Jacob did not know where he was, only that the hollow voice of Ahzd was speaking, and might have been for some time. He seemed to remember hearing his own voice break in occasionally, but it seemed a dream, everything did. He simply listened, still so physically wasted by his Ordainment that he had few other options.
“Like the Rite of Manhood each boy was made to struggle through in a simpler time, so must each human who is to become a servitor of our cruel master Mhr'Azakel, Whose Glory Fills the Night, must be reborn... Boys reborn as men, men as Chosen. It is not until the human animal is awakened to the truths of the world, invested with power by the Templar’s touch, and every aspect of their new lives is graced by the hand of Mhr'Azakel, Lord of Graves, that they are truly as Men.
“These people, the once-humans (Once?) who serve our god, have been given a suitable title to reflect their duty, and their position as lessers to our race. We call them “Preasts,” a word that marries the Catholic title of low rank with the term for a base animal, a lesser: a beast. It reflects the respect that they have garnered for themselves over the centuries in the eyes of my people.”
Jacob looked about, moving only his eyes. He recalled little of what had transpired in the belly of the Templar, but had found that he was now filled with purpose, a voracious hunger, and an inner strength unknown to him before. A rancid paste coated the inside of his mouth. Ahzd turned towards the small cooking stove, hickory smoke perfuming the air, and then back with a stoneware mug in hand. Gently the Monk raised Jacob’s head and put the aromatic brew to the man’s lips. So thirsty. Jacob drank eagerly; his parched throat burned as the heated beverage found his stomach gnawing hungrily at itself.
“Slowly, Jacob. You are quite weak; it will take some time to ready you for service to our god.”
Speaking, the Preast found, was more of a challenge than he had anticipated. He squeaked meaningfully. Jacob swallowed several times, attempting with little success to wet his throat enough to speak. He nodded minimally towards the proffered mug, with which Ahzd assisted him once more.
During this first period, most patrons are quite cruel to their charges, as it instills fear and obedience. Ahzd had always found, however, that service comes best through devotion and debt. Ahzd had almost never kept a Preast who did not Step into the Fold. All but one. He winced, recalling that failing and the Inquisitors ministrations afterwards, while gazing at this creature, his newest retainer.
Jacob licked his cracked lips and tried again, with some success. He croaked and vomited.
Ahzd was quick to roll him. There was tea there, yes, but there was also the Templar's seed, and worms.
“Remember,” it had commanded.
“I remember,” Jacob tried to whisper. A single tear escaped his bloodshot eyes to trace the angry red of a fresh scar down his face. Jacob’s eyelids moved relentlessly towards one another, regardless of his most fervent willing and heartfelt wishing.
In the darkened theater of Jacob’s tattered soul, Memory played out its movie.
Afloat in the stomach, or womb, or intestines of that giant, awful Thing, Jacob could not scream. He could not breathe! He thrashed and was held fast. He parted his lips, but was silenced; mouth and throat filled.
And, he was not alone.
Something else reached out, blurry in the vile fluids of the damnable beast that had devoured him.
“Jacob,” it called.
“Jacob, open your eyes.”
“See me.” Command or request, Jacob dared not ask while he suddenly found his eyes seeing clearly in the repellent fluids, and he looked into the heart of a god. Oh, how he screamed, vomiting out the invading tendril. Two of the other clergy fainted at that sound: the sound of a heart breaking, of a soul burning, of the Ordainment of Father Jacob Kelly into the dark flock of the death god Mhr'Azakel.
“Jacob, wake up!”
A slap, one that really hurt, and Jacob opened his tearing eyes and closed his screaming mouth. His face was pale, almost as white as the Necronite before him. A single knock sounded and a hooded Monk came into the chamber, which Jacob finally noticed was larger than the first one into which he had woken a lifetime ago. On some level, Father Kelly was aware with no small amount of relief that this room was not permeated by the smell (meat) that had been so cloying in the... temple, and that a window, though both solitary and of small size, provided a glimpse out towards the familiar twinkling lights of the skyline he’d known for more than a decade as home.
Ahzd looked to the second figure and bowed gracefully, moving a large pot from the stove top. The aromatic scents from the stew drifted through the small room and Jacob’s stomach roared with hunger.
“Kaer,” greeted Ahzd the other. He pronounced it Care. “He is still having visions of the god.”
“He must be kept quiet, he is weak.” It spoke much like Ahzd, but with a lighter, perhaps feminine, tone.
“I know, Kaer, I know…” he nodded, a look of thoughtfulness about him.
The other robed figure moved to the bedside and sat slowly upon it, pulling down the hood with finely boned hands. She smiled quietly at Jacob. He managed a weak smile in return, an unnoticed smear of saliva on his chin. “I am Kaer-Kelsh, Monk.”
