The Grand Altar was a testimony to majestic beauty. Recessed in the very back of the Grand Temple to the Kingdom's Patron Sovereign the Vesalius Throne, there was little wonder in Melchior Fawkes mind that this chamber, relegated only to the highest clerics of the Order of Throne, would be so splendid. The sound of his hard-soled shoes clicked resoundingly on the immaculately polished pearlescent white granite. The massive, three meter thick columns that flanked the walls swallowed most of the sound and bounced it back, creating the most interesting echo with each step.
Yet as impressive as that was to his senses, his eyes and ears were instead focused ahead of him. As near the end of the chamber, four men huddled casually together, speaking in hushed tones that even from his distance he could discern bits and pieces of their conversation.
They were draped not in the gray satin robes, nor fixed with the bronze regalia as clergy of the Order of Throne. Instead, these men wore the deep, rich blues with beautiful platinum scepters of the Order of Sovereigns.
The Order of Sovereigns reigned above all of the seven lesser Orders of the Kingdoms. Thus, their presence was even more ominous, even if Melchior hadn't noticed that the lush gray tapestries that meant to pay homage to Throne had been removed and in their place hung the midnight blue sigil of the Sovereigns beyond the four men.
Melchior paused several meters away from the men, and bowed deeply at the waist. He remained like that, knowing his proper place as etiquette required and waited for their response.
It did not come immediately. The men continued to mutter amongst themselves, content in the belief that their discussion was far more important than that of a government magistrate from the Kingdom of Throne, even if said government official hailed from the House of Fawkes.
Thousands of years ago, before even the Seven Kingdoms had risen, the Vesalius had descended upon the earth and saved mankind from its Second Fall. To ensure that humanity would never know such folly again the Vesalius, being of divine origin that they were, had each chosen seven families to become their emissaries and champions.
Within the Kingdom of Throne, the House of Fawkes had grown and prospered greatly as being one of the select families to be the Emissary of Throne. The Fawkes were not kings themselves, but had sworn themselves to a service to their Crown, as well as the people. Having been granted the special responsibility to decide what was right based not on the wishes of man, but the acceptance of their Vesalius. While Melchior felt a deep resounding pride in the honor of being born into such a House, the burden of responsibility that it entailed also made him naturally apprehensive.
Especially at moments like this…
Finally, after nearly two minutes, one of the Prelates from the Order felt that Melchior's presence had been bothersome enough and broke from the others to approach him. "You come before us, Governor Fawkes, I trust it is with promising news?"
Melchior knew the grizzled old man, with his bald head and bushy, gray eyebrows, slacken cheeks and a prominent chin, the best from previous encounters. That acquaintance was short and concise, with Prelate Devon Malachi apparently having been chosen as the representative of the four, he was the only one who spoke with Melchior when he came with news of the preparations.
"It is a high honor to be in the presence of your eminence." Melchior said, providing the traditional salutation before slowly rising to meet the man's hard blue eyes. "And I do bring word of the preparations." He admitted continuing without further preamble. "The arrangements have been set and Megiddo Police have already cordoned off the Fourth Cathedral for the Bonding Ceremony as per your instructions. The Order may have access to it are you earliest convenience and no one, even those of the Order of Throne will disturb the preparations until you deem otherwise."
The Prelate nodded solemnly. "Very well, Governor Fawkes." He said in his usual grave voice. "Your hospitality and ability are a credit to your House and the Vesalius Throne. Take honor in that." He said his voice curt and commanding. There was no familiarity though in those words and Melchior suspected the Prelate would repeat those exact words were any other man.
Still, he lingered for a moment, longer than he had during their previous, brief interludes. Something that Malachi recognized immediately and his brow furrowed. "Is there anything else, Governor Fawkes?" He asked his tone neutral.
"Is there anything else that my family or I may do in the service of the Order?" he said just as neutrally.
There was a questioning expression that lingered in Malachi's gaze as he probed into Melchior's deep violet eyes, attempting to discern what might have brought forth such a request. After a moment, Malachi shook his head fractionally. "At this time, your services have been exemplary and we have no further need." He said, his tone hardening ever more slightly, "You may leave."
Realizing that the Sovereigns would keep its secrets, Melchior placed his hand across his chest and bowed deeply. "At your command, your eminence," he said severely, as he stood and turned briskly on his heel.
The sound of his soles rotating on the granite made a soft, yet distinct shuffling sound as he turned and paced out of the Grand Alter. He felt the eyes of the Prelates on his back until the massive oak doors growled shut behind him and he was in the vestibule to the Great Temple's Basilica.
Outside, two soldiers clad in the deep blue military uniforms of the Swords of the Sovereigns flanked the Grand Altar's double doors. Their expressions were blank with their arms clasped behind their backs, but the holsters on their hips were unclasped and Melchior knew without a doubt that if at any moment they sensed a threat they would gun it down with viper-like reflexes.
