Where the Moon is God – Chapter 3

Here’s the next chapter of Where the Moon is God.

Previous chapters can be found here:

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

Where the Moon is God – Chapter 1

Where the Moon is God – Chapter 2


Henry believed that when someone was truly penitent, a priest could recognise the seriousness of their confession. Equally, when they were not sincere, a priest could tell that their confession was incomplete. This was not some strange trick that came to them simply because they were men of God: he had personally handled so many confessions in his time that spotting the truthful and the liars was second nature to him.

It was not difficult to tell the honest from those who would likely commit another sin as soon as Henry turned his back. People who only confessed because they thought it would save them, and not because they truly felt the need to unburden themselves within their souls, hardly sounded legitimate. He tried his best to encourage all who confessed to him to truly mean what they said, but there were only so many people he could get through to. He did not have all the time in the world; he was always busy.

Too many people did not understand the importance of their confessions. They used them as escape routes when they wanted forgiveness, viewing confession as an easy escape from the consequences of their actions. The hardest challenge for Henry was allocating a penance: it needed to teach them not to repeat their sins, but also had to be something they were likely to see from start to finish. Too few of them would complete their penances. There were penalties in place for those who tried to avoid them, but Henry knew that large numbers never got caught.

He was priest in a church that seemed to have an overly large number of parishioners who were exactly that kind of person. He knew that it was his responsibility to ensure those people were as dedicated to the Lord and as moral as they could be, but in a bustling city rife with sin that task was impossible. On many Sundays, he would look out at his congregation and could almost see the corruptness, as though it hung over the people’s heads like a dark shroud.

Henry should not have been judgemental, but it was sometimes difficult to restrain himself. Although he was a member of the community in Lincoln in his body, his mind was like those of Theodore and Thomas, and he had always regretted not joining them in the monastery. His hesitation and reluctance to make such drastic changed in his life had left him stuck in the city; he had become too concerned with saving the souls of those who lived in the urban area now to leave.

Life in the city was not always terrible. It had its advantages. Henry was much more aware of local news than the two monks were, and news from London or even further afield would reach him at an alarming speed. He wrote to his brother often, usually to pass on this news, and knew that he was the source of much of their world news. His letters were generally faster than news in reaching the monastery. It had become something of an obligation for Henry to keep his younger brother informed on all things newsworthy. That, and to keep their ageing but still influential father away from the two monks.

Yet, for all the support that Henry provided to his brother (standing in the way of their father was a full-time job), he could not help his increasing frustration with the task. Priests were by no means perfect, for no man could avoid sin completely, and the more that Henry tried, the harder it seemed to be to juggle his personal and professional lives.

That was why monasticism called to him. It promised to take him away from so many evils, to remove the temptations the cities were full of. He no longer felt able to reach that standard of purity; his chance to leave the city and join a monastery had come and gone many years ago.

So, there he sat, listening to the confessions of the common people in his church every day. Men and women listed their immoralities in as much details as they could remember, their blank expressions portraying their misunderstanding of the importance of the act. Henry played the part of the concerned and attentive priest, telling each person who came to him to ask for forgiveness with a serious heart.

There were only so many times that he could tell laypeople how serious confession was before the whole matter became futile. By the time they reached adulthood, most people had already reached their own conclusions about the world, so what Henry had to say was irrelevant.

In the past month, he had listened to many confessions and been convinced on many occasions that he was listening to someone who was not truly penitent. The three who had stood out the most to him had been … well, they were gone now. It was a horrible way to go, and nobody – not even the constable – had any idea who or what had killed them. What little information Henry had managed to piece together had made no sense at all.

It seemed ridiculous that the killer only struck on the full moon, even more so that they killed three people each night, almost ritualistically. The only explanations he had been able to come up with so far were either that this killer was something who had lost their mind, or that they were something from the world beyond with an interest in scary stories.

