The guard's brow furrowed as he mentioned an intruder, he quickly looked both ways down the hall then looked down at the door. Lifting up one boot he saw he was standing in some kind of filth, it was dark blue with the consistency of syrup. It oozed down the door from every point the thing had touched. "God above.." He cursed, his eyes widening a bit. The filth trailed off down the hall into the darkness. The Jailkeeper turned and whistled down the hall, the sound of plated feet could be heard as several of the Sworn came to his call. The shine off their golden armor illuminated Serena's cell in warm light as they listened to the keeper. "Look at this, what is this?" The knights gazed down at the grime and then exchanged a look before rushing down the hall to follow the trail.
The jailkeeper turned and gave Serena a distrustful look, the rumors had already been spread that she was some kind of cult sympathizer. He muttered and left her view.
In the morning a servant brought her breakfast, toast and broth, and a set of new clothes befitting her station. No common rabble could be brought before the Tribunal, it was only for the nobility and the vested. Before long the High Confessor came back to her cell, "Have you made ready? It is time."
She let out a slow sigh of relief, since the jail keeper appeared to believe her. He could see that she wasn’t crazy. She could see the same blue filth dripping slowly down the cell door now that the keeper’s torch allowed light to penetrate the cell, casting strange flickering shadows across the stone walls.
Now the Sworn had taken part in this investigation. If one could find an answer, it was the Sworn. Her smile faded at the look the jailer gave her. It was one of distrust and possible suspicion. Serena let out a sigh and ran her fingers through her tangled hair. She reminded herself that the keeper could think whatever he wanted and his personal thoughts did not matter in the long run. As he left, she spread herself against the pallet, trying to lay as comfortably as she could. The ordeal had left her mentally exhausted and she found sleep quickly enough.
There was a tapping at the door when the servant, escorted by guards, announced his presence. Serena sat up and rubbed her eyes as the cell door creaked on its hinges as the servant was let inside. The cell door was promptly shut, causing the servant to jolt. Serena chuckled a little to herself. She was no threat to the guards, nor had she any wild ideas of escape from the cell. She thanked him for the broth and toast as the clothes were laid out on the pallet she had abandoned. She was most grateful of all for the shoes. She sat as demurely as possible as she ate the food brought to her, giving the servant not another thought as he left. After she had sipped every last drop of broth and munched on the toast, she moved to put on the clothes, casting a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking in.
The clothes fit very well, the color a somber gray with gold piping down the bodice and the skirt just barely skimmed the floor. She would raise the hem of the skirt just slightly as she walked so that the beautiful dress would not drag in the dirt. She did the best to comb out her long blond hair with her fingers, wishing to look presentable enough when the High Confessor came for her and to stand before the Tribunal. Despite the warmth in her belly from having eaten, her stomach fluttered nervously.
At the High Confessor’s question, she nodded slowly and made no move towards the door until she was escorted out into the prison corridor. She felt that she should thank him for the clothing, having the thought that it was of his doing. She expressed her thanks with a small smile.
The High Confessor's demeanor was harried, looking nervous and overworked, he in fact hadn't slept since she last saw him. He had been all over the city since he had left her. Researching further on the mark, when there had been word of an intruder in Abaddon he had led the chase, heading an inquisition through the town though they had found nothing.
Albrecht quickly eyed her over and nodded, "Everyone is gathered, they're waiting for us." He stood by the door with an outstretched arm, allowing her to proceed him. As they headed up the elevator he looked down at her again, "The king himself will be overseeing the trial today, I assume you know your charge." He sighed and placed a hand on his forehead, "To be true child, I'm not sure why you are under suspicion." He turned and regarded her fully, "I will be excommunicated if I testify against the tribunal, but if God forbid you are sentenced to death, I will ensure it does not happen. It may mean exile, but I know you did not wish this fate." He turned back around rubbing his face, "This trial is.." He was hesitant to speak anything close to blasphemous, merely shaking his head in frustration.
As they made their way into the main hallways of the Sacred Hold and towards the hall of the Tribunal, they attracted many eyes. Albrecht saw many of the sisters from the convent, and glanced at Serena, feeling sad for the shame she would feel. Finally they reached the great doors and two of the Sworn opened them.
