch. All eyes in the Chapel were on Father Hough, or towards the floor, or simply closed while the prayers over the sacraments were given. None save Vinsah could see these abominations slipping unmolested through their ranks, brushing them by, filling them with that same cold dread that had come upon the procyonid Bishop. With a start, that lone animal watching from the choir loft knew the target of these incorporeal spirit’s malice – they were striding towards the young priest, towards Father Hough.
Vinsah nearly gasped aloud once he knew that, but he kept his animal cry in check. It was likely that Father Hough would notice them before they came too close, but that was not a chance that he could take and still respect himself afterwards. He was, despite his bestial appearance and sometimes demeanor, still a priest, nay a Bishop, of Eli. He had responsibilities as such to see to the care of his Follower brethren. This included protecting them from the world of the unseen, of the spirits.
It also helped if he could speak aloud, and so Vinsah willed himself to change, to rise up above his animal shape and into something resembling a man. Though he still possessed the fur, the long striped tail that would dangle about his ankles, and the teeth and claws, as well as the face of a raccoon, he cared not, for he was still a man, and could speak like a man, and think like a man. And in the end, that was all that he would need. There was little question in Vinsah’s mind at that moment that Eli would know his voice no matter how oddly it was formed.
Standing before that granite rail, he peered out over the Chapel, gripping the stone tight between his paws, naked and bare for all to see, including the spirits. But he did not concern himself with modesty now, for the spirits were nearly upon Hough, who appeared to only just now notice them as he lowered the sacraments once more to the altar, the prayer finished. Their filmy substance avoided the altar, circling around behind it as if it repelled them, viscous fangs appearing in their nature, as if formed from the very air.
And then, the back door burst wide, an explosion of wrath as men poured through, bearing weapons and terrible malice. They advanced on the young priest, and the rest in the Chapel. The knights who were seated among the congregation rose to their feet and paws, shouting cries of anger at the blasphemy this represented, and rushed to engage them. However, there was little that the Bishop could do of this new threat, even if he did have a weapon. He did have claws and teeth, he reflected momentarily, but quickly diverted such things from his mind. The thought of sinking either in a man’s flesh was too terrible to contemplate.
His voice however, betrayed none of the anxiety his mind felt. “Hear me spirits of darkness! You seek the wrong man, for I am a Bishop of the Ecclesia, and can destroy you! Leave the boy alone, but come for me, if you dare!” Over the sounds of swords clashing, it was clear that the people in the Chapel, crying out in terror and clutching together for protection did not hear him. Yet, the spirits were not of flesh and blood, and turned ghastly apparitions in his direction, sifting through the air towards the choir loft while Hough ducked behind the altar, crying out in the name of Eli.
Suddenly, that chill raced down his spine as he felt something unholy draw across the fur of his back, making it stand up as if called to attention. Turning his head to one side, green eyes gleaming with the frost and the leap of terror, he saw another such apparition, a mocking visage that parodied man. A simulacrum whose façade had been tortured with hate gave him a victorious smile. Foul eyes formed from the mist laughed at him, and a voice whose utterance must have originated in Hell spoke with wintry touch to him. “A beast pretends to be a priest! You have no power over us Elvmere, for your Ecclesia has cast you out.”
The use of that other name startled him, making his fur shiver even more. The raccoon trembled even as the gaseous tendrils roped about his tail and chest, stroking the grey flesh beneath his pelt. They nearly wrapped themselves completely about him, massaging insidiously every aspect of his body, sending erotic thrills through him as they excited parts of his flesh that had been denied for thirty years. Yet, he caught such flaring emotions in his throat and spoke, “They have not, you lie! You are servants of something unholy, and I will not tolerate your presence in the House of Eli! Begone from this place, in the name of Yahshua I cast you out!”
