The setting sun refracted off the quietly rolling waters of the Atlantic, silhouetting a serpentine horizon dotted with snow capped mountains. Innumerable ruins of ancient temples stood scattered and lost to time. Once pristine in their grandeur, the obelisks now stood for an idea long forgotten to all except the few who dwelt inside whose exemption from the affairs of life strengthened in them a bond of both mind and soul. An effulgent sky shone in a prismatic pallete as the sun turned behind the tallest steeple, whereupon a monk turned up his hood and lit a few lanterns outside. Illuminated stained glass of stoic figures on the chapel walls stared down upon robed men who prayed in the garden. It was on that cold evening of February that the sky must have split, the trumpets must have cracked the rocks, and the gallop of hooves should have turned us deaf, but none of us were faithful enough to witness.
There, where migrations of fireflies swam up the incensed air into the twisted branches of the ageless oaks, I sat amidst a company of my brothers. The pleasant evening, and burning opium, carried my mind – and the present conversation – to a soothing place. Beside me was Prior Johan, with one hand on a pipe, and the other thumbing through his diary. Though he was occupied, he still offered insight to the question I posed, and all the other men listened intently as our ears were filled with wisdom of life and faith.
And then it fled in but a moment, a crease in time, never again to grace us with peace or tranquility. Abruptly our knocker was tried three precise times. The nightwatchmen turned to face the Prior with an alarmed look. He removed himself from us, and hurriedly went inside, where he fled to his quarters. It was Diomedes who invited our guest inside.
The yard bore a preternatural chill despite no current of wind, and a thin waning moon hung still above a canopy of rain clouds which slowly came to fruition. Framed between two lanterns in the threshold was a gaunt man whose tattered clothes bespoke his terrible journey. He did not respond to inquiry, nor did he announce himself to us immediately. Merely, he hobbled forward, before collapsing at my feet. Diomedes and I grabbed his shoulders so that he regained his footing, after which he thanked both of us for the assistance. A further moment of silence passed before he told us a powerful recollection of his church and their abandoned vows, of brothers fleeing their faith, and of a terrible fire – one that we had witnessed a month before sprawling over the mountain. He declared himself the Abbot Anton Eliphas from a neighboring monastery, whose devotion it seemed had succumb to the influence of heresy.
“It was January when I awoke to the walls crashing down. Before I realized the severity of the situation my blood brothers turned upon each other, and in the chaos they slaughtered men and animal alike. The cleansing inferno I set entombed them in ash and bone, which haunts me to this day. I was the only survivor. I fled by foot, seeking refuge here.”
I noticed that Johan listened to this narrative unfold from the balcony above us, and my position beside Anton allowed me a vantage between both men which I used to observe their faces. Beside me the embodiment of cold, solemn focus; above me was one twisted with contempt, before he drew the curtains.
It took a strenuous deal of conversation, and most of the evening to collect all the information we needed to compile the testimony, afterward sending out two scouts to investigate the claims. Heretical inquiry was an elaborate process that needed the intervention of the bishop currently residing in Milan, but first we needed eye witness corroboration that could only be attained by visiting the burnt structure itself. Anton was cooperative of our precise nature, and was pleased after I showed him the meager lodgings we could provide. It was indoors that I noticed his haggard frame and his singularly alarmingdress more closely, and inspected with a careful albeit suspicious scrutiny, though I did not feel out of line. The outfit sparked real curiosity in me, forthough it was weathered, it must have looked beautiful at a time since the linen was of an intricate design embroidered in symbols of our faith. Certainly, it was worthy of an Abbot’s title. We exchanged words in private outside his quarters where he showed an intellect and shrewd tenacity that took me by surprise;
“So these are my quarters? Ah, I see. I shall enjoy what it provides. A roof, a bed, and a window is more than I’ve had to myself in so long. Thank you... your name was? I’m sorry, my memory is so displaced at the moment.”
“My name is Julius. And you are welcome, father. It’s incredible that you undertook such a journey here, rather than to the settled regions between. In your position I would allow myself to circumvent the needs of faith for the needs of my body. And how could you cope with the heresy, and betrayal of your brothers, without first seeking the Bishop in the city?”
