Within the Citadel’s ancient, crumbling walls, a thousand flickering candles illuminated the cavernous main chamber with a warm glow. The candlelight lit the face of a solitary figure who knelt before the ornate altar, head lowered as if deep in prayer.
Conor pulled his heavy, dark brown robe closer about himself and realised he was shivering. With careful effort he rose, ignoring the pain knifing through his elderly knees and spine as he stood and made his way along the aisle away from the altar, steadying himself on the wooden pews.
The evening service had concluded some time ago, and the other Brothers had long since filed out of the chamber and returned either to their duties or to rest, but he had chosen to remain alone, lost in silent contemplation as he had been throughout the service.
Like the other brown-robed Brothers – most of them, at least – his life had been devoted entirely to the service of the gods. Even though his elderly joints complained relentlessly at the best of times – and roared with scything, fiery agony when he carried out his daily duties as required by the Citadel -, Conor went about the life as required by the Church. Not a word of complaint had passed his lips – not as a young man, lost in his infatuation and awe of the gods, not when he had been middle-aged and more thoughtful, and not now. Now that he was old. Old and… what, exactly? What had be become?
He had made no friends, raised no family. The Church was the only life he’d ever known, having been – like many others – abandoned as baby by the Citadel’s gate. He’d almost died from the cold that night, but the brothers and sisters had found him and taken him in, given him warmth and clothing and educated him about the gods and man. He’d never sought to find his true parents. After all, why waste time searching for those who had cast him out? No, the Church had been his only true home.
Orphanages had been overflowing back then, in the immediate aftermath of a terrible war, so it was decided that any baby abandoned on Citadel grounds would be raised in the service of the Church. The great, ancient structure of the Citadel had somehow escaped the long years of war almost unscathed, but there was always an unending list of chores to undertake daily, and Conor devoted himself entirely to his service, and to the worship of the gods.
Ninety long years of devoted service had passed. Ninety years without setting foot beyond the walls of the Citadel.
His slow, shuffling pace stopped. He turned breathing the stale, cold air heavily, and gazed upon the altar, and the gods that stood before it.
They stood majestic, fully six times as tall as a man, heads level with the tops of the enormous stained-glass windows behind that illuminated them with glorious, kaleidoscopic colour in the hours of daylight, but at this late hour framed them in darkness.
Beautiful Maru, the life-giver, feminine and beautiful with her long flowing hair and wide sapphire eyes was sculpted exquisitely from shining marble, and represented all that was pure and innocent and good. Beside her, exactly the same height, was terrible Varin. In stark contrast, he was cut from dark obsidian, all claw and sinew, clenched fists and rage. His snarling face was a frightening sight even to those who beheld it each day, and his eyes were two deep rubies which seemed to glow when the light caught them.
The two true gods. Creation and destruction. Love and hate. Peace and rage. Both representing the eternal conflict inside all of mankind – indeed, all life – and, like the concepts they represented, both beautiful and terrible beyond words.
Tonight though, Conor felt as if he was looking upon the deities for the first time. He saw the huge idols as if through new eyes. And he saw through them.
“What have I done,” he whispered softly as he looked into the beautiful deep eyes of Maru, then at the chiselled fists of Varin. Decades wasted. His whole life spent living a lie. Worshipping… what, exactly? Nothing but fantasies. Empty promises.
“Fuck you both.” he announced to the gods. The words split through the silence of the night and echoed blasphemously around the Citadel’s ancient walls.
He thought about the congregation who’d come and gone through the doors over the years. Generation after generation of lovers, families, children. He’d never given himself the chance to fall in love, or start a family. There was so much about himself he hadn’t allowed himself to discover. Would he have made a good father? What career could he have pursued? He didn’t even know if he would have preferred the intimate company of men or women. The Church had consumed him until he was nothing but a dried-up husk who swept the floor and waited to die. And worst of all, he had allowed it to happen.
The intensity of the anger that rose through him was surprising. The gods stared, indifferent.
He turned back towards the huge wooden doors and was struck by the almost irresistible thought of slamming them closed behind him as he walked away from the life he’d carved from dust and mildew. The thought filled him with a dizzying lightness.
But where could he go? What could a decrepit old fool possibly hope to achieve with, at best, a handful of remaining years?
