The Chancel buzzed and bristled, hummed and hissed, alive to the sound of a thousand clacking tongues and shuffling robes. From above, it appeared as if a rainbow sea of fireflies undulate around each other as countless cimber’s bumped, crackled and oscillated in the heavy, rose-scented air.
An impressive innard to an already staggeringly impressive building, the Chancel was the centre point of Windspire – its raison d’etre; its beating heart and stomach. Stacked pews rose in a gentle slope towards the foot of a titanic staircase which was intercut with discreet tracks which led to a carved central dais.
The rest of the staircase rose, riser upon polished riser to the base of the pulpit – a huge, vaulted gallery which stretched from one side of the Chancel’s northern wall to the other.
On either side of the Chancel stood an even greater spectacle. Set flush in enormous, fluted alcoves were two rows of statues, one above the next, standing in mute and gargantuan sentinel curving up towards the pulpit. There were fifty in all, twenty-five along each wall, depicting canonised ilfen and ilfess saints that stretched back over the long epochs that made up Windspire’s lifetime.
Above the pulpit a vast mother-of-pearl effigy of Nel seemed to push through the northern wall, palms spread in the same welcoming, beseeching manner that her twin effected at the tower spire. Like her likeness, Chancel Nel also had cunningly wrought metallic lungs that allowed her to sing the dawnside aria. It resonated now across the Chancel in a sighing, mellifluous note that came and went like waves on the shore.
Despite the hubbub and chatter, it missed no ear. Through arcane craftsmanship, the acoustics of the Chancel were such that no matter how loud one talked Nel could still be heard in distant glissando, shimmering internally as a finger on a wine glass.
Reverend Beri Magpielane stepped out onto the spacious pulpit gallery from behind a heavy red curtain. She was not immediately visible to the assembled congregation – this would occur when she ascended a short flight of steps up into the pulpit itself.
A warm breeze scented with apple and cinnamon gently cascaded onto the ilfess’ head in tandem with every breathy exhalation of the statue of Nel directly above her. It was piped through porous vents in the goddess’ breast and lifted and released Beri’s tumbling ringlets as if Nel herself were caressing them.
Beri made one final smoothing appraisal of her robes with her scarred right hand, its absent member now shielded and reborn beneath a gleaming, elegantly crafted silver prosthetic and then ascended the stairs.
Buck stood in the centre of Trap 25 and pressed a foot firmly on the feed-pedal.
A veritable eruption of hummble-pops rumbled up into the trough of Otto, prompting him to emit a guttural trill. He was hungry.
‘ Alright, old man,’ soothed Buck. ‘Dig in.’
Otto waddled forward and opened his cavernous maw, revealing a pointed black tongue that was as thick as a sapling. He resembled a giant toad in appearance, although sprouting from his horny brow were a pair of enormous and wicked-looking white antlers. Shaggy russet and white fur sprouted all along the peak of his armoured spine and the backs of his coiled, chitinous legs, the rear of which rose up above his backside like a grasshopper – indeed, wild hummbles were more than capable of leaping well over four storeys and landing with feline grace on cushioned paws.
Great, liquid orange eyes protruded from the sides of their heads, which allowed for superlative night-vision: they were mostly diurnal, hunting gadflies and snapdragons at dawnside and nightturn, in that golden window between the veils of twilight and the parade of sunrise. And it was here that they displayed the asset for which they had been most prized for within the chambers of Windspire.
Through impressive circular breathing, similar to a purring cat, hummble’s could produce a staggeringly loud basso drone that could be heard all across Brackenbough. It was still not known precisely why they did this, regular as clockwork, day in, day out. Some said it was a mating call; others thought it nothing more than an instinctive burp. A diverse corner of ilfsayers muttered darkly that they were, in fact, making some kind of doomsiren – a warning that night was approaching and all that flitted and ghosted in that cold, dead womb was near at hand. And conversely, their call at dawnside was one of relief and clamour that light had returned to the world.
Buck didn’t care much either way. They were sacrosanct to him for one reason only – as the finest and most excellently prized natural bellows in the starfold.