“I… I am Father Kelly,” he whispered hoarsely. She frowned at him, damn near scowled at him!
Jacob must have looked as confused as he felt, for Ahzd stepped closer and placed a hand upon Kaer’s shoulder. “He has only just awakened, moments ago.”
She shook her head and sighed, a forlorn sound like a lonely wind in an abandoned house. She did not pull away from the other Monk, as Jacob half-expected her to. Indeed, she seemed to relish his touch, the corners of her mouth curling. She looked up to Ahzd, her eyes with an edge to them that bordered on both concern and sheer paranoia.
As Jacob looked at her eyes—pulling himself carefully to a sitting position beside her—he remembered his mother’s, so very clearly. They had spoken of soul-deep compassion tempered hard by the trials of life. Kaer had eyes just like that. Strong woman, he thought.
As her hair fell, long and black, away from her neck, Jacob could see a small mark there, like a brand, in the shape of that “cross” all the Monks seemed to wear.
She seemed to have felt his gaze, practically flinching and turning her body away from them both. “He must learn, quickly. The Council is watching us all the time.” Her voice quavered, shot through with a cool loathing, the tone one might reserve for an oppressor. She raised her slender arms and hugged herself then, as if suddenly chilled. “They are always watching, all of us, all of the time…”
He stepped to her and she let him slip his arms around her and hold her about the torso. “It is just you and I, my love. We are joined until Oblivion.”
Kaer turned in his embrace and Ahzd’s lips found hers. Time stopped for them, making the whole world a lifeless stage upon which they were the stars… just shining.
Jacob looked away then, embarrassed to be watching such intimacy. He felt like some strange voyeur, having never known the like of the bond between them.
“We are a nation, a church, of two, Kaer.” Shadows could have whispered louder.
Jacob heard her quietly respond, voice strained and a bit huskier than it had been when she had spoken of him. “You must not say such things,” she murmured. “You must not even think them…” She broke off, either unwilling, or unable to say more.
“I do not believe that the Council is as all-knowing as many take it to be. They are no more than we, no less…”
Kaer’s eyes flashed with fear as her gaze locked with Ahzd’s own. “Have you ever seen a Grand Inquisitor, Ahzd? Have you?!”
“Once… from a distance. They are fearsome, yes, but they are not gods…”
“Close enough! I have seen an Inquisitor flay a man with a look! You do not understand the power they wield…”
“Any more than you do, Kaer. Who can understand those fleshless fiends but themselves, eh? But you jump at shadows, woman. I cannot understand why you feel the need to fear the storm on the horizon while there are wolves at the door.”
“Wolves I can fight! The Council of Bones has reason to...”
The middle-aged man’s pulse began to quicken, inexplicably. It was as if a presence drew near, not unlike what he felt near the thing that they called a Templar, that strange sense of something ancient and powerful. But this was… different. The Templar had inspired some sort of righteous awe. This was more like a creeping, all-encompassing dread.
Jacob watched Ahzd closely as the other cocked his head to listen intently. Reverberations of footfalls preceded them up the corridor. Some sort of procession seemed to be taking place. There sounded to be at least a dozen pairs of shod feet pounding up the hall. When it seemed that the party was passing them by, Ahzd’s tense frame began to relax and Kaer stopped backing away from the door. Jacob’s sense of unease, however, had not dissipated in the slightest. When the heavy knocks sounded, the man nearly jumped out of his skin.
Kaer whirled around to tend the preparing of a meal. Ahzd none-too-gently laid Jacob back down and placed a finger to his thin, moist lips, pale as all the rest of him. The Monk then quickly spun and uttered a surprisingly relaxed “Enter freely. Our doors know no locks.”
Ahzd’s jaw muscles flexed beneath his skin and Jacob blanched with revulsion and fear as a pair of wahrghulls flanked the door with their finger-blades chiming. The beasts were roughly two or three men. Assembled from promising 'drones, the creatures bristled with weaponry and were sporadically armored. Their arms were twisting knots of glistening muscle, jointed in all the wrong places. Below dead eyes, their mouths were meat grinders: a pair of steel rollers bristling with teeth and attached to a chain drive. The Inquisitors’ guard had been fitted with what were known as pacifying spikes: long steel probes thrust deep into the monsters’ brains keeping the engineered aggression of the wahrghulls in check. Removing the spikes was rather like slapping a rabid animal in that only the crazy brave would take such a chance with his life.
The first of them was young, an apprentice, perhaps. It still retained a great deal of its flesh. The second was a full Inquisitor. It towered over its charge, all leather and steel. Jacob’s mind recoiled at the sight. The Inquisitor strode across the small chamber in what seemed to be a single, disjointed, step. Kaer spun to face it with breath caught in her throat and a cooking knife gripped firmly in her hand. Through a hideous, blackened respirator, the Inquisitor growled. Kaer dropped the blade to the chopping block, a quiet sound escaping her lips. For a moment, the knife rocked, as if unsure whether or not its work was done.