The constable had sent for help from the king after the third set of attacks, but even these men had not found anything, and Henry did not believe they were too concerned about the deaths of a handful of sinners. The bodies had been found in various locations throughout the city, and if there were any real patterns into these places, then these had gone over the heads of the investigators. The link to Henry had been noticed, but the constable had thankfully already dismissed him as a potential suspect – Henry had solid alibis.

The priest had spoken to several witnesses. One description that had stood out in his mind for its absurdity as much as the detail was of a large black wolf with blood dripping from its fangs and bright yellow eyes that had seemed to glow in the darkness. Another witness had sworn that the killer had had a large pair of black wings and red horns. Henry knew both of these accounts were stupid: there were no wolves in England and the common person imagined strange, childish images of demons. The constable was in this one too deep.

Even if someone was caught – and someone would be caught, even if only to take the blame – Henry would not be satisfied until they were caught red handed. There were suspects and eventually one of them would confess. Officials could use a variety of methods to gain a confession, not all of them pleasant.

Henry could not sit idly by as the constable carried out his work. Something was amiss in the city and it threatened his flock; as long as they were in danger, Henry was not doing his job. It was only a matter of time before the killer decided to make a move on some of the more faithful parishioners, or even some of the clergymen. Waiting around to hear about the next set of murders was not an option.

Confiding in Thomas and Theodore about his problems had always been beneficial. Henry had hoped that they would be able to think of something he had not considered. A part of him had hoped that they would write back with assurances that there was no reason to think this might be the work of an unnatural force. He had waited anxiously for their reply, hoping that it would be a sensible one.

The men’s response had done nothing to ease Henry’s worries. The monks had agreed that there was something sinister about these murders, and from the way Thomas had worded the letter it seemed that they did not believe it could be human. Henry could understand why they had been sceptical to use the word demon without further evidence, but he could tell that it was been on their minds.

Like Henry, they had ruled out a wild dog attack despite the state of the bodies, believing the monthly cycle represented a creature more intelligent than some mere beast. Either this was a lunatic killing for some pagan ritual, or Henry’s gut feeling had been right all along.

Other clergymen would probably have advised him to let the controller handle it.  They might have told him to stop worrying about the fates of a bunch of sinners who had refused to accept God and had failed to turn their lives around. Henry could not do that: to ignore the deaths would be to ignore that it was his church being targeted, people he knew or recognised.

The confessions of the three who had been killed most recently were still clear in his mind. He had focused a lot of his attention on them throughout the month, suspecting that they might be next, but he had done nothing to prevent their deaths. What could he have done? There was no way for him to have been certain.

Nevertheless, the feeling remained that Henry should have done something. He had questioned whether he had been jumping to conclusions by anticipating their deaths; now he felt ashamed that he had not done more to save them. This month, Henry had already decided, he would do things differently. He could not trust what the investigators told him. The guards around the city were useless. He would not allow anyone else to die.

Yes, he remembered all three of those confessions. The woman had been the first to confess. Henry had taken her away to a room where they could not be overheard for the confession, although from the moment he had seen her enter his church he had guessed what she might say. Her skimpy dress and exaggerated walk had not even passed a man as chaste as Henry by. His eyes had followed the movement of her hips back and forth before he had been able to stop them, and he had felt a little too hot in her presence.

They had settled in a private room at the back of the church. The secrecy of the room was designed to encourage the woman to list every detail of her sins. Even though he had known what sort of things to expect from her, some of the sexual acts she had described had shocked him and made him feel sick.

Henry was not allowed to react to any of the confessions he heard, so he had kept his head down and his eyes on the floor. That way, the confessor could not be put off by Henry’s response to their words. He had asked the woman the right questions, despite not wanting to ask them, to push her into confessing all. As he saw too often in the city, she had been unwilling to speak at certain points – or, Henry thought, perhaps too humiliated to continue. Considering how much she had been willing to admit, he did not want to know what might have embarrassed her.

She had been asked to do all manner of peculiar things by the dirty men who had used her services. Henry may have spent his whole life clinging firmly to a vow of chastity (which had not always been easy to keep), but he was by no means ignorant. He knew what was considered ordinary and what was more unusual when it came to sex.