He glanced up through the angled grating in the roof of the trap. Beyond could just be seen the huge, flowing stone hem of the robes of the statue of the cleric Avunculus, parked with the patience of the dead in his shaded alcove.
Although Buck could not see from this angle, he knew the statue well, depicting a fierce-looking bearded ilf, with bare arms raised and hands that were crooked and clawed, frozen in wild pontification. The mouth was carved in a thunderous-looking ‘O’ shape, as if Avunculus had been petrified at the moment of a furious denial.
In life, Avunculus had been a firebrand cleric. He had inspired Wardhome with stirring rhetoric during a time of crisis, when its borders had threatened to be overrun in a furious and bloody campaign by Yinthii – the Black Empress and She Who Remains Below. His demagogue sermons had rallied the people into a righteous counterstroke, smiting Yinthii and her infernal Sackers back into the mists below the township.
Sadly, tragically he had paid the ultimate price whilst doing so – falling to a last desperate poisoned arrow fired by Yinthii herself as she scuttled back with what was left of her moaning, chittering horde; back to Nigh Edge as dawnside threatened to burn the legs from under them.
It was said that his effigy was modelled on how he was found – caught in the arrow’s venomous rictus, haranguing and beseeching the troops to the last.
Buck remembered the days that followed his passing well. He had seen the service that marked Avunculus’ canonisation – the atmosphere in the Chancel that day had been more akin to a coronation or some great sporting victory; when Albathara Mesmera – the vicar at that time – had made the formal appeal from the pulpit for the cleric’s elevation to sainthood the roar of approval that shook the walls could be heard at the townships furthest passways by the peasantry and the noble.
Avunculus’ body had been lying in state at the foot of the Chancel stairs on the Plinth of Mortis – a sacred catafalque reserved only for the highest ordained ilfen and ilfesses.. As the tumult had died down a piercing beam of sunlight had lanced down and bathed his corpse in a roseate glow, restoring momentarily the passion and fervour that had so often decorated his face in life.
He had been lowered reverently into the floor on the Plinth on a tidal wave of gasps, tears and cheers in equal measure. His remains had been carried deep below the Chancel to be cremated in a private ceremony in Windspire’s holy inner sanctum of pyrochambers.(Pyx would later grumble to Buck that it took five re-fires to finish his body off – even in death, he remained stubborn as ever.)
His remains were interred, as with the other forty-nine clerics, in the base of his effigy.
To await a new voice.
Buck reached up behind him and pulled down the gaffle from the trap-wall. Working quickly – he could hear through the grating that the noise of the congregation above had died to a bare susurrus of coughing and shuffling feet – he slid it over Otto’s face and affixed the buckles behind the old creature’s antlers.
The gaffle was essentially a molded leather face-mask that covered the entire lower half of Otto’s wide face. Protruding from the front of this contraption was a ribbed, organic-looking tube; this, Buck now lifted to join a similar length which dangled through the grating in the ceiling and snaked its way along a U-shaped track, up and under the stone raiment’s at the base of Avunculus’ titan.
He rapidly and fluently snapped shut eight brass clasps that married the two tubes together. Ducking under the gaffle-tube, Buck crossed to an ancient wooden panel set near the door to the trap. He opened it and thumbed a polished button.
From where the two pipes were joined came a faint thrrump of vacuumed air. The tower hand nodded approvingly to himself as a diagonally red-and-white striped gauge set inside the wooden panel spiralled up to a familiar tolerance and bobbed like a fishing float.
Reaching under the wall panel, Buck fumbled with a hidden switch and gave a short twist and tug. With yet more suckings and slurpings of pressurised air a second ornately carved panel slid out of the wall and curved around his right hip. A small, highly polished glass tube rose up concurrently, clicking authoritatively into place.
Buck tapped the tube: ‘Ready when you are, Pyx,.’ he said
The tube flared a luminous white, like a slow-motion flashbulb. It quickly resolved itself into the ember-eyed, beak-visaged face of the tower guardian.
