The lawn around the cathedral was dark and barren. Night had cast a veil over the cathedral’s splendour, and feeble lanterns that shone on the walkway only seemed to accentuate the oppressive darkness around them. The sparse patches of green that broke through the dead, brown lawn were washed yellow in the lantern light.
A scarlet-robed man emerged from the cathedral and stepped onto the barren lawn, as unnaturally bright in the gloom as a rose that blooms in frost. He moved slowly, lingering under each circle of lantern light, which to an onlooker might have seemed to burn brighter as he passed.
Brother Lux’s hands were folded in prayer as he walked, and his eyes were blank and meditative, looking within instead of at the world outside. His lips moved- he whispered his mantra aloud.
My Lord, my lover, my God, I am with you,
My Lord, my lover, my God, you are with me.
My mind’s eye beholds you, my thoughts heed you,
My Lord, my Lover, my God…
Brother Lux paused just outside of a circle of lamplight and sighed.
“Can I still be your conscience if I do this thing? Will I be able to heal the suffering with hands so bloodied?”
He closed his eyes and sighed.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you for sparing me this task.”
He opened his eyes again, and they glowed white for a moment before fading again to brown.
He began to walk at a quicker pace. His posture was altered- regal- and his strides were longer and smoother. He seemed to glide the last few feet to the dark stone building that lay beyond the cathedral.
He took a lantern from a black-clad guard that stood by the door, entered the building, and descended the spiral stairs to the dungeons below.
Voices met his entrance to the dungeon floor, echoing and ephemeral.
“Free me- I am innocent.”
“I have children. Please let me go.”
“I will confess- I swear I will confess.”
Brother Lux stopped suddenly and turned toward an iron grate, lifting his lantern to shed light on the wretch within. It was a man, dressed in brown robes and with skin so coated in bruises and filth that he could hardly be discerned from his surroundings, but for the glitter in his watery eyes.
“If you tell the truth, the Gods will have mercy,” Lux said. Then he knelt and touched the man’s trembling, outstretched hand with his own clean, white one. “What is your name?”
“My name is Faith Simmons,” he croaked. “I have a wife, I have children…”
“What was your crime?”
“I spoke blasphemies.”
Brother Lux placed the lantern on the ground and grasped the man’s hand with both of his. “You must be more specific, or I cannot help you.”
“But what I said-”
“You must repeat it, no matter what it was. It is your only salvation.”
The man opened his mouth, but was racked by a coughing fit so powerful that it shook his whole body. Then, suddenly, his cough stopped, and he took a lungful of air before he spoke.
“I said that Order was a fool who is blind to the chaos in the world. I said that Chastity was his whore. I was drunk, my priest, and I didn’t know what I said…”
Brother Lux leaned closer. “They say that wine can reveal hidden truths. Think about your answer carefully, and then tell me- was it really just the wine, or did you mean what you said?”
The man was silent for a long time, and then he whispered. “I meant it. My youngest son fell ill with a fever, and we had no money to take him to del Sol for healing. After the little one died, my mother sold my younger sister to a rich lord. This was too much for me; my heart rebelled against the Gods’ will.”
“Did anyone else feed your rebellion? Have any of your friends murmured against the gods?”
“My-” the man started and made a strangling sound, as though he would choke on his words.
“I will show them mercy if you give me their name- you have my word.”
“When she was sold, my little sister told me she didn’t believe Order existed,” the man said. “She didn’t think a good God would allow such a thing to happen.”
“What is her name? What is the name of her master? Speak the truth.”
“Her name is Merry Simmons. Her master is Sir Montag.”
“I have a task I need to complete now, but when I return I will heal your wounds, allow you to bathe and clothe yourself, and then return you to your family. I will ensure that your sister is escorted to del Sol to take orders, and her master will be compensated. Your honesty has saved you.”
“Oh! My priest, thank you.”
The man let out a sob, and he pulled Lux’s hand through the grate and kissed it, leaving muddy tears smeared against the pristine surface.
