This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
\’gə(r)-tər-’de-mə-’rƞ\ n : a collapse (as of a society or regime)
marked by catastrophic violence and disorder; broadly : downfall
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
– Thomas Hardy, “Hap”
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n
– John Milton, Paradise Lost
PROLOGUE: THE PATRIARCH OF THE WEST
From the Chronicles of V.
The Vatican, Roma
Odo was naked, his beard and flesh slick with sacred oils. Around him, his peers, garbed in red and purple robes, chanted words forever unheard by all save the noblest and most select few. Only those in this hidden chamber had heard echo the sound of the Truth.
Clouds of white and lavender smoke leaked from a dozen censers encircling the space. Odo was cold and hungry, but the end was near. Soon he would know that which, over the course of all human history since the Exile from Eden, only a paltry few dozen souls had come to learn.
What did Adam and Eve see when they bit into the forbidden fruit?
And there it was, before him now, the only reason to be elected Pope: The Box.
Legend has it that The Box contains only one sheaf of vellum, impeccably preserved since the birth of Mother Church, painstakingly replicated as each copy disintegrated with the passage of Time. The original document was lost centuries ago. The Word, after all, is immortal; mere parchment or animal hide cannot hope to hold such grave prophecy for longer than an Age. The Meaning, however, remained as clear as the day it was first scribbled onto parchment by the Son of God.
The Author of the Secret of The Box, Jesus of Nazareth, died when He was thirty three, in payment for the sins of wicked Mankind, and He rose again three days after his mortal doom. He rose again to become more than what He was.
He became the first Master of Our Order.
The more educated Catholics would know of the Room of Tears, in which each Pope-elect historically is overcome with emotion, weeping tears of joy and ecstasy for having been appointed by God Himself to the loftiest of thrones on Earth. But that room, directly adjacent to the chamber within which this holiest of ceremonies was being performed in honor of Odo, served a different function entirely.
Odo would come to understand what that function was only minutes later.
First, however, he opened The Box and unraveled—carefully, oh, with such care—the sheaf of vellum.
What he read destroyed him.
Then he was remade.
Push from your mind, chosen reader, any preconceptions you might harbor concerning the nature of the Cardinals, the Preferati—forget everything you think you know of the Church. All the way back up the line to St. Peter, the Rock upon which Christ built his Eternal Edifice, there has been but one truth: the mystery laid bare by Jesus Himself upon mortal page, sometime after His rebirth and sometime before His ascension and return to His Heavenly Throne.
Nothing else matters at all, only this. And when Odo opened The Box, that is the moment he became Pope, not before nor after. The election served only to approve his right to be the one to bear The Secret into the next generation. He was chosen, first by God, then by his peers.
When he’d read the letter, he fled the chamber even as the chanting reached its crescendo. He knocked aside the guard and, nude as the day he was born, fell upon the lush carpets of the Room of Tears. There, he did indeed weep, but they were not tears of water. No—as the tale was told among the keepers of forbidden knowledge, his tears were of blood, of water made into the Blood of Christ.
In that moment, Odo was himself transfigured into more than a mere man. He felt the Change take hold of his very soul.
His Holiness the Pope Urban II, Bishop Of Rome And Vicar Of Jesus Christ, Successor Of St. Peter, Prince Of The Apostles, Supreme Pontiff Of The Universal Church, Patriarch Of The West, Servant Of The Servants Of God, Primate Of Italy, Archbishop And Metropolitan Of The Roman Province, and Sovereign Of Vatican City State, had been born simply Odo of the noble House of Châtillon. But even as his humble human body fell from his mother, in Anno Domini 1042, Odo was chosen by the Lord to be his Emissary.
As a boy, he knew that he was destined for great deeds, that he would be a champion of righteousness. Now, as Pope Urban II, he could fulfill his dreams given to him by God Almighty. This was to be an era of wrath, of thunder and fire, and Urban II the Harbinger of the End of Days.
To undo the Adversary, the holy man must first identify his servants and footpads. The infidels of the East: Saracens, Turks, Moors, and all other specimens of Unclean…
[The remainder of this journal has been burned away.]
