FOUR | A Plot Against the Ark
Layla sat with the Princess. They excused themselves from the men, side by side at the far end of the cherry table. The Princess explained what she had seen in as much detail as she could summon.
An angel. Tall. A concert of luminous dust. This did nothing to raise Layla attention until she mentioned what the angel wore.
“Is such a detail important?” the Princess asked.
“Have you ever seen an angel wear clothes before?” Layla answered. She held back breath for a moment to invite trust. “We see them. We—all see angels. They don’t. Can’t. But we do.”
The Princess went into detail.
Angels were harmless. When they came to Earth, they were likely lost. Nonetheless, an angel’s greatest possible offense may be quietly observing a woman as she wrote a poem or passing alongside a man as he wept over a fallen love. If the angel the Princess saw, Chemos, was crafting clothing—out of stone, in particular—that was a terrible danger. It meant Chemos was no longer innocent.
Angels that became as confused as Chemos were mouths for misinformation. Women, being the only souls on earth that could fathom their unearthly language, were vulnerable to influence.
“He said the strangest things,” the Princess said. She would not meet Layla’s eyes. Her voice cracked. “He said I was t-t-trapping myself. In my life. In my very existence. Wha—? My life—”
“This creature’s reason of being was compromised. Believe nothing. He’s no true threat to you, he only desires the Ark.”
Layla stood. In the same motion, she urged the Princess to remain seated. She obeyed. The Prince approached. Layla attempted to halt him. He refused. “Majesty—”
The Prince put his arm around his Princess.
Layla made a move for the Prince, closing her fist, when she realized Akhet and Zachary were already striding toward the door. She paused, then followed, pointing a gloved finger at the royal couple, the leather squeaking beneath the strain of her strength.
“Chemos has poured poison in the Princess’ ear,” Akhet said at full gait in the corridor. “His ill-gotten stony shell continues teaching him of mankind’s lovely gift of lies. And the Prince’s pride will prevent any true measures to guard the Ark. He could never appear so weak.”
“We floated thousands of miles of African river,” Zachary said. “The Ark was never so exposed as this.”
“We will have little time to mount a defense,” Layla said to Akhet.
“Engi demonai koto iwanai, Layla,” Zachary said.
“We will focus,” Akhet answered.
“Have we the tools?” she asked.
Zachary patted his pack.
“Plenty. Quicksilver for the kunai. A mouth organ. A Retiarius. Even powdered angel skin and tinctures of holy water, as you requested, Akhet. Fabulous selection in this city. I wish I had more time to admire the Fuser’s ward that’s been so curated in Monaco.”
Akhet’s face split with a smile at Zachary’s words.
“I wish we all had more time, Zach. But inches and seconds will separate us from the devil’s errand boy stealing the only thing of actual value in known Christendom. Hell of a fucking thing that this venom-mouthed cur draws us back to civilized streets once more. But that is the curse of knowledge—the fallen angel means to start another war.”
FIVE | Traps
Akhet operated in any climate. Africa, Asia, Europe, all were lands within sight of Heaven. As long as he found himself between earth and sky, he spoke truth on behalf of the Lord as a Vocalist of Christendom. All souls prayed, nearly the same on that day in 1030 anno domini as they did when Christ Himself walked barefoot from Jerusalem to Rome and sat upon the Rock His disciple Peter presented to Him. All souls prayed, but without Christ, they could not be simply answered. Jesus sired no children. The conduit to God was left a frayed wire when Christ died. It was not broken, though. The prayers, of course, did not cease because mankind loved God, and God loved His children.
It fell to Man to find their way back to the Lord. They achieved this through the Ark, rediscovered deep beneath centuries of sand in a forgotten antechamber outside Memphis. Studied by Hero, First Vocalist of Alexandria, the Ark revealed its purpose—any soul could speak into the Ark and to God. God could answer His truth in reply. To bring the voice of His truth to every pocket of humanity, the Vatican anointed Vocalists, men such as Akhet, to deliver prayers to and from God.
In only a brief time, these divine words became massive weapons in a forever war.
Layla touched a golden bauble to hear ear. A prayer. A hushed voice crackling to her from between strands of wind.
