GOLGOTHA - PART FIVE
Beyond the walls of Parnassus the great horde of the Beast was spreading out to surround the city, careful to keep their distance from snouts of the ion cannons. Roaring in defiance at the defenders who watched from above, they set about making their entrenchments. The siege of Parnassus was beginning.
The Ronin knew it but dimly. His head rang with the mad rush of combat; rang with the strangeness of this bizarre godscape.
On the one side of him was a crush of men and horses, the cavalrymen removing their helmets in relief, handing off the reins of their mounts to teenagers and boys caparisoned in the same green-white colours of the city; on his other side rose the city walls, surfaces of burnished green metal rearing forty feet high. To the face of the wall clung wooden scaffolding: a complex, broad-timbered array rising in three stories. It was across this structure that the siege defences now buzzed.
Men-at-arms swarmed the gantries, pushing and shouting their way up rickety stairways. On the top level, to either side of the arched gateway, stood the two ion cannons, groaning and crackling as they fired, again and again-
Their crews moved about them, straining with cranks and cogs to reposition the barrels. They stood back – THOOM! – another blazing crackle of light. From the rear of each cannon hung wires and cables, snaking down to connect into the surface of the wall itself. Squinting, the Ronin saw that the inner side of the wall had the look of an antique circuit-board, its surface covered in snaking lines of gold. It was from these circuits that the cannons drew their power.
Further along the wall, atop the angled corner sections, wooden contraptions rose above the scaffolding: huge structures of poles, cranks and counter-weights, their limbs moving up and down-
Trebuchets, the Ronin realised in wonder a moment later. Machines almost as ancient as warfare itself.
At the nearest one, men were struggling with the two huge cranks on either side of it, straining to haul the counter-weight up into position. Clunk! The bar slipped into place; a moment later a sergeant released the catch.
The counter-weight shot backwards and the giraffe-neck arm swung upwards. A huge chunk of masonry soared into the air-
The projectile dwindled to a far dot, sank beneath the parapet.
There was a moment of eager anticipation, followed by a distant tremor and a roar of glee from the crew; already the giraffe-neck was descending, the mule-cart containing the next projectile trundling forwards.
Along the wall between the trebuchets and the cannons, men-at-arms leaned against the parapets, smiling a little with each blast and projectile that fell among the rabble beyond the walls. In the crooks of their arms were laser cannons identical to that of the captain. On every face was a resolute, satisfied expression – the quiet complacency of veterans facing a much inferior foe. It was an expression the Ronin had seen many times before. And he knew all too well the expressions that might come later, should that confidence be proven wrong.
He saw those confident expressions. He saw the high-grade weapons and nano-fibre walls that inspired them; saw too the wooden scaffolding, crudely-made siege engines and the antique design of the swords and armour the men-at-arms wore. He saw all this, and he wondered.
A hand grasped his shoulder and the Ronin turned to look into the face of the captain.
“Thank you.” He said automatically, his head still ringing. “I appreciate what you have done for me, although in truth, I have long dreamt of perishing in bloody battle. May I ask your name?”
The captain looked up at him strangely for a moment, then laughed and extended a hand.
“My friend, I must apologise for interfering with your plans! However, if you wish to martyr yourself, there will be no shortage of opportunities – of this I can assure you. Farnol is my name – Captain Farnol of the second company of the guard. And what of yourself? Who and what might you be? You are like no man I have seen before.”
It was true, the Ronin realised as he grasped the captain's gauntlet: he was certainly of a different type to the men of Parnassus. Where he was large and powerful, they were short and compact, none of them above six feet. Looking down into the captain's face, he saw the same dark complexion and raw-boned features of the dead shepherd and the horse-nomads of the steppe smiling up at him.
Humans, he thought, of a similar type to the peasantry of his own Krokus. Homo Sapiens, or something very like it.
“'Ronin' is my title.” He replied quietly. Seeing the captain's look of puzzlement, he added: “It means 'warrior without a master' in the parlance of Edo, where I am from.”
The captain's puzzlement deepened.
But before he could say anything more, there came a hurried clattering of arms from behind the captain, followed by the stamping of feet. A voice rang out sharply:
“We salute thee, Knight-Commander!”
Captain Farnol spun about abruptly. The rest of his cohort had formed into two hasty lines flanking either side of the square's main archway and were stood stiffly to attention. A figure stood in the archway, peering about in annoyance: a man of authoritative stamp, more grandly and heavily armoured than the men-at-arms, his green breastplate enamelled with a white cross. Seeing Farnol standing before the hulking figure of the Ronin, his face twisted into an expression of outrage.