As uncomfortable as he had felt as he had listened to everything she had to say, he had an obligation to hear her, so that God could forgive her. Through Henry, the Lord would see that she was repentant. Unfortunately, the more that she had gone on, the more convinced Henry had become that she was not going to change her ways. She had shown him no indication that she really intended to start over, and the confession had ended with the priest feeling more than a little useless.

When she had left, she had received strange looks from the men she had walked past, and Henry had become fully convinced that her confession and penance would do nothing to improve her life or encourage her to change. He had instructed her to go on a local pilgrimage with the hope that she would feel the presence of the Lord if she got out of the city, which in turn might encourage her to change her sinful ways, but he could not say that he had ever expected her to carry it out.

It was a shame to see people like her, so corrupted and alone that the twisted vices were all she had left. Henry could not help but silently condemn her. He had kept an eye out for her, wondering if she might be at risk, but he had wanted to believe that she would not be killed.

The adulterer had been the next to confess, perhaps halfway through the month. He had spoken in a quiet voice, as though he had been afraid of speaking his sins too loudly. Henry had reminded the man that a major element of confession was the ability to admit what he had done, and that if he could not do this then he could not begin to receive forgiveness from God, but even after the volume of that pitiful voice had been raised the tone had still been one of a man who really did not want to say what he was saying.

He had told Henry that he had been seeing a young woman for many months, an unmarried girl still living under the watchful eyes of her parents. Henry had wondered what could make a grown man wish to see a girl that young. Apparently, she was expected to marry soon, engaged to a young man of her parents’ choosing, but whom she had no interest in. The young woman and the adulterer had been sneaking around to keep their affair a secret from both of their families, his being his wife and children.

Nobody had discovered their affair – which often fuelled confessions of this sort – but the man was beginning to regret ever approaching the girl. He told Henry that he had tried to call off their relationship, although the priest suspected that this had been a lie. From the way the man had described their sinful actions, Henry knew he should have spotted that the man was not prepared to give the girl up.

Apparently, the pair had first met at church. Of all the places for such an affair to begin, it had been in Henry’s own church! They had caught one another’s attention, and from that moment everything else had sprung. It had been a whirlwind relationship, the young girl willing to offer herself openly to the older man, and he too eager to grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Henry could have easily blamed her if he had wanted to, but he knew that it was the adulterer who had taken full advantage of the opportunity. Everything his wife had refused to give him at home, he had taken from this girl.

The priest’s instructions had been to end the affair immediately and remove the young girl from his life. Henry had given the man a penance his wife would not notice, so that she would not become suspicious that he had sinned. With no real power to know whether this penance had been carried out or not, Henry had been left to hope that the man would care enough for his immortal soul to do the right thing. Although the priest could not say for certain that the man had died because he had failed to carry out Henry’s instructions, there was enough evidence surrounding the other victims to suspect that his advice had been ignored.

Then there had been the gambler, not two days before all three had been killed. The man had smelt strongly of alcohol and the stench had assaulted Henry’s senses. It had been as though he had suddenly become far more in tune with his ability to smell than ever before. The odour had been offensive and had left the priest feeling temporarily light-headed. He had recognised it too well – there were an awful lot of drunks in the city.

The gambler had been to Henry to confess many times before, so the priest had known that anything he said would likely not be adhered to. The gambler rarely paid any attention during the confession, turning up regularly with the misguided belief that confession alone was enough. Henry had still been forced to carry out his role as patient priest – and do it well. This was the sort of person he always hoped he might be able to get through to, and one who had been slowly causing those hopes to fade away.

They had sat down in the back room and the gambler had begun, the usual rambling story flowing freely from his mouth, one Henry had listened to many times before. He told Henry how it had all started when his goods had stopped selling at the market; how his wife had been angry because he had been unable to support her and their children; how he in turn had been angry and aggressive with her for acting as though she had any kind of authority over him. Henry had wanted to smack the gambler around the head and tell him that his wife was probably as miserable as he was, but that she had bigger concerns than her own selfish pride. Nonetheless, he had kept his head down and his lips tightly shut.