‘Can’t we just wave flags, or bawl up at her?’ it moaned. ‘I hate being jammed in this thing every time – it’s like being in a nymph’s goldfish bowl.
Buck grinned at the grumbling creature’s melancholy, before opening the express valve. With a final peep and a noise that split the air like water on hot rocks the guardian vanished.
Up and to the left, through tons of brick, sweat and verdegris perfume Beri glanced down as Pyx rematerialised in the pulpit’s manifesting tube. She noted the thunder on the creature’s face – a brewing panoply of outrage and gently laid one finger on the outside of the tube. A soft, roseate glow spread outwards across the tube’s surface, enveloping the blustering guardian in a coccoon of light.
The result was instantaneous – the anger melted from Pyx’s face to be replaced by a narcotized grin, lolling across its features.
Beri smiled. ‘Better?’ she whispered.
The guardian’s grin waxed larger and he rolled his eyes. ‘Ohhh yeah. A-l-l-l good. Carry on, dear Mother.’
Beri smiled again. ‘Then let us begin.’ She faced the assembled flock and drew a measured breath.
‘Friends,’ she intoned. ‘We are come here this dawnside to mark a momentous milestone. Exactly one year to the day, we lost our dear brother Avunculus to the foul machinations of She-Who-Remains-Below…’
‘Remains below,’ echoed the crowd in a soft susurrus.
Beri dipped her chin in acknowledgement and continued. ‘A near thing it ever was. Were it not for the combined blessings of Reverend Homunculus and the deft valour of brother Whetstone – ‘
On the front row, Cornwell raised a peremptory acknowledging hand at this. He had strategically placed himself between several ilfess novices on the frost row, their cimber’s all aflutter as restless white doves, and his new harem simpered toadily.
‘ – we would be all of us crushed under a second darkness to which no sunlight would e’er avail.
She paused. ‘However, the highest victory must oft pay the highest price. And we must never forget it.’
The venerable reverend pressed a button on the hidden matrix of switches in front of her, prompting veins of beautiful glittering marigold to fan out beneath her fingertips. Pyx, all arch and bluster cast aside for the moment, pressed his misty claws against the polished glass of his vial and tracked them in complex geometries, harnessing his power to her request.
High in the roof of the Great Hall a louvred window clacked open, admitting a lancing beam of sunlight at a sharp angle onto the chamber floor. Here it pooled in a lambent circle around the plinth of Mortis, firing its fluted carvings with an intense golden glow.
The reverend slid her fingers as if playing a sonnet to another cluster of the ancient, polished buttons and depressed her thumb. More thin streams of light, this time a dull ruby, zig-zagged away like a tiny, spectral map. Behind her, the sonorous voice of Nel suddenly changed pitch and held her song in a pious, single note.
Reverend Beri Magpielane raised her arms in unison, the silver shroud on her damaged finger dancing with motes of captured sun. ‘Praise…’
‘ Praise,’ reflected the congregation. Their cimber’s reacted, flickering and shuddering in a mesmerising dance of colour and sound: bells tinkling; trees groaning; seaward waves crashing against merciless wet rock. ‘Praise. Praise.’
Thirty feet below the floor of the Great Hall, Buck watched the dancing reflections of cimberlight play on the wall below the grating, a kaleidoscope of colours lazily intertwining in a hypnotic, soothing array. He pulled a swig from his flask of honeywater and ruffled Otto between his horns, eliciting a croaking purr from the old hummble, and made a precursory hand-check of the gaffle’s windpipe, now warmed to a familiarity with the hummble’s breath.
It was time.
Back in the pulpit, Beri lowered her arms sedately, crossing her face with her forearms as she did. The assembled faithful lowered the tone of their mantra in cadence with her movements. When she revealed her face once more, a gleaming filigree had materialised over her lower jaw. Her voice swirled around the Great Hall as she spoke once more.
‘To live by the sword is to die thus. Our battles are our own, yet we fight for the truth so that others may gain. For is it right that blood shed on the field will nourish the flowers that follow when the fog and clamour of war are lifted? Is this life? Honour? Justice for all men? It is not for us to say. Not you or I; we who are left behind cannot answer questions faced once we ascend to the Millionfold….
