“Please! Please!” The man wailed. His voice carried through the silent, stone cathedral halls. “Please--you don’t understand! You are wrong! Why have you taken me?”
The men who carried him didn’t care. They’d heard the cries before, though never this loud. It sounded as if the knights were dragging a boar they’d struck with the ends of their swords through their cathedral.
The great wooden doors slammed shut behind them, echoing a giant’s howl down the halls. They dragged him over the dark colored carpet, now tattered and stained red with blood. The man’s eyes studied the hall, stopping briefly at a red door to his side. Thoughts of running to it flooded his mind, but the chains around his legs turned them sour.
The cathedral’s halls smelled of fresh ash. It was pungent; eye watering. Plumes of smoke sat collected at the top of the arching roof seeking an open window to escape from.
In the center of the sprawling interior, a circle made of stone and dirt was placed. Buried deep inside of the dirt was a resilient plank, now stained black and with carbon-scored chains dangling from either side of it. A fresh pile of something still smoked with embers, as if to greet their arrival. Around the glowing pile, mounds of ash collected like a miniature mountainscape.
The man thrashed in their arms as his captor’s chain mail rattled against the insides of their armor. Their grip had turned stone-like, much to his dismay. Neither uttered a word as the miniature gargoyles perched atop their helmets watched, grinning like ghouls.
They cared not for words. That was not how these men spoke.
“Please don’t do this!” Their prisoner begged as his legs dragged behind him. “I've done nothing; I am innocent!”
Their grip squeezed harder, digging deep into his already thinned muscles; his bones cracked. It wasn’t until they’d dragged him up twenty of the stone steps that he stopped his pleads. As each step chipped away at his knees, they also ate away at the resolve he swore he’d not forget.
The rest of the cathedral was silent. Deacon’s in passing watched, heads bowed and prayer muttered. Not for his soul, but for theirs. For they knew how dangerous speech was at a moment like this. And if they ever forgot, they just needed to look to their eldest members who bore crimson cloaks. Their imposed silence was to be their reminder.
As if to toss a bag of seed, the soldiers threw the man to the floor. He collapsed, corpse-like onto the polished granite in front of steps that climbed upward as if made for god’s to descend to the mortal realm.
His arms could not hold him upright any longer; his legs wobbled and bled. His shirt had been ripped open at the back, and there were already the marks of resistance welted upon his tanned flesh. Their purple hue could’ve easily fooled a winemaker they were so purple and bruised, were there any left.
Purity had come at a price. A great one.
The man looked up to his audience of more stone creatures looking down upon him. They held the edges inside of the great cathedral, claws exposed and ready to descend with wings shaped like dead tree branches. Their tongues hung from bloodied beaks, salivating for a confession.
They were numerous, and were the least of the horrors in this dreaded place.
Behind him, the knights stood and adjusted their almost golem-like bodies into a waiting position. One hand rested on the square pommels of their blades, while their other hands covered the holes on their helmet where their mouth was supposed to be. They appeared to turn to stone in that moment, as if they didn’t even need to breathe.
“Please… have you any heart left?” The man crawled to their feet, smudging the polished, grey steel with his split lip. “Is there any left in this country?”
Neither moved, and the Deacons who watched turned their faces to their pointed shoes.
“Haven’t any of you?!” The man exclaimed.
“They already have what this country needs…” a grave, insidious voice descended the steps that laid in front of him. “Were they to have this heart that you speak of, then they would be lying in front of me. In front of the gargoyles for judgement.”
“You… you bleed them of their souls…” the man coughed and struggled. “This country was free before you came. Before you whispered in ears and murdered it. You turned our people into husks with your laws.”
“Murdered?” The voice laughed. “I do believe you mean saved.”
Black, pointed shoes like knives stood now in front of the man, aimed at his jugular. His eyes climbed the charcoal garb that covered much of the voice’s body and his stomach sank as its patterns came alive. Creatures resembling the gargoyles from above were now in front of him, mouths open and hungry. Eyes devoid of soul.
The man fell silent.
