The Lord Steffan Raven stood at the back, studying the beast he’d help create. The crowd roared, slavering for the kill. A smile crept across his face, the beast did not disappoint.
The temple drums pounded, heightening the tension. At a signal from the Pontifax, the guards pressed forward, spears and swords forcing the sinner into the flames. The young man had a giant’s build, burly and muscular, yet he fell to his knees, sobbing for mercy. Steffan smiled, for mercy was never part of the Test of Faith.
The soldiers did their job well, relentlessly jabbing with their spears. The flames crackled and snapped, releasing a fierce heat. Forced backwards, the sinner teetered on the edge, horror scrawled upon his face. A spear snaked forward tipping the balance. Arms flailing, he fell into the pit. A rush of golden flames roared heavenward, accepting the offering. Hair and skin and cloth caught fire, creating a human blaze. Howls of agony split the air. The doomed figure capered in the flames, a fiery jester entertaining the faithful. The crowd roared its approval. The sinner had exceptional stamina, lasting longer than most…but all too soon the screams subsided, the jester collapsing into a charred lump. A pillar of oily smoke belched into the afternoon sky.
The sinner was dead, yet a shimmer of ecstasy sparked the crowd.
A wild-haired young man standing near the flames threw his head back and screamed, “I feel the Flame God! I feel his pleasure!” Writhing with his hands in the air, he mimicked the death throes of the sinner.
The frenzied dance proved contagious, rippling out from a single source. Arms raised, heads tipped back in ecstasy, the crowd twisted and howled in a macabre imitation of death. The temple square convulsed, a sea of bodies caught in a death dance.
The Lord Steffan Raven smiled. The crowd was a beast, a wild animal addicted to the Test of Faith. Drunk on spectacles of ritualized death, the people of Coronth proved easy to manipulate…but wild beasts often have a nasty habit of turning on their masters. Steffan studied the crowd, knowing he needed to keep the beast chained. The best remedy was surprise; keep the people off-balance, forcing them to change while lulling them with religious spectacle. Like beasts, people needed to feel the whip as well as taste the sugar, and Steffan had a plan to do both.
Having weighed the crowd’s reaction, Steffan cut a dark path through the frenzy. People melted away before him, fear and deference in their eyes. Their reaction pleased him. Few knew his face but almost all knew his symbol, a black raven emblazoned on a red disc. By design, the Lord Raven stayed out of sight at most religious rituals, yet rumors of the Raven’s influence seeped through the city, instilling fear and wary obedience in the people. The situation suited Steffan perfectly; better to influence from behind the throne than to rule from the front, a lesson taught by the Dark Lord, may his pleasure reign.
Beyond the square, the narrow cobblestone streets were empty, devoid of life, the shops and taverns temporarily closed in honor of the Flame God. Citizens attended the rituals or they hid…there wasn’t much in between.
Steffan strode through the back streets, making his way to the rear of the temple. The massive structure overshadowed the city, brooding columns topped by a gilded spire. He climbed the steps to the rear doors. Guards snapped to attention, spears glinting in the sunlight as he passed inside. Incense and the coolness of cloistered stone surrounded him. Red-robed acolytes rushed to be of service. Steffan waved them away. Striding through the marbled halls, he made his way to the Vestment room.
The small gilded chamber served as the Vestuary to the Pontifax. Opening the doors, Steffan startled a half dozen priests and acolytes waiting to serve the Enlightened One. The acolytes stared in confusion while the priests blustered, protesting the invasion of their domain. Steffan stilled their bleating with a wave of his hand. “You are all dismissed. I will see to the Pontifax myself.”
The senior priest, Clavin, made a show of protest. “You have no authority here.”
Steffan knew the old man played the toad for the Keeper, whispering secrets against the other priests and acolytes…no one would mourn his loss. He stared at the priest, letting his voice drop to a whisper, “You can be replaced. Now go!”
The priest’s mouth puckered into a sour scowl but he scurried out the door with the rest. Steffan smiled. Toads liked to bluster but they had no teeth.
Steffan closed the doors and went straight to an ornate sideboard, pouring three glasses of the finest Urian brandy.
The double doors burst open admitting the Pontifax and the Keeper of the Flame. A fawning entourage followed. Priests and acolytes crowded the Vestuary, the smell of incense and burnt flesh clinging to their robes. Steffan ignored the entourage and focused on the Pontifax. Tall with a flowing white beard, the Pontifax had a dignified bearing and a benevolent face befitting the secular and religious ruler of Coronth, the prefect showman for their religious charade. The square-jawed Keeper, on the other hand, was burly and bald, radiating the threat of a thug despite his sumptuous red-velvet vestments.