She reached up under the rim of the pulpit as she spoke and turned one final, special hidden lever.
Avunculus glided forth to address the faithful.
Descending from his alcove on silent, frictionless tracks the firebrand cleric’s statue moved with enchanted grace towards the nave where a central, polished podium was awaiting to cushion his descent.
Below the chancel, Buck watched as the statue’s windpipe began to feed out into the Great Hall with a leathery rasp. Immediately, he released a chock in the wall behind him with a practiced swipe of one hand, prompting a wet chattering of oiled chains.
Above Otto, with a barking squeal the roof of the trap suddenly irised outwards, metallic petals folding back to admit a hazy glow of dawn which encompassed the hummble in an expanding spotlight.
The result was instantaneous. Otto craned his neck towards the sun, opened his eyes wide – and hummbled.
A sonorous, monastic drone that dipped and warbled, the hummble-call to the dawn never failed to raise a smile to Buck’s face, even though at this proximity it was teeth-looseningly loud.
‘ Go on, boy!’ he shouted at the top of his voice – although every last erg of sound therein was smothered in Otto’s titanic aria.
On the opposite wall, a brass gauge began to rise steadily as the old hummble’s cyclic respirations powered down the gaffle, up into the statue and…
… Avunculus’ marble eyes blazed suddenly like hot coals, trapping the congregation in a burning stare.
He blinked. And spoke.
‘I see you,’ he rasped. ‘From the Millionfold, I watch you all. I feel your love. Your remembrance. Your faith. For the stars are your guide. They will guide you home. To your rest. To join me in the immortality of the gods! Praise!’
‘Praise!’ echoed the congregation.
Beri glanced down at the guardian, who was guttering like a candle in the wind in his vial – a sign that he was distracted.
… Something vexes thee?
… I dunno. It’s just… don’t you ever get the feeling that you’re cheating them? I mean, it’s not really him talking, is it? He’s literally just blowing hot air… by Otto; glowing… me, and talking… by you, through that eldritch chinstrap. It’s all a bit of a bloody racket really, isn’t it?
Beri smiled faintly. The enchanted filigree, which projected her voice through Avunculus’ statue, had never, in its esteemed and proud history, been referred to as an ‘eldritch chinstrap.’ The old guardian really was going a bit eccentric.
She continued to speak to him with her mind, whilst exhorting the congregation with her/Avunculus’ mouth.
… What we see is rarely what is real, my friend. We are just walking starshine, housed in blood and bone…
‘… for who among you still fears death… ?’
… just awaiting elevation…
‘… do not fear to fall, for in falling in faith, you are arisen in eternity…’
… to judgement…
‘… and justice…’
… for all…
The sun shimmered on the plinth of Mortis – polished marble with not a trace of where Avunculus’ mouldering corpse had once lain, dead ears heedless to the tumult of his passing.
Cornwell came to out of a bored semi-doze to the urgent poking in his ribs by Treyanna Mistvane. The Fernmaiden was sitting to his left on the pews. She was savagely pretty with thick, silver hair and milk-white skin. She would have been flawless, were it not for a violent disfigurement – on one side of her face, a huge scar tracked diagonally across her brow and cheek; the result of a bitterblade swung by a howling enemy. The eyesocket beneath its traversal was dark and empty, and the muscles sagged and frozen, leaving Treyanna with a quizzical look on one side of her face.
No one dared, however, to suggest that she wear an eyepatch. Not if they valued their viscera remaining in situ. Treyanna was a highly respected and feted commander, with countless Floorwalk’s to her name and nearly as many casualties, whether from the points of her tulwars or ilfen foolish enough to challenge her to a drink. Her cimber’s were curious and rare in that she possessed not one but two, in the shape of gleaming lapis-blue portcullises. They shone silently over each shoulder, picked out and caressed by the flickering light of twin braziers.
‘The reverend is calling you,’ she whispered, a sharp light wheeling in her remaining violet eye. ‘You’re up next.’
