Friday, 8 June 2012

The Chamber

Acantha felt numb. Her bare feet dragged along the stone floors. She winced as her toes caught between the flagstones but could not scream out. Muffled voices about her drowned by the long cowl pulled over her head. In the distance she could hear the chanting of the Priestess and the man they called the vicar. Their subtle intonations wound around her mind and started to pull at the magic within her. Deep in her core she felt the movement of the sins already carved into her flesh, as if they wanted to leap forth, to mix with the heat in the air.
The doors slammed behind her and she knew she was back in the chapel. Trapped again and drugged too much. She felt sick and behind her eyes her mind screamed at her. The pain she always felt before the ritual.
Coin would have passed hands outside. A lackey or an acolyte would have taken his share and passed on the rest to the priests until the Priestess, Danna and her vicar took their share. Pulled into the closeted holy of holies she was alone bar the believers and her mistress, determined to purge herself of yet another meaningless sin.
The words came thick and fast. Doped with a little too much of the way-flower they gave her at the beginning of each ceremony Acantha lost the meaning of the intonations in the haze of her dream. She stood slightly swaying, propped up by the two attendants, the Priestess’s own sons. Behind her the mistress, Yarana, strode back and forth, heels clicking on the stone. She wore light white robes and a face that did not wrinkle in the sun as others did.
The words became heavy. Acantha knew the words and knew the meaning even if others did not. She had been through so many rituals she felt as if only she had a moment longer to hear them, just a fraction more and the understanding would be hers. But they always stopped, just as the knife touched her skin and the continuous outpouring of sin from Yarana flowed onto her, into her like so much paint onto paper.
Acantha knelt. It used to be hard, knees against the granite, but the priestess had been kindlier of late and a cushion was placed at her feet. The handlers reached in front of her, peeling her heavy woollen robe away. Naked she shivered slightly. Her hair was up in a bun to keep it from her skin.  To her right and left the polished bronze panels reflected her shape. Even in their reflected golden mist she could see the words written across her skin start to glow. She took a breath and looked down at her arms. The tattoos that stretched from her neck to her wrists. She palmed the wooden bit she had into her mouth and tried to empty her mind.
Looking around the chamber of the priestess was as it always was. One of a hundred churches that carried out the rites, the Priestess, Dana, carried them for only the best of families, some said for the Emperor himself. But Acantha knew the sins that were inscribed upon her body. She knew them as if she had been there. All the regret and pain and shame and anger it was etched onto her. What if a ruler had done that to a slave. The slave would never be free, never be safe lest he told what he knew. How many had died for state secrets the Emperor could no longer bare?
The Priestess whirled in her finery at the front of the chamber. About ten metres in length it was secluded in the furthest reaches of the temple, which itself sat at the base of the imperial tower: a chapel to the darker arts that all knew and none criticised. The tall blonde woman stared down at Acantha from the dais and smiled. Her kind eyes and flowing blonde hair were always a calming balm before the agony that was to come. Like the sweet scent of a Dagnar flower before it snapped its jaws on an unsuspecting bee.  Behind the Priestess and the infernal shambling old man she called her vicar were the rings that made up the altar. There were a hundred or so of the rings across the land at the most powerful churches. Always hidden, always away in the secret places where the sins were taken and written on another. Acantha watched and saw the circle glow. About a metre across it was pale silver in colour and as thin as the width of her wrist. The hoop of metal engraved with the ancient carvings. It stood an aided, unlike her. She could barely keep her head aloft. Her eyes alone felt like weights, secretly replacing her own and the sights she saw were memories as she sank further and further into a ball.
The chanting increased. The priestess, breathless in her harsh guttural accent quickened and quickened like a runner’s heart reaching the final leg of a race. Acantha sensed the movement behind her had stopped, Yarana held her breath, the vicar strode forward, the words already in his mind; he held a small tray of the ash of long dead men to be used in the rite. Yarana swiftly took her own knife, concealed within the folds of her robe and expertly opened her vein, enchanting the words, remembering the deed as the jewelled drops fell into the dust the vicar held forth. Just enough to make a paste, to make an ink, and then he wrote.
Acantha bit hard on the wood. The vicar raised his right hand, each finger encased in a jade thimble that curved to a wicked point that scraped against the metal plate in his left hand as he mixed the blood with the ash. He drew all five fingers up together and let the viscous fluid drip down as he repeated the words whispered in his ear by Yarana, clutching her wrist to her side, staunching the flow of blood and desperate not to get any on her pristine robes.
