Caollin kept looking into me intently, never breaking eye contact. After a time, it became unnerving, and I felt myself shifting in place under his ceaseless gaze. Finally he turned his shoulder and began to stride down the hall, calling back, “Follow me, Jillian.”
The priest walked fast, his long legs capable of strides twice my length so I was practically jogging to keep up with him. “Did you come here alone; from the Outside?” he asked me, as we turned the corner and began to ascend a spiral stone staircase, his wide shoulders bouncing with each step.
“Yes,” I said, then began to clarify, unsure of how much Malcolm had revealed to the priest about our situation. “Well, besides Malcolm. He convinced me to come, although we got separated on the way. The only thing he told me prior to my arrival was that he was the King here. Heard you were my best bet at reaching him.”
He paused his ascent. “He brought you here, then. Malcolm did.” He scratched his chin. “You use the old name.”
“Well, I’ve known him as Malcolm my entire life, long before he became the King here. How long has he been calling himself Malstrom?”
Caollin laughed, a gravelly rumble emanating deep from his belly. “I do not know. As long as I have known him, perhaps longer. Although, it is not uncommon for an ageless to change names throughout their lifetime, especially the older ones. They have only been able to live openly as ageless in recent years. A sign of social progress.” He began to resume the climb. “And behold, now one has become king.”
Several questions sprang to the forefront of my mind. “Father, has he been searching for me? Or even worried for my safety? He was the one that dragged me into this place, yet since he stranded me here, it seems he’s been more preoccupied with his duties as a King than trying to find his own wife.”
Caollin furrowed his brow. “Wife.” He said the word slowly, deliberately. “It would be unwise for you to refer to the King as your spouse. At least for the time being.” He paused to let me catch up, so we took the steps side by side. “And I cannot speak for the King, but I would surmise it much easier for a face in a crowd- such as yourself- to find a King, than a King to find a face in a crowd. I can assure you, his majesty has been awaiting your arrival for some time. He speaks of you often, ‘Jillian Reynolds, the Angel from the Outside,’ in his own words.”
I thought back to the first time I had seen him in the city, a few days ago. “At the funeral, he seemed so stiff and formal. And I’ve talked to people that…uh… have strong opinions about him. Different than the man I knew. Is he like that in person now too?”
He smiled at me. “You can judge for yourself. When did you see him last, prior to the funeral?”
If I tell him the truth, will he think I’m crazy? The man had not revealed if Malcolm had confided any secrets in him.
I met the priest’s eyes again. They did not look at me in the same way that Ko’sa did, when I told them about my situation. His eyes were not filled with patronizing sympathy, but curiosity.
“We both came from a different dimension,” I blurted, resigning myself to the potential backlash. “One where time passes differently. He claimed he had lived in this place for 1000 years, when he returned to take me back here. In my world, this was less than a minute for me.”
The priest looked lost in thought, but nodded his head. “Intriguing. Yes, I have heard this type of story before. Of the existence of other dimensions, some where time flows as fast as the the current of a river, and others, where it trickles slowly, like that of a leaking roof. There are passages about such things, in our Holy Texts. Some of these stories are even said to predate the Tale of the False Pontiffs, which itself is over 6000 years old. The veracity of these tales, however, is widely debated amongst scholars of the faith. One would ponder if they hold some connection to the phenomena of the ageless.” He stopped himself. “Ah, but I am getting carried away. A discussion for another day, perhaps.”
We arrived at the top of the stairs which ended with a single, locked door. He began to fumble in his pocket for the correct key. “But I can sense your unrest, child. You are afraid that the man you care for has changed. And to that, I must infer, he almost certainly has, although that need not be seen as negative.”
It does if he has turned into a murderer, I thought.
“You see, the passing of time has a permanent effect on man, and to the ageless, this effect is amplified. For most, it dulls the ambitions. Many ageless lose their biological sense of urgency, they become listless, lethargic. A task that would take a mortal man months to master could take an ageless years. They watch themselves slowly degrade into an amorphous blob of sloth and self-loathing. Eventually, after descending into a hole so deep that they can never return, they choose to take their own lives.”
“The only ageless that survive in this world are the ambitious, those that are restless in finding ways to improve both themselves and the world around them. To preserve his own sanity, the King searched within himself and discovered a maniacal drive, an insatiable obsession to pursue his desires. This awakened vigor has undoubtedly changed his persona into something new, so to speak. Whether you see this as an improvement or detriment depends on your frame of mind.”
At last he produced the correct key, and pressed it into the lock. The door swung open and he held it for me. “Please, take a seat in my office. I must find a replacement to assume my confessional duties, and will return shortly.”
I entered the room and looked around. There were no paintings of religious imagery, bookshelves, wardrobes, or anything else that one would have expected to find in the office of a priest. The walls of the room were cold barren stone, dimly lit by a torch at each corner of the rectangular room. Along the walls were chalkboards filled with white, cramped writing of what looked like partially solved equations. The floor was littered with scrolls of parchment scribbled with endless lines of notes in barely legible handwriting. Tables and stools cluttered the interior, every surface covered with beakers of different shapes and sizes, some still bubbling with different shades of brightly colored liquids.