Cornwell blinked owlishly and looked up. An expectant hush had descended upon the congregation, broken only by the discreet, amorphous breath of vented air like a distant sigh from the base of Avunculus’ statue.
With a hurried clatter of plate-armour, he got to his feet and began a stiff walk towards a smaller but no less intricately carved pulpit which jutted out from the western wall.
He was beginning to wish he hadn’t come today, but it had all seemed so good on paper: get in, flirt with a few ilfesses, spout some rhetoric about how great he was and then get out.
It was halfway through the sermon by the time he realised it was all going wrong.
Firstly, he’d attended in full armour: greaves, spaulders, gorget, undermail, the works, forged and burnished at crippling costs by his father’s armourer with metallic starflake that glistened and danced as he walked. It looked spectacular, but it added about four pounds of extra weight – weight which the ilf was now feeling in a catastrophic numbness in his lower legs and shoulders. He felt like a fully grown bushwhacker was kipping on his back.
Then there was the statue.
Whetstone hadn’t liked Avunculus in life. He’d come breezing in with his sanctimonious bluster at a point in the War when nearly all of the detachment under Cornwell’s command had been decimated in a series of embarrassingly successful skirmishes. Yinthii’s hordes had been climbing higher and higher up the pillars of Brackenbough,; even though they’d scorched, torched and blockaded every possible gateway, like a persisient fly she’d kept buzzing and biting.
Whetstone was, regrettably, not a popular leader of ilfen – his troops more often than not would defy his orders on principle, and head off under their own steam. And promptly get themselves killed.
Which, of course, was his fault.
And then – ho, he thought, bitterly, enter the Flying Father.
Avunculus, in addition to his rallying cries, had also – just to make him the absolute golden nutbowl; the froth in the everyman’s beer; the perfume in the henhouse – been an accomplished Wingrider. He’d owned a magnificent black Pegasus by the name of Mandrake which cut him an even more heroic jib going into battle, swooping over the vanguard with a hollow rasp of wings, bellowing the charge. It had gained him many titles: Holy Wing, Black Thunder, the Breath of the Gods.
Cornwell preferred the more succinct title of ‘bastard’.
Bastard or no, as it was he’d not only stolen Cornwell’s thunder(figuratively and literally) but put out the parasol, slapped on the suncream and dozed off with a gin in the shade when it got too hot.
Decimated it, you might say.
Fortune favours the brave, so they say – also, in some configurations, it occasionally drops the ball and helps out cowards too. So it was with great relief when a rumoured heavy assault on the north-western nigh-Edge took Avunculus, his bellowing braggadocio and a sizeable tract of Cornwell’s worst detracting generals off to bark at the moon, leaving Cornwell with the blissfully cool – and easy-street – post of Perimeter Guard commander: basically, a flaunting trot along Wardhome’s walls with the green, the insensible and the questionable(ie, criminal)of the town guard. Ostensibly, they were supposed to be a first-point lookout but in reality the only looking done was at themselves. It was perfect.
Then it wasn’t perfect.
Avunculus and his detachment had come roaring out of the mist one morning, clattering over the eastern passway, surprising Cornwell and his band of ne’er bothered who had just dismounted to croon and preen with the tavern ilfesses in a nearby watering hole. The Flying Father had come screaming in like a goshawk falling on a mouse, landing in the town square in a shower of orange sparks that leapt from Mandrake’s hooves. His dark green habit was ripped and tattered, and dust and dried blood jockeyed for position on his brow.
‘Fire and foe!’ he had bellowed, raising a stout staff that was chipped and smeared with black blood. ‘What is below must remain below! She has risen on the northwestern marches… risen to smite us in a last, desperate alliance with the accursed Drath and his foul Sackers. The time has come to drive her and her infernal brethren into the dust from whence she came forever!’
A muted half-cheer greeted this rhetoric from the crowed of ilfen already gathered in the square – a cheer which seemed to sustain and swell rather than die out.
