3 – Holy Lands

The sky above the Holy Lands was cloudless and perfect crystal blue. Sunlight burned across it unchallenged and fell sharp and harsh on the dead land below. It baked the old dead grasses further and further into dust.

Osyth was one of a precious few who could remember the age before the Spire fell to the Island of Lyr. He remembered the grasslands that surrounded the old capital city. He remembered the way they caught almost silver in the wind and the fresh smell that filled the air when they were trampled. The wildflowers and the bees that tended them; the birdsong at dawn when the ground was shining wet with dew and the insects calling forever in the night. He remembered a land alive and untamed, and he remembered the slow death that crept across that land when the Spire descended. How the sky went dark and swallowed the sun.

He had mourned the death of the land, even as he praised the coming of God, but over the years he came to see that the land was purified, not destroyed. It had been cleansed of its wildness. He now regarded the land with the same reverence one might save for a cemetary or chapel. He despised the name that the world had given to the old grasslands. They called it the Wastes, and Osyth had always found the name to be vulgar. It was not a wasteland, it was a sacred place, a world calmed by God.

The dead lands radiated from the Pale City, reaching the far coasts of the forbidden sea in the east and the jagged, bleached remains of the Barrens in the west. Green grass and new life only managed to gain a foothold at the far edges of the deadlands, most notably at the foothills of the Selvid Plateau in the south and the highlands cradling the Auric Mountain in the north. In these distant places rich dark earth and questing roots made their slow, ceaseless march into the Wastes, but where Ambassador Osyth rode, in the heart of the Holy Lands, the dead grasses stretched for long miles in every direction, and he sped over the rolling hills adrift in a sea of gold.

He rode on the back of an Ascended steed named Jeremiah, and an hour beyond Vennath Osyth pulled his reins and stopped him on the crest of a low hill. Osyth whispered into the ear hole of Jeremiah’s silver mask and the creature bowed to the earth and Osyth stepped from his saddle and turned to look back to the east. He knew the hill on which they stood. It was an unremarkable place, but it gave Osyth a pure and perfect view of the peak of the Spire as it rose in the far distance. Here the rolling lands were tall enough to hide the temples of the Pale City, and the broken roofs of the border towns.

Osyth cherished the view. He could see nothing but the Spire and the Holy Lands that it had created. Blue sky, amber grasses, and the Spire bright in the sun. Pure and perfect. Nothing existed of the Pale City. Gone were the wonders and the horrors, the Angels and their politics, the feuds and violence, the foul corruptions that were spreading in the souls and bodies of the faithful… all gone. Nothing remained in the world save the Spire. It brought tears to Osyth’s eyes. It was a bright and simple view of God and the earth and nothing more. A new beginning.

Jeremiah snorted with impatience. He nudged Osyth’s arm and Osyth smiled at him and patted him on the thick mane that sprouted from behind his mask. Osyth saw a coating of dust on the mask and took the sleeve of his robe to wipe it clean. Jeremiah cooed in response, but pushed Osyth’s hand gently away so that he could clean the mask himself. The creature was willful and fastidious, and Osyth respected his moods. Jeremiah reached to the satchels strapped to his long, bony body, his fingers moving spiderlike across them, until he found one in particular and undid the buckle and removed a silk polishing cloth. He brought it to his mask and scrubbed it up and down like a man toweling off after a bath.

Jeremiah had chosen the silver mask himself. It showed the bemused, peaceful face of a man and was nearly flawless in its rendering. The only difference being the twin sets of stacked eyes that Jeremiah peered through. The mask was one of the beast’s only decorations. Unlike many of the Ascended in the Pale City, Jeremiah disliked ornaments. He wore little besides a saddle, and a set of golden bracelets given to him by Osyth. One was bound to each of his six wrists.

They rode through the day. Jeremiah flew along the open fields faster than any horse and Osyth held himself tucked against the beast’s neck and among his whipping mane. The hair was coarse beneath Osyth’s hands and smelled like smoke and sweat. Jeremiah panted softly as he ran and his hands were near silent on the road. Osyth’s ears filled with the rushing wind and he watched the golden and blue world swirl around him and he watched the road beneath him race in a cloud of dust. The bone torch was strapped to the saddle behind Osyth. It’s flame flickered in the rushing air, but did not fail. It was a fire kindled through sacrifice and fed by holy pitch from the Angel’s own throat and it would take more than wind to extinguish it, if anything could.