I found a stool in the center of the room and took a seat. A minute later and the priest returned. “You’ll have to excuse the appearance. I often have my team of royal scientists work here, so I can oversee their work. Speeds up the process without disrupting my responsibilities to the church. Not the tidiest folks to grace our cathedral, as you can see.”
“You oversee scientists?” I said, unable to hide my disbelief. “But you’re a priest…”
He grinned. “As well as the royal magi. Do not be so quick to cast judgment, Jillian. I am a man of many intellectual curiosities. Religion, Science, and now even Magic -or what little we know about it, that is; each can function as a different tool to further the progress of mankind. Therefore, I have made it my goal to diversify myself across all veins of academia.”
“And Malcolm…err…the King finds you qualified for that job?”
“He requested me for the role specifically.” He saw the doubt on my face. “Do not get the wrong impression, I am not an obstructionist. My view is that Faith and Science must coexist in harmony.” He sighed. “After all, in a world where the Gods afford us so few miracles, sometimes we must create our own.”
I nodded. “Sure. Could we go see the King now? I really need to talk to him as soon as possible.”
He pulled up a stool and sat facing me. “Patience, child. There is one issue we must address first. Currently, you are not a member of the faith. Am I correct in assuming this much?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“And you are an Outsider. This would upset many people if news got out that the King had personally treated with someone of your status. It would be seen as an insult to the pious, you see.”
“So set up a secret meeting-”
He held up a hand to cut me off. “Nothing is secret in that palace. No, there is only one solution that I can see fit.” He began to roll up his sleeves. “You must enter our faith.”
“Whatever, sure.” I paused. “Wait, what does that entail?”
“You must be Baptized.” The word Baptize punctuated the silence of the office with a certain weight, the priest’s eyes never leaving me.
I looked back at him, still confused. “Okay…”
“I do not think you understand. The Baptism is a very serious trial of self-discovery. It involves drinking from the cup of Bahn’ya’s Kiss.” I gave him a blank stare, and waited for him to explain further. “It is a concoction made with two major ingredients. The first is a powerful hallucinogen. The second is a small amount of a viper’s poison that causes full body muscle paralysis. They represent the two trials one must overcome to enter the faith: The struggle of the mind, and the struggle of the body.”
I could feel unease start to well up in my stomach. “If I were to drink it, how long would I be paralyzed for?”
“There is no set time. You will be paralyzed until your muscles can find the strength to overcome the agent, or it dissipates entirely. Some have overcome the effects in hours, others it can take days, or even weeks.” He paused. “I should also mention that there is a very small percentage of those that attempt the baptism who do not survive.”
I gulped. “But everyone who practices this religion has taken the trial?”
“The majority of the Kingdom population -not counting Outsiders- has undergone the Baptism, although it is customary to do it during one’s coming of age.”
“And if I don’t get baptized, I can’t see the King?”
His eyes fell down to his feet. “I would offer you no assistance. There is a risk that my name would be mired in the scandal, my status in this church jeopardized. But I will not force this on you. Perhaps there is another way you could reach the King without my involvement. The choice is yours, ultimately.”
I didn’t see how I had any choice at all. “Fine. When can we start?”
He stood up and walked over to one of the tables. He picked up a beaker, bubbling with a bright green liquid, and handed it to me. “Right now, if you wish.”
I held the cup of strange neon liquid in my hand, contemplating the choice. “How do I know it’s not poison?”
“It most certainly is poison.” He reached out and took the beaker from me. “But it is customary to partake in the Baptism with a priest, one that you trust. Since I will be administering the ritual, I must drink from it too. If it gives you solace, I will drink first.”
I gaped at him. “And how many baptisms have you performed?”
He shook his head. “Far too many to count. I have built up quite a tolerance to this nasty substance. It barely affects me now.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling my face blanch. “Go for it, then.”
Without another word, he raised the beaker to his lips and took two large gulps. Then, he passed it to me. “Take care to drink no more than me. Too much will prove fatal.”
I held the beaker, now shaking in my hands, up to my lips, and drank. The liquid was warm in temperature and burned at my esophagus like whiskey, with an after note of something sickly sweet. I coughed and handed it back to him.
“Good,” he said. “We can proceed with the trial of the mind. The first exercise is one of trust, as you strengthen your bond into the community of the faith. Now, we will each share our truths.”
“Our truths?” I asked. Already, I was beginning to feel light-headed.
“Yes, our truths.” His voice was deepening, harmonizing and undulating like it did back in the confessional box.
