The Angel Vellah sat on a throne of rusted iron and gold. His many fingers wandered the metals and lingered upon them from time to time to find the places where the iron touched the gold. It calmed his fractured mind. He felt the cold purity, then pitted decay, then purity once more. Back and forth, on and on. Each existing in defiance of the other and neither giving way. The fragile soul of the world.
Embroidered robes covered the immensity of his coiled body. They were purple and white and trimmed in gold and they draped from his many shoulders like tapestries and carpeted the ring of stairs that led to his temple floor. A tangle of limbs, all pale and finely veined, sprouted from beneath the robes and clutched the throne beneath him. Most of his eyes were rolled back in their sockets. A thin line of drool ran from the far corner of his mouth.
He was exhausted. A sermon had only just concluded in the temple and he had played host to a great sea of the faithful. They flooded his temple as the sun rose and they left harried, exhausted, and hoarse from screaming. Ninety-three had died during the service. Roaming Acolytes gathered their bodies, shrouded them in crumpled gauze, then carried them to the fane behind the temple where they would be repurposed.
Vellah watched the bodies as they were trundled away. He thought of their swollen souls, fat with faith and devotion, drifting to the starving maw of God. He thought of the endless hunger of the Spire.
The Acolytes were feverish in their work. They ferried away the dead and then washed away the blood and the vomit that spread across the temple floors. Vellah smiled at their work. It had been an exceptional sermon, the clear evidence of which was spilled in pools across the room. The Acolytes scoured the floor with water tinted with scented oils and swept the slurry into the iron grates at the end of the aisles. Streams of excrement, blood, and holy water ran together in the carved troughs beneath the temple and Vellah entertained a notion to capture them in a cistern before they dissolved into the cursed ocean. It seemed to him a shame to lose such sacred liquid.
His thoughts were interrupted by the groaning of his temple doors. He pulled his mind back to the present and felt a familiar tickle in his veins, the pulse of his Ambassador. He turned all of his eyes to watch the man as he approached. He noticed the mud staining the man’s robes and the circle of blood covering his heart.
“Osyth,” the Angel said. His voice was deep and rolling. “Come here and let me see you. Let me see the beauty that the Spire has given the world.”
Osyth stopped halfway to Vellah’s throne and bowed low to the ground. Vellah made no sign of noticing the gesture.
“You’ve been to the gates of Vennath.”
Osyth stood. “I have, my lord.”
“And why do such a thing? Why sully yourself among the swine?”
“I went to greet a group of pilgrims.”
“Of course you did. Of course. You love the little things, don’t you? The little sweets. Just look at how you’ve debased yourself for them.”
Osyth looked at his bloody robes. He said nothing.
“And were they amused?” the Angel asked. “Did they smile at your tricks?”
“I showed them the gifts of the Spire, my lord.”
Vellah laughed. The sound drifted through the cavernous temple. It was rattling and wet. “Gifts? What do you know of gifts? You lick at scraps while I sit at the feast. Do not speak to me of gifts.” He waved one of his hands to brush the thought away. “You are precious to me, child, and precious to the Spire. But do not flatter yourself. You have no true gifts. Know that you are beloved and take comfort in it. Weak, but beloved. Think of the cities that have fallen to your words. How many lives have you brought into my light? Even today, how many of these lambs came to my temple by your designs?”
“None, my lord,” Osyth said. “None at all. These pilgrims are here for you and the glory of the Spire. I am a only messenger.”
Vellah grinned. “Well said, my little snake. And quite true. They are here for me, and they are here for my love. Look here.” He pointed to a pair of his Acolytes carrying a shrouded body between them. “This one has filled so completely with love that it popped.”
Vellah watched the Ambassador’s eyes as they followed the body. He felt the tiny rise in the man’s pulse.
“The poor dead thing. It came in here at your behest, I’m sure. Another soul seeking salvation. She was not to my liking though, so I twisted her veins to knots.”