Bowing low, Steffan approached the Pontifax, offering a glass of brandy. Leaning close he whispered, “Dismiss your priests and give me the honor of serving you.”
The Pontifax raised a bushy eyebrow. Accepting the brandy, he waved the others away. “You are all dismissed. Our councilor will assist us with our holy vestments.”
Priests and acolytes bowed their way out of the chamber, more than a few darting jealous stares at Steffan before closing the doors.
The Pontifax sipped the brandy, studying his counselor. “You’ve ruffled the feathers of my priests, I trust it is for a good reason?”
“They grow complacent in your favor. Sometimes change is good.”
The Keeper growled, “They serve, and serve well. If change is needed, you should talk to me, counselor.”
Steffan turned and bowed, acknowledging the burly Keeper. He offered the priest a glass of brandy, making a show of serving the big man his daily dose of deference. The Keeper accepted, his dark eyes glaring in challenge as he downed the amber liquid in a single swallow. Steffan kept his face still, letting the big man wallow in his illusions. Finishing the brandy, the Keeper sprawled back in a chair, a smug sneer on his face.
“You asked for the honor of serving me?” The Pontifax held his arms out, emphasizing the heavy vestments, but his eyes were amused. The old man was shrewd in his own way, understanding the value of a house divided.
“Yes, Holy One.” Steffan nodded and stepped behind the Pontifax. Assuming the role of a servant, he began unlacing the complex ties that bound the gold vestment.
“We looked for you at the ritual this afternoon.” The Pontifax’s voice was congenial but Steffan sensed an underlying goad. “I caught a glimpse of a dark figure sulking at the edge of the crowd.” The velvet voice deepened. “You have earned a place at my left hand yet you always watch from the rear. Why is that?”
Steffan infused his voice with humility. “Because I serve you best from the rear, Holy One.” He loosened a knot and released the final set of bindings. “By standing in the back, I can best measure the crowd’s true emotions. If the ecstasy of the ritual reaches to those on the fringe then we know we have succeeded.” Steffan lowered his voice, leavening his argument with a dash of deference. “Besides, the people wish to see their Pontifax and the Keeper of the Flame, not the shadowy counselor.”
The Keeper barked a laugh. “Ha! I know the true reason you skulk in the back. You haven’t the stomach for death! The Lord Raven, like his name sake, is a carrion feeder, always lurking at the edge of death but never daring to make the kill!”
Steffan eased the heavy gold robe off the shoulders of the Pontifax, hiding his smile. Keeping his hands busy and his face averted, he baited the Keeper with silence.
The burly priest took the bait, his voice barbed. “Tell us Lord Raven, from your perch at the back, how did you enjoy today’s ritual?”
Unfastening the padded tunic worn beneath the gilded robe, Steffan replied, “The ceremony was excellent as always.” Flashing a pointed smile in the Keeper’s direction he added, “Today’s heretic was especially good. The young man had plenty of stamina, putting on a fine show. The crowd was enthralled. Who was he anyway?”
“A peasant farmer from a village on the outskirts of the city. Body of a bull but the mind of a child.” The Keeper’s voice held a smug edge of self-satisfaction. “General Calib’s men reported him to one of my acolytes. The farmer was too stupid to join the army, so we made an example of him.” Barking a crude laugh, the Keeper added, “The general won’t be having any more problems recruiting from that village.”
It was the opening Steffan had been waiting for. Helping the Pontifax into a lush silk robe of the deepest purple, he said, “Perhaps there are others, besides the general, who know of sinners deserving of the Flames.”
The Keeper sat up, a dog protecting his bone. “My acolytes find plenty of tinder for the Flames.”
“But do we use the ritual to our best advantage?”
“We keep the Flames fed, what more is there?”
“Perhaps there is a way to get double the value from each death.”
The Keeper narrowed his gaze. “You squawk a lot, raven, but the sounds are nothing but nonsense!”
The Pontifax intervened. “Let the counselor speak. I assume he has a suggestion else he would not have joined us in the Vestuary.”
Steffan bowed toward the Pontifax acknowledging his insight. The Keeper glowered but held his silence. Freed of his ceremonial robes, the Pontifax took his ease in a cushioned chair next to the Keeper, his feet resting on a stool, his hands caressing the ruby amulet that was always around his neck. “Tell us what you have in mind, Lord Raven.”
Steffan reached for the brandy and refilled each man’s glass. “I see many things from my perch at the back. Just as we planned, the people of Balor are addicted to the spectacle of death. The trick now is to keep them enthralled while also keeping them cowed.” Taking a sip of brandy, Steffan said, “We need to ensure a steady supply of sinners to the Flames, the spectacle in the temple square cannot stop.”