“ ‘I wish—I was taller,’ ” Layla repeated the whispered prayer aloud. She took another bauble from the box, each a sphere with golden strings stitched so tight, it might be fused solid. Layla breathed through the prayer’s strands. It dawned at its center. She felt her own breath on her palm. “It says, ‘Dear Lord, undo this leprosy.’ Skin lesions. Classic. What else? This one. ‘Please, God, give me the strength to keep running.’ Sounds local—hmm. ‘Good Lord, help me teach this woman some Goddamn respect.’ ” She recoiled. “Misogynist. I will find you and slice the skin from your soul. I will wear your remains like a war-prize for even—”
Layla dashed the bauble back into the box. She exhaled. There was no time.
“Are you prepared, Zach?” she asked the Fuser. She squinted at the western horizon, toward the edge of the world. She moved to help Zachary bind a Retiarius into place over a stained glass window beside the cathedral’s main entryway. Each fine thread in its netting was spun from linen blessed in the Jordan, and transparent in direct sunlight.
“I’ve got it,” he said, finishing. He bound the last thread and addressed her. “I am prepared. But—I want to be certain you are heard. And seen.”
“Akhet’s mind is far off. Wrapped in desperate fears and theories.”
“Yes. And that’s why I ask about your condition in this moment, Layla.” Zachary touched her hand and lifted it gently. His head slightly nodded and encouraged her with calm eyes. “Remind me your mantra?”
“Endure cruelty,” Layla said automatically. “Aid others in enduring cruelties. Practice patience. Reveal my path.”
Work completed, they rendezvoused with Akhet.
Akhet had his hand to his mouth in contemplation while his eyes studied the cathedral’s roof—countless angles and concealed pockets. Countless hiding places. The pavement beneath them bobbed in the Mediterranean harbor, groaning now and then beneath the pressure of a defiant existence. The triangular spires a mile above swayed like a ship’s masts.
The buoyant cathedral was not made of stone like the houses of God in Westminster and Canterbury. Instead, the Prince commissioned an architect named Zafadola from the recently-annexed Zaragoza regions of Moorish Spain to weave his prized cathedral out of angel hair. The silvery-blue fibers were so fine that it was impossible to notice the material by touch, woven into glassy, mirrored prisms, climbing to the clouds. A sharp blade with decent strength could penetrate the weaving, though none had succeeded.
This lightness kept the structure seaworthy, just as the Prince had requested, moored in the bay by three stone anchors. The cathedral’s threadwork focused light so finely that it self-illuminated during daylight hours. It also required constant repairs. Angel hair was imported from across Europe and Asia to maintain the structure.
Akhet snapped his fingers at Zachary, eyes still trained on the swaying steeples and the deep valleys between them. The young man placed a glass tincture in Akhet’s palm.
Akhet fought back tremors as he raised the dropper over his eye. Layla watched gray liquid tremble loose from the tincture. He blinked the holy water away. His whites became whiter. The redness receded. His irises rose from medium brown to amber-gold. He bent to one knee. His body shuddered. He pounded his fist to the stones.
“The Void Formless,” he hissed through clenched teeth and a growing smile. “Invading from the space between. But we are singular. How can we deign do battle?”
With that, he was off with a belt of ecstasy. The other two stayed in pursuit. Akhet sprinted the cathedral’s perimeter. When he noticed something with those golden eyes, he pointed, and each time, Zachary flung a kunai dart at the target. Upon impact, the dart released a gentle quicksilver vapor. They had stolen the darts’ design from the Oriental infidels during the Asian campaign. Their edges pierced any weavings. Zachary shook his head at himself each time Akhet spotted a weakness in the cathedral—arrow-slit windows, tiny stained glass fixtures, or any opening.
Their trace of the perimeter complete, they canvassed the main hall, fixing alarms to each door. There were certain portals too wide to cover with a Retiarius or a Quicksilver kunai. Zachary left those to Layla. Stepping between florists carrying out their own wedding preparation, she took a few minutes with each exposed opening. She raised a Hun’s accordion. At each place, she pressed and expanding the accordion while uttering prayers through the French mouth organ against her lips.
The prayer was immediately rendered from Heaven, stretching angel hair out of the walls to cover the flimsy wooden doors and sealing the potential entry point.
Akhet emptied a line of powdered bone onto the podium at the cathedral’s head. He lowered his nose and snorted the powder through his nostril.
