SECRETS OF THE DIVINE
Gunlord500’s Unofficial Phoenix Point Fanfic #2, Published on 2/2/2018
Stefan squirmed anxiously on the cold wood of his pew, as much out of boredom as discomfort. He had never cared for the long, boring sermons of the Catholic Church he had once known, and found the newer rites of the Disciples of Anu to be equally boring and even more incomprehensible.
Not even a stern look from his mother—which, given her thinning hair and pale, blotchy face would evoke pity rather than fear—was enough to quiet him down, nor the whispers and annoyed glares from the other members of Anu’s faithful surrounding him in the pews. The only thing that eventually got Stefan to sit as silent and still as a statue was a passing glance from the man giving the sermon: Archiereus Andax.
Stefan had never been more afraid of anyone in all of his twelve years of existence. He’d always thought that priests should be friendly and kind—at least that’s how he remembered the man from his old parish, before one of the creatures in the mist had taken him. “Friendly” and “kind” were two words that did not apply at all to Andax. He was nearly twice Stefan’s height, taller than any normal human had a right to be. His muscles were bigger than any Stefan had seen, too—Andax made the professional wrestlers Stefan used to watch look like runts. Maybe he got that big from lugging around that giant machine-gun all the time, and the bandolier about his massive chest, from which hung box after box of ammunition for it. He never took either of those off, even when preaching, as he was now.
Stefan wouldn’t have minded all of that. He knew not all big guys with guns were bad. If it weren’t for some men not too different from Andax, he and his mother might never have made it to this haven. What made Andax scary was his face.
The Archiereus didn’t have a single strand of hair anywhere on his head, not even eyebrows. Instead, most of his alabaster skin was covered in tattoos and piercings that seemed to have come from some race of aliens beyond the bounds of the solar system itself. The most frightening things, though, were his eyes. Completely and utterly pitch-back, they had no whites or irises, seeming as if they belonged to some giant, pitiless crustacean or insect.
Stefan had brought this up to his mother the first time they had seen the priest, at the first service they had ever attended. His mother had scolded him, telling him to be more understanding of their gracious hosts, that even those who had survived the Pandoravirus retained scars, and that the black of Andax’s eyes just happened to be his. Andax was just as human as anyone else. But when those eyes passed over Stefan, the boy didn’t see anything human in them.
Andax did not even stop preaching—his low, gravelly voice continued to belt out the words of his sermon without the slightest pause. But as his black eyes roved over the huddled supplicants in the pews, they met Stefan’s, and lingered for a moment. That was enough to tell the boy that Andax saw him—and that for his own self-preservation, he had best shut his mouth and remain still.
He breathed out a sigh of relief as Andax’s gaze passed. The sermon was almost over, meaning he could get far away from the cold, uncomfortable temple and the terrifying Archiereus. The makeshift housing Anu’s disciples provided to refugees like him and his mother weren’t at all comfortable, but at least it afforded him some privacy, and some distance from the monstrous priests of Anu.
“…So let us not repeat the mistakes described in the Book of Follies,” Andax concluded, “and let us find salvation in cheerful obedience to the Lord-who-died-yet lives, and to His representatives on Earth, His Anagnostes, who have mastered His mysteries, His Skeuphylakes, who control His hallowed machines, and Exarch Abyeus, who has most graciously given us shelter in this haven, and protects us from the mists and the terrors contained therein.”
Under most circumstances, this would have ended with an “amen.” But a young boy’s voice erupted from the very back of the pews, halting Andax before he could finish.
“If the Exarch’s supposed to be protecting us, how come we haven’t seen him?”
Unlike everyone else in the temple, Stefan did not turn back to look at who’d spoken. The voice alone told him who it was. It was Nathan, the closest thing Stefan had to a friend ever since he’d arrived at this haven. A year older than Stefan, the youth was an orphan, and not well-liked by the other kids in the haven—largely for stunts like this. Nothing seemed to phase him, he had no respect for the religion of Anu, and most of all, apparently no fear whatsoever of the heavily-armed priests. This led most of the other children to avoid him out of a sense of self-preservation, but privately, Stefan admired his bravery, his refusal to bow down before these religious weirdos.
That didn’t mean Stefan would join him any time soon. Like everyone else in the room, he held his breath, not knowing what would happen next—no-one had ever, ever shown that kind of disrespect to one of Anu’s chosen before.
Fortunately for Nathan, Anu’s chosen seemed to be rather patient today. Andax did not raise his voice, or give any indication he was even slightly irritated. He merely smiled—though no trace of that smile reached his black, dead eyes.
“Your eagerness to understand the mysteries of our faith is admirable, young one, and in time you shall. But for now, the responsibilities Exarch Abyeus bears, and the duties he carries out for all our sakes, must remain secret, both for our safety and his. Rest assured, when these times of tribulation are over, the Exarch will reveal himself to us all, and together we shall all flourish under the loving gaze of the Dead God.”
Whether or not that satisfied Nathan, a nearby adult grabbed him and escorted him out, leading the head of the procession which filtered out of the double-doors of the temple back to their squalid homes in the haven. Stefan was part of that procession, all too glad to be quit of that unsettling place. Andax’s words may have been meant to reassure, but Stefan did not feel the least bit comforted by that explanation.
A few nights later, Stefan was awakened in his sleep—not by a nightmare, from which he had suffered ever since that sermon, but by a tapping at his thin window. He cast aside the dirty sheets which passed as his blanket and crept away from the rags which passed as his bed. Outside of his window was a familiar face, the only person he expected to see at this hour—Nathan.
Stefan carefully nudged the window open, knowing that if he did it too quickly, it would creak and awaken his mother. “Nate? What’re you doing out here?”