Cornwell, the froth from his first pint still evaporating sadly on his lip, had felt his heart sink into his boots. The cheer was getting louder and was swelling because people were coming out of houses and shops to louden and swell it. In the space of thirty seconds, like flies round hummbledung, they were being drawn to Avunculus who was now prancing in a circle in the centre of the square, the train of sparks flashing from Mandrake’s hooves augmented with an eldritch hiss as the Pegasus rattled his wings like a peacock. The Flying Father, the Holy Wing had done it again.
The beer in Cornwell’s stomach bubbled sluggishly.
Why couldn’t he just die?
‘… And die he did,’ Cornwell drawled from the pulpit. ‘Three days march from that day, we faced Yinthii as her black brood boiled over the northwestern marchland. Our gallant… our gallant Father was leading the charge as was his wont…’
He paused and bowed his head, eyes closed as if in recollection. When he opened them again, Cornwell happened to glance up at the marble visage of Avunculus’ statue, still wheezing and farting its church-organ rondo, bulging eyes glaring like manic lighthouse wicks. The sun had tacked around to the western side of the narthex now and was glowing through the stained glass on that wall, blittering the cleric’s stony face in a harlequin cascade of colour which made him look for all the world to Cornwell like some psychedelic clown.
The ilf’s face crumpled and folded – by all the Gods, he was going to laugh; he was going to laugh in front of all these people; in front of that pompous prig of a padre. He was going. He was GOING…
‘… and it was in that moment,’ he croaked, through gritted teeth, ‘that the arrow flew from her twisted bow…’
I’m crying. Please, Gods, let them think it’s anguish. Please.
A nondescript noise, somewhere in the garden of a cough, but not a million miles from the horizon of a snort, suddenly barked from Cornwell’s throat. ‘
And I tried,’ he wheezed. Exhaled. Inhaled – shakily. He was coming back under control. ‘When that cursed bolt was in the air, I strained with the might of the millionfold to stop it. I saw it coming. We could see that we had broken their ranks. The Black Empress was fleeing for the mists, her desperation foiled by our resolve and steadfast. Our Av… our Father… he had dismounted for a second to give us the Holy Rally – to drive us on to victory.
He looked up again at the cleric’s statue – he was back in the saddle now, fully warming to his words. ‘His arms – they were raised as you see them here in his Holiness’ blessed immortal visage. Beseeching. Exhorting. Empowering.’
His voice dropped to a cracked whisper – Gods, he was good – and he shut his eyes again. ‘And then the bolt hit. A last foul tongue of venom from She-Who-Remains-Below, fired with all the cowardice and spite she could muster. I… I remember… jumping… trying to get my shield between them in time. Calling our Father’s name as I did so – for I could see that the millionfold was about to open for him…
Cornwell straightened in the pulpit. Inhaled bravely. Good. Now bring it back to them. Slowly. You’re almost home.
He gradually fed power back into his voice, pouring redemption and piety in a gentle syrup that ran from his lips like sweet toffee. ‘He did not cry out. He would not – would not – give that dark harpy that satisfaction. He fell bravely, the last words from his lips the final stanza of the Holy Rally, said with such awesome conviction…’
The word rang out gratingly around Windspire’s ancient walls. Cornwell started and snapped his head around at an acute collection of angles, searching for the source of this blaspheme. His cimber responded in kind, abruptly sprouting moth-like wings and flitting in agitated geometries around its master’s head.
‘Who said that?’ he snapped, archly, forgetting protocol in the heat of his outrage. ‘Who dare suggest that…’
‘I did,’ came the voice, in a tone that sounded like a tomb door being rolled open. It seemed to come from all around. From above.
Cornwell, along with the entire congregation, now jerked their heads upwards at the old cleric’s statue. It was staring at him.
Right at him.
The head of the statue had, impossibly, swivelled down on an unknown axis and was regarding him balefully from thirty feet up. The mouth had lost its frozen state and its lips resolved into a grim line. These now parted in a faintly clattering tessellation and that rolling-rock voice sounded once more: ‘Greetings, Cornwell. Well indeed. Well met, Well seen. Well, well, well!’