He repeated the words again and again until they were a blur in Acantha’s mind, and then they stopped. And Acantha screamed as the hot jade claws dug deep into her flesh. The Vicar worked quickly, repeating the words again and again, letting the magic form the phrases in intricate patterns that danced and fell over the words already scrolled across her skin.
And then as soon as it had started, it was over. Acantha stayed crouched on the floor, breathing hard, drool sliding from her mouth, the taste of pine on her tongue she let the bit fall to the floor. The vicar stood plucking the claws one by one from his fingers. He nodded to the attendants who picked her up and hurriedly dressed her with the uncomfortable robe.
The priestess walked towards Acantha. She could feel the blood running down her back. Hands on her knees she continued to blow the air out, to control her breating. The woman was tall, and aloof. She held a finger under Acantha’s chin and raised her face up so she stood straight, though still a head below the Priestess’s long, elegant frame. Acantha winced with the effort. The Priestess smiled sweetly, reached out to stroke Acantha’s cheek with the back of cold hand and spoke.
‘My dear, you always make such a fuss.’
A sloppy grin spread across Acantha’s face as the back of the Priestess’s hand snapped at her cheek. The crack of the contact stunned the others. The priestess was unmoved. No anger, no fury, just a cold hard stare.
‘Remember next time to control yourself’ she intoned; ‘your groaning gives me a headache.’

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Cliffs of Saa'aar

Hargon walked slowly alongside his companion. He was dressed in the usual attire for such an exercise. His loose trousers and long flowing frock coat covered his bare torso. A white linen he felt was sombre enough for the occasion. As he walked his companion talked.
‘I wonder what it will be like?’ he said.
‘What’ Hargon asked
‘Death of course’ the man replied. His name was Dasghar, Lord Dasghar; and he was going to die. It would be a civil execution though, there was no blindfold, no strapping of the condemned to a table saw or pumped full of drugs in a prison cell lit with fluorescence and pity. No, Dasghar had the right to choose his own end and he had chosen the old way, the death of deaths for those who had finally grown tired of the immortal life on Heav’r. To be thrown from the cliffs of Saa’aar
The planet had been settled thirty thousand years before. A planet three times the size of Earth but relatively the same mass in the goldilocks zone of a stable yellow star. It had been named Heaven to begin with, all that time ago, but the language changed, the isolation of the inhabitants had changed them and eventually the name had stuck at the elongated vowel sounds of Heav’r.  
The planet seemed a vast blue gem from space. Criss crossing the azure globe were tremendous scars of land, only a few kilometres in width, but thousands of miles in length. The cliffs beaten by wind from one side and blessed by sun the other the settlers had soon learned how to grow crops on the vertical drop. But the bulk of their food came from the sea.
The settlers had swept to the oceans, fertile with new vegetation and grains that were slowly interbred to create a new set of cereals and a food stock that resembled what the humans recognised as food. Their actual content and flavour was far removed from what was expected, but they were bred to resemble the past lives that the first visitors to the planet had so longed to recreate on their new home.
Times had changed now. The peoples had split. The farms were still there, deep under the waves, but many had moved to the cliffs now. The mechanised farming provided what was needed for the regulated communities to continue. Great houses lined the five hundred mile coastline of the great northern cliff of Saa’aar. In the prime weather position atop the single feature, the great cliffs; seven miles high in some places just to walk out over them and look down was too much for some people..
Hargon’s heels clicked against the smooth stone. It was like a polished marble floor, the natural top to the great stone barrier cut clean to hold the instiutions of the planet. Their destination from the transport pad was the old execution platform. Built thousands of years ago but renovated every millennium or so against the fine spray of the clouds that curled around the top of the ridge. Hargon noticed Dhasgar stared straight ahead, his lips moving silently, perhaps offering up a prayer to some long forgotton god.
‘You have had the injections Dhasgar’ he said, ‘you understand what that means?’
‘I know full well’ Dhasgar said eventually, his step in line with Hargo. ‘my gene enhancements have been switched off, there is no way to reverse it.’
‘There are more pleasant ways for this to occur Dhjasgar’ hargon grimaced.
‘I have committed an ancient crime’ Dhasgar whispered, ‘I will pay the ancient penalty.’ He paused, as if to say something more meaningful, but then changed his mind and concluded, ‘I have been alive for far too long anyway. I am resigned.’
Hargon let Dhasgar walk a little ahead to steady himself. The two guards walked with im, weapons trained on his head and heart. Dhasgar was a criminal, of that Hargon had no doubt. He was a large man, perhaps two metres tall, and dressed in a simple black body suit; but beyond this he was not unusual beyond the various genetic enhancements that allowed him to adapt to the planet. The slightly heavier gravity, a more developed skeleton, and given the society’s move to the top of the world, his wings.
