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The grass was lush here. Those who reside on No Man’s Land knew not of what lie beneath the gaudy foliage. We were blanketed in the thick black of early morning, the Stars our only source of light. Pegasus was hanging low in view. The street lights off, our descent into the tunnels below was made easy. For the safety of the public, a curfew had been enacted between the hours of 9pm-7am. And yet, here we were.
I kicked at the dirt until my foot caught underneath the latch. My brothers and I rushed inside before DOP drones alerted headquarters of our presence. At the top of the ladder, bright red numbers read 2:08. At 2:10, the Hatch would lock out the world and release us back to it at four. We descended down the ladder, observing as moist topsoil turned into the dry, flaky layer beneath.
The ground was dusty for the lack of rain the past few weeks. As we walked, dirt flew, making the tunnels difficult to navigate and the air thick enough that our breathing was ragged. For those who had never set foot in the base, the possibility of finding Central was slim to none on an average day, let alone in these conditions. The Arche Head had built tunnels to dead ends and repeating paths. If you were perhaps the unlucky sort, you would come to the kitchens or the Moondance room on a night of gathering.
Eventually we made our way into the dining hall, congregating in groups and conversing jovially whilst waiting for the Head to arrive. Plates and bowls filled with meats and cheeses were passed around the table. A few members were strumming on mandolins or tapping on hand drums, the soft lullaby of ancient hymns resonating off of the handcrafted walls of stone. A few Elders were beginning to change into their ceremonial garb for the New Moon Celebration.
The Deputy Head discarded his traditional black cloak to adorn his floor-length closed robes. In a pattern of twisted reds, purples, and silvers, the robe was decorated and lined with red velvet. Silver coloured boots were slipped onto his feet by one of his whores. The ancient language of our people was engraved into the side of the shoes and printed on the back of his robe. His headpiece was perhaps the most enticing and intricate addition to the ensemble. It was crafted from the skull of a boar, the bone carved into what would have been an artistic piece if anyone else had been in possession of it. Once again ornamented in silver and red, human hair had been glued down the center, alternating in black and blonde. He would wait to adorn it until the ceremony began, but still held it tightly in his hands. Should it fall into the possession of evil, all sense of order and protection would be lost.
When the room went silent, the Head could be seen leaning against the frame of the doorway, his smile engulfing his face. Already in his robes, he seemed to mirror the Deputy, Minor Zephir, in attire and spirit, except perhaps that he appeared more regal in his Head colours. Gold trimming replaced silver and blue, red. His headpiece too mimicked Minor’s. It was made of ram skull with blue and gold paint and uncharacteristically large horns, nearly circling around each other. Fabric had been adhered to the bone to give the appearance of a majestic mane. On windy days like today, the shredded fabric was sure to emulate a lion’s courage.
“Good morning Head Lars, Minor Zephyr,” voices whispered. For so many uncountable weeks now I have recited the phrase cyclically with ease only second to breathing. As we gathered, eager to begin, the two of them stood in front of their congregation, preparing for the day’s introduction.
“And good morning to you all. Our appearance here so early in the morning is yet another reminder of our unconditional devotion for our Beloved. Each week this ensemble makes the conscious decision to risk their lives to take practice in a belief for which we are often persecuted and for that we must thank you. Your effort is not in vain. This life of secrecy from our loved ones and the world is not an easy one to live, but we do it to be graced. And I can promise that you have all been received in earnest. May we continue to see your faces here each week.” Minor’s white teeth seemed to glow under the dim light of the flame torches.
“Now opening speech aside, we must now discuss an event which took place a few nights ago, and tears me to pieces to think about.” Head Lars pulled up a chair, his dark eyes now holding similarity to a lagoon rather than the midnight sky. “We have lost a previously trustworthy member of this community.” A hushed roar overtook the listeners. “Stratton was discovered Tuesday night on his way to the DOP office. We were alerted via Lamia and immediately took Stratton into questioning. After four hours of interrogation, it was revealed that he could not handle the kind of lifestyle our beliefs require. As tragic as such actions were, for the safety of our practice, we could not allow him to disclose our location, and so at 11:57 on Tuesday, Stratton was exterminated.”