He paused for a moment, having stared through me with a cold gaze as his reply. His eyes were of the darkest amber I’d seen. This brought to mind a dim recollection – some archaic memory – but it was lost to me.
“I only knew the way here, for our trail is conveniently a straight line, except for a few gaps I had to climb. Did I tell you that I reversed normal means of travel to get here? I stayed asleep in the day, covered by my cloak, and used the stars to arrive sooner than most could.”
I suspected as much, given his lack of tanning, but my mind had admittedly been wandering towards the bag he slung over his shoulder. I saw a few scrolls, a purse of coin, and a sheathed instrument – stringed, perhaps.But it was certain vacancies of inventory that revealed afear in me that had not gone unnoticed.
“This is all I took with me. Or rather, all that’s left of it.” He proclaimed cautiously. There was a long silence before he disrobed the bag and placed it adjacentto the door out of my sight.
“Well, I am exhausted. Shall we have supper tomorrow? I would love to know more of you, young Julius.”
We parted ways with a cordial gesture. Afterward I tried to reach Johan through his door, but there was no answer. I had wanted to discuss my observances with our Prior, but his absence had stricken me of direction, so instead I spent much of the next week in observation of our new Abbot. He educatedhimself in the layout of our church, would continuously procure older material from the library, andalways kept in focus of something I could not discern. The Brothers fast grewto enjoy his company, and sought his counsel preciously. I disavowed myself of any relation, hesitant to trust or accept what I deemed a facade.
“This is all I took with me.” Is all I could think of. That, and the lack of any food or water in his bag.
Holmstead Monastery was founded a little over sixty years ago by Father Johan, who tended the congregation of the first chosen monks who built it directly into the mountain. They tended to the Papal needs with devotion few others could match, and for those decades before my arrival, the Bishop himself would often visit us out of favoritism. But with the arrival of our new guest, Johan grew more taciturn and reticent then I’d ever known him to be. Some of the older monks tended to their tasks in the scriptorium or garden would whisper what sounded like true mutiny – his successor, and life without him, was a common topic in the darkest corners. His attendance to our prayers was rare; when he did, he vacantly stared off into space, and would not join in hymnal worship. Something had grabbed him by the throat, and his infinitely struggling mind and nervous obeisance led me to believe not that his faith could be questioned, but instead that he was troubled at a tier of his soul.
Little else of note differentiated the days within my memory. Chance encounters with the Abbot in his casual routines of the day lent me no higher opinion of the man. I knew much of his previous work, for his men of faith had erected their chapel while I was just a child at the farm. In remembrance of that time, I was due for my pilgrimage back to Naples, where I would join in the selection of new brothers to welcome to Holmstead. The Abbot had passively spoken my mission of pilgrimage to the congregation whose enthusiasm was feigned. After, I took to my own tasks, ever noting of Johan, who since the announcement had begunto stare at me daily. I seizedthe opportunity, and securely opened a line of communication with the man, for I knew then that he was now open to it. I wrote a letter and slipped it stealthily under the doorway to his room, where footsteps declared the reception. But during that week I heard nothing.
Finally, it was November 2nd when a chill wind carried the familiar voice of two brothers down through the halls. Restless sleep was robbed from me, and it was fear that hastened me to my chamber door, for soon my knocker was tried fiercely. My stomach sank deep. Taking a breath, I steeled myself, and opened it;
“The Prior is dead! The Prior is dead! May the Lord bless his soul! The Prior is dead! Abbot Anton now leads us!” The group pronounced with an unusual joy.
I demanded that they leave at once as I brushed the crowd aside with a lit lantern in hand, and took in the opposite direction towards the Prior’s chambers, where the doorwas visibly ajar. The night was menacingly dark, and my footstepsechoed past me towards where others looked out their doorstothe pandemonium I left behind. With a calm wave of my hand they returned to their rooms, still inclined to obey for now. My hurried focus led me quickly through a group of gowned men who crowded around his door muttering to themselves. Indeed, covered in a dozen lantern’s light, I protested their presence and without hesitation the throngs of excited, jovial men ran towards where I had come, leaving me inanticipationof what I could only imagine waited within.
After a moment’s respite cleared my mind of any intrusive emotions I looked into the room. Candles cast crawling shadows upon his back, where he lay spread upon his desk atop a parchment, quill firmly grasped. I drew the curtains and sealed the door.