“Gah! Urgh, the return of the thin white duke! Very good. The doors are barred. The alarms are armed. Our prize is safe. But if God—urgh—if God had meant for us to feel safe at all times, He would not have invented—stink.” Akhet patted his nose. “Stink. Something is—r-r-rotten. Like glitter with no gold, this is a sty with no pig. Windows. Openings. Entryways awaiting sulphurous visitors. To what end, can we prepare?”
“We must prepare,” Layla reassured. She examined their luminous surroundings. “All the lies and wars.” Akhet clapped his hands in an echo but shook when she touched his shoulder. “Do you—did you sense something?” He shook his head no. Then nodded yes, and no again, as she spoke. “Are the compounds helping to dull your awareness? Try to focus on your breath. Focus on the material, on the physical. Welcome the ethereal. Engage with what you notice and feel, yea? It can’t hurt you. You know it. I won’t let it. Zach?”
“I’m off finding a metaphorical hog,” Zachary asked Layla with a gentle wave at muteness. “As for him—put a tent on that circus, would you?”
SIX | Before God
The wedding commenced with tremendous grace the following afternoon. Lords and Cardinals processioned in twos across the luminous bridge to the cathedral, dressed in as much Roman fashion as their station could afford them. They held light conversation. A few Lords bore ladies entwining themselves to the crook of their arms, occasionally nodding to one another from under elegant, wide-brimmed hats that Zachary recognized from a certain Spanish designer.
The Cardinals walked shoulder to shoulder, chatting all the while. The Vocalists followed the Cardinals, changed out of their usual regional uniforms into less functional, beige dress robes. Behind the Vocalists walked their pages. The pages were a mixture of men and women. They already spilled with suppressed shrieks of excitement. They had cracked wine casks before sun up.
Akhet, Layla, and Zachary were the first into the cathedral. They observed each body enter. They observed the seventy-foot ash wood doors grind shut. Akhet barred the entryway himself.
The Prince found his place at the head of the church. Beside him rested the Ark. It stood just taller than his knee. A light, yet thickly-woven shroud the color of sky draped over the box, hiding its true form from sight. But there it stood, nonetheless.
Moses and his followers crafted it more than two thousand years before the birth of Jesus during the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. All prayer to God, no matter how faint, touched briefly with the Ark before ascending to Heaven.
The congregation rose. Akhet unbarred the door. The Princess entered. She and her train proceeded down the aisle with help from four girls, porcelain wings hitched to their backs with Florentine leather straps.
Layla felt Akhet’s slow breath on her neck. She caught a look at him. His skin was pale, except around his eyes, and nose, and mouth, where it had turned a little pink. He had not slept the prior night.
“Let’s leave,” he said to her in an ashen-toned warning.
“Seven circles, how dull have you made your senses?” Layla hissed in concerned amazement.
“I can’t be here. So near to God. In a church, hmm? Where He goes, He makes holes in the world. To the Void Formless. They can’t see it, but I can. Let’s go back to France. Let’s go south. No,” he paused. “North! Britannia. Back to your brother’s. Zachary would be so hap—”
Layla’s mouth dried. She licked her lips just a little to help her get the words out, keeping her voice low. “We are not in the deaf forests of Germania, Akhet, please. We are in a church, one hundred feet from the Ark of the Covenant. A cricket could giggle and He’d hear—”
“—We are atoms to Him—far worse creatures than God can hear me now—”
“—He hears—you. In this moment.”
“God has better things to do than oversee a matrimonial puppet show,” Akhet dismissed with a throaty whisper, beginning to sway and giggle on soft feet and exposed nerves. “For one certain reason—like all matter born of the Godsource, His eye is drawn to love, and hate, and fire! The ceremony upon that altar? Passionless masturbation.”
“Akhet,” she said through a shudder, putting her hands to his cheeks. They breathed together. “Please. Is this the madness? Or do you believe these words true? Help—tell me!”
Akhet kept up his small, quiet dance in-place. Tears formed in his eyes.
“No power yet exists to combat the reach of the Void Formless—!”
Layla guided him into the foyer out of sight while the wedding commenced.
“He’s here,” she whispered, eyes off him toward elsewhere. Akhet put his hand to the hilt of his whip. Her breath went cold, quickly describing, “Chemos. On the chandelier. Over your shoulder. You’re going to have to trap it for me. Can you? I need your help. Ready?”
He laughed, nodding, crying openly. Layla nodded too, releasing him.
“It’ll be alright. Akhet, I don’t care how much coin has gone up your nose in the last day. Please—in this moment—”
“—Shall my will ever be enough to forget all the horror we’ve—?”
