Sanquor’s knife sliced through the belly of the sacrifice in one smooth movement. Amphyor’s distended skin shrank away from the wound. Squirming thoravids burst free, in a foul tumble of violet and grey.
With the crowd roaring in the high galleries, an echo of his own blood roaring in his ears, Sanquor stabbed at the thoravids. Far from fully formed, they had no defence; they could only slither, their rudimentary limbs unable to carry them away from his Priest’s blade. The knife turned from brilliant silver to indigo as the thoravids died. A few made it to the edge of the sacrifice pit, but the walls were too steep for them to climb. Jabbing with his knife, ecstatic heat coursing through his veins, Sanquor killed the last of them; and then lifted his arms high, with the chants of the crowd pouring down on him like a libation.
“Praise Dohem!” he cried. “Praise Morvay! Praise Chark!”
The crowd roared the chant back at him, lauding the three gods of the Tetharan. They roared with all the power of their lungs, and it echoed around the tower until the walls seemed to be straining to contain it.
He closed his eyes, and breathed long and deep, and as the sweat and ichor dried together on his skin, he felt the grace of the Tetharan, warm and holy, filling every part of him.
♦ ♦ ♦
In the room of cleansing, Adepts came and stripped Sanquor. His clothes, and the tainted knife, were hurled into the furnace. Naked, sweating, Sanquor stood as water sluiced over him, blistering his skin.
No trace of the thoravid contagion could remain. They were an abomination in the sight of the Tetharan. Those who would not accept the grace of the Tetharan laid themselves open to the parasites. Only in grace was there salvation. Only in grace.
When the rest of the Adepts left, Amuranya stayed behind. Sanquor knew it was her, despite the mask she wore; he knew her movements, the way she held herself. She stood, swathed from head to foot in her robes, as he dried himself off.
“Speak,” Sanquor said eventually, when it was plain she was waiting for his permission, even though she had not sought permission to stay behind.
“My brother... my brother did not deserve to die like that. He was a good man.”
“I am sure he meant to be. But he fell from grace in the sight of the Tetharan. The contagion of sin had found a place within him.”
She shook her head. He thought perhaps there were tears, behind the mask she wore.
“I have never known one more worthy of the Tetharan’s grace,” she said. “He was more worthy than I could hope to be.”
Sanquor belted his robe, smoothed the cloth down. The triple stripes – the yellow of Dohem, the red of Morvay, and the black of Chark – shimmered and mingled over the contours of his body.
“Many a man seems worthy to others. Only the Tetharan can see into a man’s heart, Adept. Only the Tetharan can truly know a man.”
“He was my brother. If I knew any man, I knew him. He should not have been taken!”
“You saw.” Sanquor looked at her. He found himself wondering if she was beautiful, under the robes. He shook the thought free; it was forbidden. “There were dozens of thoravids within him. He wore a mask, Adept; a mask that even you could not see through. He may have professed grace, but his heart was tainted. The Tetharan knew, and so withdrew their protection from him. Only in their grace can we remain pure. Only in their grace can we remain free.”
She said nothing more. She made her obeisance, and shuffled out, leaving Sanquor entirely alone.
♦ ♦ ♦
Sanquor looked out of the window, across the city. There were nineteen towers he could see from where he stood. When he had become a Priest, five years ago, two had been empty. Now, only twelve of them remained inhabited.
The city was dying. The city was turning away from the Tetharan.
The city was killing itself through sin.
He turned, and poured himself a goblet of quey. It was warm, and rich, and a mouthful of it made him feel the same way. He thought of Amuranya again. Her brother had been a handsome man, before the thoravids had infested his sinful body. Perhaps, behind that mask, behind those robes....
He took another mouthful of quey.
It was very warm. He was very warm.
♦ ♦ ♦
She stood in the doorway of the room.
“You sent for me, Master?”
“Enter,” he said. He waved his arm in a welcoming gesture. The unbelted robe shimmered like a rainbow. Beneath it, he was naked. He saw her hesitate; then she stepped forwards. The door swung gently closed behind her.
“Your words earlier... moved me,” he said. It was true, in a way, though the quey had moved him more. “You are a good servant of the Tetharan, Amuranya.”
He heard her gasp at the use of her name. The mask tilted forwards, as if she did not want to look at him. He found it absurd; he had been naked, earlier.
“I serve as best I might, Master,” she said. “Only through the Tetharan may we find grace. Only through the Tetharan may we be saved.”
“Just so,” he said, nodding enthusiastically. He moved to the couch and sat down, sprawling comfortably on it. Perhaps it would make her more comfortable in turn. “Your faith in your brother does you great credit. But you must acknowledge the truth, Amuranya. He was infected. He had fallen from grace. You know this to be true.”