A bark of a rude laugh erupted from the Keeper. “Is this all the famous counselor has to offer? Of course we must keep the Flames fed! My acolytes have never failed to provide sinners for the ceremonies. I don’t see what you’re complaining about.”
Knowing that he was treading on the Keeper’s domain, Steffan made his smile deferential. “I am not complaining…I am merely suggesting that we put a fresh twist on an old tale.”
Anger swept across the Keeper’s face but the Pontifax looked intrigued. Fingering his ruby amulet, he said, “Tell us more.”
Steffan inclined his head, swallowing a smile. “Let the people choose the sinners for the Test of Faith.”
Silence smothered the chamber.
The Keeper was the first to react, his face flaming an angry red. “Have you lost your mind? Why would we give the people that kind of power?”
“We only give the people the illusion of power…what we actually give them is fear and mistrust.”
The Pontifax stared at Steffan with hooded eyes. “Explain.”
“The possibilities are truly delicious. We invite the people to inform on their neighbors, their friends, and their families. Anyone reporting a heretic to the priests garners favor with the Flame God, and of course, those favored by the Flame God need never take the Test of Faith. For the sake of their own survival, the faithful will rush to confess the sins of their neighbors, all in the name of piety. With one stroke, the temple gains tens of thousands of eyes and ears throughout the city, helping to enforce the will of the Flame God. It may seem like a gift of power, but in reality, this new policy will sow fear and mistrust on a rampant scale.” Pausing he added, “Don’t you see the beauty of it? Those who fear will always obey and those who mistrust will never band together to threaten their masters. We will feed the beast and cow him at the same time, securing the silken shackles of religion.”
The Pontifax studied his counselor with shrewd eyes. “Lord Raven, we trust that your devious mind will ever work for us…never against us.”
Humbly bowing his head, Steffan said, “Ever your servant, Enlightened One.” His words hung in the chamber like an oath. Steffan kept his head bowed, waiting, wondering if he’d gone too far.
“And how would you propose to implement this plan?”
He stifled a smile, knowing the hook was set. “It starts with you, Enlightened One, from the pulpit at temple worship.” Gesturing toward the Keeper, Steffan said, “Create a new order of priests, the order of confessors, led by the Keeper of the Flame. Specially chosen from among the priesthood, the confessors will go out among the people, gathering reports of blasphemy, heresy, and other crimes against the faith. This information will be reported to the Keeper, who will, of course, make the ultimate decision as to which sinner will walk in the Flames.” Steffan paused to watch a slow smile spread across the Keeper’s face. “Under this new policy, the temple will keep its fingers on the pulse of the people while ensuring a steady stream of sinners for the Test of Faith.”
As expected, the Keeper leaped at the chance to expand his powers. “I like this new idea! It will tighten the temple’s hold on the people.”
Steffan kept the smile from his face, watching the Pontifax, waiting for approval.
Caressing his ruby amulet, the Pontifax said, “Your plan has merit. We will adopt the Lord Raven’s suggestion.” Turning toward the Keeper, he added, “Since you will lead this new order, we entrust you with the task of recruiting the confessors from among the priesthood. We suggest you choose the zealous and the shrewd, both should make excellent confessors.”
Nodding, the Keeper said, “I know several priests who will do well in the new order.”
“Good, see that it is done.” Turning back to Steffan, the Pontifax said, “We will miss your insights and advice while you are away with the army. How soon will you leave?”
“Since the coming of the comet, new recruits flock to the standard of the Black Flames, but it will take time to train them. Meanwhile, with your permission,” he inclined his head toward the Pontifax, “I will work with the Keeper to create this new order of confessors. Once the confessors are in place, the Flame God’s grip will tighten to a stranglehold and your rule will be secure. Only then will I take the army south, to plunder Lanverness.”
The Pontifax smiled, his eyes shining with a hunger for power. “The sooner the confessors start their holy work the better.”
Raising his glass, Steffan said, “A toast to the new order of confessors!”
The three men clinked their glasses in salute, the undisputed rulers of Coronth.
Observing his co-conspirators, Steffan had to laugh within his mind. Neither man understood the trap he’d set. Kings, emperors, and religious rulers did well to always give their people something to love and something to hate. The people of Coronth revered the Pontifax for the miracle of the Test of Faith. In time, the people would come to hate the Keeper for administering the confessors. Their hatred for the Keeper would make the people love the Pontifax all the more. Something to love and something to hate…while the shadowy counselor worked in the background, progressing the will of the Dark Lord. And if the grand scheme ever failed, if the mob rose against the Flame, then they’d turn on the one who betrayed them. They’d turn on the one they loved, always the one they loved…leaving the counselor to slip away unnoticed. Steffan raised his glass, silently toasting the genius of his god. May the Dark Lord’s pleasure reign, over all the lands of Erdhe.