He couldn’t finish. He snapped his head aside as Layla reached for a kunai fastened around her thigh. Time held. She caught Zachary’s eye. He had already responded with extra-sensory speed, just as Akhet had. The trio inhaled together. Layla spotted the angel and flung the dagger. It grazed Akhet’s cheek, a shared will and half a hair making the difference. Not a heartbeat later, Zachary traced where she had targeted. He threw his blade, too. Though he could not see his prey, his aim was true.
A stone fixture toppled from the golden chandelier. Resembling a fountain cherub given life, water spouted from extra exposures in its stonework. The angel’s eyes fell upon Akhet in its noiseless fall. It struck the red carpet between the pews. Its stone armor fissured and fell away. The audience shrieked. The chandelier crashed to the floor behind the angel.
The formless specter flung off its remaining stone clothing and vanished from Akhet’s sight.
“Chemos!” Akhet shouted. He shook with raw, red laughter. He lifted a heavy gladius at attention overhead with both his hands, sight darting through the debris and the cathedral’s unfurling chaos.
An invisible fist thrust into his stomach. A second strike cracked his nose. Blood burst from both nostrils.
Akhet cut his weapon toward his untraceable foe. Men in the congregation pressed against the sides of the building, shouting in blind panic. Chemos’ unseen mightiness dangled a few through the air. The angel hurled them flailing in Akhet’s direction.
Catching the flailing bodies that he could, Akhet yelled for calm so he could hear the women’s voices rise over the din.
“Show me!” he shouted, easing an aged Cardinal into a pew after a brief flight. He could hear Chemos nearby. Its thirsty metallic breath creaked like a kinked brass horn. “You can see the angel. Point and show me!”
The women jabbed their fingers at something he could not see. Their cries of caution could not come quick enough. Further attacks met Akhet’s face unprepared. He swung wildly with the two-handed gladius in a display of skill, but never connecting.
Rattling words of an unknown language taunted him. The angel’s laughter transcended barriers. “Keh keh keh—keh keh keh—”
Losing panicked breath, Akhet suffered more attacks from Chemos. Slick blood throbbed from his cheek, his neck, and from somewhere on his scalp, running through his close-cut hair into his eyes and mouth. Akhet now lunged without direction, gasping and desperate, until he saw Layla step out from behind the wreckage of the chandelier.
She pointed to the emptiness between them. She raised her gloved fists.
“Akhet, move in close on him,” she commanded. He struggled to breathe. He couldn’t lift his sword. “Christ, man! Find your fangs and put your fist to his head!”
Akhet spat red saliva and breathed through clenched teeth. He stabbed the sword into the angel hair floor and raised his fists to her. They stepped cautiously toward one another.
Five steps from him, Layla threw a hook. Akhet blocked at nothingness. The angel’s identical hook shuddered against his guard. He instantly countered, punishing the attack with one, two, three strikes against Chemos’ invisible torso. Layla backpedaled in mimicry. She stutter-stepped, and lunged back forward with a hero’s jab. Akhet bobbed his head to the side in a dodge.
He grunted, eyes widening in hunger. He and Layla held their distance as she raised and lowered her fists. Akhet took the offensive. He and the unseen creature traded blows. He felt the angel with each punch. He inched closer. He endured more strikes. He laid out punishment in return. The gathered crowd raised in excitement at the shadowboxing. The men bellowed. The women shouted in encouragement. The angel skin slapped and thumped with every ferocious blow.
Chemos took Akhet by the throat, spun him around, and spiked his body to aisle. The angel did not release. The invisible fingers collapsed around his windpipe, indenting deeper like his neck was soft clay. Akhet’s mouth foamed with spit. He reached in panic. He laid his hands around the unseen neck. His face puffed red and purple. His eyes bulged out. Neither he nor Chemos would yield.
“The—plan—” Akhet choked with a final gasp. “Do—it—”
A striking, metallic thud echoed when the Retiarius released from its hiding place in the ceiling, descending heavy, smothering both Akhet and Chemos against the red carpet. Zachary stomped spikes into the cathedral floor to bind the prey in place with his teacher. The metal net cut against Akhet’s skin. Blood forced from his face in a criss-crossing pattern. His bursting eyes saw Zachary for a moment.
“Well done,” Akhet said in his vanishing voice. And his mouth filled with blood.
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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