“I know it, Master,” she said. But her voice was hollow, and he did not think it was because of the mask. He leant forward.
“Do you doubt, Amuranya? I know there are heretics in the city. I know there are those who say that even the Tetharan may not save us from the thoravid parasites; that they infect the graced and the guilty alike. But they lie. Grace is our only ward against them. We must serve the Tetharan, and we will be saved.” He rose, crossed to the table by the window. The half-full jug of quey was there, with two goblets. “Drink with me, Amuranya.”
He poured the rich, fragrant juice into the goblets, and handed one to her. She took it, but stood, as if uncertain what to do.
“Drink,” he said again.
“It is forbidden...,” she said.
“To remove my mask. I am only an Adept. I am three years from becoming a Priest of the First Circle.”
“We are alone,” he said, reassuringly. “It is permitted, to remove your mask, when you are alone.”
“But....” He could see it, in the set of her shoulders. She was warring with herself; trained to obey the teachings, but trained to obey him. He smiled, and took a mouthful of quey.
“Drink,” he said again, more firmly.
She was beautiful. Her skin was the colour of the stone towers at sunset. Her eyes were pure and lightless black, liquid and fathomless. He stared at her as she raised the goblet to her lips.
But it was forbidden, in the eyes of the Tetharan.
He thought of her brother, lying on the altar of the sacrifice pit. He thought of the thoravids, slithering free.
“You serve the Tetharan well,” he said. His tongue felt thick, clumsy in his mouth. “You will make a fine Priest, one day.”
She held the goblet low, her head bowed.
“It is my only desire,” she told him.
“It is the only pure desire,” he said, and looked out of the window. For a moment, there was silence, heavy in the air between them.
“I have my duties, Master,” she said, very quietly.
“We all have our duties,” he agreed, not looking at her. “And we must fulfil them. Be about your work, then, Adept.”
He did not look around until he heard the door close behind her.
♦ ♦ ♦
The air of the Cambrus was thick with heat. Sanquor made the triple obeisance, in front of the blank-faced statues of the Tetharan. Only then did he turn to look at Phiruani, the High Priest. She had her hands folded in front of her, under the sleeves of her robe.
“You wished to see me, Mistress?” Sanquor asked.
“You have been a diligent priest, Sanquor,” she said.
“Ever have I tried to serve the Tetharan,” he answered, carefully, wondering why she had chosen to use the past tense and not the present. “It is my duty, my honour, and my pleasure.”
“As it is for us all,” she responded, gracefully. “But temptation is ever present. We must be vigilant; especially in times such as these. The thoravids punish us if we stray from the path of grace.” She gestured, beyond the enclosed chamber, at the half-empty city beyond. “Many have fallen from grace. I would not lose you, Sanquor.”
“I strive each day, that I might dwell in the grace of the Tetharan,” he said.
“It is not enough, Sanquor, merely to strive.” It was spoken mildly, but it was a clear rebuke. “Adept Amuranya was seen attending your quarters yesterday.”
“I... yes, Mistress,” he said. “I felt she was in need of instruction. After I sacrificed her brother, she spoke in praise of him. I felt it needful to remind her that he had fallen from grace; that no matter how admirable he may have seemed, yet he had sinned in the eyes of the Tetharan.”
“A necessary reminder. But your private quarters are not the place for such things. You had but to come to me, and I would have been more than happy to give her guidance.”
He bowed his head.
“Of course. It was an error of judgement.”
“Just so,” she agreed. “Be vigilant, Sanquor. I would not have you fall from grace.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Sanquor heard the tumult in the streets. Swinging wide the shutters, he looked down into the grand court. Dust was rising, along with the voices of the gathered crowd.
There was a man, standing upon a makeshift dais, that had been raised in front of the Tower of the Tetharan. From his vantage point, all Sanquor could see was that he was dark-haired.
“This is the place!” the man roared. His voice echoed upwards, reflected by the ochre walls. “This is the heart of true corruption!”
It was another heretic, then. Sanquor moved to close the shutters; but then stopped. He was a Priest. He was vigilant. He dwelt in the grace of the Tetharan.
To listen to heresy could not harm him. To listen to it would strengthen him; allow him to counter the doubts of the people, fostered by foolish rabble-rousers.
He leant once more out of the window, and looked down, and listened.
“The Priests lie! The thoravids are killing us, killing us all, and do you think holiness will save you? Do you think the Tetharan will shield you? It is a plague! A disease! It is not a punishment!”
