Syche: The Steel Heart (BOOK 2)

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Chapter 5: Mainal Cathedral, a.k.a.

Chapter 5 Mainal Cathedral, a.k.a.

They looked around for me, you know. They could sense my presence there in the room, but they couldn’t quite place my location. They must have assumed I was Mellach, the way he fades into nothing, swims in currents of black.

While I may never have held the Tomegetherian, that dark tome, I taught him this trick all the same.

###

The back door dropped languishingly slow and Kael grunted, bringing his hands up to shield his eyes as slim daggers of light poured into the cargo hold of the small transport plane. One hand dragged the other, forced to move in unison, bound by weighty metal handcuffs that looked more like oversized washers than actual restraining devices. A similar pair adorned his ankles; an even larger instrument hugged him tightly around the neck.

He had hardly trusted the Serians, but he woke in utter shock on the trip back from Kedania and their home to find himself so burdened. Not just heavy. Not just constraining. Electricity poured through the shackles core and pulsed to prevent tampering, Sychkenetic tampering. Sure such methods could be fought against, overpowered with enough of your own energy, but. . . .

Alma sat frazzled next to Kael, her hair standing on in, her mouth moving noiselessly as she muttered something to herself. He wished he could say that her disheveledness was the result of one misguided attempt to free herself, but pain only tempered his sister to a point; she was just built differently.

At least she had stopped trying to fight back by now.

As the light poured in and the two siblings were ushered into a blinding unknown, Kael gritted his teeth and relished in his own rage. He was as angry as his sister, but he was patient as well. He didn’t need to be pacified once by the damnable collar to know there was a better way. So he waited and stewed, he took the indignity and the uncertainty with the promise to himself that the debt would be paid when the time came.

Let the Serians see how long they could hold a Syche of his caliber.

As his eyes adjusted, Kael slowly registered a veritable sea of speckled white. Row upon row of radiating glimmering shapes stretching out to a horizon that ended with a tall rectangular whiteness. It was a city of course, but hardly any city. Kael looked down on the capital of Seriah– Mainal. Joshua and he had passed through on many occasions on their treasure hunt looking for the “Book of Light”. Where they stood now was a place Kael had only ever seen from city streets.

At the center of the circle city stood Mainal Cathedral formally, the Spires informally. Many times it was referred to as the Steel Heart, but that wasn’t the building itself, only a specific room inside. The Cathedral was the largest building in the world by square footage– absolutely massive. The dead center of the building was a tapered rectangle with a whopping 700 by 450-meter ground floor. The absurdity continued in that the central structure was not the whole of the building. Four “arms” stretched out in compass diagonals. Together with the main building, the arms were a full kilometer in length with their own pointy towers on the ends.

It was on the spire end of one of these arms the airplane’s electric engine cut off and vomited Kael and Alma into the sunlight.

What a view though.

“You’ve been here before right?” Alma asked as they were shoved along the walkway atop the Cathedral’s outstretched arms that embraced the city like a mother to her millions of children. Alma blew at her raven hair that now sat frazzled over her face.

“Joshua and I visited the ground floor during visiting hours on our first trip here, when we were like, thirteen. Never been up here though.”

The cathedral was true to its name; it was a place of worship and splendor in the world’s last surviving theocracy. While its doors did not always stand ajar, the church received tens of thousands of both penitent and gawker alike.

“Just let me do all the talking,” Kael said, zeroing his eyes on the pathway. “Alright?”

“As if I intend to do any talking at all.”

Kael groaned as the seven soldiers flanking them in an aggressive semicircle jostled uncomfortably, taking her words the intended way.

The last hundred meters were an awkward shuffle to an additional five Cathedral guards dressed in obscene silvery buttons and lavish red silks. As Kael recalled, their flamboyant drapery was symbolic of one of the Goddess’s seven states of self: what the Apostolate called Veda. It wasn’t so much that Kael was religious or even interested in anything the church had to say, but when you’re on a treasure hunt for mystical artifacts from before recorded history and the local Serian hotel had free holy texts with supernatural references, you take it and memorize it. Over the course of the year from getting his hands on the book, he had read it cover to cover four times over.

As the tiny closet-sized doors opened and the siblings were pushed in from the too-low parapets to a foreboding dark interior, Kael mulled over what his sister knew. “Don’t suppose you’ve read up on these guys, Alm?”