“Captain Farnol! What is the meaning of this?” He scowled, stepping forwards between the lines of cavalrymen. “You dare to make a sortie without my permission? Why is this prisoner not in chains?”
Farnol dropped to a knee, head respectfully inclined; the Ronin noticed now that the back of his head was shaved in tonsure.
“My apologies, Lord Commander! Allow me to make my report! A few minutes ago we sighted the Beast and its guard not a mile from the walls, engaged in combat with this man. Seeing an unguarded opportunity lying open before me, I led a charge in hopes of destroying the creature. Alas, we could not break through its guard in time and the Beast escaped us, back towards the advancing main body of the horde. We wiped out the guard, suffering no losses ourselves, and made good our escape, returning with Ronin, as he calls himself, in our company. I was just in the process of questioning him when you arrived, Holiness.”
Hearing this, the knight-commander turned to stare at the Ronin. He took in the strange, foreign features of the giant Edoean, the hulking suit of armour he wore and the arquebus holstered at his shoulder, so like and yet unlike their own laser cannons.
He blinked, caution and interest passing quickly across his face. Then the shutters came down and he looked with cool politeness up into the Ronin's face.
“Is this true, heathen? You met the Beast in combat and survived?”
The Ronin said nothing to this, but only made a slight bow. The knight-commander's eyes narrowed.
“And what were you doing out on the prairie? Who are are you and where have you come from?”
The Ronin studied the knight-commander for a brief moment, careful to show nothing of his thoughts. His eyes lingered on the cross emblazoned on the commander's armour before returning coolly to his face.
“Sir, I report that the Beast overtook me as I approached the city walls, to which I come on a matter of vital interest. 'Ronin' is my title. Ronin of Edo.”
“You may address me as 'Holiness', or 'Lord Commander'.” The knight-commander returned shortly. “ And it is customary to kneel when in the presence of authority. You have told me very little so far, 'Ronin' and I begin to lose my patience. What is this 'Edo', you speak of? And what business does a man of Edo have in coming here?”
The Ronin inclined his head, his expression bland.
“You will forgive my not kneeling, Lord Commander – my heavy armour does not permit it. In answer to your questions: Edo was my city, Krokus, my planet of origin. As for my business: it is my own, to be discussed only with the highest authority of this place.”
There was a ripple of stunned surprise at these nonsensical statements and the casual insolence with which they had been delivered. Silence fell over the square. The cavalrymen turned to stare in disbelief.
The knight-commander glared up at the Ronin, caught between anger and doubt as he weighed the heathen's appearance against his words. Still kneeling, Captain Farnol looked up nervously between the faces of the two men, waiting to see what would happen next.
Finally, the knight-commander gave a cold smile, made a slight bow of his own. The Ronin's hand, having crept very close to the hilt of his wakizashi, moved slowly away again.
“Very well then, 'Ronin'.” The knight-commander smiled coldly. “His Holiness shall weigh the truth of your words and decide what response they merit. Captain Farnol! I shall need some of your men to escort the prisoner.”
Flanked by an escort of uneasy soldiers, they set off. The Ronin followed the knight-commander through the archway and up a winding, cobbled street. Houses loomed on either side as they climbed up through the successive tiers of the city: small, narrow-gabled buildings in the lower tier, their doorways and windows populated by sallow faces well-accustomed to fear and privation; these gave way to grander homes as they reached the middle tier, the well-fed faces that peered from their windows bearing the punch-drunk look of those experiencing real terror for the first time.
Finally, reaching the ramp that led up to the city's third and highest tier, the Ronin was greeted by an enclave of white-marbled buildings, their spires paying tribute to the high-domed cathedral that sat at their centre.
Mounting the broad steps that led to the cathedral entrance, the party passed into a cool, echoing chamber. As the Ronin's eyes adjusted, he became aware of a space of arches and high-vaulted ceilings, every surface and column inlaid with arabesques and fluted reliefs. Light flowed in through vast stained glass windows, falling in rich reds, blues and yellows across every surface. Each window seemed to depict a dozen scenes, all alike in the pure-white apparel their saints and apostles wore, alike in the swords each holy man bore and the ruby-red blood that flowed from the wounds of their opponents.