His voice was fierce with passion. Sanquor shook his head. Fear took men in many ways. Some sought shelter in the grace of the Tetharan, as they should. But some; some, in their fear, lashed out even at those who strove each day to save them.
“You think they are shielded by the gods?” the heretic cried, presumably in answer to some shout from the crowd. “Is it their purity that shields them? Then why do they light the fires, to purify the sacrifice pit? Is it the Tetharan that strikes down the thoravids, or is it the sharp knife of a Priest?”
Sanquor shook his head. How could such foolishness, such misunderstanding, have taken root? Of course the thoravids had to be destroyed; of course any trace of them had to be scourged. They were an abomination in the sight of the Tetharan.
Down below, the clamour was rising. Temple guards had emerged, pushing through the crowd. Sanquor was pleased. He was a priest; he was strong, filled with grace. But for the people of the city... for them, the heretic’s words were as much an infection as the thoravids; tainting those who heard them, tempting them to doubt.
To doubt; to turn away from the Tetharan; to become vulnerable. A vicious cycle. A vicious cycle that was killing his city.
He poured himself a goblet of quey, and drank it down in one gulp.
♦ ♦ ♦
The refectory hall was filled with warmth and light. Sanquor sat in his allotted place. Ciengo sat opposite him, as always.
“You heard that heretic today?” Juvall asked, as he took his place beside Ciengo.
“Guard took their time,” Ciengo said, sour-faced. “You know what? We should have men, stationed ready above the square. With muskets. Put a ball through the head of any man who speaks so much as a word of that sort of foolishness.”
Sanquor shook his head.
“The heretics must be brought back to the grace of the Tetharan.”
“Too late for that, once they’ve fallen so far as to try and preach heresy right outside our doors! He’ll be riddled with thoravids, you mark my words.”
“They took him to the Interrogium,” Juvall said. “If he’s infected, then he’ll be on the altar tomorrow.”
“If? Of course he’s infected. Just some people show it more than others. There’s no other reason a man would do what he did.”
“I think you are mistaken, Ciengo,” Sanquor said. “It is fear. Fear, that makes men speak so. Fear can strip the reason from a man, that he turns, not to the sheltering grace of the Tetharan, but to heresy and falsehood.”
“And reason can bring them back? I used to think that. But when I was an Adept, there were, what, maybe six or eight sacrifices a month? Now it’s a rare day we don’t have to slice up some heretic, and a dozen thoravids. We don’t even have time to go about preaching the word of the Tetharan any more. All we do is sacrifice them, because they’ve been swayed by heretics like that fool.”
“We do as the Tetharan bid us, through Phiruani. And they do not bid us kill men in the squares of the city. Only those who are truly infected are to be sacrificed; and in the proper fashion. Would you have us range through the streets, Ciengo? Would you have us answer any hint of taint with death? You must remember, these are but citizens. They have not had years of training, as we have. They have their own tasks, and we need their skills, just as they need us. They may stray; but it is to us to bring them back into grace, not to cast them aside, if they can yet be saved.”
“There are days,” Ciengo said, “when I reckon the lot of them are beyond saving.”
“Have a care, Ciengo. That is tantamount to heresy itself. We are the servants of the Tetharan. And whether a man can be saved, or must be sacrificed... that is for the Tetharan to decide. Not us.”
Ciengo said nothing to that.
♦ ♦ ♦
To Sanquor’s surprise, there was only one sacrifice next day, and it was not the man who had spouted heresy in front of the Temple doors.
“What of the heretic?” he asked. “Surely he was infected?”
“He was untainted,” Maricho, one of the Holy Interrogators, told him, there at the great, closed door of the Interrogium. “But he is being held, with the others. He cannot be permitted to speak so, to people who might be tempted away from grace. In time, no doubt, the taint will show in him, as it has in others. Then he will be sacrificed, and purified.”
“It is strange... I had thought he must be infected, to speak so boldly. What madness must have possessed him...?”
“Who knows?” Maricho’s shrug showed that he considered the question irrelevant. “He has fallen from grace. It is but a matter of time, now, before contagion shows. A day, a month, a year... it matters not. He is fated to die in the sacrifice pit.”
“A year? Are there truly those who have dwelt so long in the cells of the Interrogium?”
Maricho shrugged again.
“Perhaps. We do not keep account. We merely observe them. Those who show signs of contagion... those, Priest, we pass to your care. The rest must simply wait.”
Sanquor repressed a shudder. He thought of them, as he climbed the stairs to watch the evening’s sacrifice. Shut away in darkness, forgotten by the city, forgotten even by their families, forgotten even by the Tetharan....