None would be available to him today. He thought he could see him start to slow as the poison administered worked against his inbuilt genetic changes. Eventually he would have collapsed, had his end not been imminent. Hargon slipped his robe from his shoulders. He was the Lord high executioner of the planet heav’r and as such his was the responsibility to bring an end to this man. He would have preferred it to have happened in a sanitary lab where he could have had more control. He passed the doubts from his mind and took a breath. His chest expanded with a violent force as he felt the bones begin to push out and their centre’s start to hollow. His back arches and the flesh, remoulding itself fell away to the floor in ribbons from his shoulders, three metre long braids of wet bloody flesh swung in the breeze against the faintest of mists and began to harden and grow. The join with his back first before his wings pulled themselves upright, thin parchment like webbing spread between the fine joins as a leathered, almost translucent pair of wings rose from the floor. In a matter of moments Hargon was transformed. His wings spread and fluttered, his reinforced chaest and musculature flexed as he stepped forward, a wing span of some seven metres, he flexed and pulled himself up into the air a metre or two before landing behind the motionless Dhasgar. He folded his wings and spoke.
‘Lord Gazeal Dhasgar. You have been charged with treason and murder and have been found guilty. Your sentence is that you are ended as a sentient being on this planet. You have chosen the old death from the cliffs. I am here to ensure this sentence is carried out. Do you have anything to say?’
Dhasgar stood motionless. He did not say anything but simply peeled off his body suit and stood naked before Hargon. He was muscular but stood with a passive stance, a comfortable one. He shook his head. Hargon was worried. Usually they would speak. Most to claim injustice, some to plead for clemency, others to justify their actions. But Dhasgar was calm and did not blink. He walked naked to the platform:  a twenty metre beginning of a bridge to the abyss. It was made to look like polished stone, but in reality was created from the same plastics and polymers that made up most of the buildings and vehicles. It stopped dead before open space. In the distance he coujld see the outline of wings as people dove and played out in front of the cliffs, riding the winds. Dhasgar stopped a metre or so from the edge and looked back over his shoulder. Hargon walked between the two guards who lowered their weapons.
‘Hargon’ he said, ‘I am truly sorry’.
‘For your crimes?’
‘No Hargon’ Dhasghar said. His face cleared like a man suddenly struck by lucidity while drowning in his own madness, a tear welled in his eyes and he breathed out. ‘I am sorry for what’s to come. ‘ he breathed in as if stifling a pain and put his hand to his ear and yelled in pain.
Hargon stepped forward. ‘what’.
‘The voice calls me’ Dhasgar cried, ‘I must obey’ he breathed in and Hargon heard a crack. His ribs expanded. He was trying to change! The poison in his system had not worked. Hargon’s eyes widened as Dhasgar smiled, a wide manic grin that hurt to look at. Hargon turned to the guards and yelled at them to open fire, pointing at Hargon, but when he turned back he saw nothing but air.
‘Damn it! He grabbed a pulse rifle from the taller guard and leapt off the platform after the distant falling shape he knew was Dhasgar. He pulled himself into a dive and aimed the rifle. A trail of blood lined the way as he fell through the organic spray result of his transformation. The black shape ahead started to twist and turn. Hargon fired a burst with the rifle that flew past the tumbling shaped. He steadied himself and fired again, grazing the figure. He heard nothing, but saw the shape start to slow as it turned to face him. Rather than the wings Hargon expected however he was faced with a changed Dhasgar, yellow eyes and blackened skin, a huge wingspan erupted behind him. The effect was like a brake and Hargon was on him immediately, a last burst of his rifle went through the upper left quarter of the Dhasgar creature’s right wing, it bared its teeth as Hargon crashed into it.
Now more bear than man Dhasgar snarled and clawed at Hargon who could only attempt half-hearted blows against a creature twice his size. Hargon pulled himself free from and stretched his wings out, watching in despair as the creature tumbled another half mile before levelling out. Hargon followed from a distance, knowing full well he had no hope of stopping Dhasgar in his current from. He swooped low towards the sea and then just as he had vanished form the platform, the sea swallowed him up, a turn and a dive and he was beneath the surface. 
Hargon swept low over the waves trying to see a sign of the escapee, but nothing. The occasional movement was no more than a sea snake or the tendrils of the gigantic jellyfish, some several hundred metres across who lived in the deep caves at the foot of the cliffs. Hargon took a final look at the surf crashing against the green and yellow veined rocks before sighing and beginning the slow climb back to the summit of the cliffs. It was not going to be easy. The most dangerous man in a thousand years had just escaped justice, and Hargon was to blame.