His longing to experience the outside world was too great to ignore though. If he was honest with himself, the feeling had been growing inside him for a long time, perhaps always. And now it was everything. He may be too old now to be a part of the world – he couldn’t have a family or find employment at his great age – but at least he could walk among it for a while. Free from the suffocating confines of the Church, his home once so comforting and reassuring, but now stifling and choking.
Beneath his thick white beard, his wrinkled lips formed the smallest of smiles for the first time in years as he approached the main door and prepared to turn the heavy iron handle to freedom. Maybe it wasn’t too late. He could leave now, and walk…
Just as he reached the door, the iron handle rotated, turned from the other side. The huge door slowly opened inwards with a deep groan of age.
Conor stepped back, startled. A figure stepped inside. A young woman, perhaps in her twenties, although his sheltered eyes weren’t experienced enough around strangers to be certain. What was clear though was her state of distress.
Her face shining wet with tears, she didn’t hesitate in the doorway, instead stepping straight inside.
Taken aback, Conor considered what he should say. Despite his lengthy service with the Citadel, he was a low-ranking member of the Order, as signified by his brown robe. He’d never been interested in rank and had therefore actively avoided any of the political games that so many of the younger Order engaged in. He’d never desired the fine blue robes that only one in a hundred brothers somehow earned.
But freedom from manoeuvring his way into the higher echelons also meant he was never expected to address congregations, give comfort to the lost and needy, or even interact with people outside of the Church if he didn’t want to. A state of affairs which, until very recently, he had been quite content with.
But now, standing in front of this weeping girl who was seemingly just barely holding her emotions together, he wished he could have changed all that to have a single clue what to say to her.
He considered various combinations of reassuring words, and realised he’d been pondering too long as she passed him on her way towards the altar.
“Many people find solace in the sight of the gods,” he said as she passed him. He almost added ‘Myself included’, but stopped himself as he realised that sentiment would now be a lie. Despite his recent change of heart, somehow the thought of speaking an untruth inside the great Citadel still seemed terribly wrong.
She didn’t reply. Instead, she continued moving slowly towards the altar, eyes fixed on the god and goddess. As she passed Conor, she turned her head briefly towards him and in the instant their eyes locked, a strange cold sensation of unease swept through his body, just for a moment. Then her gaze returned to the gods, and the feeling was gone.
He watched as she reached the altar and knelt on the stone floor. Was it a coincidence that she had chosen the exact spot where he had always prayed and worshipped?
The girl hadn’t closed the door behind her. Icy gusts blew in, extinguishing the nearest few candelabras. With effort, Conor heaved it shut, hesitating briefly as he wondered which side of the door he belonged. He still felt lightheaded from tonight’s epiphany, but something about the timing of the girl’s arrival made him decide to remain, at least for now. He’d taken nine decades to reach this point, another few minutes wouldn’t make a difference. The chance to talk to someone from the outside world was too much to resist. Now his mind was no longer caged by religion, he found he had a hunger for knowledge. What could this girl share with him about the world beyond the Citadel?
He approached her slowly. Not wanting to startle her, he coughed gently. It rattled in his chest, another reminder of his age. How old he had become! The resentment began to bubble up inside him again. He fought it back. Nothing could be done now, except to live what remained of his life.
She didn’t turn. She knelt still, shoulders rising and falling rhythmically as she quietly wept.
In another life, where he’d followed a different set of decisions, who could this young girl have been? Could this perfect stranger’s life have somehow been intertwined with his own? She could certainly have been his granddaughter. Possibly his daughter. Maybe – and his thoughts suddenly spiralled into a dimension hitherto unimagined – a lover? The wild, unbidden thought shocked him, and he felt a flush of both self-disgust and longing.
She was certainly attractive, from the brief glance he’d seen of her face. His eyes studied the nape of her neck visible where it curved beneath the collar of the thin shirt she wore. He momentarily found himself wondering what it would taste like to kiss the tanned, smooth skin. What does a woman smell like? What it would feel like to…
Conor forced his eyes away from the young woman and found himself staring up into the fiery eyes of Varin, who glowered furiously back at him. The old man felt his cheeks start to burn, as if his thoughts were etched on his face for all to see. He coughed again, nervously. Granddaughter, he told himself. She could be his granddaughter. This time she turned, looking up at him with deep, dark eyes that looked exhausted. “I’m sorry, brother. I don’t know what to say,” she began. The innocence, the pain so clear on her young face filled him with guilt.