No. He caught himself. That was heresy, itself. Not even those who had fallen from grace were forgotten by the Tetharan. They saw all things, and heard all things, and knew all things. Their gaze could pierce the hearts of men; no truth was denied them. Nothing was unseen. Nothing was forgotten.
He took his place in the high galleries, amongst the crowd, to watch the sacrifice; to gaze on the knife, and see the glorious fires of purification.
♦ ♦ ♦
He was late to the refectory the next morning. He had not slept well.
“Have you heard?” Ciengo spoke eagerly, even as Sanquor slid into his place.
“Heard?” he asked, poking unenthusiastically at his bowl. He felt faintly nauseous. The hangover of dream, he thought.
“They took an Adept down to the Interrogium. An Adept!”
“Don’t be absurd,” Sanquor said.
“It’s true, “ Juvall confirmed. “I saw them taking her down. The way I heard it, they caught her in the city. With some friends of that heretic from yesterday.”
Dread filled Sanquor, sudden and foul. He pushed his bowl away, untouched.
“Do you... do you know who it was?” he asked.
He got the answer he dreaded.
♦ ♦ ♦
Maricho was there, standing in front of the door, as if he never left. He was no taller than Sanquor, and his build was slight; but his stillness gave him an implacable authority.
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?” came the answer.
“Amuranya. I heard... I was told she had been taken to the Interrogium. Tell me what has become of her. Is she...?”
“She is untainted by infection.”
“I would speak with her.”
“She is a heretic,” Maricho said, flatly. “To speak with her is to risk contagion.”
“I am a Priest,” Sanquor reminded him. “I am a servant of the Tetharan. I will not be swayed by heresy.”
“I am sure she said the same thing. You may not speak with her, Sanquor. It is my duty to protect us all.”
“I do not forget your duty. But we have a higher duty, all of us; to do the will of the Tetharan. To ensure that all may live in their grace.”
“She has fallen from grace, Priest,” he said. “She has fallen, and there is nothing that can be done to save her.”
♦ ♦ ♦
He went straight to the Cambrus, to request an audience with Phiruani herself. He had to wait, and paced back and forth across the antechamber. The long climb to the Cambrus had wearied him; there was a dull knot of pain, behind his ribs.
“You are here because of Amuranya,” the High Priest said, before he could even speak. He bowed his head.
“You are wise, Mistress,” he answered her. “I heard... I cannot believe it. She was an Adept. She was faithful.”
“She was. But let this be a lesson to you, Sanquor. Any of us can fall from grace; citizen, Adept, even Priest. We must be vigilant. We must be diligent.”
“But... Mistress, she shows no sign of infection. Perhaps there is yet hope? If she can be made to see... if she can be brought back to the grace of the Tetharan?”
There was silence. He waited, trying to still his breathing, slow his heart.
“You have ever been faithful, Sanquor,” Phiruani said, at last. “But I will not grant this. She has fallen from grace. She is tainted, even if the contagion does not yet show. I would not lose you to temptation.”
“Mistress... forgive me, but... do you think I am so weak?”
She offered a weary smile.
“We are all weak, Sanquor. If we were not, we would not be human.”
♦ ♦ ♦
In his chambers, Sanquor paced, back and forth. Outside, the sun was setting; he could not see it, from his window, but he could see the ochre towers glowing, could see the long shadows being cast across the city by the Temple tower.
He gulped down a goblet of quey. The heat of it seemed to spread through him, congealing here and there into bright nuggets, so intense as to be almost painful. He poured another goblet, and stood at the window, watching the shadows spread, watching the darkness grow.
No. He was a Priest of the Tetharan. He was a brick in the wall that held the darkness back. It was his duty to stop the darkness from spreading.
He tipped the goblet back, and belted his robe, and headed down.
♦ ♦ ♦
Maricho stood at the doors of the Interrogium. Sanquor wondered if he ever left; if he had any human needs, any human desires.
“I have spoken with the High Priest,” Sanquor told him. That part, at least, was true. “I am here at her bidding to speak with Amuranya, that I might bring her back to the way of the Tetharan, to their holy grace.”
So much of it true, so little of it a lie. But his stomach churned at the thought of it. He did not want to think what punishment he might face, once Phiruani learnt of his disobedience.
But if he brought Amuranya back... that, surely, would be enough to earn forgiveness. To bring back to the grace of the Tetharan an Adept who had turned away. Such an example might stand, bright and shining against the darkness. Perhaps other heretics would see the light of truth. Perhaps....
Maricho did not question. He lifted the bar, and swung open the door to the Interrogium.