From the far end of the cathedral a muted chanting could be heard. Moving along the central aisle, the Ronin saw a ceremony underway in the sanctum at the cathedral's apex. There, a group of robed figures knelt before an ornate golden throne, chanting a benediction to the serene figure that sat above them. As the Ronin approached this holy scene, his gaze was struck by the stained glass that hung above it: an image of a bearded man, his body clothed in fine white armour, a flaming sword clutched in his hand. The flames that glowed about the blade were reflected in the figure's blazing eyes, and as the Ronin looked into the man's face, he knew suddenly that this was none other than the Christ, his light shining down upon those who ruled the godscape in his name. As the Ronin saw this image, it stirred up memories of the vision he'd witnessed in the freezing mountain passes, and he began to wonder at the significance of that vision, and of the correspondence it bore to this image of militant divinity.
As they approached the sanctum, two temple guardians stepped forth to block their path: men as heavy-set and authoritative in stamp as the commander, each wearing the same white cross emblazoned on their armour. Their eyes widened in shock and suspicion as they saw the hulking profile of the Ronin. The knight-commander stepped forwards to exchange words with them, and after a moment's tense conference they stepped aside so that he may approach the foot of the sanctum steps, his head bowed in silent deference.
The guardians stepped towards the Ronin, tense with disapproval as their eyes swept him up and down. The nearest one let out a hiss:
“You stand on holy ground, heathen! Show some respect and cast down your eyes! The high sanctum will not be besmirched by your gaze. Now, your weapons there-” He indicated the hilt of the wakizashi and the empty scabbard that hung beside it, his finger going up to the sheathed arquebus at the Ronin's shoulder. “These are not permitted in the presence of the Holy Father. You will surrender them to me at once.”
Staring straight ahead, the Ronin shook his head.
“My warrior's code does not permit such an action. However, I give you my word-”
The temple guardian stepped forwards, his eyes blazing furiously.
“You dare-?!” He hissed. “Blasphemer! By the apostle's blade, you will obey!”
But the Ronin merely gave another shake of his head. With a snarl of outrage the guardian reached for the hilt of wakizashi; he found himself restrained by the Ronin's hand upon his wrist, gentle but insistent-
“Please refrain from touching my daisho.” The Ronin breathed without looking at him. “If you do, I shall have no choice but to kill you.”
But the other guardian had drawn his sword and was stepping forwards, a half-formed threat on his tongue-
There was a blur of movement as the Ronin's arm whipped out, striking the blade from the man's hand and sending it clattering across the flagstones. In the next instant he had seized the man by his gorget and lifted him kicking and struggling into the air. The soldiers leapt back with yells of outrage, swords flashing in the light of the stained-glass windows-
“Stop this! In Christ's name, I command you!” A voice boomed from the sanctum.
The effect was instantaneous. The sound rolled over them, carrying warm and vibrant to every corner of the cathedral, calming the nerves of all who heard it. The Ronin looked up, his soul quietened in spite of himself.
Down the sanctum steps a figure was descending, small and serene, attired in robes of green and white. On his head was a crown of gilded tiers; in his hand, a slim golden staff, its shaft forming a triple cross. But it was his face that arrested the attention of the onlooker: his bland, kindly features, as smooth and pale as marble, from which peered eyes the deep, clear blue of a mountain lake, their gaze as piercing as a hawk's. A godly benevolence seemed to radiate out from behind that face, and as the Ronin looked for just the barest instant into the man's eyes, he felt his soul tremble at the force behind them, finding in their depths something like folded steel. For in spite of the quiet benevolence that shone from those eyes, he knew instantly the indomitable will that lay behind them, harder and more unforgiving than any blade.
Without knowing what he was doing, the Ronin released the temple guardians and sank to a knee. He knew with sudden certainty that this was the Archon, Parnassus' Holy Father; that the green and white colours of the city were his colours, and that the images of the apostles, smiling yet dangerously armed, were a truer reflection of his person than any mirror could portray.
A pair of satin slippers appeared before the Ronin. A hand cupped his chin. He turned his gaze upwards and found himself looking into the Archon's gently smiling face.
“Why do you bring weapons into this holy place, my son?” The Archon asked softly. “Only the most devout soldiers of Christ may bear steel in my sanctum. Are you then a soldier of Christ?”
“I am no soldier. But I must carry my daisho at all times, ready to strike down my enemies.” The Ronin murmured in reply. “It is the code I live by. The service I owe to my master.”