They met a traveller on the road just as the sun began to fall in the west. Jeremiah smelled the man miles before he appeared on the horizon and growled his suspicions. Osyth calmed him with soft words and soon the tiny shape of the traveller appeared on the horizon. He dropped to his knees when he saw them and stayed that way until they were upon him. He wore black robes with the hood drawn down over his face. His feet were bare and bleeding.

Osyth spoke to Jeremiah and the creature bowed to let him down and he stepped to the dark figure and pulled back the hood. The man’s face was weathered and hard, he kept his eyes on the ground. A large patch of skin had been cut from his forehead in the shape of an inverted drop of blood and his raw skull was exposed inside the wound. A slick white painted red and bounded by ridges of flesh.

Osyth knew the shape well. It was an perversion Vellah’s own sigil, and it marked the man as a murderer.

“Don’t ask about my crime,” the man muttered. “I beg ye don’t ask. I’d not speak of it.”

“I know your crime.”

“Ye know what I did. The scar says as much. But it’ll not say how I done it. I’ll bear that on my own. No need to sting your ears with it. It’s unspeakable what I done.”

Osyth considered the man’s words. “Tell me why then. Why would you steal something so precious from God?”

“I don’t know, my lord. I just don’t. T’was horrible what I done and I can’t even say as to why I done it. They didn’t deserve it… oh God they didn’t, the poor things.” He pulled the hood back down to cover his face. “I took the Angel’s Communion too late. Maybe that’s the heart of it. I didn’t take the pilgrimage when I was young like you’s supposed to. I found God too late and It didn’t take root in me. Maybe I’m cursed, but I tell you the Angel’s blood didn’t take. I feel it in me, even now I feel it, but it feels like bugs under my skin. It don’t feel holy. It changed me, but… and my mind is just…”

The man shook his hooded head like an animal and knocked loose his canteen as he did so. It fell to the ground and its water gurgled out to the thirsty grasses. Osyth watched it empty. He retrieved his own skin and refilled the man’s canteen and placed it neatly beside him. He placed a hand on the man’s hooded head and the man went silent and his shoulders shuddered up and down.

“Am I cursed?” The words were barely formed.

“God does not curse his followers. He blesses them. And you need his blessing for what you are about to endure. You know what waits for you in the Pale City.”

The man cleared his throat. “Aye,” he said. “Forgiveness.”

“You’ll become Vacant.”

“Yes, lord. That’s my aim.”

Osyth looked at the man for a long time. “You know what that means?” he said at last.

“I do.”

“Do you though? Becoming Vacant is nearly unbearable, your mind will not endure it. You’ll lose yourself, even if you survive.”

“I couldn’t serve the Spire with the mind I got now. Let them break it if they have to, I see no other way to get myself back to God.”

Osyth nodded. “There is no other way,” he said. “Death would be easier, though. And more pleasant.”

“Maybe so. But death don’t get me where I want to be. It don’t get me nowhere even close.”

 

***

 

They eased their pace when the sun finally set and the shadowless purple light of evening was upon them. They climbed to the top of a hill and Osyth spun Jeremiah and together they watched the east and saw the world before them fading into darkness as night slid over the hills.

They stopped in a hollow in the curving earth, sheltered somewhat from the gusts that came with the night. Osyth slipped from Jeremiah’s back and cleared a patch of the dead grass and used Vellah’s torch to light a small fire. He tended the fire carefully, making sure to keep the fire within the bed he had made for it. The dryness of the Wastes was such that even a tiny spark could ignite a blaze that would consume the world around him. Occasionally fires would break out across the deadlands, lit by lightning and fueled by wind, and they left great swaths of charred, blackened land in their wake, but such events were God’s to create, and no others, and Osyth took care to keep his flame small as it rose and crackled in the night.

Jeremiah sat at the edge of the fire. His silver mask caught the light and reflected it back all broken and wild and Osyth watched him as he obsessed over the cleaning of the saddle. He ran his hands over every surface and worked with two cloths to get at the dirt and grime that had come with the day’s ride. The saddlebags were arranged in a perfect line beside him, placed largest to smallest.

The fire burned down to a bed of glowing coals and Osyth stood and stretched and walked over to the saddlebags. He undid the strappings, and with a few hushed words, brought out a small, trembling satchel. Jeremiah immediately stopped his work and looked towards the bag. A hole was made at its top and from the hole poked the frightened head of a white rabbit, its pink eyes darting wild. Osyth could feel it shivering. He spoke soft, low words and stroked its ears to calm it. Jeremiah clicked and growled as he watched the fragile creature and a milky saliva began to run from under his placid silver mask and drip down onto the saddle where he had been cleaning. Osyth raised his hand to Jeremiah and the beast let out a deep, frustrated breath, then lowered its head and wiped the leather. He continued his work, slower now, and Osyth could see that his top set of eyes were fixated on the rabbit from behind the mask.

