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©2018 Mike Chapman

Volume 1.11: 'The Godstone'

The pressure of people at the tower's gates was building and soon that dam would rupture and the whole crowd woulb be swept inside by the flow. Oona was too high up the tower to hear the exact words of the rally's speaker, but the tone was all too obvious: aggressive, strident, angry. Just like the speaker, she thought. It was tempting to lean just a little further out of the window to hear what lies were being peddled this time, but it was a long way down to the ground and there was nothing more that the crowd would like than to see one of the Lamp Lighters dash their brains out on the cobbles below. That was the genius of Mayor Wulf: he'd taken the nagging fears of ordinary people, exaggerated them out of all proportion and given them a target for their terror. He was trying to bottle their lightning and he didn't care who died in the process.


That outcome was probably inevitable, she thought, once the townsfolk plucked up enough courage to tear the gates down. Theoretically, the person of a Lamp Lighter was inviolable but she didn't care to test that with an angry mob. Mayor Wulf had whipped them up into such a frenzy that anything was possible, even from such a usually placid bunch. They thought of themselves as 'Crusaders' first now and citizens only second.


She retreated inside to the cool intellect of the tower. Master Jacob was in his office, giving a few last instructions to his personal attendants, principally which secret passages would lead out of the tower quickest, how to collapse them behind them safely and who to turn to once the Order was destroyed. They bowed respectfully and shuffled backwards out of the office. Oona waited until their footsteps had diminished and entered the office herself.


“You stupid old man!” she shouted, slamming the door shut behind her.


Jacob sighed wearily and dropped his ceremonial hood from his head, revealing pale skin and eyes with almost translucent blue corneas. Everything about him had bled colour over the years.


“I'll ignore that,” he said mildly. “It's behaviour unbecoming of someone I've raised to be my successor.”


Oona gestured at the window.


“So if I behave, I'll be the Master of an institution that won't exist in twenty minutes,” she said, mouth a cold slash across her face.


Jacob shrugged.


“If the mob kills me before you, you'll have the distinction of being the last Master of the Order.”


Oona glared at him. Over the years of Jacob's tutelage, her respect for the old man had slowly transmuted into disdain for his lack of energy, his lack of vision and, above all, his lack of urgency in confronting Wulf. For his own part, Jacob knew that she hated him, but didn't care enough to do anything about it any more.


“I'll check the God Stone,” she snapped and stomped out of the room. Jacob remained seated, raised his obsidian letter opener and started carefully picking under his fingernails.


With its usual attendants gone, there was no-one to help complete the Ritual of the Evening. In her heart, Oona secretly wondered whether the God Stone actually needed all of the ceremony or whether it would shine on regardless.


It was as bright today as it ever was and that radiance filled the room like a warm bath before surging out of the chamber's glass walls and out over the land below. Oona genuflected and skipped and hopped and span across the sacred sigils painted on the floor in the prescribed sequence, all the while singing the Song of the Evening with the note-perfect accuracy of a true believer. She absolutely did not look at her lack of a shadow or how bleached the neon colours of the sigils had become over time.


Jacob drummed his fingers on his desk and thought about Oona. Clearly, the mob would kill them both once the gates fell; cooler heads would only prevail once blood had been spilt. What was the logical conclusion then? Though Jacob prided himself on many things, it was his mental faculties that he valued most. The logical conclusion was to open the gates voluntarily before the crowd reached peak hysteria and just give them the God Stone – it would fatally disrupt their momentum and, maybe, the shock would allow both of them to walk out to freedom. The only problem was that Oona was a true believer – a zealot, really – and if the sacred texts said that the God Stone couldn't be used for evil, she'd happily die attempting to stop a mob of thousands.


Maybe she could be persuaded. Wulf might or might not be evil, but his followers were just townsfolk scared of the dark.


A roar of approval rose outside, so loud that Jacob heard it through his closed window. It wouldn't be long now. Maybe it would be best not to tell her his plan at all. The God Stone might illuminate the whole world – except the Shaded Lands, of course – but it was very small. A man could slip it into his robe pocket, if he was quick and careful.


Jacob stood stiffly and limped down the corridor to the chamber of the God Stone.


When he entered, Oona had already finished the Ritual of Evening and was stood at the windows at the far end, looking out. Jacob slowly crossed the floor, carefully navigating around the God Stone. There had been a time, back when he'd been a young angry acolyte like Oona, when it had made his skin prickle with its ethereal radiation whenever he'd been in its presence. The sensation had diminished over the years, like his hair colour had.