It boomed with laughter at this last sally, its mirth crashing and vibrating around the walls of the narthex.
Squeaks and shouts of response now began to chitter up from the assembled crowd who, up until that moment, had been too stunned to react at this sudden enchanting turn of events. Several bolder ilfen near the doors were already on their feet and attempting to make good their escape, their cimbers banding together in some instances in crackling, spitting orbits of energy.
At the sight of this, the Avunculus-thing raised its arms from their previously static pose, forearms and wrists turning awkwardly over and up from beseeching to placating. ‘Good people!’ it rasped. ‘Please, tarry awhile! Do not be alarmed! You are here to witness a culmination of justice, for which I require your clarity!’
It lowered its forearms suddenly in a grinding sweep, and a choking, howling cloud of dun-hued vapour shrieked from its fingertips, flinging itself across the nave with a bitter tang of wet dust. As it hit the doors to the Great Hall they abruptly vanished, fusing and sealing together in a perfect stone façade of themselves.
It seemed that tarrying was a moot point.
Otto erupted suddenly in a paroxysm of coughing and shook his horned head violently from side to side.
Bucklebee snapped alert, jerking out of the fitful doze he’d slipped into sitting at the wooden wall-panel as the old hummble continued to wheeze. The needle on the respiration gauge on the wall heeled over crazily once in tandem with its hyperventilations,, before popping unceremoniously with a flat thud.
Otto bellowed – a full-throated, ululating roar that was nothing like the gentle, crooning hymn he usually elicited. With a final, powerful jerk he wrenched himself free from the gaffle, tearing loose the clips which zinged and pelted around the trap like brass bullets. One of these ripped across Buck’s brow with enough venom to open the skin, tearing past the startled ilf and narrowly missing his left eye, to hit the wall near the panel where it dropped with a dissonant clink.
As the creature broke free from its shackles, the reason for its sudden affliction became immediately clear. Dust began to pour from the inside of the now discarded gaffle, which lay on the floor of the trap flopping and bouncing like a dying fish. It streamed around the interior in a gagging, filmy haze, accentuating the lambent glow of sunlight that was still shining through the open roof.
Otto was going mad. The hummble had sprang across the room and was lashing out at the heavy, oaken door to the trap with his powerful back legs, uncoiling them in devastating mule-kicks that boomed deafeningly off of the walls like cannon-fire.
Buck danced and shuffled desperately, barely aware that his left eye was rapidly gumming up with blood. Otto’s horns were tracing a deadly arabesque in the rapidly glooming air in front of him, and he didn’t want to even think about trying to evade the enraged creature’s tossing head if the trap became completely filled with this bloody dust…
‘Pyx!’ he bellowed. ‘For Gods’ sake – Otto’s going tonto down here!! What the hell’s going on?’
A clattering of bricks next to him announced the sheepish materialisation of the guardian. ‘Sorry, Buck. There’s been a carnival of minor miracles going on up there, and…. hey, where are you?’
Buck wasn’t even sure himself now. The roiling fumes still spewing from the gaffle had almost completely filled the room, blanketing vision down to only a few feet. Had it not been for the ubiquitous glow of the guardian’s eyes, Buck would have had trouble finding the opposite wall.
‘I don’t know!’ he yelled. ‘Just… just do something! Switch it off! Calm Otto down, before he pincushion’s me!
Pyx didn’t answer directly. Instead, he opened hjs beak-like mouth.
A keening, squealing wind began, drawing down in a gasping respiration into the maw of the guardian. Slowly, gradually the filthy air began to clear, funnelling into a tight, writhing dust devil that raced in a howling spiral into Pyx’s lungs.
As it did so, another, more subtle sound emanated from its lips – an ululating whistle that vibrated in a strangely soothing glissando.
Across the trap, Otto’s frenzied kicks began to diminish, slow… and finally stopped.
Bucklebee coughed and batted a lingering patina of grit from the depths of his bumblebeeskin hat. ‘Thanks, Pyx. I thought I was dush kebab then.’
