Brother Matthew walked through the ruins of the Abbey of St. Ceresi, shaking his head silently, recalling the solemn and dignified history of the brethren that resided here. He had passed many hours over his life, doing this same thing, over and over again to take the journey and to never arrive.
His reasons varied, but at the heart of every one was the desire to feel close to- and at one with- the brethren of the Order that has passed before him. Centuries may have separated them, but their cause was the same- to protect what was not known, even with their lives. Matthew was born into a time where such sacrifice had not been necessary for many decades. How long, exactly, could not be told, because the history of the Order was sealed away from human sight forever. Once in the Order, so went the saying, you did not leave save for in a pine box. You were dead to the world, and the world was dead to you.
This was the life he had trained for, and this was the life he had chosen, once he was old enough to do so. He was speechless, but there was no one to speak to; he was alone.
And yet, all those whom he had loved throughout his life- and toiled with, and fought with, and returned to in love- were surrounding him. He could feel and touch their silently accusing stares in every corner of the Abbey. Their smoldering, broken bodies lay in torn heaps here and there, with occasional extraneous ritualania having been performed as time and taste had allowed. Who, or what, had done this was beyond his knowledge.
The air stank of brimstone and rubble. The smell of burning flesh was in the air as well, stale incense, acid, smoke- urine, sweat, feces and fear.
Pink acidic bubbles were in some places scouring the stones in the floor. The acid had poured forth from the jets in the walls, in some instances hitting the very brethren that had set them up in the first place. But it was better to die in the service of the scrolls. It was better to die and have the secret of the scrolls be safe.
The abbey had always been, since the tongues of man had started stirring to describe the world around them. The actions of the tongues of man had always served to undo the actions of their spirits. It wasn’t solely devoted to religion, but rather the preservation of the politics of religion.
Prior to the intercession, Pope Piror had visited the Abbey and saw that with its situation- built into the hillside, beset on three sides by the northern sea- was perfection for the protection of the scrolls. The Pope following Piror had many years later sent the scrolls to be kept here, instead of in the Vatican. Metok told Matthew that many men had died for knowing of the decision, and many more men died in bringing them here. And here they had stayed. No one in the outside world- save for the papal advisors- knew that they existed up here, or that they possessed a secret buried deep within the earth. The villagers they traded with knew nothing, for the brothers said nothing- their benignity was continually assumed.
Matthew shivered with cold, although he was fully robed and the sun was shining outside. The aphids had only just this past moon come into bloom, and their scent had been heavy within the abbey- now, all that could be smelled here was the slick copper of blood and the stench of fear and forced attrition. Only a few hours ago, the sun had warmed the clay walls of the Abbey, filling each of them with the blessing of warmth and light.
Now, it was no more.
Matthew remembered Metok’s jovial laugh as they had broken bread this morning. They had been sitting in a circle, the twelve of them. Time goes from the present, to the past- the way forward is always that way back through time. This was one of the lessons they taught. Franchise had been grumbling under his breath, and Metok had tried, unsuccessfully, to draw him out. Franchise had simply stared at him, in that inimitable way that he had about him. Not a word was said- Franchise was stoic, and firmly in keeping with their vow of silence. He conferred without speaking that he reasoned, and rightly so, that to speak to a brother was to invite his inevitable riposte, and thusly encouraging him to break his vows, and all because of a carelessly runny mouth. Franchise therefore spoke only when it was of the utmost importance.
Now, he was no more. They were no more. It was almost as though the brotherhood had never existed. The Pope would never acknowledge that they existed before, and they would admit that they existed now.
Matthew’s breath frosted in front of his face, in spite of the heat rising from the bodies scattered throughout. His tongue tasted like ash. The monk’s entire body- except for his face and his thick fingertips were hidden beneath the folds of his vestment. He wore, in the tradition of St. Ceresi, a broadly-hooded black woolen raiment- doubly thick in front, where it folded over on itself. Along the hem was where Matthew’s vestment differentiated significantly from good old St. Ceresi: there, just along the bottom of the hem, tucked just out of sight, were a series of seven silver stars, with each one of them inverted or otherwise bastardized.
The other robes on the brothers in the room were similar in this respect only, being bloody and shredded.