Beyond was an enormous tall room, a walkway lead to a platform in the middle with a small hand-rail. Beyond the platform was a chasm leading down into blackness, the walls filled with stained glass windows and golden sculptures and lining. Around the edges of the room were lines of tiered chairs filled with various priests, nobles, and officials. At the front of the room, beyond the chasm opposite the platform, were five wide brass tubes each fashioned into a face with the mouth agape - the Tribunal members sat within. Above it all was a glass room, where the divine family may choose to observe. Shadows moved behind the painted glass.
The High Confessor put his hand on Serena's shoulder, "You must go alone." He pointed to the hand rail at the center of the platform, the center of everything. He took his place at the base of the walkway, looking out as she took the stand.
Serena saw the tired shadows on his face and lowered her eyes. She couldn’t ask for a better champion for her cause than he. Her eyes raised again to his face as he spoke, walking past him at his indication she should proceed ahead of him. She could feel his presence behind her as they walked down the stone corridors of the prison. She turned her head as he spoke to her. “I know little of the king, High Confessor, and I do not feel I should know him if it is he that has called me before the Tribunal.” High color had rose to her cheeks, but her voice remained soft as a lady’s should be.
She slowed and turned to face the High Confessor and gave him a graceful curtsey. Now that she looked herself again she minded her manors. He had only been kind to her. High color had risen to her cheeks. “I am humbled by the fact that you are convinced of my innocence, sir. Whatever judgment I face, I am glad that you have shown kindness for my plight. God surely smiled down upon you this day.” She could only hope that god, of whom she had served all her life, would show her favor. That being said, she turned and continued to walk.
As they passed through the Sacred Hold, Serena looked down at her feet, red with embarrassment, unwilling to look at the emotions on their faces. She again felt a deep pang of betrayal. They had been like family and now they looked upon her with distain. It was not until the doors to the Tribunal that she lifted her face, straightening up, trying to look bold. She may think the room beautiful, but her surroundings were the last thing on her mind. Everyone’s eyes stared at her. She felt them bore into her.
As she felt the High Confessor’s hand on her shoulder she lifted her eyes to him again, giving him a small smile. She turned and let out a long breath and then proceeded to the platform and laid her hands against the railing. Her hands closed around the bar and she raised her eyes to the king.
The king was merely a shadow in the glass room above the judges, unmoving as he observed the procession. The audience in the gallery around started to quiet themselves as they eyed Serena with judging stares. The great doors to the Tribunal were swung back shut and the knights stood sentry in front of them. Silence fell over the room, the High Confessor removed his helmet, cradling it in his arm as he observed Serena.
"Sister Serena." A booming voice announced, it was a metal, echoing voice coming from one of the brass tubes housing the judges. "You have been brought before the Holy Tribunal of Sacrosanct on suspicion of heresy. One night past the High Confessor of the Church of the One discovered you bear an egregious mark of blasphemy. Bear this mark for all to see." They didn't wait for her to comply, one of the Knights of the Sworn stepped forward and pulled down one sleeve of her shirt, exposing the mark. It looked even worse now, the sore, red flesh from the night before had now turned black, still bearing strange glints of green. There was a commotion as everyone in the room reacted to the sight, some clearly overdoing it. "How do you plead?" Bellowed another voice.
Albrecht remained straight-faced behind her, not willing to let his face betray any of his true emotions to any of the other officials.
Every stare bore into her soul and she shivered in response. A taste of great fear settled on her tongue. She had no friends here, save one – the High Confessor himself – at least she hoped that he had meant what he had said in the cell not long ago. She stood as straight as she could, trying not to show her fear. As her hands clutched on the metal railing, as if to save her from drowning, the knuckles paled as had her face.
The effect of the encased Tribunal, voices coming from the great brass tubes, put Serena at unease. It was meant to be impressive and imposing and it was not lost on her. She rigidly paid the utmost attention to the voice. A coil of dread settled in her stomach when the exposition of the mark was called, and she feared that her lovely dress would be torn as before, but to her gratefulness it was not. She tugged up her sleeve at first opportunity, habitually demure as she was.
She swallowed hard and cleared her throat which was constricted. What does she say to these accusations? She had no hand in her fate despite what words she may say. Nevertheless she straightened and raised her chin proudly, though she felt far from bold.
“I am guilty of no sin, Tribunal. This mark upon my back was not done by my hand but by men who came into my room like thieves in the night who held me down. I cannot think that god is punishing me for I have served him all of my life. If I could speak, I would see that this is only a test of faith. Of mine, and of yours.”