My perception did little but ascertain a time of death. The candles were lit only recently, for their wax was high, and the curtains had been drawn against the storm which only began a few hours ago. It was his expression, however, that still resonates with me. That same contempt I saw months ago was mutated deeper into an unrecognizable malice, with a maddening gaze set upon the vacant wall ahead. It was evident that the man had been writing something, for his whole upper body lay upon a paper. Moving him aside, I read the deeply under-stroked passages and feverish rebuttal he had begun for my letter;
“... I promise you, there exists no salvation for man when his soul has been cast down, where daemons gnaw at his bones and rot his mind, until only a revenant remains. Flee at once, just as the Lord has.”
I placed the letter down next to the still corpse, possessed by an urgency to leave. The temperament in his chambers had become one of panic; the curtains had fluttered in gusts that warned of the mounting storm, a lurid overcast soaked the windows in an opaque glow as the sunset intertwined with a milky fog; the rain fell in sheets as the thunder pealed, and with it, the candlelight flickered and danced madly in a spasmodic disarray. Through the deafening gale, a voice plead for admittance to the room, and I allowed it to do so. Anton came forth – his eyes locked upon me.
“Julius. I am sorry for your loss. I shall pray for him tonight, so that his soul finds safe passage. I have never before met such a pious man – even his bright, blue eyes bespoke the compassion and humility bounded to his soul.”
“And you, Julius. Last night,” he continued, “I had a dream of you in a great field of roses. You held in your hands a small pool of water, and floating atop were rose pedals. Tossing them to the wind, you relieved yourself of duty as numerous swans rose from the grass and surrounded you, lifting you up high to the clouds.” His voice drifted into a callous tone upon the end. He spoke nothing else. The silence was deafening, and I knew at once I had to flee the sanctuary.
That evening I remember there was fear hasting the directionof our church. Anton immediately dictated numerous premeditated orders to our clergy – a renewed focus on esoteric texts to be translated in the scriptorium, a digress from hymnal worship towards meditative silence, and other practices that chill me now upon recollection. Still, I followed, too afraid to stand out among an increasingly tremulous congregation. But I knew that I had to flee. I had to escape the Priory, whether it took my life or not.
On a December evening I tended to the duties of the garden. I trimmed away the blight, fastened shrouds around the precious few plants that lived, and stirred the lantern oil and salted the fountain water. A somnolent, beautiful melody captured my attention at once. It was the birds, they sang as they flew toward the warmer climate of the Adriatic where wild flowers wouldscatter in the soft breeze. Where, envious of a new start, theywould not have to stay to listen to the death they sensed. But, nostalgic for their home, they might some day return, but not to the bells of spring – they will only find dereliction and ruin. Enraptured by a profound sense of loss, I abandoned my duties, and wandered inside hollow. Milky stone walls pressed in on my senses, and it was with a primordial drive that I rushed to my quarters and prepared to leave that evening. It was Diomedes who saw me, and having sensed my panic, followed me.
“Stop. Julius! Stop!” He yelled behind me, rushing past a few idle cliques discussing affairs in the halls.
“What do you want?” I asked, out of breath.
“It is not easy for you to hide that look of hatred, of fear. Speak with me, brother. I trust your opinion of me is not swayed like the others.”
“Diomedes, I cannot reconcile what has happened here, or what I have learned. Please come to my room, I have much to share with you.”
I walked him up to my quarters and sealed the door behind us. Amidst the flickering light of a desk candle I revealed my secret – the letter I had given to the Prior, explaining my fear of Anton and my wish to leave, and also his rapidly written reply cut short by his death. Diomedes was mostly silent, earnest within his focus.
“Circumstance and coincidence are warnings from the Lord. We must gather as many loyal as we can, and leave at once, before Anton seizes control. It is clear from Johan’s letter that he suspects something sinister about the man. We will not flee, but rather, consult the bishop in Milan. Do not leave this room tonight. Await my knock, it will be the signal for us to go. Also, I will need these documents to consult with the cleric, who will pen our legal passage through the border to Milan.”