The previous whispers could no longer be heard throughout the room. Stratton had been what seemed a diligent member of our society for over a decade. He lived just across the street from me in the world above, and to hear of his treason was severely disappointing. It wasn’t as though something like this hadn’t happened before. Every few years a member would realise that they could not handle the reality of what such a commitment entails, and thus attempt to take our practice to the Protection. I just supposed that they would have learned by now that such a thing never works out in their favour. Although, should he had been successful, I am more than certain that our Beloved would have taken action into her own hands.
“Let this be yet another reminder of your importance to this community, and your silence be of importance to your life. Let Phygnyr guide you in today’s connection. Phygnyr, if you would.”
Head held out his hands, followed by Deputy. Shortly following, our hands grasped each others, a circle forming around the molasses table. Phygnyr began to chant in tongues, followed by the rest of the congregation. We swayed and melodically followed him, warmth erupting through our souls, rejuvenating our bones. We were cared for here. We were loved beneath the soil of an ever decaying Earth. I knew that I would be granted safety as long I pledged myself to her. No matter what I had to sacrifice to get what I needed, I was most certain that no harm would come my way.
The members of our Beloved’s congregation gathered together because we have nowhere else to go. We are nomads, outcasts, illegitimates, scavengers, inbreds, and cracks in the system. We slip lower and lower into the center of the Earth until there is nowhere else for us to end up but prison, a community, or a grave. I’ve found that most of my dear companions are searching for something that cannot be attained anywhere else.
Chibale, my dearest friend, collected me within his arms when our ceremony released. An introduction into this lifestyle, he gave me not only his friendship, but also a reason to continue on with life. My darling Chibale was thrust upon a bed of posies before his time, informed only three weeks before death was due. He came here, nothing left of him but a husk of who he once was, and gave that husk to our Beloved. Death no longer creeping, he soared, and took me with his the next go around.
I came to Carthinova with fresh eyes, grieving bones. Alone, I sought meaning. Here, I found it. I found my hands were steady, useful, and I began training in the ancient craft. I was supervised, of course, as the merchandise could not be damaged lest our Beloved deny it and we start again. I suppose at this point, I was the second hand of Elder Eryx. He had been with Carthinova for nearly all of his life.
In these years, I have been forced by nature to give nearly everything in my life to live as I do today; to walk into through this cavern, my head held high and terms of endearment from my Brothers and Sisters tossed my way. I have put forth my sweat, my blood. I have dissolved away from life on No Man’s Land, becoming truly and wholly a disciple. My mother suspects nothing, just my distance the simple grief I could never shake off. Just a physical representation of the grief she will never be able to shake off.
I was broken out my internal reflection by the feeling of eyes boring into the back of my skull. I whipped around to see a fledgling staring at me curiously, expectations lining her features. The girl was new, less than a month reborn. I had seen her silhouette lurking in the shadows the past few weeks, and thus knew she had yet to bear witness our monthly dance. Of course, she must know. One cannot set foot outside their house without whispers of fear and bitterness circulating through the town.
Cheers resonated off the stone as the clock struck three, signalling that is was time for the Ascension. The fledgling lingered behind me, matching her footsteps to mine as we made our way into the Moon Dance arena. I looked back to see tiny specks of cheaply colored nail polish littering the floor. She brought her index finger to her mouth and began to chew on it; I could practically smell the fear permeating from her pores.
“I’m Solemie,” she started suddenly. “Who are you?”
“A carver in training,” I mumbled.
“Oh. What does that mean?” I thought that the girl would stare at me forever, but uncomfortable with the silence, she began to describe herself in excessive detail. Even as we had all filtered into the room, she kept chatting. It was as though she expected me to respond. Obviously the girl was not good at picking up on social cues.
“That’s interesting. You may want to be quiet now,” I shushed.
“Oh, but why?” A girl so dense as to still hold innocence in her eyes cannot be directed with words alone, and I am not a man of words anyway. So instead I pointed her to the middle of the circle where our sacrifice sat. Alone in the centre of a large circular design was a private school boy, seven or just a little more. Fear and perhaps regret soiled his face along with his tears, leaving thick stains. A little boy out so late should have expected nothing less.
“Hey, new girl. Shush!” Lamia, who was apprenticing under Minor, made her way up to the stage, a bone dagger in her hand.