“The radishes or soldiers?”

“The rad– oh.” Kael supposed the Cathedral guards did have a certain earthiness to their coloring. “The church in general I mean.”

“You tell me, idiot. You’re the one who’s met their paramount.” Alma grinned her sharp canines at the nearest guard. “You see what I put up with?”

The man’s tomato face on top of his radish body stayed firmly pointed forward, his jaw working hard to clench down.

Kael said, “not even sure they can talk to us.”

The group passed by a lift and continued walking down the dark halls. The city was white, the surfaces inside the Cathedral jet black. Kael probably would have made some passing comment to himself on the symbolism there (the unintellectual type that is obvious to all and thus embarrassing to even think) if not for the brilliantly painted frescoes that adorned the walls in faded but once vibrant colors.

The lacquered paint depicted valantry, piousness, an overinflation of the human condition– all things Kael couldn’t care less about. As they rounded one corner and then the next, seemingly moving towards some unknown central point in the building, Kael at least could at least appreciate one final mural depicting the final bloody moments of the first Paramount, Nzi.

The motion in the paint, in the figures, is what stood out initially. But as Kael gazed at the mural, he appreciated the irony of the scene itself. With one mouth the church decried violence and the other uplifted a man who was nothing if not a crusader. Not a single drop of blood on the fresco was his.

Through an archway, they scuffed the ebony floors and moved into a more open space. Not any open space, but the central chamber, famous the world over. Three floors below, the place of worship buzzed with people, one of those times of day. The blue wafer-marble floor cut with a single line of white lime was speckled with hundreds of bodies spaced out evenly enough in points of contrition, in poses of gratitude, grouping together for photographs. Blue robed acolytes scuffled along the outsides, weaved between the press of bodies. Kael was almost disgusted with himself, his knowledge of the church running so deep. The blue didn’t represent anything. It had been implemented twenty years ago by focus group, calculated to be the most appealing to the masses.

Alma’s foot brushed by his own as they walked and Kael ignored it. Hardly her fault they were so squished together on the march. All the while, they moved closer to it: the Steel Heart.
Hanging directly above the main room was The Room. Not so much a holy place as the Serian’s didn’t believe in places being sacred (oh the irony), but it was the seat of their holiest of holy. The Apostle that spoke for their Goddess. It was a giant mess of a structure shape-wise. Steel certainly, but heart was hardly an accurate description. Steel blob more like. Regardless, the steel heart hung with its metallic tendrils built into the walls, tendrils hugging the pillars that rose nearby, reaching for the heavens, or at least the domed roof.

When he was thirteen, Kael thought nothing of it. Now, a couple of months after seeing the steel cacophony that was Dania, the thought finally struck him that the Steel Heart was Syche made. This whole building must be. The works of humans were one thing, but the raw ability of Syches was another.

Grunting in annoyance, Kael looked down as Alma’s foot flew by his own. That was no accident, she was kicking him now. Meeting her eyes, she raised her bush eyebrows in acknowledgment and subtly tilted her head to the rail that cordoned them off from the three story drop to the crowds below. She raised her eyebrows again.

And then she did it.

Kael knew that wishing Joshua was beside him now was perhaps too greedy, but if he had to pick one of his sisters, he would have taken Avonly or Noel over Alma right now. Yes, evenly Avonly.

With a sudden lunge moving between the tiniest of blank space between two guards, Alma sprung for the railing, her knee on top of the bar and her chest pushing over into the blank void that was this cavern of a room.

With a yelp, she fell backwards. Or more appropriately, she was forced backwards with a guard on each arm, enough strength there to forcibly whip her neck back. As her back slammed into the ground, a soldier from behind was on her and had her by the collar, locking her head down.

Despite the struggle, Alma’s bindings neither fizzled nor crackled with the buzz of electricity. Perhaps more telling, Alma was not howling in pain. Instead, she rested on her knees in seething meditation before being hoisted to her feet.

The march continued with barely a break, now with each arm held and another man with a hold on her collar. All the while, Kael wished she would just behave. He didn’t know how he could say anything without ruining it, but they were fine.

He had a plan. Not some nonsense concocted by Joshua, but an honest to Goddess plan that would work.