Suddenly he thought he glimpsed something bottomless behind her eyes. An echo of something deeper and more powerful than he could imagine. And just as quickly it was gone, and she became a girl with sorrowful eyes once more.
He kneeled beside her, keeping an appropriate distance between them. “The Citadel has long been a sanctuary for any who seek it,” he replied. “Since time immemorial, the Church has offered respite to the innocent and the wounded.”
She laughed once at that, a short, bitter sound. “I’m not sure I fit into either of those categories.”
He didn’t know how to respond to that. He rose once again, knees screaming, and moved to a pitcher of water set on a small side table across from the altar. He poured a cup and took it to her. She seemed to have gotten her emotions almost under control, although her face and eyes were red and damp.
“Tell me about yourself, brother,” she asked, reaching for the water. “How long have you served the Church?” As she took the cup from him, her fingertip brushed his hand. The merest of touches, but in that instant of contact, something unfathomable happened, and with a lurch Conor suddenly felt the universe drop away.
In that instant, they were nowhere. He still faced the girl, only they were alone in a vast cathedral of space, surrounded by a beautiful tapestry of starlight. They seemed to float, for there was nothing beneath to support them.
Writhing, streaming wisps of rich colour danced slowly past them, illuminating the girl’s face with an array of colour Conor had never seen. Rich reds, forest greens and ocean blues gave way to myriad other, stranger colours that danced and shimmered.
“All my long years have I served the gods,” he replied without thinking. “I gave my life to this place and asked for nothing in return. And now nothing is what remains of me. I am a wasted, dried-up husk of something that could have been.”
He felt as if the words had been ripped directly from his guts, but as they came forth he knew them to be true. All the bitterness and repression of a long lifetime came spilling forth and he couldn’t stop them. His mind raced with images of things that could have been, lives he could have lived. All that potential, now evaporated with time. “I curse the gods for allowing me to throw my life away and I hate myself for what I have let myself become!”
Suddenly the vision ended and with a small, almost imperceptible lurch deep in his core, he found himself back in the Citadel, standing before the girl as if nothing had happened. Except her face had changed. Gone was the innocence and sorrow, and in its place she wore sheer, unbridled fury.
“It makes me sick!” she hissed. The change in her was so profound that Conor gasped aloud. “What…?” he managed, trailing off as his mind reeled, trying to make sense of what was happening.
The girl rose to her feet before him, although her head was barely level with his shoulders he felt dwarfed by her somehow. “You are typical of all men,” she continued. “Your self-pitying nature. You hide behind a mask of cowardice, afraid to live. And at the end, when you decide you’ve wasted your life, you blame the gods who blessed you with life for your own weaknesses!” She spat the last words at him, so intense was her anger.
Conor’s face paled. His shock was so great that he’d barely had time to gather his thoughts, and her sudden onslaught now rendered him almost speechless. “I… I… gave everything…”
She advanced towards him now, any trace of the sorrow on her face now utterly erased and replaced with sheer, uncontrollable fury. “What you gave was worthless! Less than nothing. You took everything and sacrificed nothing. You were a wasted life, Conor.”
Fear drove him to back away as she advanced. This was not a mere young woman standing before him. A being of vast and cosmic powerful was attacking him and he could feel his mind trying not to fracture beneath the weight of it. A sudden image rushed into his mind of an ant crushed beneath a heel. “How do you know my name?” he managed to splutter.
Her face contorted into something approximating a grin, although the amount of hate behind it shook Conor’s very core. Then something happened that almost shook away the last of his sanity, and rooted his frail body to the spot.
Behind her loomed the great marble and obsidian gods. They stepped forward from their altar, keeping pace with her.
He cowered beneath the glare of three pairs of accusatory eyes. Varin’s dark features full of hatred and malice, and an exact mirror of the expression the girl wore. Maru’s lovely face full of nothing but sorrow and helplessness as she seemed to look through his very soul.
Conor’s legs finally gave out and he fell hard, feeling a sickening crack as his hip and elbow struck the stone floor first. Pain erupted, engulfing him. Still the girl-thing advanced, just a few steps away now and followed closely behind by the huge god-statues he’d spent his life worshipping. It seemed as if the very stones of the Citadel itself glowed white-hot around him, and he began to choke from the heat.