He wished not to experience just how sharp those instincts were, and after giving them a courteous nod he continued forward towards the basilica where another pair of Swords waited. The one on the right curtly opened the door to admit him and before him he was immersed in the whirling maelstrom of the crowded basilica.
Before the lesser Altar knelt scores of people, slowly chanting and praying to the miniature figure of Throne, the mood was filled not with concern or sadness but joy and exuberance.
It was a sharp contrast to the knot of anxiety that wrapped tightly around Melchior's stomach as he paced along the side of the Basilica, watching as people filled the pews, their voices low and murmured, but still filled with the excitement of the recent events unfolding within their city.
They saw themselves as blessed, and it had redoubled their faith, drawing not just the citizens of Megiddo to the Great Temple, but those throughout the kingdom to come and worship and pray and celebrate the coming of the Tenth Carneia.
"Fascinating to watch the sheep droll around mindlessly, isn't it." A new voice, slightly muffled, whispered into his ear. Fawkes felt the hairs stand on the back of his neck as he realized he never even sensed the man approaching behind him. It took all of his years of self control to keep him from reacting in panic and surprise.
He closed his eyes, maintained his pace and let a simple little smile cross his handsome features as he turned slowly to gaze at his new guest. "You tend to enjoy these things more than I do, Ben." He said as he stared at the masked figure behind him.
Clad in an obsidian mask polished to a high sheen, and draped in a dark cloak that wrapped around him tightly, Benedict Fawkes appearance betrayed nothing of his true physique or body language. Likewise, with the sort of festivities and ceremonies happening throughout the city, and even within the basilica, his attire wasn't all together outlandish or conspicuous…something that suited his nephew quite well.
"Only in moderation," Benedict responded solemnly. "They're quite blissful in their ignorance." He said, his head slowly turning to survey the rows of people, "I sometimes wonder how they would react if they knew what was truly going to befall this city in the coming days."
Melchior eyed his younger nephew dangerously, "Careful what you say, Ben." He snarled in a low voice, they were in the very heart of the Order of Sovereigns' presence here in the Kingdom of Throne, and the last thing he wanted was his nephew to utter anything that would endanger him.
But Benedict continued unabated, "It's interesting to imagine. I would surmise that most of these people would be fleeing, knowing that the Orders that they worship see them as nothing more than expendable resources, meant to be cast aside without regard so long as it doesn't interfere with their precious ceremony."
Melchior stopped in his tracks and turned to face his nephew. "That's enough Ben!" He growled dangerously, "Think what you want. Say what you want. But don't say it here!" his voice was threatening and deep. "The Sovereigns will harbor no reservations about removing you from the Trial if you continue like this."
Benedict had stopped a meter from him, and his body was very still, his expression or body language indistinguishable. "These are our people." He said, his voice low and vicious. "And the Sovereigns would just as soon discard them…let them toil and die." He seethed, "How can any of that be seen as honorable or justified?"
"That is not our place to decide." Melchior admonished.
"The hell it isn't!" Benedict snarled, as he continued forward, shouldering past Melchior, out of the basilica and into the cool autumn air of the new evening. He stopped, his body looking in the direction above the cityscape that thrust out below them.
The Grand Temple had been erected upon the top of Gravitas Mountain. It was an overly impressive title for something that was really nothing more than a prominent hill. Over the centuries, the landscape had been cultivated and maintained, creating a series of steppes that had been christened the Hanging Gardens of Throne.
They were beautiful accomplishments that always mesmerized Melchior's attention when he ascended Gravitas, but that was not what fixated his gaze this time. No, instead he looked in the direction that he knew Benedict stared, until his eyes settled on the captivating crystalline sphere that hung serenely above Megiddo's skyscrapers. Spot lights glistened upon it, encasing it in a prism of sparkling radiance that reflected dazzling against the cloud covered heavens.
The Chrysalis of a Vesalius…the unborn form of a new divine being that was going to bless humanity with its presence and watch over it, guiding it and ensuring that man could never again fall as it had before. This would be the tenth Vesalius that had come to join the ranks of the original seven in the two thousand years since humanity's fall.
Knowing that these moments were sparse and precious, people cherished them with excitement and reverie. Throughout the ages, from across the Seven Kingdoms the faithful flocked to the cities where the Chrysalis appeared and Megiddo was becoming no different in this event.
The city had taken to the honor of hosting the birth of a new Vesalius into the world with alacrity, and had declared itself in a state of Carneia, of national celebration for all throughout the Seven Kingdoms to enjoy.
Even now, a week after its arrival the official festival was about to begin and continue until the Chrysalis hatched. The city which already boasted a substantial population upwards of four million, had nearly doubled itself. All of Megiddo's Temples, and lesser temples to the other Patrons, were filled to the brim as people sauntered across the world to celebrate and pray.