He slowly approached Otto with one hand outstretched, ready to react should the fearsome tremens come upon the old creature again.
But there was no need. Otto waddled placidly up to him, bunted his outstretched palm and rumbled in a tone which almost seemed to say, ‘sorry, mate.’
Buck ruffled the fur on his head and turned back to where Pyx was still rippling on the far wall. The guardian had a peculiar look on his face – his lips were pursed and his glittering eyes flicked this way and that. He looked…
He looked like he was going to throw up.
Buck’s brow furrowed. ‘… Pyx? You okay?’
The guardian answered through a cow-gate of clenched teeth: ‘D… do’kno’ Fee’fu’y’
Before either one of them had time to speculate any further, Pyx suddenly opened his maw wide and with a great, creaking huuuuurkk, ejected a cloud of dun-hued dust back into the chanmber.
Otto bristled under Buck’s hand – the ilf could actually feel the fur on the hummble’s head start to rise – and he gave a low, uneasy bark.
The dust-cloud did not dissipate. It hung in the centre of the trap, poised in tableaux, as if waiting…
Then it spoke.
‘…. Bucklebee Hazeldust!’ it grated. ‘By my beard!’
… and with a floof, it resolved itself into a swirling, nebulous figure: tall, bearded and bug-eyed.
Buck’s jaw dropped like a stone. He fell, jerkily, to one knee. ‘Y… Your Eminence! I thought you dead!’
The dust-vicar laughed seethingly, sending a stinging, hot blast of grit whirling over and around the trembling ilf. ‘Nay, child – death is but a door and I smote it back open with one righteous hoof!
He opened his swirling arms. ‘I return to you now as judge to your jury. You are needed above, my son. Come!’
Before Buck had a chance to respond, dust leapt from Avunculus’ outstretched forearms and enveloped him.
The trap vanished. Everything vanished in a roiling carousel of vapour – with Buck at its centre. It was like looking out from the the eye of his own personal sandstorm.
He barely had time to react to this sudden bizarre entombment, when the vapours cleared… and he was standing in the narthex.
Cornwell stood in the pulpit before him, his face the colour of wet cheese. Gone was the strutting cockerel looking down his nose that Buck had born witness to in the Great Hall before the sermon began; the once-proud ilf now looked as if he had recently soiled his glittering armour.
Whetstone blanched and groaned, as Buck shakily got to his feet: ‘Oh, Gods,’ he wailed. What does he have to do with all this?’
‘Everything,’ A whining pocket of noise announced the sudden reappearance of Avunculus in a misty vortex atop the plinth of Mortis.
The assembled congregation gasped. The mystic reverend appeared to have decamped from his monolithic statue-form and shrunk to normal size in the interim. By some further enchantment, he now appeared to be carved out of living marble. His eyes burned with a piercing, pale white light as if two ancient stars had set themselves to rest in his head.
Leaping lightly down from the plinth, Avunculus motioned up at the main pulpit where Beri had silently been observing events. She had not moved nor commented once since Avunculus had first manifested himself. It was almost as if she was fully accepting – even expecting – this turn of fate that was playing out on her holy stage.
‘Herod,’ she said softly, inclining her head to Avunculus in that same quietly deferential way she had to Cornwell what seemed like an aeon before in the Great Hall. ‘Shall we begin?’
The marbled cleric nodded in reply. ‘Begin, my sweet. Justice must be served.’
The venerable ilfess nodded, and lifted a beautiful white ash staff from beneath the pulpit rim.
‘Justice,’ she called, in a ringing tone, before striking the butt of the staff three times on the floor of the pulpit. Each strike crashed like thunder.
A distant susurrus, as of the soughing of waves on the shore began around them. Above their heads, the walls of the Chancel began abruptly to unstitch and dissolve, crumbling away on an arcane breeze. As the last of the walls vanished like smoke on the wind, a shocking truth was revealed
The world outside was gone.
Author Notes: Thank you to all who've viewed A Sermon of Lies so far - part 3 will be coming very shortly. Feel free to volunteer your thoughts on the story - all criticism welcome(constructive, please) :O)