The audience remained quiet, seeming somewhat impressed by her words. "Bring forth the first witness." The voices blared. A gate next to the Judges opened and a railed platform extended out from it, on it, was the guard who had talked to Serena the night of her encounter in Abaddon. He looked ragged, he had bruises on his face, but his clothes covered the rest of his body. The Tribunal spoke again, "Behold one of his holiness's sworn servants, a keeper of our king's peace, let his voice be heard." The jailor looked up solemnly, his eyes moving to Serena, when they locked eyes he diverted them quickly, looking to the crowd. "My lords.. last night I was on patrol in Abaddon, when I heard the sound of speaking. When I turned the corner I saw.. something, an abomination, outside the cell of the accused. When I came near it fled, it looked to me as if.." He paused, glancing upward at the glass room. "She was trying to escape, using this demon."
There was a small outburst of chatter and murmuring. Albrecht raised an eyebrow, he had been called to give chase to this supposed monster, but his companions neglected to mention that it had began in the prison. His eyes moved to Serena.
The judges spoke once more, "The Tribunal offers more." The court herald brought forth Serena's personal chest from her old dormitory in the convent, along with her former head mistress. "Sister Dahlia, do you swear before God that you found this chest among the accused's possessions?" The sister simply nodded, avoiding eye contact with Serena. The herald knelt and opened the chest, pulling out a letter and presenting it. It was a letter that, to all but the most expert of eyes, was in Serena's own hand. It detailed her life in the convent, exposing secret and sacred information about the practices of the church and supposed protective blessings that had been placed around the city, and addressed to one of the nearby city-states, one known widely as a hive of occult activity.
The gallery broke out once again, several priests rising and cursing her. The officials said no more, waiting for her to try and refute it. Albrecht shook his head, raising his eyes to the glass room. That smile, what had it meant? Did his liege really mean to burn this child? And for what reason?
She felt an inkling of hope but dared not let it spread throughout her. As they called forth witnesses, Serena’s eyes wandered over to the jailer whom she recognized. But he looked to be in such a poor state! Had he come into contact with the vile entity somehow and become hurt in a scuffle? But no, it was the Sworn that had pursued. There was something not right here. She looked at the jailer expectantly, hoping that he would speak truth about the events last night.
When he did speak with false accusations it felt that the air had been punched out of her gut. She could not find her breath and the shock was clear on her face. He lied! She could only let out a whisper, lost in the burst of voices in the crowd. “Not true… not true…” She looked around with wide eyes and turned them upon the High Confessor, her green eyes bright against her pale face. Did he believe this accusation?
Before she could give it another thought, a second witness was called. She recognized Sister Dahlia. Surely the head mistress would not speak against her, for she had been witness to Serena’s life of purity and piety. Serena’s eyes followed the opening of the chest.
She was not at first suspicious at the parchment that the herald held in hand. She put words down on paper before, mostly writing psalms of her own making to give glory to god, or snatches of inspirational poetry. But a letter?
Serena’s heartbeat quickened as the herald read the letter. She shook her head fervently. She had done no such things! These all were false accusations! But no one believed her. Large tears began to roll down her cheeks because she knew that she was condemned. It was all she could do not to faint though her legs were weak and shaky.
She could hear the anger bursting from the crowd, the curses and accusations, words such as blasphemer, betrayer and sinner and the like thrown around and hitting her as if physical things.
At the silence of the tribunal, she knew she was expected to say something. But what could she say to change their minds? She gave one last attempt.
“I am innocent of these accusations, tribunal. God knows that I am innocent and my soul remains untainted. I do not know what your judgment will be…” she faltered, swallowing hard, "but nothing can change the fact that I am one of gods’ children. If I should stand by his side in heaven before my time then let it be so, but you will have done a very wicked thing.”
The High Confessor snorted and stepped forward, brushing roughly past the court herald. He approached the platform where Serena stood, "My lords!" He yelled. He raised his hand to speak, but something happened. All at once there was the shattering of glass, flashes of green light sparking around the room. Suddenly the room was filled with robed figures, weapons drawn, slaying anyone in the way. Albrecht whirled around, his helmet clattering to the floor. Three hooded men were doing battle with the two Knights of the Sworn guarding the doors. One of the knights slew an intruder before another stuck his sword through the knight's visor, blood pouring from the wound, staining the gilded armor and floor. The other knight was on the ground gasping as one of the raiders stood over him, shadowy smoke pouring from the eyes of the mask he wore, filling into the knight's mouth.