The lights shortly dimmed, and Lamia stood next to the boy. Tucking the blade into her belt, she along with Head and Minor began their disclosure.
“Tonight is a night of sacrifice. And it is on these nights that we are at our greatest risk, so I warn you now to keep your cloaks on and always be prepared to scatter should danger arise. By Lamia’s side sits Marco. Intelligent, kind, and forgiving, he is nearly the definition of a perfect candidate for the New Moon. And now that we have him, we shall cherish him. Marco, do not be afraid. You have not lived your life in vain. Giving your life for our cause will surely send you into the arms of our Beloved.”
Head Lars grabbed his medicine kit. From it he extracted his syringe and filled it up until it was bubbling with clear fluid. It should have been easy to sedate the boy, especially with Minor holding him down, but things are always excitable when there is fresh blood to be had.
Marco bit the inside of Minor’s leg and shot off like a light into one of the tunnels. Leaving the new girl behind, I darted off after him. His hands were knotted behind his back and he hadn’t a clue as to where he was going, so he couldn’t have gotten far. My hand against the wall, only illuminated by the torches stuck into them and burning brightly, I could hear the sound of a body hitting wall. I ran to catch him, but he was gone.
With the rest of the group searching, it wasn’t long before I found him standing alone in the Hall of Histories. He looked in awe of the artifacts and memorabilia originating from the beginning of Carthinova. He laid his hand upon a work of art painted by the Arche Head’s wife. I came up behind him with every intent to off him with no thought, but he spoke to me in a way which chilled my bones.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Marco turned and leant against the wall, fear no longer drowning his eyes. In the green waves lie nothing but defiance and pride. Maybe he had grown smug; he assumed he could run again. He could of course, and I would let him, but the Elders would give him not the time of day.
“We each have our individual reasons, boy. There are some things in life that are worth risking your life for.” My heart stayed dormant at his attempt to bring-forth some sort of emotion that he had yet to realise no longer existed.
“But you’re not risking your life! You’re trying to kill me! I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Marco, we are all guilty in our own way. Some may call it sin, and to deny its prevalence within you is a sin in and of itself. You could never realise this on your own, but you were chosen. You should take this as an honour, with your head held high. A boy of your age cannot act so recklessly as to go off on his own and expect no consequences. You should have stayed home. Maybe then you would have been able to create a life for yourself.”
If I could see into another’s mind, I would imagine that Marco’s world was falling apart from beneath him. Green globes which shined turned dim against the sudden realisation that he was going to die. I waited patiently for the inevitable, my gaze penetrating his skull. At last, his mind caught up to his body and he attempted to bolt down the path from which he came. But I had no fear; I was ready for him.
By his hair I took him, his screams radiating through the corridors. I dragged him as quickly as I could back to the Moon Dance arena. We were pressed for time as it was, and with this little stunt, the risk of being ambushed rang more shrill in our ears. He fought, the little bastard, but in my hands, there was nothing he could do but scream and cry and rip his hair out. For a second, my breath hitched as I pondered what He might say, but those sort of thoughts are what lead to one’s extermination and I was surely devout.
Back to the center, I was told to hold his head while he was injected with the serum. The boy looked into his audience, appealing to anyone who would put forth their heart for him. If this was a different time, under different circumstances, it may have worked. But if anyone in the congregation wanted to spare his life, they stayed silent. I looked to the girl, Solomie, and observed her horror stricken features.
I do not believe that this was what she had imagined in her mind. People like her, they’re fragile. They break with the drop of a hat, scrambling to find anyway to make sense of what is going on, but she will find no way to do so. What we do has no explanation, nor rhyme, nor justification. It is what we have to do to get what we want. If it is evil, then we are that. We have always been that. This girl, she is not like us. She is pure, gentle-hearted, and even a breath of fresh air in these moments. But she has entered Carthinova, and here she will stay. Or, by our hands, she will die.
As the boy fell asleep in my arms, Head Lars moved to begin hacking at his hair, leaving bald spots in odd places. Minor Zephir ripped his shirt and tore it into thin strips as an addition to his ever growing mane. I was tasked with wrapping his body in cloth as we made our descent to perform beneath the light of Pegasus.