[A much more recent hand penned the following letter. Though the scribe’s name has been lost to war and wanderings, this anonymous martyr, on pain of damnation, braved the Fires of Hell themselves to deliver to the Church these tidings from the heart of the Magyar Kingdom:]
The LORD has seen fit to restore us to Eden, brother, though we do not yet know the when or how of it. Take heart! If you are reading this, it means the seals have been broken and the world is ready for the coming of the Vengeance of Angels. Your part will be pivotal. Bless you!
We know that the first reiterations of the Change have grown within living hosts. The Bones of the Elect have been marked: charred by the Flame Most Holy. Our life-giving sun, that great and astral body bathed the chosen lands and kingdoms of Christendom in the Light Divine. This remaking of Man came about in Anno Domini 988, and the time is nigh.
There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men.
What more Proof do you need that the Cycle has begun Anew? This time, brother, we will not miss our chance. We will instill God’s Law upon the temporal plane, that His Kingdom shall last unto the Breaking of the World and Beyond.
The End of Days shall mark the ascension of our Holy Order. As the sinners wither on the vine, shriveling in agony by the Wrath of the Lord, we shall begin our true work, claim our true Destiny.
Though I died, no doubt, decades before your birth, know that I love you. Be assured that you, O Vicar of Christ, have been chosen to Guard, Preserve and Promote the most sacred of Bloodlines, a Lineage we may trace back to the Son of Man Himself.
For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.
We write not of a sequence of mundane births culminating with the blue-blooded scions of a backward house! Perish the thought that Woman gave life to this most esoteric of families. Rather, the Angel Michaelis, He Who Smote Satan from Heaven and ended the Rebellion with a stroke, who came to Earth while in pursuit of that Adversary, took the guise and aspect of solar rays and bathed in holy light the Chosen of the Lord: those who would take up arms with him to drive home the spearhead of God’s Justice. These men, Magyars for the most part, thus far, were Changed and became more as Adam, though by no means did they assume the lesser traits of the traitor who partook of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and, in so doing, Damned his offspring for Millennia. Indeed, the men of which I write were re-forged into the truest expression of Humanity: Adam as he should have been and should have remained.
These Elect are not men of the finest Stock and highest Stature, as defined by Tradition. We must shed these ancient and pointless Strictures, brother, for these men are Closest to God, and we are their descendents only if we choose ourselves to be. And so choose we must, or subject ourselves to the will of Satan.
War is coming, and we must rise to the Stature attained by the Elect; we must become the Elect, for all other men are but ephemera, pale imitations of a forgotten glory—though, one soon to be returned to Mankind as we ascend… provided we emerge from the coming trials victorious.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
The Elect, as was prophesied long before my time, shall be anointed the temporal Kings of Holy Jerusalem. By this Sign shall you know and recognize them. Thereafter, all the world shall fall under their sway, land by land, army by army, even as they rule already over the Kingdom of Heaven at the right foot of the Almighty.
Watch for fire and thunder; these shall be the harbingers of the Second Coming of the Son of Man. The Kings’ suzerainty shall be proved by flame and sword; seek out those whose eyes are as wide pools of blackness, the better to peer inside the hearts and souls of lesser men; seek out those whose teeth are as the fangs of lions, the better to devour unworthy souls.
This I beseech you, now the time is finally nigh: find these Masters and enter you into Communion with them. Drink of the Body of Christ with them. Become their brother as you are mine: in Life and in Death. Spread their Good Works.
Only then may you and we all Ascend, and destroy the Adversary through his servants, the infidels. We shall pave the way to Hell’s lowest reaches with the skulls of the Unclean. We shall remove Satan from his throne and break him upon the Sword of Michaelis. God wills it!
You are strong, for we are with you, working in concert with you from this world and the Next. May all the Centuries of our Inquiry and Study inform your every Decision.
And, always remember: the Commune provides.
The Surviving Excerpts of the Secret Histories of the Commune of Canaan, “Odo de Châtillon.”
Roma, The Papal States
A thousand pious voices amalgamated within the Basilica di Santa Francesca Romana. The hall trilled with focused prayer. The Cardinals deferentially bowed their red-capped heads.