St. Ceresi had given his life to protect the scrolls, and many generations of men- and women- from St. Ceresi’s village and those that lay in the fields surrounding it had given their lives as well to protect the sacred secret of the scrolls. None of the villagers had ever known for certain what the scrolls said, or even what they pertained to, but speculation was certainly heard in and about town and gossips were often able to be overheard wondering aloud what in the name of Christ did the words of Christ say, and why were they cursed with keeping its secret from the rest of the world? But those who silently understood adopted the black raiment, and Matthew’s Father had before he, and now Matthew walking the ground of the ancients, his sandaled feet tread the same ground that his forefather’s had in the centuries before now, and their fathers before them. It was an ongoing circle, or cycle, and therein lay its perfection- there was no way out, no way to end.
But all around him, on every side, the broken bodies of his brethren lay in ruined pieces, scattered helter-skelter in fresh pools of cooling blood.
The gape-eyed rictus grins on their faces hastened Matthew’s step. He moved quickly across the foyer and into the main antechamber. He could hear water trickling in between the bricks on either side where the heat from the sun outside had caused condensation from the moisture in the mortar mixture. Only an hour before, he had been sitting here with his brothers, living a quiet life of the mind, protecting the prophecy.
Had the seal been breached?
He raced to the other end of the room he was in and looked at the crude warning system mounted to the wall. He searched it from top to bottom, looking for scratches or burn-marks, but there were none. The seal appeared to be intact. There was that much to be thankful for, although his brethren had paid for its sanctity with their lives. Matthew knew that his own soul would soon be following theirs, down much the same path. He had lived every moment of his life in scripture and piety- his every step foretold- and with the knowledge that he might have to relinquish his life to protect the sacred scrolls. He was as willing to die for their safety this day as he’d been at any point in his past. He had never felt an ounce of regret for the life chosen for him, by dint of his birth order and the region in which his family had flourished. His father had been of the order, as had his father, going back as many generations- as many generations at least- as Matthew had fingers, and not once did he question his life, or how it would be spent. It was an honor to toil amongst the scrolls, for precious few knew of their existence.
From where he was walking here until he got down to the vault, he knew he would have to increase his caution; there were nooks and alcoves where as many as ten men could be lying in wait for him, and Matthew would not be aware of their presence until it was too late to back away, due to the design of the church itself. The walls curved into each other, creating a whirling sort of composition that was initially confusing to the untrained eye. Quite simply, it was an optical illusion achieved by the design of the walls that made it difficult to maintain one’s sense of balance. Each brick seemed to stretch out and elongate as a form of camouflage for the next.
The light given off by the torches that lined the walls was equally deceptive, and created further tricks of the eye that made walking through the abbey nearly impossible if you went by your eyes as a guide.
There had once been a time where such traps weren’t necessary, but that was a nearly-legendary and in any instance a bygone time, extinguished long before Matthew’s birth. Since time out of mind, men had wanted to keep the words of Christ out of the hands of other men. Theirs was not an unknown duty, and many men had died to protect them, from one set of
people or another. It was odd, how such a thing rumored to be for the good of mankind should suddenly be deemed to be a poison, yet it happened every time. Matthew had seen such fervor take its toll firsthand, back in his village, when he was still a small child.
Matthew’s mind returned to the abject carnage behind him- the brothers with their robes and their bellies slit open, their entrails steaming in the early morning sunlight. These were the men with whom Matthew had spent the greater portion of his life.
He had lived intimately with them, and yet none of them had ever known of the other’s life outside the walls. It was that way to keep their families safe in the event of a torturous disaster such as this. Many dwellings would be burned to the ground in search of the lost scrolls, but the homes of their relatives would be passed over, because no monk, even under the most extreme torture, could divulge their location.
This was, as so many things about the lives of Matthew and the brothers, the way things had been since time immemorial. All of that would change, from this day forward. The brotherhood would be dissolved, and no one outside of the one true church would know that the order had ever even existed. Their anonymity had been assumed from the first stone set in the floor of the abbey; but this slaughter made everything seem a little senseless to brother Matthew.
Scarcely ten words might pass between them in a season, but these were Matthew’s brothers. Providence is a queer and capricious master. Had Matthew not gone down to the village to purchase beef and mead from the brethren, he too would have been slaughtered, and the secrets of the scrolls revealed and destroyed in one swift action. Matthew himself had many questions, but he kept silent, for faith is belief without proof. He simply believed, because it was there to be believed in.