He found himself trapped in the gaze of those almighty eyes. They moved like pools of light, shining easily into every part of his being, into those dark corners he fought so hard to conceal, especially from himself. He felt himself tremble, naked and powerless before the clarity of that gaze. And yet he could not look away.
The Archon smiled.
“You have no enemies here, my son. And no master over you, save that of your own ego. For I see in you one who has refused the yoke and now wanders lost in the wilderness. I see in you one unacquainted with Jesus Christ, your true lord and master. And yet,” he added, his eyes gleaming with a strange light, “I see too that you have encountered the Beast and refused its temptations. How curious. Do you know what has brought you here, my son?”
“I have come for the power source that lies buried beneath this place.” The Ronin replied in confusion. “I have come to redeem myself and this blighted place.”
The Archon threw his head back and laughed: a merry, ringing sound. When he looked back at the Ronin, steel showed clearly within his gaze; brightly shining, but hard and sharp nonetheless.
“Blighted? Do you not know the kingdom of god when you see it? Arise, my son! Rise up and rejoice!” The Archon pulled him up with surprising strength and set him on his feet before the others. “You came here seeking salvation, and you have found it. And in you, Christ sends us our salvation. My children!” He added, glancing around at the kneeling congregation that filled the sept. “This man has encountered the Beast and rebuffed it! He comes before us now as Matteo came before the Mizzenites on the eve of battle: without hope, ignorant of Christ's ministry, but in possession of great gifts. He shall be our honoured guest, for I know that god has sent us great riches in him.”
The knights and priests rose at this signal, casting confused glances at one another. The Archon turned to the temple guardian who had raised his blade to the Ronin.
“Brother Kesteven, you shall watch over our guest here. Instruct the seneschal to prepare a cloister room for him. There you will find rest and comfort after your arduous journey.” He added, turning with a smile to the Ronin. “And now you must excuse me, my son, for I have many pressing duties to attend to. But I invite you to break bread with me tonight. Then we shall discuss those matters which most concern you.”
The Ronin bowed, hiding his confusion behind courtesy. The Archon merely smiled; taking the Ronin's head firmly in his hands, he drew the giant down and kissed him on both cheeks. Then, with a fatherly glance at the rest of the company, he turned away and ascended the steps to his throne and the image of Christ that hung above it, already taking up the chant once more.
Brother Kestevan gestured sullenly to the Ronin. Turning away with a sour grunt, he led him to a small doorway tucked away in the western transept; behind them, the chanting of the priesthood resounded throughout the cathedral once more.
Passing through the doorway, the Ronin emerged into a cloistered quadrangle arranged around a garden. Here he was instructed to wait while the knight and the sensechal stood in conference a little ways off, their hushed voices breaking off every few moments to gesture or nod meaningfully towards him.
The Ronin leant against the stone fountain that tinkled at the centre of the cloister garden, reflecting dully on his circumstances as he stared down at the haggard face he saw in the fountain's depths.
Here he was at last, he thought as Brother Kesteven's angry tones mingled with the chuckling of the fountain; here he was at the centre of this weird godscape, caught between piety and violence.
Out beyond the walls, a kind of dark madness seemed to reign. Here, inside the city, all was rigidly ordered, apparently in accordance with god's will. Order and Chaos. The twin poles of existence, evidently not in balance, since the MODALITY over which these forces wrestled lay in torpor, the rivers of this fallen world fed by its tears. And this was to say nothing of those other mysteries. How had Homo Sapiens come here? What was the Beast? And what of the vision he had received in the mountains, and the strange correspondence it bore to the symbols of Parnassus? He shook his head.
Too many questions and not enough answers. But it was not his place to seek answers. It was only for him to struggle and die.
Still. One can always infer the shape of things, if one is not too blind to see-
Behind him the conference broke off abruptly. Brother Kesteven called out to him contemptuously and he turned with a sigh from the morose face of the fountain.
The seneschal, a small, kindly-seeming man, conducted him to a cell just off the cloister: a flagstoned room with a single, shuttered window, bare but for the single bunk and the candle sconces set high in the walls. Here, a meal was produced, followed by a bath of steaming waters. The Ronin ate as best he could beneath the sullen gaze of Brother Kesteven, then released his aching body from the confines of the O-Yoroi armour and squeezed himself into the tub. Dressing himself afterwards, he refused Brother Kesteven's offer of having the armour cleaned and oiled, and sealing himself within its bounds once more, lay down on the cramped bunk and fell into a deep sleep.