Osyth’s pulse hammered. Vellah chuckled to himself. Delightful. Simply delightful. The song of the Ambassador’s sorrowful blood. It coursed and thrummed with pity. A music summoned through words alone, and now it rattled and danced in the man’s veins. Divine and discordant. Vellah relished it. He hummed along to its rhythm and tapped a claw and smiled.
Then the music dropped to a flutter. Then stillness. Now a calm ocean where there had once been a storm. Vellah frowned.
“You have learned more control.”
“I have, my lord.”
“And what else have you learned? What other trifles did the Spire see fit to give to you?”
“Nothing, my lord.”
“Nothing,” Vellah said. “How sad. I never thought you worthless, but the Spire must see otherwise. God has granted you only a broken reflection of my own gift.”
The Angel’s smile returned as he briefly considered killing his Ambassador. It would take no effort at all. Just a simple thought and whatever threat was growing inside the man would be gone in a rain of blood. A lovely image, but impossible. Vellah needed Osyth… for the moment, at least. He needed him for Mayfaire, but once that business was complete he planned to scour the man’s veins for any trace of Ascension that he had somehow missed. He would listen to the blood. He would know if Osyth was growing beyond his rights and he would kill him for the trespass. Perhaps he would kill him simply for the trouble.
“A broken reflection,” the Angel repeated. “Nothing more.”
“No, my lord. Nothing more.”
Vellah shifted on his throne. “Devotion is your gift, old friend. It always has been. Your gift is clarity and purpose. I cannot say why God gave you this weak power over your blood. It almost seems insulting. And I cannot say why It gave you nothing at all when you last Ascended. The Spire is mysterious.”
“I know this, my lord.”
“Yes, I suppose you do. I suppose you do… but it is no matter. Your weak heart does not concern me. Other things concern me. Bigger, more dire things. Your sister Prudence has told me very troubling things about Mayfaire… very troubling. It seems your little jewel must be brought to heel.”
Dozens of Acolytes had been busying themselves throughout the temple as Osyth and Vellah spoke, but with these last words their muscles tensed and their bodies bolted upright and the brooms and urns they held fell clattering to the ground. A collective moan escaped their lips and drifted through the temple. They turned as one and crept towards the Angel’s thone.
Vellah held them by their blood. He orchestrated their movements and they closed on him like ants to honey. They came from all the corners of the temple and clustered around the Angel’s throne then intertwined themselves at his feet.
“Yes indeed,” he said as he spilled from his throne onto the web of bodies. “Brought to heel. Culled and punished. I’ll not have disobedience. The Spire detests it.” Groans escaped the Acolyte’s mouths, but they were uncontrollable, only air pressed from the lungs. They were silent otherwise, and once the Angel was settled upon them they squirmed down the stairs on their hands, elbows and knees. They moved in perfect harmony. A single organism, a wriggling carpet of bodies. Several were crushed under the Angel’s weight as they went, but those nearby filled the sudden gaps and the liquid movement of their descent was not disturbed. A scattered trail of bodies littered the stairs in their wake. Vellah paid no attention to them.
A single Acolyte stood apart from the crawling mass. His purple robes were edged with silver, and Vellah puppeted him across the temple floor to a large burning bowl, one of hundreds spread throughout the temple. It was held in the bronze grip of a statue and a wet sludge of rendered fat burned in its basin. The man reached out with bare hands, grabbed the bowl, and lifted it from its pedestal. His skin sizzled against the metal.
The undulating bodies of the Acolytes carried Vellah to the bottom of his stairs then locked themselves together into a platform. Vellah went to their edge and then slid to the temple floor. He crawled to Osyth.
“I’ve known about these troubles for some time,” he said. “As have you, I’m sure. But it seems as though they only get worse. And this insurrection, well… It’s beyond my patience. Far, far beyond.”
The Acolyte approached holding the burning bowl. His hands cooked against the metal and his eyes were wild and tortured, but Vellah held him entirely, so he walked without making a sound. Tears rolled down the man’s cheeks. His steps were calm and smooth.
“Look at this,” Vellah said to Osyth. “Look how fragile. How weak. Do you see it?”