“The process of sharing memories is an ancient ritual. First I will share with you a memory of great personal significance, then you will do the same. By sharing our vulnerabilities, we can grow closer in understanding one another. This is customary of a Baptism, it ties the faith together, solidifies us as one body, one mind.” He reached out and took both my hands in his. “I will go first. You are about to experience the memory,” he paused to make sure I was looking into his eyes, “of the time that I died.”
I looked at him, not understanding. “Died?”
“It happened when I was a boy, seven years of age…” he started, and as he spoke I could feel the room start to spin. The office dissolved away from us, until it was nothing except us and darkness. Then even he disappeared into nothing, and now there was no longer anything to be spinning, but it still felt like the universe was moving around us. It dawned on me how small and insignificant we all are in comparison to its vastness. The darkness subsided and colors re-appeared, but not gray stone of the office. New, brighter colors, swirling green replacing the walls, and dark blue instead of floor. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might be sick.
The ground was unsteady beneath me. I looked down, and saw wood. I appeared to be on some type of boat, small with no sail, only slightly larger than a canoe. It was old fashioned and constructed entirely of wood. There was another man next to me, bending over a box near the bow. Somehow, I knew that this man was my father.
Small waves lapped at the sides of the boat, rocking us gently. We appeared to be out on a lake, about fifty yards from the nearest shore. Trees and green foliage crept all the way up to the bank along the shoreline, creeping over the edge and starting to reach towards the water.
“Russell!” The call rang out from across the lake. A call of my name.
I looked out towards the shore. There was a dock off in the distance, with a figure standing on it. It looked like a woman. My subconscious told me that this was my mother. I raised a hand to wave back at her.
She smiled, then turned and walked back down the dock, disappearing back into the brush surrounding the lake. As I lowered my arm, a hand press down on my shoulder, rough and calloused.
“We won’t be fishing today, Russell.” I turned around to face the man twice my size, staring down at me. “Today is different. Today, you are going to learn how to swim.”
At once, a pang of fear. “I’m scared papa.”
My father scowled at me. “Your mother tells me that you are falling behind with the other children. That all the others your age can swim, except for you. And that your brother is already top of his class, while you won’t even go into the water past the shallows.”
“But he could always swim without trying. I just can’t do it.”
His voice turned harsh. “If he can learn, then so can you. You just need a little push.”
“Please papa, not today.”
He ignored me. “Russell, do you know how my father taught me to swim?”
I shook my head.
“He took me out to the ocean, told me we were going out to fish. Then once we could no longer see the shore, he grabbed me, and said, ‘It’s sink or swim in this family, son. We choose death over mediocrity.’ Next thing I knew, he had thrown me into the water, and was paddling the boat away. It was scary as hell, thought I was going to die. But fear wasn’t going to save my life, so I grit my teeth and started to kick with my legs as hard as I could. I swam myself all the way back to the shore that day, where my father was waiting for me. There, he embraced me not as a boy, but a man.”
His hands clamped around me, and he looked me in the eyes. I felt my insides turn to ice. “It’s sink or swim in this family, son. We choose death over mediocrity.”
The strong arms of my father lifted me up into the air as if I weighed nothing, and then I was flying over the side of the boat. The water rose up to meet me, cold and biting. I flailed around wildly, but my limbs felt tiny and useless. As I struggled to keep my head above water, I saw the boat tear away with a roar, spraying me with surf.
Watching the boat depart, leaving a white trail behind it, triggered something jarring. Momentarily my subconscious separated, and I knew I was not Russell, but Jillian. There is something unnatural about the boat, I realized.
Then I was Russell again, choking and splashing in the middle of the lake. My limbs began to tire, and my breathing slowed. I began to sink, unable to keep my head above water any longer. My lungs filled with water as the world grew dark.
I coughed up water and took a ragged gasp of breath.
“He’s breathing again!” I opened my eyes, to see the worried faces of my mother and father staring down at me. My mother collapsed on me. “He’s alive, oh thank god, he’s alive!”
My father studied me, unsmiling, and placed a hand on my mother’s back. “I thought he could handle it. It’s how my father taught me-”
“Get away from him!” my mother shrieked. “Leave. Now.”
My father stood up, so he was towering over me, and took a step back. “Sorry kid,” he said. “Thought you had more fight in you. Turns out you really are mediocre.”
I coughed again, struggling to lift my back from the damp grass. My voice was barely a whisper, but I knew he heard me.
“I hate you.”
My eyes opened, we were back in Caollin’s office again. He was looking at me, still clasping my hands. I could still taste the lake water in my throat.
“My brush with death taught me something important that day,” he rumbled. “That there is no afterlife. There is only emptiness, and what we do in this life is all that we will ever have. To this day, I still fear deep water. In its depths, I see the endless void, beckoning for me to return. I have cheated it, and it knows.”
The memory, still fresh in my mind, caused me to shiver.
“I have shared my truth with you Jillian. Now, you must return the favor.”
The room was swimming in my vision. I nodded meekly. “Okay.”
“Good,” he cooed. “We shall start from the beginning.”