His Holiness, the Pope Urban II, looking down upon them all from the dais, shifted in his seat. Forked flames wriggled from countless candles which decked the House of God, the light imprisoned within the golden candelabras. Even then, he knew one among his flock intended to kill him.
This, though not the only one, gave him a reason to face the believers rather than deliver the homily with his back to them as had always been done before. The other was that he desired to demonstrate the sincerity of his face to more ably instill in their hearts the truth of his message. He would shape them yet, these callous, violent souls, into grandiose and Heaven-worthy subjects of the cause.
Inner disquiet and unease had proved steady companions to him in this latest tour. He had not come to wear the Annulus Piscatoris on his finger through naiveté. A sense of his—that part of him that caused dreams and visions of conspiracies, from the elaborately political to the simple heretic’s dagger work—raved about shadows and betrayal, as had been brought to bear against Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot that night in the gardens. But despite these misgivings, it was Urban’s sacred charge to proceed boldly and dutifully in granting assurances to Mother Church’s followers. News of the capture of Holy Jerusalem had brought tears to all, and to him, but this fervor needed molding into a constructive element. And so, too, did the people need continued reassurance that this was but the first of many victories for the Faith—that the cause could not be more just.
Pope Urban lifted his head and intoned, “We pray today for the success of our holy war and for the safety of those who bore the Cross and took up the blade so gallantly. It has seemed a lifetime since their departure and God only knows through what evils they must wade. For salvation, theirs and our own, we pray.”
He then recited a passage from the Bible, eyes closed, chin lowered. Intimately, he related the tale to them. Though mostly he spoke to those in attendance in French (with a translator relaying his meaning) any excerpt from the Holy Book was given in Latin, and few would understand it. All the sacred texts in Roma retained their Latin forms and as Pope he would speak the sacred tongue of their forefathers without qualms over whether the masses comprehended. That was not most important, anyway. Rather, it was the loving manner in which he read these texts aloud that funneled the Holy Ghost into Man.
Then, in French, he told them, “The Word of the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” answered the people. He’d taught them, his beautiful wards, to speak to him. Urban did not fool himself; these new practices did not meet universal approval. But he was the Vicar of Christ, the very Voice of God on this earth. His was the power of infallibility. And the people needed to heed him and respond to his edicts.
A lesson spoken retained more weight than any other. Is it not the province of the Papacy to change the course of history? Neither man nor king may supersede the authority granted me by the Divine.
“Blessed is he who spills the blood of the eastern infidel and, if need be, lays down his own life in sacrifice. His shall be the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. To kill a Turk is not murder. It is to slay a demon, and leads one along the surest path to God. And thus,” he cried suddenly, “we pray this day for the destruction of the faithless and the cease of their blasphemies! May Holy Jerusalem remain in the hands of Christ’s servants for all eternity! Grant this through Christ our Lord.”
“Amen,” answered the people.
“Amen,” whispered the Pope. And he smiled.
But then his breath caught. A smooth pebble of muted shock that bobbed tight in his constricting throat. A thousand eyes were shut in solemn respect, but one pair remained unabashedly agape. And they stared into him as a starved dog might stare at a slab of greasy pork. Pope Urban returned the glare. A grimace took hold of his lips, revealing his teeth to the watcher. The man drew closer, slinking like a snake between the sheep.
In silence they regarded one another. The disquiet did not last long. Soon hushed whispers spread throughout the church as the people wondered what had gone awry.
Ranierius, Italian Cardinal and closest of friends, murmured in his ear, “Your Holiness, is something amiss?”
Pope Urban’s gaze drifted only for a moment to the Cardinal but once it returned to the apparition, he had gone.
“Have the guard at the ready.”
Ranierius delayed only to give a quick bow before acting on the papal commandment. Resplendent light glimmered from the red cap that covered his tonsured head and his squinting, bland gaze prowled the Basilica as he went. Exquisitely-cut robes swished across the polished marble.
The Pope, returning to his rehearsed prayer, said, “We ask humbly of the Lord Above—”
The stranger had reappeared. He stood, hunched, within a widening circle of space. The citizens of Rome backed away from him as if he carried the plague. Nothing was said. Pope Urban narrowed his eyes. His leathery tongue passed over dry lips.