He slept the sleep of the exhausted, deep and refreshing. And as he slept a dream came to him, for once not of Krokus or of the people he'd loved and betrayed, but a series of weird images flashing up from some reservoir of the unconscious.
He saw, as from above, a series of concentric circles, expressive of different phases of substance and being. Sluggish and dim at its outer edges, it progressed inwards through colours and patterns that grew in complexity and vibrancy. He saw the motions of each circle reflected, or perhaps echoed, in the circles immediately adjacent, so that a pulse seemed to travel in continual waves, first from the centre outwards, and then from the edge back in. He saw the whirling vortex of light at the mandala's heart, shaded from the rest by three veils; he watched its final pulse emanate outwards through the lesser phases. But something was wrong. The pulse reached the outer edge, turned about and began refracting inwards once more. But it was slowed by some blockage in the third circle and its energies became confused-
The perspective of the dream shifted suddenly, and the Ronin saw the structure in profile, presented as a series of rising tiers. He saw the dark red base of the lowest tier progress upwards through plasmic discharge to the orange second tier, which rose up in turn to the glowing yellow of the third tier, each base supporting and feeding the higher, which in turn laid the blueprint of design for the lower. He saw the nexus of confusion at the third level, a roiling miasma of energies pressing against the barrier-
There was a CRACK! and a tremendous flash: an agony repeated endlessly as Christ screamed upon the cross-
And then the tower was rent by a glowing fissure, severing the entire structure, the higher levels fading from view-
And from the fissure that was opened the Ronin saw a dark splotch crawl forth, its broken mind fizzing with rage and fear. And in its wake came a shard of green emerald flowering from the apex of this new tower, absorbing all the energy that pulsed up from below it, unable or unwilling to send it back down again.
The Ronin saw this, the sole witness to the great rupture and remaking of the tower. And he knew suddenly that he formed a third part to the rupture; that he reflected it, and in his reflection of it lay the key to its repair.
There was a crash, a tremor and the screams of far-off misery. The Ronin awoke suddenly, sweating and disordered. Tension hummed in the air. The room seemed to buckle and twist-
He lurched from the bed, threw open the shuttered windows: above, black masses hung against the sky, frozen for an instant in a great armada. Then a projectile struck somewhere amidst the white buildings below. He felt the shuddering impact, heard screams and the tumble of masonry. He leaned out of the window, squinting his eyes-
Through the haze that filled the air, he saw in the distamce the mass of white ghouls that surrounded the city and the siege engines that reared above their lines, arms swinging ponderously to fill the air with stone.
Then came the CRACK! of his dreams again, and a beam of pure energy arced up from somewhere to engulf a chunk of masonry-
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! The beams projected forth from within the white buildings, incinerating the rubble mid-flight. He heard the shouts of the crews and knew suddenly that ion-cannons stood everywhere in the highest tier of the city, swivelling to intercept the missiles, drawing enormous power from the reserve that lay buried below the city.
As his heart began to slow a little, he saw the projectiles that fell short, landing among the shacks of the lowest tier and shattering them to pieces; he saw the fires that were breaking out down there, setting up the black haze that enshrouded Parnassus. And through the haze, as Brother Kesteven hammered on the door behind him, something else caught his eye out within the lines of the besiegers. He saw that what he had taken for a earthwork ramp out among the lines was in fact only piled earth from the pit being dug behind it. And in this deep pit pathetic figures were labouring beneath the whip, digging down into-
He squinted as the door crashed open behind him, not sure of the glistening black things the work crews had uncovered-
Then Brother Kesteven's hand was on his shoulder.
“It's time, heathen.” The knight said simply, looking with anger and resentment into the Ronin's face. “The Archon has issued his summons. You will come with me.”
The Ronin made no response, but turned one last time to the window, to squint out through the smog.
And there, for one instant, he saw the hoses that were being dragged down into the pit, and the crew of workers that sought to drive staves into the huge black tubes that writhed in the dirt. Beyond the pit was a line of wheeled pump-houses, their brass outlines gleaming-
Then a cloud of smog rose up to obscure the sight and the Ronin saw no more.
“Very well.” He said, turning back to the knight. "You may escort me. For the hour is at hand and I stand ready for it."
He did not see the expression that crossed Brother Kesteven's face as he was led from the room.