“Now…” the figure started as he rubbed his skeletal cheekbones. His eyes had sunk into deep saucers; he looked like an undead trying to pass for human. “I can be a friendly man. I do not need to be your executioner. Tell me, why have my soldiers brought you to me? What is it they think you’ve done?”
“I’ve done nothing,” the man turned his face to keep them from being drawn into the figure’s coal-like eyes. They were strangely alluring. Haunting.
“Nothing?” The figure remarked coyly. “Why don’t I believe that? My knights do not take innocents. Are you with them?”
“I do not know what you ask.”
Like individual sickles, the figure’s fingers extended and snatched the man’s lower lip. They pulled it forward, and the man’s body moved as if commanded to follow.
The figure pulled his lip to where his unnaturally long neck could crane closer, like a snake exiting a turtle’s hollow shell. “The ones who wish to ruin all that we’ve accomplished. You know who they are,” he hissed with pale, azure lips. “The creature’s which hide in the fields… whispering things forbidden.”
“Things not meant to be forbidden…” the man whispered as he eyed the floor. Quickly, he stammered to correct himself. “That is what they say. Not I.”
“So you do know of them… vagrants playing with... emotion,” the figure growled upon saying the word. “They think freedom is safe; they think it necessary. I’ve seen it bring greater empires to ruin within a day. The soul is a vacuous creation; it desires everything.” Instantly, his voice turned venomous. A single sentence felt like venom raking the man’s skin. It demanded obedience. “Do you have any idea how uninspiring it is to work so hard at creating a paradise--a utopia… only to have children try to topple the blocks? Do you, truly?” The figure eyed the man’s destitute figure from head to toe, inspecting each detail. “I doubt it. You would all rather see this kingdom burn for bleeding hearts and what you think is joy. A fool’s game. A waste of greatness.”
He dropped the man, pulling his hands back into his drooping sleeves. His garb seemed too large for him. He then pointed to the gargoyles above them, finding the cruelest of the crowd.
At first, the man dared not look upon its beady glare. He could not bring himself to. One of the knights--the larger of the two--moved and grabbed the man’s face, squeezing it so hard he thought it was going to explode under the pressure. With a swift, harsh jerk, the knight assisted in pulling his gaze to the ceiling.
“Please… I did nothing… I beg of you… please…”
“Oh… but you did,” the figure continued. “You did do something, and I am so grateful that you did. So grateful, in fact, that I’d like to honor you with something reserved for only the most helpful. I would like to turn you into one of my dear gargoyles--my loyal watch dogs. I only ask for one thing: truth.”
The man’s eyes turned wide and white; they shivered as if they were freezing solid. “B-But I have no truth to share! I was brought here unjustly! I've not broken any of our laws; I've not been selfish.”
“Is that so?”
“I-I did nothing… honest…” the man’s lips quivered. “Th-They took me from my village. I am an honest farmer. Nothing more.”
“And that is okay...” the figure whispered. “I would still like you to watch over us. You helped build this paradise--you are a creator here. An architect of a safer future for all. I would hate to waste a good, honest soul. Will you not speak with me?”
The man’s body shivered. Ripples moved beneath the skin like insects feasting on his fear. They moved from fingers to arms, and down to his legs which quivered the most.
“I would not lie to you! I am no fool; I work for the good of this kingdom.”
The figure’s stare turned from the gargoyles to the wood and chain that sat at the center of the cathedral. He didn’t have to say a word--the knight already knew. He took hold of the man by his neck, pinching the frail skin between segments of his gloved hand. He dragged his limp body toward the stand and down the steps.
Tears streamed down the man’s cheeks. He could not take his eyes away from the smoldering ash that sat before him. That was to be him.
“Wait!” The man cried out, arms thrashing now with the last bits of energy. “Wait! Please, you must believe me. I have done nothing!”
As if following him like a shadow, savoring the moment, the figure looked down and took the man’s poor, trembling face in his hand. He rubbed his ragged hair, fingering his way through the knots and tangles.
“It will only hurt for a moment.”