He had assumed that it would be like this. The retribution for questioning the divine authority of the One True Church would be fast and swift, and even more so for the brothers daring to ask that they be released from their binds with the One True Church. A peaceful parting would be best, they had all agreed. The church and the brethren could each go their separate ways, with no conflict between them.
The brothers had voted their feelings, and a succession from the One True Church seemed to be the only possible option left open to them. For a little better than a decade now, the brothers had been practicing their alternate version of the good work, based upon the New Words of Our Lord and now, the Papal leaders knew their secret. The Popes did not pay credence to the New Words, nor did the One True Church even acknowledge the existence of these papers. The New Words of our Lord were a blasphemy in their eyes, and those who had read it now needed to be punished, lest the lies and prophecy spread. Why these men came, and who sent them, were questions never properly answered.
Brother Matthew had been among those monks who, practicing here many years before, uncovered a text that purported to be the words of Jesus Christ, and these words gave a different history to the Bible. In fact, it rendered much of Jesus’ role in the Bible as fiction. He had at first been skeptical, but in time and after much study, he began to see where the words written upon the paper did seem to make a lot of sense contrary to the teachings of the church though they may have been. And the critics had come with their swords drawn.
Whoever did this, he thought, whoever did this is inhuman, and the men that killed these priests did so because they enjoy forcing others to taste their blades. They will likely return for more of the same. The edge of the isle is not so densely populated that there would be enough other targets to sack before they came back this way. They were not looking for answers. They were out to make corpses.
All around him were sights that in a lesser man would have induced madness. Blood fills the corridors in stinking, steaming pools that gummed the edges of his raiment, as well as his sandals. None of this would be remembered long enough to be forgotten- the word of the brethren would die on Matthew’s lips, and be forever entombed in secrecy. There were hoof-prints throughout the abbey; the scent of burning dung was in the air. There, impaled on his own sword, was the Minister of Ceresi- the man whom Matthew and his brothers had called their spiritual leader. His brilliant smile- and equally brilliant blue robes- had both been wrenched apart, looking for the scrolls. His jaws had been cracked as forcibly as had been the fissures in the walls of the abbey itself. For almost his entire life, Matthew had known the Abbey of St. Ceresi to be his home.
Home it remained, though he was having difficulty in recognizing it. A bright bubble of air pushed through the viscera at the cardinal’s throat, and burst. His eyes caught sight of Matthew, and a glimmer of recognition shown in them as brother Matthew approached the cardinal. Matthew brushed the cardinal’s blood-soaked hair out of his eyes and looked at him. It was hard to believe that he was still alive- and then it occurred to him that perhaps he wasn’t. The body looked totally devoid of life, with no movement in the chest whatsoever, yet when Matthew brought his ear close to the cardinal’s bosom, he could indeed hear shallow, watery breathing taking place.
Whether Matthew was correct in his assessment of the cardinal’s condition or whether it was all just a trick of the light, the outcome was not going to change. The cardinal would pass from this earth, and the knowledge of the scrolls would pass with him. Matthew himself had never laid hand nor eyes upon the documents; no one had, save for each cardinal at the moment of his
ascension, and at that moment only.
At that very moment, a low moan was heard throughout the chamber, a moan that was followed by a curiously hollow laughter. Matthew looked behind him, but there was no one there. The voice must have come from the cardinal.
Matthew looked up, and saw that it was true. The old man’s countenance had changed, somehow, and there was a look of intimate menace across his face. He looked like someone who meant to do another harm.
‘You will die…as we all have died…’
A shudder passed through the cardinal, and his face in mortis looked like he was smiling as he died. He knew- perhaps he was. No other words issued forth, from either the cardinal’s mouth, or the wound at his throat. No words were possible, for either the cardinal or brother Matthew, from either the living or the dead. But both of them knew that they were one in the same.
The candles in the sconces were burning low, guttering out their light.
Brother Matthew moved quickly to the back of the abbey, to a staircase located behind a wall of bookshelves. There, descending the spiral staircase, Matthew was careful to avoid every third stair, being as these special stairs would when stepped upon spring a bear trap shut around the ankles of the offending intruder.