Brother Lux allowed the man to weep, and then leaned forward and whispered.
“At this moment, I am the avatar of Wisdom. Do not speak of it, but remember that he has saved you.”
When the man looked up, tears of joy shimmered in his eyes and left tracks on his dirty cheeks. Brother Lux only smiled, passed the man a white lace handkerchief, and whispered once more.
Then he stood and continued down the dungeon path.
He stopped again before a wooden door. No voice cried out from within- there was no plea for mercy. When Brother Lux opened the door, the room seemed empty but for a pile of rags on the floor. Brother Lux raised the lamp and the pile of rags shifted, moved, and morphed into the rough shape of a man.
“Wake up, Lord Frey,” Lux commanded.
The man, Hope, sat up slowly and then stumbled to his feet. His face was covered by a leather mask, which was latched and locked in the back. He groped the empty air blindly as he stood.
“I apologize for the mess,” Hope said, voice muffled, bowing not quite in the direction of his brother. “You see, I was not expecting company. I would order tea, but the guards are so unaccommodating.”
“Think nothing of it,” Brother Lux said dryly. “I have not come for a social visit.”
“Then come to your point quickly, and leave.” Hope’s formal tone dropped away, replaced with a low growl.
Brother Lux did not reply, but removed a key from his robes and stepped forward to unlock the mask.
“You aren’t afraid of what I’ll do?” Hope said.
“You can’t hurt me,” Brother Lux said. He let the mask fall away, revealing a parody of Hope’s face- papery skin pulled tight over delicate bone. Hope raised his hand and shied away from the lantern light as though it burned.
“It will take some time for your eyes to adjust, I expect,” Brother Lux said.
“Why are you here? Why didn’t you send one of your lackeys, as usual?”
“I bring news of a miracle and a disaster,” Lux said. “First, the disaster; Lord Willoughby has betrayed himself. He disappeared in his cell the evening of the incident with Lady Willoughby. The guards could not find him for hours, though they searched his tiny cell thoroughly and then searched the entire dungeon for any breach. Brother Severus was on his way to issue a bounty when Lord Willoughby was found in his cell.
“Lord Willoughby, it seems, has been completely broken. His tongue is still bound by his curse, but his disappearance has been recognized as an act of magic. When he is questioned about it directly, he nods his assent and indicates through gestures his willingness to confess. ”
“I am not surprised in the least,” Hope said. He closed his eyes and stood taller, dropping the hand that shielded his eyes. “Lord Willoughby loves his wife more than anything else in the world. The ‘incident,’ as you so delicately put it, would be enough to break any man.”
“The inquisitor who was responsible has been punished-”
“Damn you,” Hope cried, and flung himself at his brother, fists raised to strike. Lux, however, easily sidestepped the attack, and Hope’s fist slammed into the brick wall, leaving a smear of blood where it had struck. Hope cradled his injured hand for just a moment, and then turned to attempt another strike, but froze in place as though bound by an invisible force.
“I never intended for her to be violated in such a manner,” Lux said. “We are purging the practices of the past, but it will take time to change.”
Hope struggled against the magic that bound him, repeatedly raising his fist for another blow and stopping abruptly, as though he’d hit a glass wall.
“Oh yes- you are willing to strip, burn, prick, and whip us, but not violate. You have standards, after all.”
“It will all end- the torture, the prisons, the poverty, and the slavery. I swear on my life, I swear on my magic, and I swear on my power as a God.”
Lux closed his eyes, and when he opened them again they glowed with white light. The light grew brighter and brighter- pulsing and flashing, not only from his eyes, but seeping from his very skin until his entire body was haloed in light.
“You have done it,” Hope breathed. “Pius-”
“Once I was Pius, but now my name is Wisdom. Your brother is acting as my vessel at the moment, but he is still with us, listening.”
“I-” Hope’s words seemed to stick in his throat, and he swallowed hard. He dropped his hand to his side as Wisdom released him.