“Vardo will guide you,” he said. For a moment, Sanquor wondered what he meant; but then, from one side of the Interrogium, a man stepped into view. He was enormous; a head taller than Sanquor, his shoulders broad, his belly vast.
“Dwell in grace,” Sanquor said, bowing. He got no answer. As he rose from the bow, Vardo was still standing there, implacable, monolithic.
“Vardo is deaf,” Maricho explained. “This is the ideal work for him. He cannot be swayed by heresy he cannot hear.”
Vardo smiled. Maricho made certain gestures; Sanquor could only guess what he was telling the deaf giant. He waited, impatient, his stomach churning. He had never been inside the Interrogium, let alone the prison beyond, where the untainted were confined.
When Maricho’s gestures ceased, Vardo gave a nod, and a grunt that might have been understanding. Then he clapped Sanquor on the shoulder and, turning, led him to another door, and through, and down. Down, to bedlam.
He had not imagined it. There were dozens of cells; hundreds. He could hear the clamour of the voices. Some were praying, some begging, some weeping. Now and then a scream – of what he could only imagine was utter despair – pierced through the tumult like a sacrificial knife. His body pulsed with pain in sympathy. He did not want to think how long some of these people had been incarcerated here, waiting for signs of contagion to show, waiting for the inevitable; to be taken to the sacrifice pit. To be imprisoned, in this hot darkness, knowing that the only escape was sacrifice... it was no wonder that madness walked here, and cried out its pain.
He envied Vardo.
♦ ♦ ♦
She rose, when the door opened. Sanquor looked at her, and felt his heart twist within him.
“Amuranya,” he breathed, like an orison.
“Sanquor?” He thrilled to the sound of his name, from her lips. “You are... why are you here?”
“To bring you back to grace,” he said. “I know that the sacrifice of your brother lit a fire of doubt within you. But that fire can be quenched.” He wished the fire in his own chest would snuff itself out.
Her head tilted forward; her long hair, unbound, fell about her face like a veil.
“It is too late,” she said. A spasm ran through him; fear, horror. He mastered it.
“No. Not if... you are untainted. You can yet be saved.”
“None of us can be saved,” she said. “If my brother fell from grace... none of us are pure, Sanquor. We should all be down here. All of us, just waiting to die.”
“No. You are wrong, Amuranya.” He kept his voice low, but urgency spilled out of him. “You are mistaken. This is not the place for you, here, amongst these heretics. The Tetharan shine their light of grace upon us, and so long as we do not turn aside from it, then we are blessed. We are pure.”
“And my brother? What was his sin?” There was bitterness there, and pain. He felt it as if it were his own.
“I cannot say. Only the Tetharan know the secrets of our heart, Amuranya. They are wise, and....”
“Wise? They are cold gods! They take joy only in our suffering!”
He stepped back, appalled. How could she have fallen so far, so fast?
“Amuranya... this is grief. Grief, speaking through you. Deep in your soul, you know that we dwell in the grace and love of the Tetharan.”
“I know nothing. Nothing! But I feel. I hate them, Sanquor. I hate them!”
Her venom stung him. His lungs tightened, spasmed. He almost doubled over, then, and he grasped at his chest, pulling his robe apart, clutching at the agony that coiled and twisted within him. That writhed....
He realised it, even as she gasped in shock and horror. He looked down at himself, saw the flesh of his belly distending, saw the movements under his skin. She screamed, and pressed herself back against the wall of her cell.
“You see?” she cried. “Even you! The Tetheran mock our faith!”
He wanted to deny it, to deny her, but the pain seared through him and denied all else. He clutched at his abdomen, as if he could claw the thoravids out of him with his fingers. But it was impossible. There was only one way to deal with the parasites, once they had grown so strong.
He thought of the row of sacrificial knives, bright and beautiful on the wall of his room.
“What was my sin?” he cried, falling to his knees. The tide of pain was drowning him. “Lord Dohem, Lord Morvay, Lord Chark... what was my sin?”
He was still pleading, still praying, when they came to bear him away.
♦ ♦ ♦
He would have struggled. He would have fought against it, but the pain was too great. The poison of the thoravids made his limbs heavy. Ten Adepts bore him to the sacrifice pit. The stone of the altar was warm underneath him. It never cooled, now; not from the succession of purification fires.
Tears forced themselves from his eyes.
“It is a lie,” he tried to say, as the Priest intoned the Great Prayer to the Tetharan. “It is a lie! I deserve grace! I only tried to save her! I am without sin!”
But his voice was weak, and drowned by the crowd.
And then the knife came down.