Osyth returned to the fire and sat with the rabbit. It stopped squirming, though it sniffed frantic at the air with its ears pinned back against its head. It fixated on Jeremiah and would look in the direction of nothing else. Osyth couldn’t blame it.

“Be calm, little one,” Osyth said to the rabbit as he stroked it. “Be calm.”

He closed his eyes. He began to take deep, full breaths, holding each one for several seconds before allowing it to leave his lungs. He focussed on the sensations around him, the warmth of the fire, the night breeze in his hair, the silence of the deadlands. He felt the small rabbit as it calmed in its burlap sack. He drew his attention inward and concentrated on the rhythm of his pulse. He felt its ceaseless drumming; felt the steady flow of blood, a tiny stream, as it coursed through his body. He fell deeper into himself and soon the tiny stream was a river and once felt it was all he could feel and all he could hear. It was a river and then it was an ocean and he drifted in its tides.

 

***

 

The greatest miracle that came to Osyth Barton came by chance, if such a thing as chance exists in a world of miracles.

It happened months ago. He had been in his quarters, deep in the Pale City, praying in the dim hours before dawn. He transcended the need for sleep years before and often used the quiet hours of the night for meditation and reflection. Vellah was much the same, although he preferred to spend his evenings walking endless circles around the Bone Crater at the base of the Spire. Being so close to God would send the Angel into fits, clouding his mind and pulling his ceaseless presence away from his flock. It gave Osyth precious time for his own thoughts, and he would watch from his tower window until he saw the tangled shadow of Vellah clamoring around the skulls of the Bone Crater before allowing himself to relax.

On some nights several of the other Angels would circle the crater as well. They would usually make their own circuits, though occasionally they walked together and conspired with one another. Some nights—the nights that would make even Osyth shudder when he thought about them—the Angels would hold some unknowable discourse with the Spire. They would shed their robes, and join into a screaming, howling chorus directed at God. The sounds would send chills down Osyth’s spine. Shuttering his windows did nothing to deaden the noise, and on those horrible nights he would flee from his study and retreat to his cellar where the thick stone walls and hard packed earth would calm the wailing. Thankfully those nights were rare.

It had been one such night when, deep in his cellar, Osyth exercised his blood control to calm his pulse. The Angel’s cries had been harrowing. They conjured an irrational panic inside the Ambassador and he fled to his basement. He sat with only a lantern in the darkness and he fought against his panic. He reached inward, heard his pulse, found his blood, and then… then he found something else, something unexpected.

He found Vellah’s blood as well.

The howling chorus of Angels sent vibrations through Vellah’s blood and Osyth could feel it dancing inside of his own veins. It was always there, of course. Like all of Vellah’s children, he had taken the holy communion. He had consumed the blood of his lord, but he had never been able to feel it. He knew it was always there, but it was hidden from him and then all at once he could sense it as if it were a different substance altogether, something pitch black and shivering. And as the howling of the Angels shook the walls and his pulse raged out of control he reached out with his mind and found Vellah’s blood as it polluted his own veins and he held it.

The chorus of the Angels filled his ears as though they encircled him instead of the Spire, as if they were in the dank cellar beside him, howling in the lantern-light. They screamed and Osyth screamed and he held Vellah’s blood but it was like holding wet lightning that seethed through his body and he could not release it. He vomited. His vision swayed and the screaming was so loud he felt as if his ears would rupture. He convulsed. He dropped to the ground. And the world went dark.

When he awoke the world was silent once again.

He raised himself from the cellar floor. He was cold with sweat, soiled, and aching. A warm trickle of blood leaked down his forehead. He sat up and leaned his back against the wall. He took a deep breath and his ears were ringing and his head felt as if it were doused in flames. No, he realized, not his head. It was his eyes. They were burning but there was no pain. There was only a feeling of change. Something was there that had no been there before.

He needed to see himself. There was something about his eyes. Something changed and he needed to see them. He removed one of the polished braces from his armor and brought it to his face along with the lantern. And there, in the flickering light, he stared at his reflection and saw nothing but his familiar face. The same as ever. The eyes flint grey and unyielding. He saw them, and then he saw beyond them. And further still. Far, far beyond.

He had been blessed that night. He been given a new and terrifying gift, praise the Spire.