Hope chuckled darkly, and continued until his soft chuckles had built into hysterical laughter. He laughed until tears fell from his eyes, threw back his head and continued to laugh until he lost his breath.
“Wisdom… you’ve chosen your very name to mock me,” Hope said. “I’ve failed to listen to wisdom every time I’ve heard it spoken. I am a wretched fool; now that I see the patterns I’ve fallen into, it is futile to change. I will ask the questions I should have asked from the beginning, now that it’s too late.”
Wisdom bowed his assent.
“You have gained the power you sought; tell me- has your goal to change the world altered? Can you provide evidence to justify your answer?” Hope asked.
Then Wisdom, still emanating glory- the God in human guise, dropped to his knees before the prisoner in his rags.
Wisdom spoke in a whisper. “I have no evidence to give you. I have nothing to offer but my honesty and my oath. I envision a world at peace, but attaining it will require war. I envision a world of liberty, but attaining it will require imprisonment. I envision a world free from torment, but attaining it will require sacrifice. I did not trust you enough to confide any of this to you, but I was hypocrite enough to condemn you for your lack of trust. I blamed you for your duplicity when I wore a false face.”
“I was guarded,” Hope said, “but far less than I should have been. I realize, now, that Prudence tried to warn me about you many times, but the power you offered me was blinding. When she fled, when she was caught, and when she died, I should have allowed the seed of doubt to flourish.”
“I don’t have the right to ask your forgiveness,” Wisdom continued. “All I can do is fulfill my promise to free your child from her condemnation.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Hope said, the hoarse edge of tears in his voice. “You’ve dragged me through the mud using my dearest wish as your leash. Why torment me with an empty promise now, when you’ve already gained all the power you’ve ever dreamed of?”
Wisdom’s bright aura faded a little, and he bowed his head, clutching his hands before him as though in supplication.
“I mean to fulfil my promise. I am done leading you with lies. The truth is that, to avoid another magical mishap, I require another sacrifice from you. I ask only that you give me a chance to atone. Demand any penance of me that you wish to inflict, and your brother will ensure it is carried out.”
For a moment, the filthy, ragged man looked down at the God who knelt at his feet with a sneer of disgust. Then he cleared his throat, drew himself to his full height, and spoke.
“My first thought is to demand that you suffer. I wish to see you in agony, I wish to hear you scream, and scream, and beg for the pain to stop. But this is rather short-sighted of me, isn’t it? I could watch you suffer a hundred years for each of my friends that you’ve hurt, and it still wouldn’t be enough. Instead, I ask that you undo your most grievous offence- bring Prudence back to life.”
Wisdom looked up at Hope, his eyes wide in shock.
“Surely, that shouldn’t be too difficult for a God. I’m only asking you to resurrect one person. I would prefer that you bring her back along with my parents, Prudence’s father, and every other wretch who has ever died and been cast into hell, but you asked for penance, and as far as I know, Prudence’s death is the only one on your hands.”
Wisdom looked down again and shut his eyes. “Thank you, Lord Frey. Your request has brought me more comfort than you can know. Do you have anything else to ask?”
“Only that you stop hurting the ones I love.”
Wisdom nodded and then leaned forward to kiss the frayed edge of Hope’s tunic. Then he stood.
“Close your eyes. It is time for you to make your final sacrifice.”
Wisdom’s eyes flashed, and his aura grew brighter than the sun at noon. Hope’s eyes shut in reflex, and he stumbled backward.
Wisdom shook the sleeve of his robe, and a silver knife glinted as it fell into his hand. He raised it over his head and lashed out once, then twice.
Blood splashed onto the grey stone floor.
A bloodcurdling scream tore through the air, echoing through the dungeons.
Down the corridor, a caged man heard the scream, but he didn’t pause to wipe away his tears of joy. The screams had become routine, and soon he would leave them behind forever. The dungeons would echo like a nightmare in his past, but he would be wrapped in the loving arms of his family once more.