There was an assortment of traps and step-overs, ranging from a step that would suck an offender straight down into nothingness to a pig’s bladder, the inside of which was filled with a dose of pressurized salt acid. Matthew had himself designed a few of the more recent additions, having conceived of an ankle-level razor device- designed to sever the Achilles tendon- as well as the pipe-full of diseased vermin that would be set loose if anyone tried to step on the floor tile in between the X and the I in the Roman numerals spelling out the year of the brotherhood’s inception on the floor leading into the heart of the abbey.
Stepping down over the stones was an art, and the art was practiced elsewhere with a model. Some of the brothers never got the knack of it, and so they weren’t allowed down here, for their own safety. The model was utilized to increase diligence in the brothers, as well as to weed out any possible pretenders. It was a simple ninety-seven step staircase- but it offered one hundred ways to die, with increased mortal activity on the thirty-second, forty-ninth, and seventy seventh steps.
This staircase had been the result of seventeen years of architectural planning and design, and it took another three years to construct. It was at this point in time that the neighboring towns started to speculate about the possible demonic elements to the way the monks worshiped at St. Ceresi; soon, the brothers were shunned publicly in the streets when they would come to town for their mead rations. This, in turn, lead to the brothers of St. Ceresi becoming much more bitter than they already were towards those in the outside world, and this led to an increase in distrust and hatred between the two factions.
Matthew knew that he needed to be quick about his business, and not betray his presence here to anyone that might have followed him down here. The air was musty and damp, and Matthew’s flambeau did not hold much fire. He stepped carefully across the flat surface of the floor of the chamber, stepping to the left first and then to the right, thusly avoiding further traps.
He had been trained since the age of seven to walk these cobbled steps without setting off the alarms. Brother Metok had shown him the way, and had practiced with him in theory for many months until he had mastered it, just as brother Antonio had done for Metok a generation before. Brother Antonio had been among the first in their order to experiment with chemical deterrents, as well as their more traditional lethal guardings. In the walls, periodically, there were pressurized jets of ammonia, many of them at eye level. The amount of liquid they expelled was minute- perhaps one hundredth of a spoonful- but the force at which this toxin was hurled through the air and into the eyes of an infidel was astonishing.
Brother Matthew had once seen brother Antonio demonstrating a new version to the old theme, in the courtyard, and the ammonia had been delivered at such a rapid rate of speed that from an arm’s length away, the blast was powerful enough to half a tree limb that was as thick around as a brother’s thumb. Matthew descended three more stairs and was on the bottom level of the abbey. Here there was more acid, as well as a flood of starving rats that were stuffed into a canvas bag, and would be dumped upon the unsuspecting heads of any and all intruders. It was only after many unnecessary breaches in the safety of the scrolls that these further
renovations were decreed. One aberrant monk- brother Alfredo- had lived and toiled among them from three years before making his bid for the scrolls. And Alfredo had nearly succeeded, and it was only brother Franchise’s midnight wanderings that kept the scrolls in their right place within the walls themselves, in the abbey.
Brother Franchise- still half-asleep and in a profound state of shock had immobilized brother Alfred and alerted Matthew as to what had happened. The two of them scrambled to get out of the room, down the corridor and outside. When both brothers returned to the scene, brother Alfredo’s body was still smoldering, and the corner of the scrolls that was touching his fingertips glowed brightly once, like an ember, and then died as well. But the scrolls were safe, and that was paramount. Even if the newfound words of Christ were poisonous, men would still kill to possess them.
It had been the same throughout recorded history. Brother Franchise had told Metok of many tales of plunder and savagery, all in the name of possessing the words of Christ. Brother Matthew stroked the brightly polished stones that lined the walls of the chamber along one side of the space behind which the sacred vault, containing the new prophecy, was hidden from all eyes, save for the brothers. And now, there were no more. Matthew was the last brother left standing, and he knew now what he had to do.
The scrolls needed to be buried in the Earth, as it was apparent that no one of this age would be willing to look into the authenticity of the scrolls and contemplate their wisdom and meaning. Perhaps those of a future day would discover the abbey, and in doing so, locate the scrolls.