It really wasn't much to look at: a grape-sized lump of dark metallic rock, uneven in shape and etched with tiny red letters, resting on an ornate iron stand. Strange to think something so small could light up the entire world.


When Jacob reached Oona, he saw that she was looking up at the pitch black sky, rather than down at the angry crowd.


“The ancient texts speak of lights in the sky,” he said conversationally. “Tiny sparkles and a single giant fire, long extinguished by mankind's sin. Children's stories, probably.”


Oona gritted her teeth and didn't reply.


“Look,” he said, trying again. “Wulf might be Mayor of the Wick today, but he's just a man. The God Stone is forever. Whatever evil he does, it is ephemeral and so is he. 'Wherever the God Stone lays, there will be light also'.”


Oona looked down at the crowd, now starting to surge again towards the gates leading to the tower. The chained bars were tall and very strong, but not invulnerable.


“Book of the Dawn, chapter three, verse two,” she replied leadenly. “But doesn't the Book also say 'The land was divided into the Light and the Dark and each had its own people, who lived in peace together yet separate.' Book of the Day, chapter four, verse four.”


Jacob cursed to himself. The last thing he needed now was an argument over scripture, especially when he'd not read the dratted Books for years.


Oona finally turned her head and looked him square in the eyes. She saw a frightened and lazy old man, someone whose faith had ossified a long time ago. He saw an angry and naïve child, cloistered away from the hard grind of life outside the Order. There was very little time to find common ground, to reach an agreement.


“Have you ever been to the Shaded Lands, my apprentice?” he tried, changing tack.


Oona returned to looking out of the window, to looking down at the crowds. It was obviously that she was already thinking about a heroic last stand.


“I did, a long time ago,” Jacob continued. “Missionary work isn't in vogue any more...”


“Since you became Master,” she said bitterly.


“With reason,” he said evenly. “I led a party of missionaries from the Wick towards one of the Shaded Lands. We camped by the Shield Wall there to make a brief study of the holy runes on it. Did you know that no-one understands why the Shield Walls are opaque to the God Stone's light, but normal walls are transparent? It's why there are any Shaded Lands at all. It...”


“It's God's will,” Oona said.


“Yes, but why are they the only things that block the God Stone's light? They were put there intentionally to create the Shaded Lands. Think about it: someone intentionally built them! Studying...”


“It's God's will,” Oona repeated flatly.


“Perhaps,” Jacob conceded. “But that night, as we camped and prepared our excursion into the Shaded Lands, a band of vampires raided around the wall and murdered everyone but me. We'd arrived with the best of intentions and left with just me, scarred and spattered with his comrade's blood.”


“They're altered humans,” Oona spat. “'Vampire' is a slur.”


Jacob almost gave up then and there: if that was all she took from that story, then there really was no hope for her.


The tower gates squealed as they buckled and fell. The crowd poured in. It would take them time to beat down the main door. There were maybe a few more minutes before the bar holding it closed splintered and snapped.


“Vampires are not our friends: they are murderous, insatiably hungry fiends. They are not people. Perhaps Wulf isn't wrong with all of his talk of a Crusade into the darkness. Maybe taking the God Stone out into the darkness behind the Shield Walls and using it to burn out the Shaded Lands isn't evil. Perhaps we should be listening to our brothers and sisters in town and to our Mayor, rather than ancient stories millennia old. Perhaps we need his Crusade. How can we be safe until the light shines everywhere?”


It was a desperate last gambit, Jacob realised, and it had failed almost immediately. Oona looked at him like he was a weak old man, riddled with doubt and compromise. It wasn't far from the truth, he admitted sadly.


The tower door broke and the crowd poured in.


“Two peoples living in peace,” she said, all rage slowly subsiding as if she'd come to a final decision. “That's what it says in the Book. I will not abandon that because of fear: fear of the vampire or fear of my own people. Everything has a right to live, even if we fear it absolutely in our very marrow.”


With a swift motion, she crossed to the God Stone, picked it up between forefinger and thumb and swallowed it, just as the wave of fury roared up to the door of the chamber. Oona, for all of her anger, seemed calm now, even relaxed.


“I have my faith,” she said quietly. “What do you have?”


Reluctantly, Jacob returned to his office, picked up his letter opener, tested the edge with his thumb and joined her as the door burst open.