“Come on, man. I found him out! I’ll show you!”
“Found who out?”
Stefan cast a cautious glance back to his room. “So what? Why does that mater? It’s the middle of the night, dude.”
“Come on! I know you wanna know what he looks like as much as I do. Well, when I was staying up late last night, I saw the Archiereus and some other guys enter a cave right next to the temple. I followed them so they couldn’t see me, but had to back off ‘cause I think they heard me. Before I did, though, I remember hearing them say something about the Exarch. I think he’s in there!”
Stefan paused. It was entirely possible that Nathan was making all this up, and even if he wasn’t, was it worth the risk? A part of him said no, but another part of him wanted to find out why he and his mother were here—and if it was truly safe for them.
“Alright. Just gimme a sec and I’ll let you take the lead, Nate.”
A few minutes later, Stefan had slipped past his mother’s bedroom and out the door of their little shack, following his semi-friend. He shivered, the air cold against his skin and the ground colder against his bare feet, but if he’d gone this far he wouldn’t back down now. There were guards stationed around the area this late at night, but fortunately, they kept watch for creatures from the outside, and paid no attention to the two boys sneaking their way towards the temple. When the pair reached the strange, squat structure, Nathan brought a finger to his lips and hastily pointed towards a pair of bushes next to a large tree—a few of the only plants Stefan had seen in a while which had not been mutated by the mist in some way.
The two quickly but quietly hid amongst the leaves there, and after a few moments, watched Andax and two others—a normal-sized man and a woman, both masked and dressed entirely in black robes, hefting a sniper rifle and an assault rifle, respectively—pass by. Apparently, and fortunately, the boys had not been noticed. Quietly, the pair followed Andax and his companions a small distance past the temple, heading east along the face of the mountain from which the building had been carved. The trail grew increasingly narrow and perilous, though it did afford the boys a bounty of rocks and outcroppings they could hide behind. Soon enough, the disciples of Anu disappeared into the darkness of an opening into the mountain barely large enough for Andax to fit through.
Stefan was about to ask why they didn’t bring any flashlights, but as he and Nathan trailed behind the disciples, they found light wasn’t necessary. A pair of torches was set on the walls every few feet, allowing them to descend down into what was apparently a tunnel of some sort.
The air grew warmer as they descended—a relief to Stefan and Nathan—and the tunnel grew much wider and larger (which Stefan assumed was a relief to Andax). The priest’s heavy footfalls prevented his companions from noticing the far lighter steps of their uninvited followers. Since none of them once spared a glance behind, the pair was able to evade detection until they reached what seemed to be Andax’s destination—a huge stone door, twice as tall as he was, flanked by two statues of hideous, tentacled creatures grasping larger torches in deformed hands with too many fingers.
The trek through the tunnels had been unnerving enough, but now Stefan wanted nothing more than to run home and hide under the covers of his bed. The only thing keeping him from doing so was Nathan—his friend had so far not displayed any fear, and Stefan didn’t want to look like a chicken in front of him.
It would prove to be a bad decision.
As the stone door began to creak open, Andax nodded to his companions. The man and woman nodded in response, turned—and then, in a blur of motion, rushed over to Stefan and Nathan’s hiding places. Before they could even react, both boys found themselves lifted into the air and yelling impotently into immovable gloved hands.
“Bring them to the Exarch,” Andax ordered, stepping through the door. The squirming kids were carried behind him, and when he stepped aside, they finally got a good look at the object of their quest.
Exarch Abyeus stood in front of large hole in the center of the featureless circular chamber, flanked by another pair of the ugly tentacled monsters holding torches. It was initially difficult to make out his features, because he was obscured by the thick black mist wafting over the hole. But then he waddled over to greet his visitors, and the boys could see who—or what—he was quite clearly.
He was the fattest man either of them had ever seen, barely coming up to Andax’s chest, yet even wider than the well-muscled Archiereus. His flabby skin was mottled, grey, and seemingly covered in some sort of rash, though Stefan thought it looked more like scales. Much to Stefan’s disgust, he wore only a thin loincloth; the rest of his body being left uncovered by an open purple robe with intricate gilding on its edges. Atop his head Abyeus wore a pointed cap which reminded Stefan of a miter the bishop of his old diocese had once wore, but behind this one was a broken circle made of gold, with what seemed to be strands of seaweed clinging to it. The rim of the miter covered the Exarch’s eyes, so Stefan could only clearly make out his mouth—almost wide enough to cover his entire face, and filled with sharp, pointed teeth reminiscent of a shark’s.
The corpulent monster stepped even closer, leering at his captives. “I heard you wanted to meet me,” he chuckled, his deep, gurgling voice sounding as if he was speaking underwater. “Well, now you have. I do hope you’re not disappointed?”
The man holding Stefan and the woman holding Nathan both shifted their hands away from the mouths of the boys, allowing them to speak. Stefan was too terrified to give a response, but Nathan answered for the both of them. He spat on the ground before the Exarch.
That elicited nothing more than another gurgling chuckle. “Your defiance evinces a strong spirit, boy. It is why you have been chosen. My task is merely to bend that spirit to the service of the Dead God.” He nodded to Andax. “Begin the rite of Communion.”
The two soldiers held Nathan and Stefan over the rim of the central pit, and both boys started coughing as the mist entered their throats and burned their lungs. Stefan was crying now, but Nathan remained unbroken, failing to stifle his own coughing but making a valiant attempt.
Until they sensed movement at the bottom of the pit, a shifting in the mist.
Something was rising from those unfathomable depths, its inhuman bulk growing closer and closer, the black mist writhing as the entity sliced through it. And when it drew close enough for its offerings to see its face…
Finally, and for the first and last time, Stefan heard Nathan scream.