The man stopped at Vellah’s feet. Small tremors shook his body. His hands crackled.
“I see him, my lord,” Osyth said. “He is a true servant of your temple.”
Vellah considered the words. He watched the man for a long moment. He smelled the burning skin and looked at the man with black, pitiless eyes.
“Do you know him, Osyth? Do you recognize him? Is he, perhaps, one of the children you saved in some forgotten year? Do you know his face? His name?”
Osyth was silent.
Vellah’s released his invisible grip and the man began to shake uncontrollably. His smouldering hands had gone from blistering red to black and the cuffs of his robe smoked where they touched the bowl.
“He is an insect,” the Angel said without taking his eyes from the man. “Unworthy of the baptism he is about to receive. He stands on his own now, and just look how he trembles.”
The Acolyte began to convulse with pain. His shuddering body made tremors across the surface of the rendered fat and small waves began to spill over the edges of the bowl. They fell through the air in burning clots and one ignited the cuff of the man’s robe. Another had begun to consume his hand. Vellah watched this and rolled his tongue over his dark lips. He reached out to feel Osyth’s blood, to taste the music of its rhythm, to see how his puritan responded to the suffering on display.
He found only calm, even pulse. Another disappointment.
Yes, something would have to be done with the Ambassador. Something was different inside him. Vellah didn’t know when it had happened, but something was wrong.
A whimper teased its way through the Acolyte’s jaws and Vellah returned his attention to the man. “You are a woeful little thing,” he whispered. “You stand at the brink of godhood and you cry over pain. It makes you squeal like a babe… a frightened, mewling calf. Do you think that God desires the weak?”
The Acolyte clenched his jaw. The pressure split several of his teeth, but he did not flinch. He kept his eyes fixed on Vellah. He stood with his back straight.
“Your pain is a leash. It keeps you tied to a world of slavering dogs. God does not want dogs among his chosen. He wants wolves. Do you understand?”
The man kept his eyes fixed. His face was hard set.
Vellah grinned. “We will see,” he said. “Now slip that leash, little dog. Become my light.”
With hands like blackened bones the Acolyte raised the bowl high above his head. “My life…” he grunted. “My life… for God.”
He tilted the bowl. A thick cascade of glistening fat poured down his head and coated his robes, chased by a wave of fire. It rolled over the man’s body and swallowed him in a bright and burning cloud. He fought to stand calm. He cried prayers to stifle his mind, but his mind snapped and the prayers turned to gibbering and then became nothing but howls.
“Hush,” Vellah said as he reached into the man and locked his vocal chords. “Hush now, give yourself to the flame. Let it consume you.”
The man’s robes sloughed from his body in burning ribbons and a foul smoke filled the air as his skin blistered and peeled away and his hair sizzled into ashes. Vellah was fascinated. He found himself quite fond of the young Acolyte in spite of himself. There were very few earthly sensations as horrid as being burned alive and yet this man, through sheer will and faith, was still standing on his own. Impressive.
It wouldn’t last long. Soon the tendons would tighten on their own and send the man reeling to the floor. Vellah extended a small limb and rifled through an inner fold of his robes. He produced a torch made of carved bone and polished silver. A cup sat at its peak, held in place by a pair of silver hands.
He spat a thick, dark fluid into the the cup then reached out and touched it to the man’s burning forehead. The fluid burst into flame. Vellah admired it for a moment, then turned back to the Acolyte, felt for his steaming blood, and pulled him hard to the floor. The man’s body twitched. It smoldered and smoked.
“Ride now,” Vellah said as he handed the torch to Osyth. “Take my light to Mayfaire. Tell them that the Congregation approaches.”
Osyth gripped the torch and bowed. “It will be done,” he said, and then turned and walked back across the temple and past the prostrate forms of the other Acolytes. They had come untangled and were all staring at the burned husk on the ground as Vellah bent low over it. Jealous beyond measure, they watched as the Angel cradled the man and carried him past the throne and through a rear door in the temple. They listened to the man’s breathing, though it was little more than a whisper and soon it faded altogether.