The man’s lips pulled back to show his yellow teeth. His tongue wriggled; his eyes darted from corner to corner in the cathedral. He could envision it--his future. His end. And everything excruciatingly in between.
“This is where we say our goodbyes… unless?” The figure waited.
The man could hardly speak. Alien words leapt from his mouth so quickly they sounded like he was speaking in tongues. Panic had gotten a hold of him and would not let go.
The figure waved his hand and turned his back, beginning his ascension back to his heaven. His tinged lips smirked as he heard the chains jangle.
They’d broken him. They’d turned him weak.
The figure turned his head, awaiting the truth.
“She?” The figure ridiculed. “Perhaps I could entice you to say just a few more things? Anything that may help us…”
“She would hate me…”
The figure looked around the room, as if to search for this enigmatic soul. “How would she know?” He waited for an answer he knew he would not hear. “Do you see her in these halls?”
“No…” the man gasped for air. “But--”
He stopped at the command of the figure’s dagger-like finger.
“Then you have my word, this woman will not know it is you telling me anything.”
The man appeared to struggle to swallow, as if a large stone was moving down his throat. The truth inched its way out of the man’s mouth.
“She told me she loved me…” he sobbed. “She told me we were to be together…” he looked up to the waiting figure, watching it lick its lips. “She’s just a seamstress... an innocent, young thing.” His eyes moved to his ring finger where a golden band was supposed to be. “We wanted to have your blessing… but we couldn’t wait. You cannot command love.”
“No…” the figure sighed. Unbeknownst to his prisoner, the comment had summoned enough of his ire to draw blood. His overgrown, yellowing thumb nail had dug itself into his palm where a trickle of grayish ichor bubbled up from. “Of that, you are right. But I don’t have to command the damned desire. I only have to snuff it out. One soul at a time. A little truth goes a long way...”
The red doors opened, at the behest of their commander’s look. Another similarly dressed woman hobbled out from them; her chains clanged as they dragged over the ground. A band had been wrapped around her shaved head.
Two more knights pushed her forward where she waited.
Immediately, the man stopped his flailing and looked upon his fellow prisoner. They were very much the same, both reduced to nothing. A tear slipped down his face as he noticed the woman’s shape.
“Would this be the one?” the figure asked.
The knights undid his chains and let the man approach. He took the woman’s hand in his and rubbed the surprisingly soft skin. It was tender, just as his memories had been. The woman opened her empty mouth to say something, but no words came.
He looked back to the empty post, and then to the piles of ash below it.
It could not remain empty.
He then looked to the figure and, silently, nodded his head. His lips had sunken deep into his mouth when he turned to speak the truth.
“Good,” the figure replied. “Good… it is a difficult task to snuff out all of the covetousness that lingers within our kingdom. You have done a service to me,” the figure opened his arms and the man approached.
As he did, the knights behind him pushed the other prisoner to the circle and proceeded to chain him to it. Just as quickly as they had bound him, a torch had already been lit and the skin doused in oil. Within minutes, the cathedral halls stank of ash once more, only this time they were silent.
The man turned to watch what his confession had brought. He watched her once pleasant skin shrivel and flake off to take flight; the room grew exponentially warmer. A putrid stench filled the hall that none seemed bothered by. Sweat gathered underneath the man’s armpits and beaded at his forehead. He tried to wave away the image of her amber eyes and the feelings of joy they once brought. Now he could only imagine them screaming. Judging him.
“Tell me…” the figure said, holding his new watch dog within his arms. “Confess and then you will join our legion. You’ll have your second life.” The man raised his head, eyes meeting the hollowed face that now blended in perfectly with his ghastly commune. The figure’s lips contorted into a smirk. “What was your crime? Why were you brought to me?”
“They caught me… she told me… of things… joys I did not yet know existed. She told me not to tell anyone--she swore me to silence. We kissed… we danced… we fell in love… and I just gave it away.”
That was when he felt it. The weight of the helmet being lowered over his head. Its weight was impossible to miss; the sound of metal locked in place. He looked up to the gargoyles lining the cathedral and understood, now, how many had made the same cowardly choice.