Random traces of light from Matthew’s flambeau licked across the sad faces of the saints, painted in chiaroscuro along the walls around him. He remembered being told the details of each saint’s individual history, but he recalled more of the Brothers who had shared their knowledge of the saints, as opposed to the saints themselves. Each set of eyes seemed to be looking down on him, gauging and judging his actions. Matthew needed to draw the vault down into the Earth and remove himself from the abbey. In any instance, his own death would be imminent. None who knew of this could live. None of them. After today, the Abbey will no longer stand. They will burn it down and crush it to rubble, but the Lord will keep from them that which they seek.
He stroked the stones in the precise manner he had been instructed, lingering neither too long on this stone over here, nor pressing too lightly against that stone over there. The pattern was repeated a second time, and eventually, a third. There was a thud, and a panel slid aside to reveal a crude lever. Matthew wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his garment, and pulled the lever toward him.
The stone walls in front of him closed themselves and there was a dull grinding noise as the rotors pulled the vault down into the Earth. The door itself had been inlaid with the finest diamonds, sapphires and perishment stones that Brother Benin could safely carry back from the vault of the Ceresi in Italy. The bottom edge of the door was staggered and jagged, and fit perfectly into pre-cut slots in the floor. The dust on the floor by the door was blown outward as the teeth of the door slid home.
Matthew heard a quick hssss! come from somewhere behind him, and then he felt the arrow slamming home, the point of which was pushing through his breastbone, only to emerge through the tissue of his chest, just a few inches below his chin. His eyes felt large, and seemed to be near to exploding inside of his skull, and he knew the last breath that he expelled would be his last. He tried to hold it, to remain pure in the thought that St. Ceresi was with him, even now, in his hour of need. He thought he tasted the winds of heaven as his last breath leaked out of his body. A bubble of blood issued forth from his lips, and popped as the lion’s share of his breath was expelled. His jaws locked, and in that state he perished.
The soldier that had released the killing arrow stepped forward and, with a snort and a smile, reversed the switch. There was a cheer from his fellow countrymen when the mechanism that had plunged the vault down into the Earth retracted its movements and began bringing the vault doors back up, but only part of the way.
And then, the cheering stopped. There was a low rumble. The flank guard looked to his left, and read what the expression on his commander’s face meant. A swarm of wasps were funneling down a chute that would deposit them directly over the heads of the soldiers as they stood, directly in front of the vault. The wasps, once they arrived, were so crazed in their desire that a few thousand of them, too late to gain living victims, were continually stinging Brother Matthew’s corpse, drunkenly dragging their stingers across his stiffening flesh.
The walls around the bodies began to implode, and large hunks of rock began to fall from the ceiling, concealing the soldiers and their last victim.
When the dust settled, there was a subtle vibration coming from inside the wall itself. Small mice scurried out of the fissures down near the floor and ran for the light from the outside.
There was a burst of thunder overhead, and soon the bodies underneath the rubble were soaked with rainwater. The flames on the torches were extinguished with the sweep of wind that blew forth when the ceiling cracked. A few of the soldiers groaned, but that was only the work of a moment, and they were silenced once again. The water running into the Earth was a deep shade of pink. A few of the rats drowned, being trapped under the bodies of falling men, but a majority of them stood astride the bodies in the water, even hopping from one corpse to the next in the search for tender meals. As they died, these men screeched and thrashed, trying to escape a watery death. The ones left alive were quickly dispatched by the rats that attacked them.
The stone doors in the wall that Matthew had touched only a few moments before slid open with a hiss, and threescore sightless eyes viewed the glory contained inside. Pure, glorious sunlight was pouring in through a hole in the roof. The glass partitions had shattered with the first blasts of the soldiers, and now lay in tens of thousands of shards throughout the prayer area and the temple. There was a pedestal, a sort of natural oratorical podium sprouted up from a rock formation in the earth.
Behind it, was a short knee-level credenza of sorts, upon which were scattered all forms of stone and metal candelabras and boxes of spare candles, each candle weighing three and a half stone, and each one of them the length of a man’s fisted arm.
Underneath the boxes was a false panel that concealed a hand-shaped locking mechanism that vaguely resembled a puppeteer’s crucifix. When pressed in the proper formation, the mechanism would slide open a panel underneath the credenza, in a hollowed-out portion accessible only from underneath, where a second brother would be standing in an alcove in the tunnels beneath the abbey, reaching up and over to access the pressurized steel vault. In that vault were kept what many dangerous people believed to be the true final words of the man known throughout the world as Jesus Christ.