As the group moved out onto what was the equivalent of a gangplank between the balcony and the Steel Heart, Kael took a deep breath and prepared himself. He could have resolved this on the roof, but whatever was inside this room was a secret and he had always wanted to know what lay within.

As the guards positioned themselves to enter a crudely hewn door in the metal, the soldiers stepped back and turned their backs in unison.

As the door groaned aside, they entered.

“This it huh?” Kael asked as the door shut behind them like a coffin. All of that for absolutely nothing.

“Pardon?”

In the center of the room sat a raised platform with two chairs, modest contraptions of a U-shaped seat supported by thin little legs that ran lattice. In one of the chairs sat the wizened old woman that Kael recognized as the Apostle. Old and yet tall, proud. Along the sides of the room, there were chairs in uniform checkerboard pattern raised around the edges, like a jury box in the most basic of courts only with room for a hundred as opposed to ten. Hardly full, men and women, those who held the highest political office of the country, sat dispersed around the circumference, numbering thirty in total.

“You said something?” the woman’s even voice asked again. “I really didn’t hear you.”

“I was just expecting. . .” Kael trailed off. He actually didn’t know what he was expecting.

A thin smile cracked her pursed lips. “Yes, yes. It’s disappointing to everyone. If you’re prepared to move beyond that, we can begin.”

To her left and further back in the second chair, a boy Kael’s age leaned forward, gazing at them intently.
“Begin with what you old hag?” Avonly spat. “You tie me up. Collar me. And then expect some sort of discourse? I’m going to begin by sticking my foot up your ass.”

Around the room, some onlookers shifted uncomfortably. The boy behind the woman knitted his eyebrows high and looked around for someone else’s response to guide him.

“Ahem,” a man stepped forward from the other side of the Apostle, making a show of clearing his voice and refocusing everyone. “You will watch your language before the voice of the divine. You insult the Goddess herself with your words. With that said, now would be a good time to undo the shackles and have an honest discussion.” He looked to the Apostle who nodded, at which he signaled raised a hand for the guards who moved forward to free them.

“Hold on there Paramount,” Kael said calmly, more relaxed than anyone else who spoke to the man in this room or any other. But Kael was familiar with him at this point. Paramount Jeremiah Akaskas was in the thick of things with them back in Taerose, and Kael had helped save his life on one occasion. Whatever that was worth since Kael was almost certain he had bent the knee and groveled to the King-Emperor of Taerose and the Dark Element beforehand to save his own hide.

“You object to being completely free?” The Paramount asked shrewdly, his mind racking to see the advantage Kael was sure. “It was a precaution to ensure you made it here. There will be no trigger-haired sniper trained on you if you take them off.”

“Not me,” Kael took a breath, stopping himself from slipping in some insult to the man. A coward he was. “If you take my sister’s collar off, she’s going to start blowing you guys up.”

Alma’s voice sung in an indescribable growl, bringing her foot down on Kael’s, who stood stoically, ignoring the assault. “Why would you tell them that? Just let me out, I can be chill about it.”

“No she can’t,” Kael insisted as the guards moved forward once again. “Trust me on this one. Give us some privacy and the chance to talk her down.” Kael nodded as his own shackles fell to the floor one by one. He brought his hands up and caressed his neck where the metal-binding had ground a layer of skin off.
Looking back to the pair on the dias, Paramount and Prophet, Keal couldn’t help but notice that boy again. He wasn’t looking at Alma and him, he was just looking at Kael with those big black eyes. Shifting uncomfortable, Kael re-wracked his brain to remember what he was going to say: “So say what you were going to.”
The Apostle’s eyes shot up to Jeremiah, annoyed. Kael grunted knowing he was causing problems in his own right, but he could only be so polite. He and Alma were the same in that regard, if only to vastly different degrees.

“You have such confidence in your position here, young one.” Grabbing the sides of the bowl she sat in, the Apostle raised herself to full height, tall for a Serian man. The relatively few lines on her face hid the underlying age well. The woman was nearing a full century on this planet– thirty-seven of which with the weight of the country on her shoulders, with the weight of the world if she believed what she preached. One foot shuffled closer. “The child of a king.” She took another step pushing away Jeremiah who offered a hand in support. “An ally of the traitor that wormed his way into our military.” Her lips pulled back to reveal immaculate teeth but not what Kael could call a smile. “And the inborn power of some pagan god. Oh yes, I would think much of myself too.”

