The Tale of the False Pontiffs
In the days before darkness, the world was ruled by the Old Gods. For many years they presided over man, dictating their will directly to the priests of the Old Church. But the priests of the church were weak and scared. ‘We are lost,’ they pleaded. ‘We hear your words, but many of our kin do not. Give us a strong leader, one with the strength to punish those who disobey your commands, but also the compassion to reward those who serve you faithfully.’
So the Old Gods decided that the Kingdom of Lentempia would be ruled by the Lord Pontiff, a single priest who would report directly to the Gods. In exchange, he would rule over all men as a Holy Monarch, and this rule would be absolute.
Next, the Old Gods arranged a great festival. It was at this celebration that the Lord Pontiff was announced, and from that moment forward, this chosen man would rule over the Kingdom. Years later, when the Lord Pontiff grew old and frail from age, the church would hold the next festival, and his successor would be named.
For many years the Lord Pontiffs ruled peacefully, and mankind thrived. The Old Gods grew to trust man, content that he could govern himself.
Many more years passed. Now in the foreign lands across the sea, lived a of pair twins. They hailed from an ancient holy tribe, the Sha’red. The Sha’red began as an ordinary tribe of people, keeping to themselves in a distant country, away from the true Kingdom of the Gods. But one day, an Old God fell in love with a woman of the tribe, and afterward she birthed two twins, beings with the flesh of man but the power of the divine.
The twins spent their youth traveling with the Sha’red people, growing and learning amongst the elders of the clan. When they reached adulthood, they usurped the tribe from the acting leader, declaring themselves new heads of the clan. The Sha’red bowed down to them, and those who did not bend the knee were killed. However, the twins were ambitious, dissatisfied with their conquest. So they set their sights on the prosperous Kingdom across the sea.
When the next Festival of the Lord Pontiff was held, the twins traveled to Lentempia with hopes to rule as Kings. At the festival, the twins demonstrated their power, and everyone was awed. Each twin made a claim for the crown, and the people were swayed. ‘Truly, these men have been touched by the gods,’ the people said.
The people could not decide on which son should become the next Lord Pontiff, so on the day of the festival, both were sired as equals. ‘They will rule over us,’ they decided, ‘as the first dual Lord Pontiffs of the Kingdom.’ This angered the Old Gods, for it was commanded that there should only be one Lord Pontiff, for there cannot be two Holy Kings. Furthermore, these men were from foreign lands, and thus could not be trusted.
‘They are false prophets,’ the Gods said, ‘and for this, they should be condemned.’
But the people were deceived by the claims of the twins, awed and fearful by the might they possessed. They revered the twins as idols, destined to bring humanity to new heights. So the Old Gods reached out to the twins directly, and ordered them to step down from their titles. But the two men ignored the commands of the deities, instead arguing and bickering with each other. For they vied to be the savior mankind, but was consumed with jealousy and mistrust by their sibling.
Each twin Pontiff chose a different path in the pursuit of power. The younger twin, Bahn’ya, pursued control over death and destruction, but he was ill-suited to bring divine judgment as a god himself, and this angered him. Instead, he vowed to turn his wrath on the Old Gods themselves; so he became the Slayer of the True Gods. Pontiff Bahn’ya was fierce with an explosive temper, feared by many for his terrible wrath and violent impulses.
The elder twin, Klay, pursued the divine act of creation, but his creations were perverse and wrong; he became the Creator of the False Gods. Pontiff Klay was quiet and affable, yet held terrible and dark secrets in his heart of hearts: the atrocities he had committed in his pursuit of higher knowledge.
Years passed, and the twins grew to despise each other, beginning to fight more and more amongst themselves. One day, they each denounced the other, claiming there could only be one Lord Pontiff. This divided the country in half, as men and women of the faith were forced to take a side. The schism grew, the conflict eventually breaking out into a full-fledged civil war. The feud was all-consuming, and the people forgot to praise their gods entirely. As the conflict escalated, many believed the war could only end in apocalypse.
At this point, the gods grew tired of the hubris of the self-proclaimed ‘Chosen Man’, namely the two brothers who had ignored their will and brought darkness and plague upon the land. ‘We will bring shame to their name,’ they said, ‘so their names will be forever met with mockery.’
The gods would need a man to humiliate the twins, so they searched the land far and wide, finally settling their sights on a lowly priest living out in the country, a man who wished for no part in the war. ‘He is but a common man, yet he will humble the mighty False Pontiffs,’ they decided. ‘Now, we will destroy the pillars of the Old Church; its legacy, corrupted by the False Gods, will burn until it is naught but ash. Then, we will construct a new church upon the blackened rubble, one where the people remember to obey their Gods. And this humble farmer shall serve as the first priest of the New Church.’
Thus began the First Priest’s rise to greatness.
“Hey, let me go!”
I looked up from the book to see a man being dragged from the confessional box at the far end of the hall. His arms were shackled behind his back in irons, a pair of priests on either side of him, each with a hand firmly grasping one of his arms, leading him towards the exit.
“You can’t do this!” he screamed, as they dragged him down the hall. His voice echoed across the tall ceilings of the church. He aimed a wild kick at one of the priests, but found only air. “That confession was given in confidence! I never said I did anything, this won’t hold up in court and you know it!”
I watched them march the man past the pews and through the front doors of the cathedral, out into the night. The priest that had given me the book earlier re-entered from the side hall, and began to make his way towards me.
He smiled. “The father is ready to see you now.”
I glanced back at the large oak doors. There were black scuff marks from where the man’s shoes had squeaked against the marble. “Did he just get arrested for his confession?”
The priest bowed his head. “It is unfortunate that you had to see that. Under normal circumstances, men would only receive judgment from themselves and the Gods. Would it be that we live in such times.”
