The familiar but intimidating cobalt tip shone aloft as Gustav approached through the heavily shadowed arch of the cold, granite message tunnel. Snaking through the shuffling and twitching as we stood as apprehensive as ever, an unusual aroma struck us and soon made us still. Something was different this eve; doom was in the air amidst the ghastly stench now roaming closer as it threatened our nostrils and sent shivers through our very souls.
Gustav waved a free hand to the granite floor, and soon his body descended flawlessly. Nothing less was expected of Gustav, and so all appeared normal – at least for now.
As he floated between the two stone-pillared receptacles, which held the fire of the lost spirits, Gustav looked among us eagerly searching. Quizzical, but soulless black eyes held each of the boys standing nervously awaiting, and then one by one he let them go; as he did they would drop to the floor once the grip of his abusive power loosened.
A small face that held the most impish of grin’s despite the theatrics of this demonic spectacle belonged to Hythro who grabbed at my robe sleeve and tugged.
“What day is it tomorrow?”
I gave him a puzzled scowl.
“Ssh, young friend. Wait until this is over, then we can talk till the moon is exhausted.”
Not to be swathed, Hythro came back, “It’s my birthing day. I will be chosen tonight, you’ll see!”
I brought a thick, heavy grey sleeve to my mouth to muffle laughter that might escape. As I turned to look at his exuberant face, a vision of death appeared in its place. The cruel and ghastly mask that had overtaken the young boy’s pale and gentle face shook my very core.
“What is it Jansus?” He pleaded with creased brows and a quizzical stare; I was clearly frightening him.
I could not hear him, his voice became tame and separate in its own muted bubble. All I heard were dense voices reverberating inside my head and a swirl of mist had gathered where my thoughts once were. I watched my dear friend, who had become more of a duty to me since our inception and as near to a real brother as one could have, be lifted and held whilst the followers chanted and naked flames from torches licked at his tortured body.
One by one, arms of sweat and muscle released their grasp, and Hyrtho levitated before the dark and sinister black of the tunnel. I was abruptly brought to my senses by the bustle of the fellows preparing for prayers to be held before the mighty Gustav – our Teacher and Chooser.
Gustav prodded me through the air with his sceptre to force me to worship along with the others, as I knelt I was forced to look away and to the floor by the familiar pressure of obedience emanating from his staff. I could not pray, instead I thought of Hyrtho and his exuberance, and knew only too well what fate awaited him this night.
Was I the only one among us who was cursed with these visions? With every service I saw the face of the ‘next’. Do I send them to their doom? Are my eyes the only eyes he finds whilst he searches? I had come to fear every service because all of my visions had been honoured thus far.
Whilst the others prayed, I tried to thwart the sensation and images in my mind. Desperation forced me to summon my own demons to rewrite the premonition. Serpents of time snaked between my wrists and pried open each palm, mocking prayer. I watched as they weaved and writhed and listened as they spoke to me.
“Look to what looks inside you, look at him and see.”
I lifted my head and peered through the half-light of my hood at Gustav’s burning eyes; eyes that were already awaiting mine. The beads of sweat on his naked crown glimmered with the ricochet of flame either side of him. He paced heavily, his eyes not leaving the inside of my head for one second. I felt I was being buried deeper and deeper into the uneven stone floor we had adorned for years and years, and into the black light that was our lives. The humbled gathering smothered the hall in murmurs and prayer, which gave Gustav the opportunity for ceaseless battle with my mind.
Hell’s door opened wide and the same foul smell grew stronger, nearly suffocating me before I was all but swallowed whole, and before my demons had time to gather their wits and surge upon his soldiers awaiting us. Flickering fires tormented me by engulfing my fellow prisoners. I gasped with an urgency to give in, but my warriors placated me and fought the fire with conviction and showed me how false and cold the wall of fire that surrounded them was – that it was just an illusion created by Gustav’s trickery and deception.
Whilst the vision of a black robe and the cobalt eye of Gustav’s sceptre remained ahead to deceive the praying boys, Gustav loomed above me and choked me with a cold, black stare until I was sent to my knees – my hands no equal combat against his sheer force. The emerald and ochre serpents released to me a power, which raised me bodily, high and level with my oppressor’s angry stare.
“You dare to challenge me now?” Gustav snarled. “Tell me what has brought about such insubordination; all of this for such an insignificant, small and weak chink in our display – a link that will endanger all we have built, all we are – surely not?”
“Don’t mock me Gustav, don’t underestimate me either. I am done being your instrument. I am done with this black putrid space we call our home. I have grown and maybe I have outgrown you!”
I watched an onslaught of black images grow in number before me before I was snatched back into darkness and my tomblike existence; the only existence I had ever known. I was used by each successive in the Order and chosen for my power; a power they quickly ceased on and were loath to let go – hence my survival. I was their tool. A tool that delivered to them what it is they sought, without blood stains touching their hands – all of their sacrificial gifts to the Source. Should Gustav fail then his soul would be torn from him and fed to the depths of depravity in Hell. The latter did not worry Gustav, the idea of not being The Chooser of five hundred years this eve, and cajoling with his demons and his master, Satan, did.
I had never in all my ‘existence’, until Hythro, experienced the inner peacefulness of human bonding, kinsmanship and duty…or love – brotherly love. It had touched upon something in my lost being, from a time taken from me but that would never be snuffed out. This past echo ignited further powers in my possession, hitherto hidden and suppressed.
“Hythro is the chosen one and will die tonight, whether you like it or not. You chose him. It is your black blood that sends him to his death and to our Saviour! Be honoured that he chose you to channel his thoughts and hears what you have to say.”
“I am ashamed and insulted,” I conceded. I could feel the hatred as my face creased when I spat out the words, “Our Saviour, the loathsome spiral on which we all slid ignorantly and you the weak subservient who drove us, are nothing but a fallacy, a want, a fairytale made in ‘hell’, and you are so weak as to believe in it. I will not allow this anymore!”
“Ha! Oh you won’t? Then die!”
My screams wrung out and seeped into those gathered below me. Gustav’s blue sceptre of torment pierced my brain and summoned black putrid showers of molten liquid upon the boys.
“Look! Shouted Gustave, “See what your brother is doing, how he thinks for all of you. You should despise his whims and feelings…we must punish him… he must die. Now!” The army of serpents rose again to shield them and the voices breathed life into the boys.
“Fight! Fight! Use all you see, look into each others eyes and see. Look deeply.”
Hythro broke from the trance first and removed the hood of the boy next to him and ushered the next to do the same until all watched the air above them. As the smothering putrefaction dripped onto their robes a few cries were let out before a realisation that they were unharmed. The liquid turned to water and Gustav dropped to the floor and his weak and broken body lay crumpled before them.
The valiant Serpents tore through his tunic and gorged on Gustav; the cobalt blue flickered until its breath was finally extinguished. The warrior Serpents and their effervescent trail paved a pathway through the cold tunnel, and the boys followed it until a luminous end greeted them; its warmth and radiance took their breath away.
Spirits that were released from the ruptured fires; kept burning for centuries in the vessels that guarded the tunnel’s doorway – pranced and spread laughter ahead of the children who turned and called to their new leader, still away in the distance in the sour darkness. Jansus walked towards them and they engulfed him with the power of the love that had assured their deliverance once and for all.
Jansus felt a familiar tug at his arm.
It must be my birthing day by now, mustn’t it?” A small imp like nose turned skyward only to be met by a sturdy cuff at the back of his neck.
“Don’t you ever give up?” Jansus picked up his small brother and ran into the new family awaiting them.