The third trespasser advanced on them, a sinister mask covering his face shrouded by his long hood - underneath the robe he wore armor. He drew a long, curved blade, and moved towards Serena. Albrecht jumped in the way, drawing his own jewelled sword. "Back, villain!" He shouted. The other did not reply, and there was the loud commotion of clashing steel as they did battle. The High Confessor was no slouch in combat, but the stranger had the upper hand. Albrecht lost his balance, and the man brought his sword down hard in a two-handed blow that knocked the High Confessor to his knees. The intruder grabbed him by the throat, and plunged his sword through an opening between his breastplate and gorget. Albrecht growled weakly, his blade dropping with a clatter as he fell to his side, lifeless.
The stranger pulled his sword from the body and with a sudden turn, came towards Serena to grab her. The room was complete chaos, the trespassers barring the door as more knights came running, pounding as they tried to breach it. Just as the man reached her he stopped, his hand still outstretched, "My lady, we are your salvation." His voice a harsh whisper behind the mask.
Serena turned her head when the High Confessor walked onto the platform and moved to the side to make room for him. Her breath was rapid, her hand fluttering to her chest, clutching the fabric of her bodice in her hand. She looked out to the floor as the High Confessor began to speak, hoping beyond hope that he may say a kind word and that he had weight against the Tribunal. Her eyes reflected what had become a shy devotion to him.
She let out a shriek as the glass surrounding the Sacrosanct hall shattered, putting her hands over her neck as she ducked in hopes that she would not be cut from the shards so great was the blast. Her nightmare had taken an impossible turn for the worst. Robed figures were killing everyone in their path, including the Sworn who were once her protectors. She breathed in and out deeply, letting out a low keening sound. She had never witnessed such slaughter.
Now a robed figure made way for the platform, appearing to only wish that she be slain as well. She ducked again in fear of a blow but the High Confessor blocked the trespasser in time. Although he fought well, the battle between them was soon over. The High Confessor had been slain right before her! Serena moved away from the growing pool of blood and let out a moan. How could this have happened?!
As the hooded man reached out for her hand she drew it back as if he were a snake about to sink its venomous fangs in her hand. She looked at him suspiciously and not without a touch of malice for killing the High Confessor. But she was incapable of malignant feelings to consume her, so pure had been her life of servitude to god.
Her eyes fell to the fallen... her last friend in this world. But this man said that he was her salvation. How could she trust anyone in this world after so much deception? Chaos was all around her and she knew if she stayed the Tribunal would put her to the death. She had nothing to lose if she were to go to this man. She put her trembling hand in his and allowed him to take her with him.
The man took her hand and pulled her tight to his chest. Several others gathered near him and and put themselves in a pattern around them. They were muttering words and gesturing with their hands, then suddenly the room around them disappeared. They appeared to be drifting through a void of blackness, the invisible floor they stood on seemingly panned and whirled about, glimpses of color, of stars, and landscape rushed by. All at once it was gone, now they appeared to be standing in a cave. The group sheathed their weapons, looking to the man who had taken Serena. "You've done it Andal." One of them said, stepping towards Serena. "Even now she seems unreal."
"Together, my kin, let us not forget those we lost today." The man known as Andal said, relinquishing his grip of Serena, stepping around in front of her to address her. "My lady, we have not the time now to explain our purpose but know this, we are not your enemy. We will take you to our sanctuary, there you will be safe, and all will be explained." He nodded to her as the others started out of the cave, clearing the path in front of them.
Serena’s eyes widened at the sudden and close contact. She was unsurprisingly bewildered as the other robed figures positioned themselves evenly surely as if there were lines painted on the floor. Their movement appeared rehearsed and efficient. Her eyes darted from one shadowed face to the other as they started to speak together in words she had never heard before. All at once, everything around her changed, and she could not help but clutch at he who held her against his chest for fear that somehow she would fall into oblivion and never escape. Her breath caught in her throat at the alien beauty that whisked around them all. To where they were going, she wondered, completely enchanted.
She could hear the crunch of dust and gravely bits of stone on the cave floor beneath her feet when all at once the physical realm returned. She immediately stepped away from the man who had held her securely when he relinquished his hold and wondered at their words. Unreal? Me? She ran her hands down her dress, seeming corporeal enough… What magick had spirited her away? Was all of this some kind of dream? She may have simply fainted back there before the Tribunal and this was not real. She pinched her arm and winced. No, this was surely not a dream.