He’d turned from the path. He’d renounced his gods – insulted them, even! Of course they were furious with him. All doubt had been chased away from the evidence before him that everything the Church had ever taught him was absolutely true. The gods were real. And now they sought to punish him.
“Please… I’m sorry!” He cried, raising a bony arm above his head in a vain attempt to ward off the overwhelming force displayed against him. “I’m weak! I strayed! But I’ve served you… I’ve always served you. Please spare me! Spare me so I can atone! Forgive me!”
The girl-thing sneered down at him, as if disgusted by the writhing of a mere worm beneath its boot. “Spare you so you can offer false worship and slight us in our own hall?” it roared. “Spare you to renounce your faith and flee into the night like a wounded dog?”
Upon him now, her face contorted with malice, yet still she advanced. Unable to rise, he thrashed with his agonised legs and shuffled backwards, sliding his elderly body a few inches at a time along the ground. Not enough strength left in him, and the leg he’d landed on wouldn’t move.
The girl-thing’s eyes were aglow now, the colour of otherworldly flame – but no, he could swear they were a rich, pure blue as well – as she kept moving, slowly, inexorably towards the broken old man.
Finally she stood above him, lifted her head and roared an unearthly cry of hatred and anguish. “An end to your blasphemy!” She cried, her voice nothing short of demonic. With a swift, decisive movement, she raised her leg, and brought her boot heel down upon the old man’s head. “Mercy!” he began to cry, but the word was cut off at the first syllable as his head shattered like porcelain, spilling its vivid contents across the flagstones. His ruined body spasmed its death throes as thick gore pooled around the wretched sight.
The girl regarded what remained. Conor lay violated and destroyed on the cold stones beneath her. For some minutes she studied the dishevelled corpse and the foul mess in place of its head. The giant statues of Maru and Varin stood impassively behind the altar, where they had stood unmoving for a thousand years.
The girl knelt over the bloody corpse, her legs now smeared with thick viscera. She began to weep as a change flushed across her face. Calm quenched the fury in her eyes and she leaned down to kiss the smashed pulp of flesh and bone that remained of his lips.
And as she lifted her head back, having brushed the gore with the lightest touch of her lips, his unbroken face stared back up and into her deep, loving eyes. The familiar crystal blue eyes of Maru regarded him. The lover, creator and restorer. He was reborn.
Aside from the mess of gore and blood that covered him, he felt unharmed. He lay speechless where he had died moments before, feeling strength course its way back through his body.
And then she was gone. He was alone in the Citadel once more.
Except he wasn’t alone. Very slowly, he became aware of a noise coming from all around him. A dull, roaring sound that grew louder and faster and more intense.
Puzzled, he tried to rise to his feet and found that he could stand without pain. He shifted his weight experimentally from side to side, and almost danced for the sheer joy of movement without agony. The noise continued to grow in volume until it engulfed him. He realised it was the sound of applause.
There were others here. He hadn’t been aware of them until now. The Citadel was lined with the rest of the Faithful Order. Most wore the same brown robes he did, but many wore the rich blue colour of the higher caste. His brothers stood around the worship-hall on all sides, their faces masks of joyous rapture. The applause crescendoed and it was clear that their attention was focused on Conor.
“We give thanks and love to the beloved gods whose wisdom is unmatched in all things,” came a clear, authoritative voice as the applause finally died down. A tall blue-robed figure stepped out of the crowd towards Conor.
“Their judgement and will is known. Welcome, brother Conor, in death and life to the Order.” The speaker had stepped forward from the collective, and Conor realised it was the High Priest himself, bearing his ornate staff of office. Throughout his life in the Church, Conor had only met High Priests on a few occasions, and then only briefly. He didn’t even know how many people had come and gone from the position.
“I don’t understand,” said Conor as he willed his heart to calm. He took in his surroundings. The entire Order was here, it seemed. He’d never seen so many Brothers in one place. He didn’t even realise there were this many!
The kindly young face of the High Priest beamed at Conor. He spoke softly, as if to a friend. “You have passed the final trial, the ritual of judgement that all those who truly serve must endure.” He swept an arm around, indicating the mass of people, “All those who bear the cloak of rebirth have been judged by the gods themselves. Cast off you old life and join your new family!”