The man was a soldier. He wore bloodstained, sun-bleached chain mail and from his shoulders hung a torn white cloak painted with a red cross. The nasal on his steel half-helm bent to the left. The way he bore himself puzzled the Pope. It seemed as though he were kept aloft by invisible strings.
“I have traveled so far for this,” the warrior said. Then, as if to drive the statement further, or perhaps to preserve his self-assurance, “I have waited so long for this.”
By then, the pews nearest the man had cleared and the Romans shoved one another for the privilege of earliest escape. Now they regarded the ominous figure with the same dread they might have shown a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Ever they scrambled away.
Like rats, thought the Pope, they smell salt and know the ship sinks.
“Sir Knight,” said Ranierius, pointing to him with splayed fingers. “You disturb His Holiness. Leave at once.”
On his breast was threaded in white the Crucifix. That marked him as one among the multitude who’d enlisted in God’s service after Urban’s rousing speech given to the citizens and nobility of Clermont.
“I have arrived,” said the White Cross. He threw back his head and laughed. The sound reverberated off the great domed ceiling of the church and assaulted Urban’s senses. It was the howl of some lost and rabid wolf, or the depraved bay of a cloven-footed devil.
The warrior raised his arm and pointed with an unsteady hand at the Pope. “What I do now, I do for all Christendom and in the name of the Almighty.”
The Pope, arising, snarled. “God have mercy on your confused soul, my son!”
The White Cross leapt forth, his boots thundering up the dais. Shrieks emanated from the helpless citizens who had attended the mass. The Papal Guard rushed to intercept him, swords blazing in the light from the stained-glass likeness of Christ. The statues of the Lord and his Disciples watched in silence as the Pope’s doom neared.
But the warrior never reached the top of the dais, let alone the table behind which Pope Urban stood. He fell suddenly to the red carpet. His neck split like timber on the steps. After another moment, a drop of blood squirmed down his lolling tongue.
“Your Holiness!” said Ranierius.
“I am not harmed,” Pope Urban said, unmoving.
He beheld the entire scene, from the deceased soldier, to the shocked Guard, to the dismayed Roman aristocrats and middle class, calmly.
The bells began to toll. Midday, and the end of morning mass, had arrived. The Pope had remained upright by virtue of the armrests of his seat. Despite his sudden fatigue, with care, he maneuvered to the fallen White Cross’ side. Stooping, he indicated the corpse with a wave. Two of the Guard rolled him over onto his back. Pope Urban touched the man’s forehead and then closed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.
“What happened to him?” asked one of the Cardinals.
“His foot may have caught on the carpet.”
Several members of the Guard shook their heads.
Ranierius made his way to the front of the thickening crowd. “Who was he? Who was this assassin?”
The helm had parted from his head and still quivered after its roll down the steps. The man was gaunt of build as well as facial structure and his eyes were a watery black. Beneath them, his lips were crusted from thirst and from these leaked a fluctuating trickle of bubbly slaver.
No one spoke up to identify the dead man. By the dim light of the church and with all these people standing around, masking what little light there was, it would prove difficult to find the answer.
Then a commoner said, “I know him, Your Holiness, sirs. That is to say, I am not a party to his madness—I only know his name.” The man stuttered to halt.
“Speak, my child,” said the Pope with a smile. “The truth shall set you free.”
“He is a Frankish noble. Lieutenant Ferdinand St. Yves. He left from here three years ago. He left with his company, Your Holiness… for the Holy Land.”
“Verily?” said Ranierius, throwing his arms in the air, imploring the Lord to make sense of the insanities. “How could a servant such as he fall so deep under the Devil’s sway?”
This is not what was prophesied. I was not to be the target of assassins in league with the Serpent. The Pope stood. “It is no matter. He erred and now he is dead. The Lord will try him more justly than ever we could. And as to how he was taken from this world, my dear guardians… You have at last beheld God’s vengeance against the flesh of the wicked.”
As one, those present looked to the heavens as if awaiting the Lord to smite another man. The domed ceiling remained intact.
Brilliant sunlight poured in like honey through the open doors of the House of God in Rome. And, his assurances believed by everyone but himself, Pope Urban II wondered when would come the next serpent.
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