 

***

 

He took a deep breath. The smell of his small fire came back to him. The cold night air. The dead grasses of the Holy Land. He listened to the gentle crackling of the burning reeds. The dry rustling of the wind moving across the hills. The thick, wet sound of Jeremiah licking his lips. He felt the ground beneath him. He felt the burlap sack in his lap and the warm rabbit inside.

He opened his eyes.

The rabbit was staring at him. It had calmed in his grip. It sniffed the air and watched him in surrender. Osyth raised the rabbit up to his face and fixated on the creature’s eyes. They were milky pink and rimmed with delicate white eyelashes. He stared into them. And then, far away from the Pale City, and far away from the mind of Vellah, he stared beyond.

It only took a second, just a sliver of a moment, and the animal opened entirely before Osyth’s mind. It’s anatomy was written before him, laid bare and splayed open like a living diagram. Osyth cried out in spite of himself. It was a beauty he did not think possible on the earth and he knew that he was seeing the creature as God saw it. He saw it as a single thing and a system of miracles and he saw the impossibility of it, the eternity of its design. Beautiful beyond reason. And such a simple creature, a rabbit. So easily overlooked. But now, beneath perception, he saw it as the thousand miracles it truly was. He saw the heavy cables of muscle, the harmony of nerves sparkling with light. Bones that fit together so perfectly, held with sinew pulled tight as bow strings.

It was a living, breathing miracle and Osyth perceived it with a gift unlike any other the Spire had bestowed. A gift that allowed him to watch life in bewildered rapture. That allowed him to observe the machinations of God. To understand them. To connect to them.

And more…

He watched the creature before him and a darkness was there and it was something he could steer. Some black knot of malice that he controlled. A feeling foreign and painful.

And the true nature of his gift was revealed to him.

With nothing more than a passing thought he located the rabbit’s heart. It was so easy to find, like a drum sounding in the forest. He found it and he reached out and he envisioned it splitting open.

And the rabbit convulsed in his grip. It let out a ragged cry that set Jeremiah to whimpering and it thrashed in Osyth’s grip and blood gurgled from it’s mouth and smeared across its white fur. It kicked and kicked and one of its feet tore through the burlap sack and left a streak of blood on Osyth’s robe. It cried again and it’s pink eye rolled and it bit out but there was nothing to bite and its body surged one last time before dropping limp. Its small head rolled backwards and its ears touched Osyth’s knee. Its eyes went calm and glassy.

Osyth stared at the dead rabbit for a long time. His hands were shaking.

Jeremiah began to whine and paw at the ground and the noise pulled Osyth from his thoughts. He untied the collar of the bag and took out a small knife and opened the rabbitt’s throat. He walked to Jeremiah with the rabbit and held it by its feet and Jeremiah’s tongue came slithering through his silver mask to catch the raining blood.

Once drained he made a few incisions across the rabbit, cut off its feet and hands, and removed its skin which he set on the ground beside the fire. He then sliced along the thin exposed muscle of the rabbit’s stomach to release its innards. He let them fall onto the skin and brought the bundle close to the fire so he could see it in the flickering light. He stirred through it with his knife until he found the rabbit’s heart. It was sliced perfectly in half.

He speared one of the halves with his knife and ate it. He kept the other half with the rest of the innards and gave them, along with the skin, to Jeremiah who was reaching out politely with one upturned hand.

 

***

 

The rabbit, once cooked, was delicious. The air was cool against Osyth’s face and a gentle wind caressed the hills and he could see the faint dancing of the dead grasses as they rippled in the breeze. A waning moon had risen over the horizon and Osyth stared at its opal light for a long time. Jeremiah purred contentedly by the fire as he licked himself clean.

Osyth smothered the small fire and laid down in the grass and stared up at the cloud of stars that filled the sky above him.

He stared into the heavens and wondered from where in their endless expanse the Spire had fallen. He knew that he watched the true house of God and felt a longing so deep inside his heart it caught the breath in his throat. He stared at the shimmering abyss as if it were inverted before him. As if he had see it wrong his entire life. Like a fool, he believed the stars to be high above him, something to long for and reach for, but now he saw that heaven had never been above him, it was below. He was stuck to the world like a fly on the ceiling. He simply had to let go of the earth and fall into the heavens as the Spire had fallen to Lyr.

The stars swallowed his thoughts and he slept for the first time in thirty years. He slept and he dreamed of fire and God. He dreamed of blood and howling Angels and a deathless peace. He saw the Spire, and beneath its shimmering surface he saw it tremble.

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