As she bore down upon him, Kael could only look at that boy, still sitting prim in his chair, hands together and fingers interlaced, still staring. Was he trying to say something? It looked like the boy needed to tell Kael something. But just as their eyes locked for another second, the boy broke off and looked at the floor.

“Did it ever occur to you, Kael vom Taerose, that the rise and fall of nations should never be- hefted upon the mantle of a child? That those with real power would resent your imagined control over our lives? You’ve proven you can, as we Serians say, ‘Step the White’. So do so. Listen; act; step in line; Because the base imaginings of children, outcasts, and lepers have failed to bring any sort of order to the world and now true authority will take its due.”
Open-mouthed and gurgling defiance, Kael tempered his voice and asked, “What’s the goal? You’re saying as little as you can with a mouth full of words. Are you going to fight back against Taerose or not?”

“Are these the two options? Fight, run. Good, bad. ’Pah,” the Apostle waved her hand to the box. The only choice that matters that is so simple is to listen or to not. And as Apostle, I have always listened. Do you think the Goddess wants Taerose destroyed, a pile of ash in the long lineage of the graveyard of empires? No. She wants it stopped, its plans made ineffective. Would she rather have the miscreants running amuck and playing god in this world contained? No, I say. We will bring them to light, drag them before the truth of the public. It is those who shrivel in the sunlight that avoid it, no? Do you think she wants some bratty prince and his. . . .” The Apostle stopped before swinging towards Avonly, looking her over. “You.” She started moving back to her throne, her hand waving Paramount Akaskas over to help. “No,” she said, looking back towards them. We require no hostages nor assistance, because the Infinite can see beyond that.

Kael didn’t even try and stop his sister as a string of profanity rang from her mouth, echoing through the chasmic room. His own stomach burned in anger. Bait. They’d find no such luck when the time came for them to stick the hook in. You will be bait for a doting father, for those who would use you for more nefarious purposes–” The Lady of the Heart broke off, looking down to her own words troubled. She pulled her traditional michi over her shoulders and stopped talking completely.

Lowering herself gently, the Apostle took several calming breaths, several gasps to replace the oxygen spent.

“Don’t look so glum, children,” Jeremiah began in her place.

The Apostle still stared at them, her lips curling back again, but only now Kael realized that she had never been trying to smile. That was a look of anguish, her twiggy hand balled too tightly, her fingernails almost drawing blood from the thin layer of skin on her palm no better than parchment. “We all have eminent purpose.” The words scratched the way out of her throat.

“And yet you’ve given me no reason to actually stay; you seem to be working off the assumption that everyone is as much a zealot as you.”

“Which is why you shouldn’t have stopped them getting me out of this,” Alma said, rubbing her wrists around her manacles.

“Shut up Alm.”

“Why should you want to be bait? Is that the question?” Paramount Akaskas asked drolly. “Why should you endure the folly of faith and politic? Because you have no choice. Do you truly believe all we did was bind your powers given the opportunity? Hm? Oh no. You were each poisoned, or more to the point, infected. As long as you stay here, eat our food, you will be fine. Should you go without that for, say, two days give or take? You see where I’m going with this, yes?”

“What a load a bull,” Alma’s hollow scream bounced through the room. “You’re threatening us with something you can’t verify.”
“Unless we don’t eat what they give us,” Kael mumbled.

“Exactly,” Jeremiah added. “After a two-day probationary period, I’m sure you’ll begin to see things our way. Guard.”

Kael blinked in surprise as the key to Alma’s bindings was placed into his hand.

“We’ll have a more productive conversation in a day or two I’m sure,” the Apostle said. “Until then, you have free reign of the Cathedral and city within reason. You’ll be shown a room. Request an audience once you’ve had time to test your position and we can continue this conversation.”

Slowly, haggardly, the woman raised herself out of her chair and moved to the opposite end of the room with the only other exit. The boy followed her, gazing back but not even able to look in the eye this time.

The key cut into his hand he held it so hard, his knuckles white. It’s always the same, Kael thought. Taerose. Seriah. They will always try and take everything from me. And we are past the point of patience now. They’ll burn together.

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