“I didn’t know that a priest could arrest people. Isn’t that what you have the city guards for?”
The smile faded from his face. “Us priests are simply extensions of the Gods, and the Gods have us subdue who they see fit; we outrank the city patrol. A tenet that our King has been keen to uphold since he was blessed with the crown.”
I could feel a bead of sweat tickle the back of my neck. Maybe this was not such a good idea after all. “What did he do?”
He regarded me for a moment, perhaps trying to assess why I would ask such a suspicious question. “There is no cause for alarm. That man has just confessed to committing a grievance act of treason against the Holy King; he admitted to aiding the terrorists who plotted his assassination, as well as desecrating the body of our deceased Queen, and killing the High Pontiff.” He shook his head sadly. “Some confessions simply cannot be ignored, no matter the vows we holy men take.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why would anyone ever admit to trying to kill the King in his own church?”
“Ah. You see, the priest on call tonight stresses the importance of honest introspection. People feel very at ease with him, and sometimes, the darker secrets of men come spilling out alongside whatever else it is they intended to confess. That man came to this confessional to unburden himself, and the knowledge of one’s own treason is indeed one very heavy burden to bear. In the end, the sin would have eaten him alive. While he will receive proper sentencing for committing high treason, there is now hope that he will receive salvation in the next life.”
He didn’t look very unburdened, I thought to myself.
The priest put an arm around me. “You have nothing to fear, my child. Go now, and see for yourself.” He led me through the endless rows of pews, weaving our way towards the far corner of the temple.
The church fell silent once again.
I ducked into the wooden confessional box, taking a seat on the wooden chair- situated in the center of the small room- and felt the rush of wind as the door closed behind me. A pair of torches lit the interior of the box, spitting and flickering. A dark mesh screen window faced me. Through it, I could see a silhouette of a man, sitting, the profile of his face bowed low towards the floor. When I entered, it raised up to stare in my direction.
“Good evening, my child.”
I recognized the voice from the funeral. It was deep and masculine, a velvety baritone, rumbling up from the floor and permeating through my body.
I gulped. “Hi.” My voice was small, afraid. It trembled.
“You’re nervous,” the disembodied voice noted. “And, if I am not mistaken, an Outsider.”
I stared at the shadow. It only took one word to give away that I was not from around here.
“I don’t get many Outsiders in my chapel, but it matters not. In the end, we are all humans, united in sin.” The voice was reverberating through my skull, now a hum of low, multi-layered tones. “Please, it is okay. I want you to inhale. Then Exhale.”
My breathing slowed.
“That’s it. Relax. Our sins cloud the mind, they turn the clear waters of our resolve murky. If we don’t cleanse the water, then we can become lost. But once we have filtered out the corruption, the path to penance becomes clear.”
The tension was leaving my shoulders. I leaned back a little further in the wooden chair, slouching.
“Now again. In. Then out.”
“I umm…” my mind was beginning to wander, I knew I wanted to say something important, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what. “Well….so the thing is I’m not here to make a confession.”
“No? You have nothing to confess then? No sins which burden you, weighing you down like heavy stones?”
Of course I have sins, I thought. But then, why was I not confessing?
“I…I guess I could make a confession.”
“You should. You can feel them clawing at you, like a rabid animal trying to escape from a cage. The claws can slice through you like razors. They’ll tear you apart if you don’t let it out.”
There was a sharp pain in my chest. It only lasted for a second, but I could have sworn the bite from behind my navel was real. I clutched at my stomach. “Okay,” I said. “I want to let it out. Please, show me how.”
“Good. Keep breathing.”
I could feel lights dimming around me. The silhouette in the mesh window faded into the darkness.
The voice continued. “But there’s no need to rush. We must tread lightly if we want to enter the dark cavities of the human heart. So we’ll ease in my child. Come, let my warmth guide you.”
I closed my eyes and felt the air grow thick, wrapping around me like a warm blanket. “Okay.”
“That’s right. Now let’s start with your name, and where you are from.”
“My name? Oh, yes. It’s Jillian. From Pennsylvania.”
The voice raised an octave in pitch, jarring in its sharpness, cutting through the smothering warmth like a cold knife. A chill rippled through me and my eyes sprang back open. As the lights came flooding back into the box, the shadow of the man was now standing, no longer seated at eye level. A hundred thoughts came rushing back into my head, as if a floodgate to my mind had been re-opened.
The voice lowered back down to its deep baritone, but began to fumble with its words. “I…I mean yes, so then Jillian, tell me about-”
“Wait!” I said, remembering the purpose of the visit. “I’m not here to make a confession. I wanted to talk to you. It’s about the King.”
Silence. The shadow remained standing, looming above me like a statue.
“Look,” I continued. “I know who you are, Father Caollin. I came here because I wanted to speak to the King. See, I know him. If you could just pass along a message to him for me…”
The shadow disappeared and something slammed from the other side of the mesh screen. A second later and the confessional door slid open. A man in his fifties was facing me. Unlike the other priests dressed in red robes, his clothes were made of treated leather and rawhide, simple and worn. Yet there was something regal about the way he carried himself, tall and dignified, slim with a heavy set of broad shoulders.
He had a thick head of closely cropped silver hair that shimmered in the torch light, and there were worn laugh lines tracing each cheek, left from years of smiling a bit too widely. He studied me with eyes the color of rust, reading in the details and contours of my visage, his expression betraying no outward display of emotion. Then, he reached out a hand to towards my face. Instinctively I flinched back, but his finger tips brushed my cheek, his touch soft and gentle. Before I could question him, he spoke.
“I know exactly who you are, Jillian Reynolds. It’s nice to meet you, at long last.” His face broke into a smile, and the laugh lines creased. “And the King will be pleased to know that I’ve finally found you.”