Ahzd began to protest, face creasing into an angry scowl at the mistreatment of his life-mate until heavy footfalls advanced into the chamber. It was very much like a dream, to see the Monk turn that slowly. Jacob’s own gaze followed his patron’s to the source of his fading frown. Jacob reeled; his head dropped suddenly back to his pillow with eyes rolling about like a pair of shiny marbles in his head. By the time his senses came back to him, the conversation had already begun. “…is gaining strength even as we speak,” spoke the hollow tones of Ahzd-Kelsh. “’Tis far too soon to judge.”
“It would be considered a favor, should one allow us to know when to judge.” Any ‘favor’ asked by the Inquisitors was known to be law. They were also terribly difficult creatures to understand, much of the time, as most had a respirator of some sort breathing for them after their lungs had wasted away. This one’s voice, however, seemed to issue from the air around him, disembodied and thoroughly hideous. The price of power is great, indeed.
“Anything you might ask of me,” the Monk replied, an edge making a weapon of Ahzd’s voice.
“We,” it began, gazing out from where it floated inside some metal parody of man—it was a corpse in a walking coffin, “are quite grateful. When will this one be ready for examination?”
The youngest, the apprentice, nearly spoke up, but the hulking containment suit raised a hand in a silencing gesture into the air before it, exhaling a green cloud that began gathering on the ceiling. “It was an unsatisfactory specimen. The training has already begun for the rest. Do not fail again, Ahzd-Kelsh.”
“Indeed, I will not, my lord.”
“The one that is Kaer-Kelsh shall begin its training. The one that is Ahzd-Kelsh shall come with us. It is our most sincere wish that things should resolve this way. The Council would be most pleased.” Its respirator belched and hissed; green blasted from the ports. Upon the breastplate of the armor in which it existed was a runic symbol. Ahzd studied it for a moment.
He spoke almost hesitantly, almost shakily. The former bold brassiness had fled from his voice, “We would be pleased to do this thing for you, Inquisitor Bishop Strawn-Hyge.”
At the name, Kaer’s head snapped up from where it had sunk in resignation or relief, a spike of fear stabbing through her heart and making her eyes wide and bright. Jacob was ignorant of any significance of these titles or names, but he was not so dense so as not to realize the fiend breathing green was something terrible.
“Ahzd, you must not go,” Kaer demanded, the wet sound of tears in her voice.
Ahzd winced, and quickly spat, “Silence, woman!”
“We find this… interesting.” The metal suit took a step forward. A dark faceplate gazed at her. Kaer found her own face staring back, until the other side of the glass was suddenly filled with the green-lit, fleshless face of the living-corpse inside. She wanted to scream, Jacob was sure. He knew, at least, he wanted to. He also knew that if those metal corpse things spoke of themselves as we one more time he would scream.
Kaer reeled, hands moving to her utterly silent mouth, her throat. “Please do not oppose us, sister. We would be grateful for your cooperation in this matter.” Kaer dropped to her knees, eyes widening and fingers clawing at her neck, as if she were fighting desperately and in vain for air.
“Miss…?” Jacob sat up, slowly. “Miss, are you… do you need help?”
“Interdict,” the eldest spoke with its disembodied voice. The apprentice stepped aside and allowed its tutor’s obscenely jointed body past. Thorns or talons ripped into the meat of Jacob’s upper arm. What was once human in him screamed and fainted dead away when the mild poison kissed his heart. It turned on Ahzd, opening wide its engulfing maw and clawing hands. The last sound Jacob heard as the creature spun away in a blur after attacking in the blink of an eye was the bone-chipping sound of its laughter.
Ahzd would someday tell Jacob of how the Inquisitor overpowered him with alien claw and insect limb. He would paint pictures of words and mimic sounds depicting hideous sciences and mutilations, the flapping black leather of its gown, and how it had once been the creature’s skin an age ago. Ahzd-Kelsh eventually even told his Preast of what he could remember of the inquest that followed.
Ahzd was spirited away, arms twisted maliciously behind him. Kaer was released as the Grand Inquisitor turned away. Oddly enough, there were no witnesses save the gasping woman and the awakening Preast. She had collapsed to the floor and could do nothing, save lay there and gasp for what little breath Necronites required. Jacob rolled from the bed to her side and did his level best to cradle and comfort her, but she recovered rather quickly, as her sort do, and shoved the Preast away. Jacob did not fail to be impressed by such brute strength hidden in her small frame.
As he was taken, Ahzd saw only the hallway, heard only the mechanical, satanical Inquisitors. He closed his eyes and opened up his soul. He prayed to His Malefic Majesty, the Corpse-God Mhr'Azakel, Whose Glory is Eternal.