I lay awake that evening in my quarters listening to the sound of murmuring in the hallways. It had been many hours since he left. Suddenly, my knocker was tried. No voice asked permission. With a loud crash, before I could react I was seized at once by four men beset with rage. My shoulders were locked and my feet bound in an instant, and the Abbot was standing in the hallway.
“He confessed,” he announced, “of a will to leave us. Diomedes has brought to my attention his plan for heresy, to consult with the Bishop about overthrowing me and forsaking our church. My congregation shall not be undone by rejection of faith – not again! Take him to the vaults – I shall speak with him in time.”
Abandonment of faith, it would seem, would not be something he would tolerate a second time. He held in his hand the letter to the Prior, and his reply back. Diomedes was not present, but I knew at once that the betrayal was obvious.
I pressed my feet down hard into the marble and shook off the pretenders that seized me. As loudly as I could, I protested my cause;
“I only wish to leave. In Milan I can reconcile my differences, uphold my faith, and tend to a new flock. This is not for me, it does not speak to my passion or drive! My letter is misunderstood, and was only a concern of the Prior’s. Do not let this man dictate your judgment, brothers, and do not let him cast me to the carrion birds. I have done nothing to any of you, nothing at all, except for an attempt to save more than you realize.” There was cold silence. After a moment, an endearingly calm Anton replied.
“If you wish to leave than you may do so. To flee your faith is sacrilege, and your soul will be cast deep among the ashen ruins of time, where a volcanic river will run over your chained body, and your screams will only join the cauldron’s boil. Madness will rend your sanity in two, and your quivering mass will be indistinguishable among the countless beside you.”
“And it sounds to me like you speak from memory.”
A familiar wind crept into my cell and woke me. I knew tonight would finally be my reckoning, and that he anointed day had finally come. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, for the metal grate I slept on ate into my flesh. Beside me was my hovel where my waste had exceeded the rim, which covered my feet in odorous boils. I watched enviously up through the bars towards the top of the spruce trees, resigned to my fate. My presence among them would be in spirit, not in physical form. Except for the crumbs tossed through the cellar window grate, I had not eaten. The sandstones were hot, and only at that hour of the day a small eastward sea breeze cast the dust from my body. Nightly, my dreams carried me to the Prior’s room, where frozen in my mind were those malign, icy blue eyes. No tool lent itself to my escape. The bars were cast iron, two inches thick; the hallway – staggeringly long – lead to a second gate adjacent to the spiral staircase. The key was snapped when I was admitted, and my dungeon was as barren as my hope. And as I lay there in stillness, I could hear the sound of the church turning over in it’s sleep.
Announcing the chaos was the shattering of glass – of all the mural’s breaking. After, a bestial roar unprecedented in it’s violence, while plumes of ash slid down the stairs towards my cell. This was the beginnings of the inferno I so often dreamt of. The floorboards above me slit view portals to the chaos, where orange flashes danced like congeries of sickly fireflies. The whole of the stone masonry shook as, one by one, human voices were extinguished in hideous bouts by some immense being. The rending of flesh, the tearing of wood, and the crushing of bone echoed in the brawl that ensued above. That last voice was to be Diomedes, screaming in Latin, having cast a ward against evil. I clung to the iron bars and dragged myself up them in indescribable fear.
Among the pathos of the destruction above me I could hear a hymn that drifted in and out of detection; and a rapid gallop that cast dust off the rafters above. Finally, it too, was gone. It became serene; the whole of the church sounded like a campfire softly crackled in my ears. The smoke was so thick I could barely breathe. I dislodged a lantern off the mantle adjacent to my cell to help me see in the fog. The dozen screams trapped in my ears no longer had air to carry them. There was a soft, metal whine – the staircase gate opened ahead of me. I crept back. Pounding into the dirt ahead were immense feet approaching, step by step. My back was now against the stone. One by one, their impacts shot forward small gusts of wind that pushed smoke into my cell. I could make out the silhouette of some amorphous, monstrous thing with appendages and limbs no sane mind could relate. It was void of proper form, with only a hint at multiple faces, multiple eyes, in a contortion of sinful disparity. Passed through the barrier of smoke right in front of the bars, where my lantern shook heavily in my hand, the form changed in but an instant to one that grasped a familiar bag and travelers coat, and gazed down at me with the Prior’s eyes.