Her eyes darted up to Andal as he spoke. She hoped beyond hope that what he said was true. But this could be another deception and she was being lead to that cultist sacrificial chamber that had been rumored to exist, where marked girls such as she was never to return again. That thought had struck her again ever since that morning that she had run to the arms of the mother superior, wanting reassurance and perhaps even coddling as if she was not coming of age.
“Sanctuary… safe…” She whispered the words to try them out as she made no resistance and allowed herself to be escorted. They had promised answers to all her questions, to reveal the true meaning of the events that had passed. She had to be content with these promises.
As his fellows lead on with Serena between them, Andal studied her back. It had been a long road to this point, a painful road. What had been the first step? He thought to himself.
Thirty years ago he was just a boy. His house, House Holland, was responsible for the "West Bend Incident" as the Illios called it; not wanting to do the Holland's any dignity by using the true name for their ancestral lands, Dire's End. The effort was folly, he admitted. His father had lost everything. They had lost mother, Rendell, Andal's brother, and Lori. Dear, sweet Lori. He thought again. They had lost them all, he supposed that father had simply gone insane. He had taken the last of their retainers and sacked the nearby port city of Kilros, it was a significant trade center for the Illios. That was the only reason behind the madness. They sacked it, and they held it, for three weeks. When the Illios finally took it back, they slaughtered everyone inside - or so Andal was told. He never did see his father's body.
It was the last defiant act of a house that had once belonged to the Golden Kingdoms. All the realms that lay west of the Channel had once been a part, before the Illios made landfall. It was also the last time House Holland acted so brashly. In these times, they were much more discrete. They weren't many of them left, just Andal, Eyan, his uncle, and Cartell, his bastard half-brother - who was walking ahead of them now.
It had taken years of preparation to breach Sacrosanct. Ever since The Outlander first whispered the command beneath Dire Hall. Blood, and sacrifice were given to learn the witchcraft they needed. Still the spells sometimes frightened him, they were far beyond any cheap trick the Illios priests pandered to their herds. They were real, they were grave, they were unfathomable.
He shook his head, returning his thoughts to Serena. The Outlander had spoken true, she was there at the right time, and the right place. The lost daughter of the Gold, the key to the return of the westerlands, and much more, though he wouldn't tell her that 'til the time was right.
"Have you ever been outside the city, my lady?" It had been so long since he had spoken to anyone outside their order, he imagined she was terrified, thinking conversation would perhaps soothe her.
Serena’s eyes lowered to the ground as they walked on. She shook her head from side to side. These men told her that they were not the enemy, and yet they had murdered many people. They had jeered and cursed her for what the Tribunal insisted she was – a blasphemer, evil, corrupted to the point of sin. And the High Confessor… had his death been necessary? He had appeared to wish to speak on her behalf but he was interrupted before he could say more than a few words. She looked up again to regard his murderer, wrestling with conflicted thoughts. If he had lied, if she was being led to another death, she would struggle and she would run away. She wondered if that same magic would cause them to find her again, but she would do everything in her power to keep herself hidden.
He surprised her with the question, so silent had the company been. “I have not been outside the convent until just recently, when they jailed me in Abaddon and brought me before the Tribunal.” She wasn’t particularly soothed for she did not know what to think about the man.
Serena chewed on her lower lip before deciding to speak further. Her voice was just above a whisper, just enough to carry her words to his ears. “Why did you have to kill all of those people? Surely some did not deserve death, least of all he who had tried to protect me. It was he that was convinced of my innocence, and I was happy to know him. I am deeply saddened for this loss.”
The cave was darker than night and smelled of salt, a tiny stream ran through a crevice to the right of the path. The lead man carried a dim lantern, but already the cave was brightening from an outside light ahead.
Andal cocked his head to the side, somewhat confused by her attachment to her captors, though now that he thought about it, why wouldn't she be? "We killed those who were in our way. The one who protected you raised his sword against me, he would've killed me if I had let him." His tone took a harsher timbre, "They were all false men, and so false are any who worship The One. You should not mourn them. It no longer matters what they think of you, unless you mean to return." Even if she had wanted to, he would not let her. Andal was determined to take every care not to force the girl to her destiny, but too much was at stake to let her decide on her own.
The men ahead of them kept stealing glances back at Serena, he knew how they felt. It was a short journey to the sanctuary, but still he worried for it.