Something stirred in his mind. A memory rose as if through murky waters to the surface. Tonight hadn’t just been an evening service. It had been a ritual of ascension. The night it was determined which brothers were selected to join the upper caste, to replace their brown robes with the deep blue. He’d always assumed that the High Priest had been the one making the selections. He remembered the evening only vaguely, like a distant memory. He remembered a few other brothers being celebrated, taking the blue robes. He wondered if they’d all been through the same experience as he had.
Conor realised the younger man was holding something out to him. He took the bundle and unrolled it. The blue robe was heavy, and even more elaborately embroidered up close than he’d realised. Compared with the simple brown robes, it was a beautiful garment.
The High Priest looked pleased as Conor examined his new garment. It struck him, not for the first time, how young all the men and women who bore the blue robes were compared to the others. He’d always put it down to youthful ambition that the young climbed to the top faster, desiring power.
All the young men and women wearing blue smiled at him knowingly. The others in brown wore a different expression. They smiled and applauded still, but something lurked behind the face he wasn’t too familiar with. Was it jealousy?
Conor turned and strode (Strode! He couldn’t remember the last time he’d moved this fast?) away from the priest, towards a large framed painting. The glass reflected like a mirror in the candlelit semi-darkness.
He stood for long moments, staring at the reflection that both was and was not his face.
He was a young man again. Twenty, if he was a day. It was as if the gods had rewound time, wrung the age from his crumbling bones and returned him to the world anew.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Your lifetime of service has not gone unrewarded, Conor. The gods have shared their love and power with you.” The High Priest stood behind him, smiling at both of their youthful reflections.
“How old are you?” asked Conor.
The priest considered, before answering softly, “You know, I stopped counting past three hundred. Not counting life before rebirth.”
A tear slid unbidden down his cheek. Possibilities opened in his mind. All the things he’d missed… they’d gifted him a second chance. He could do things right.
Conor turned, and the young priest handed him the new robe. Conor looked at it, mind still reeling with gratitude for this overwhelming gift. “Thank you,” he said, but the words seemed impotent next to the magnitude of the gift.
The priest smiled again. “It is not me that you should thank. We are all but vessels for the power of the lords. But with the time they have given you anew, you can thank them a thousand times over. Your devotion will be all the recompense they desire.”
Conor returned his smile. “I am grateful to the gods. Truly. But my life of devotion has come to an end. I desire a life beyond the Citadel.”
The High Priest’s brow furrowed, and he glanced around the church as if to ensure the other brothers weren’t within earshot. “My brother, the words you speak are heresy. The renewal you have been given is not unconditional.”
The words hit Conor like a slap to the face. “And what exactly are these conditions?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“The youth you have been given is a true gift. It will never expire. You will not suffer pain, or grow old.” The priest paused, as if he could read the conflict in Conor’s mind. “But it comes at a price. You must continue to serve the gods, just as you always have. And you must remain in the Citadel. The power does not extend beyond the boundary.”
The last words fell like a hammer blow. Conor stood in his new, fresh body. All he longed for was to leave the confines of the ancient Citadel and experience the world beyond.
And he still could. But it would mean a return to the end of his days, in his worn-out, ninety year old body.
The alternative: a life of youth unending, free from the relentless pain of his expiring body. Part of the Citadel, as he always had been, forever. Another stone in the wall.
All it would cost him was everything.
Conor stood clutching the new blue robe, gazing at the Citadel’s huge wooden doors, and made his decision.
The cold night air was sweeter than anything he could have imagined. Shivering slightly, Conor pulled his brown robe tighter about himself.
The ornate structure of the vast Citadel was a breathtaking sight indeed. But not as beautiful as the world that lay beyond. The path wound gently down the hill, past woodland to the north and a flowing river to the south. And spreading across the land at the bottom of the hill were hundreds of glowing lights of a town. Owls cried in the distance, and from the town came the faint barking of a distant dog.
Conor willed movement into his aching elderly legs and set off carefully down the hill. He spluttered a deep rattling cough from deep within.
He couldn’t keep the grin from spreading wide across his face. He’d been offered a life of immortality, but the freedom he never knew he needed was too high a price to pay.
He didn’t look back.
Copyright Ben Knight