But the festivities didn't end there, all throughout the city, the Mayor had deemed it a celebration of the century, and in short order the entire city seemed to fall into a captivating merriment of perpetuating jubilee. Megiddo Police was overwhelmed and the Kingdom had been forced to allocate the King's Guard to the city to help to keep things from turning into absolute chaos.
Not that it stopped the madness of the mob from rearing its ugly head even with all of the public security running around. The altercations were relatively minor and usually resolved without too much incident…yet they resounded through Melchior's mind with each passing day, as he knew they were simply the harbinger of what was to truly come.
The Trial of Champions…
That was what the Sovereigns called it, and up until a week ago, Melchior hardly knew what it truly meant. As one of the Great Families, the Fawkes adhered to the Old Ways, training the eldest child of each new generation in the arts of combat, diplomacy and spell-craft preparing them for the mantle of Emissary. Originally, it had been thought of as a means to provide an Emissary the necessary tools to fulfill the role that destiny had call upon them to serve.
Now though, everything seemed like some sort of sick, twisted lie that left a cold, knotted lump deep within him as the Order of Sovereigns shared with him, along with the Patriarchs to each of the Great Families who had been chosen by the Vesalius to be their Champions, the true purpose of the Emissaries.
For Benedict, the eldest son of the Fawkes Patriarch Josiah, the sensation of cold fury that boiled through Melchior redoubled ten-fold. He could almost sense his nephew's glare at that beautiful crystal orb that hung above Megiddo; suspended over the unsuspecting, blissfully-ignorant citizens who were content to believe that the birth would be a joyous one.
"You didn't ask them." Benedict said after a moment of silence that hung between the two men.
"No, I didn't." Melchior admitted, "And I have a feeling they wouldn't have been overly forthcoming even if I had."
"Keeping one's mouth shut is not resistance," Benedict hissed, "Its consent." He admonished.
"And what about you?" Melchior stated, "You still intend to take part in this little travesty if you're so hell bent on its blasphemy?"
A rustle came over Benedict's cloak and slowly his right hand emerged, clad in a dark sleeve and topped with a thin black leather glove. His head tilted and he looked down at the appendage, slowly closing his hand into a tight fist, the sound of the leather clenching in his tight grasp.
"This is a travesty, this is abuse, and these are our people." He hissed, "If I were to walk away, Megiddo could fall like all the rest of the cities from the other Carneias." He turned to look at Melchior, "By bonding with that thing," there was acidic contempt as he uttered that word, "during the Summoning I will be given the powers of the divine and I can save Megiddo from the others…how dare you think I would simply walk away from that?" He scolded.
Melchior though, was not entirely convinced by his nephew's words. Benedict was smart, intelligent and caring to those he cherished. Yet, there was no denying the reality that he was also headstrong and ambitious as well. "And that's the only reason that spurs you forth?" He demanded his eyes narrowing as he stared into that obsidian mask.
Benedict's hand disappeared into the confines of his cloak, and his mask peered back at Melchior's without betrayal of what the young man behind it was thinking. But Melchior didn't need to see his nephew's face to know what he churned in his mind, he knew that his implications had struck closer to home than he preferred.
"I have no desire to become a god." Benedict said after the pregnant silence.
Melchior snorted, "For you to desire to become a god…perhaps not." He admitted, "But you wouldn't turn down the opportunity as it presented itself…especially if that path to godhood would give you the powers to heal the ones you love most."
That struck the cord that Melchior knew resided just below the surface of the young man's demeanor and this time there was a slight shudder that ran through the masked man's head. It was the shudder of barely restrained hatred and fury, and now Melchior knew for certain what the stakes were in Benedict's Trial.
He also knew all too terribly well that Benedict would let not only Megiddo, but the entirety of the world, burn if he could truly accomplish the wish that languished deep inside that young man's heart.
A pained expression crossed Melchior's features as he realized that perhaps Megiddo was lost, and more importantly, so probably was his nephew…could the thirst of power corrupt so quickly, he wondered sadly.
"So you didn't ask about the Angra Mainyu then." Benedict stated, the hardened edge clearly defined in his words.
"I did not." Melchior said, seeing the moment pass and Benedict's restraint returning. "Which means that they don't know that we know about their dirty little secret."
"But that doesn't do us any good about determining if they've managed to do anything about it either." Benedict sighed, "For all we know, the Sovereigns have already taken care of it."
The older man shrugged as he began walking towards the winding narrow path the led down Gravitas and towards the outskirts of Old Megiddo. "It's been two hundred and ten years since the last Carneia…the Sovereigns have had a lot of time to track down this Angra Mainyu…considering that they're still scared about his interference. I doubt they've made much headway in finding him."
"But they know that he may come here." Benedict said as he followed in step beside his uncle.
"Unless he chooses to wait for the next Carneia…which could be decades or centuries further down the road." Melchior sighed, "I don't imagine that being the case though."
"I wouldn't either," Benedict admitted, "But who are we to know the mind of a demon?" He asked as he looked back to the Chrysalis as it hung there poised.