The spirit gave a mocking laugh then, coating his extremities in that greyish translucence. It reminded him of the filthy mucus clinging to the undersides of slugs, only more noxious and dreary. Something spectral tapped his nose, and those baleful eyes filled his own. “No, Elvmere, you do not possess that power anymore. You wanted to face us, and so you shall. We will turn you into that beast and leave you raving inside this flesh before we finish with you and turn to the others.”
Vinsah could see the other ghostly apparitions crawling in and out of the choir loft railing, snaking their way towards him, encircling his flesh as this first had done. He shuddered, the overwhelming urge to give into the bestial pleasures that began to course through his body was terrifying his mind and his heart. A swelling in his loins caused him to cry out in anguish, as the flesh rebelled against his will, desire overflowing reason. And yet, on some carnal level, he yearned for it, yearned for this release, this breaking of oaths which had bound him, to truly embrace the feral nature Metamor had blessed him with.
With the spirits clustered so close, obscuring all other vision but what they wanted him to see, he could feel a single hand reaching out for him a single image cascading from outside of them, offering a slender ray of hope. There, amidst the turmoil that coalesced on all sides came a brilliant light, a visage of austere beauty that made his heart cry in joy, for it was his relief and sanctuary even more than this Chapel could be. Another face came to him, that of a woman, radiant with dark silvery hair that billowed about her shoulders. Her hand was burning with a white nimbus, and he reached out forit with his paw, the grey-black fur appearing to whiten as it approached.
Then they clasped, and that surging sexual frustration fell away, his loins irrelevant once again. From out of the well of his heart and her presence he cried out, breaking the lustful enchantment that had been woven about him. “No! Deceivers!” They flinched at the power in his throat, the terrible caresses ceasing. “You fools, no man can take from me what Eli has given! That is Eli’s purview only! Begone I command you, in the name of Eli and his Son Yahshua, I command you to begone from this place and return to your master in Hell! Begone!”
The baleful eyes, at once full of contempt and malice, were filled with fear and despair as they recoiled from him, flinging their insubstantial forms from his flesh, crawling like sick beasts from a predator. The milky shades began to whither, until even their cries dwindled into incoherency. “Begone! In the name of Yahshua son of Eli, begone!” Vinsah repeated, his voice hot with sudden passion, even as he continued to view that radiant face, smiling down upon his mask.
With final shrieks of anguish, the spirits disintegrated into the walls, the film dispersing into nothingness, and warmth filling his body once again. He breathed a sigh of relief, his chest heaving as he leaned against the choir loft railing. Strangely, the granite was warm beneath his palms, as if by a fire. Her face was still there, that nameless woman smiling down upon him, her hand gently cradling his muzzle by the chin. “My Elvmere,” was all she said, and then, she too was gone.
Gasping again, he peered out over the Chapel, his eyes seeing the world as it was once more. The fight appeared to have been finished, Father Hough still clutching one side of the altar, while the knights and soldiers were carrying the bodies of the slain to one side. There were also those in the crowd who were looking up at him, their faces curious. Though many wore the heads of animals, he could still see that all too human expression in their eyes.
A moment later, and Father Hough was noticing him, staring up at the raccoon perched in the choir loft where there had been nobody before. “Who are you?” the boy called out, his high tenor nervous.
The moment of his decision had finally come, and with a start, Vinsah knew there was only one choice he could make. His muzzle broke into a wry grin as he peered down at his junior colleague, pondering for a moment at the boy’s real age. If he did not say it, how could they ever guess it now?
Summoning his voice once more, the rasp of his tongue against his pointed teeth clear, he cried out so that everyone in the Chapel might hear him, and know who he was. “I am Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef! And I stand with you now, as a Metamorian, a Keeper for all time.” The sudden look of joy on their faces reminded him of the very first day of the Patriarch’s visit. And in fact, he felt as his former master Akabaieth were not also smiling fondly down upon him from some heavenly sea as he sailed the course of his afterlife.
Finding a similar smile perched upon his muzzle, he descended the stairs at the back of the choir loft to join his comrades in the Chapel, not as a priest of a foreign land, but as their brother.
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