The story of the gambler’s wife had set up the man’s excuse to do whatever he wanted. He had told Henry that it had made him turn to wine whenever he had stormed out of the house in a rage. Eventually, the men he had been drinking with had introduced him to gambling, taking advantage of the drunk until he had become addicted to the game. Henry had repeated what he told the man every time they spoke: there was a chance to overcome this obsession, but to change his life both the drinking and the gambling had to stop. Once more his words had been met with a sorry explanation that this was too difficult from the supposedly penitent man.

Henry had told him that this was understandable, and that the Lord knew how hard things had been for him. It was, however, now time to turn his life around, and realise that he could take another path. The gambler had chosen to turn to the easiest option available, drowning his sorrows in booze. Once he had gambled away his month, Henry had assumed that the man would be willing to change, but the priest seemed to have ignored the stubbornness of the laity and the quick joy that sins brought common people. The man simply did not want to be moral.

The gambler had blamed everyone from the other traders at the market to his wife for his actions. At one point, he had even asked Henry why God would allow him to live in such misery. Each time, Henry had reminded him that he had chosen this path for himself, and it was not God (nor anyone else) who had forced him to act as he had acted. The Lord did not work to make him happy.

Perhaps the gambler had accepted this, but if he had it had clearly been too late. It seemed that there had been no intentions towards change.

God would have helped the man in an instant, had he genuinely wanted to work to change himself. That did not mean He would have made it easy for the man. Laypeople seemed to forget that just because God had created them, this did not mean that He would be there every step of the way to nudge them in the right direction and grant them answers whenever they asked for them. The Lord would hardly have been who He was if He allowed everyone to get by without having to put in any effort themselves.

It seemed that the gambler had taken the easy option once more. It had, unfortunately, cost the man his life.

 

Henry had spent countless hours trying to understand why it was people who had confessed to him who were being targeted by this killer. Had they been there, somewhere in the church, during each confession? That seemed highly implausible. Had they seen the sinners leave his church and picked them out at random? No, Henry would surely have noticed someone lurking outside or around the church like that. Neither of those explanations explained the fascination this killer had with Henry’s flock in particular.

All nine victims had seemed unwilling to change their ways or carry out their penances. That meant it had to be someone or something who knew enough about the victims to have decided they were lost causes who would never change their ways. Henry was a good priest, though: he had never disclosed a single confession to another person. Yet despite that, someone still seemed to know.

It was a terrible thing for him to think, but he might have felt better if there had been other odd deaths in the city. At least that way, the deaths would not seem so focused on Henry’s church. The whole situation was inhuman, even before he considered how the constable had described the bodies. He had tried to think of it as a loose animal, but that no longer seemed viable. Nor did some strange ritual. There was only one possibility remaining and the monks had confirmed that.

This killer was able to spot sinners and was selecting them for gruesome deaths. Theodore and Thomas had not needed the months of debate that Henry had had with himself: it had to be a demon.

He would have to keep a watchful eye on his parishioners this month, Henry thought to himself glumly, feeling the weight of the monster heavy on his shoulders. He had never banished a demon before and everything he had ever read about it had been rather vague on the subject. There was no time for him to learn, either: as he sat there, he noticed a woman entering the church, limping slowly towards him, and knew from the look on her face that she had come to confess …

With the church and all the responsibilities it demanded of him, Henry had too much on his plate to deal with a demon as well.

The woman was old, plump around the middle, and had large shadows under her eyes. Henry tried to pretend that he had not noticed her torn and shabby clothes. He did not wish to prejudge her. He smiled politely and showed her some courtesy, trying to avoid a pained expression from crossing his face as she told him that she was there to confess.

‘Then please come this way,’ Henry said, leading her away from the other clergymen gathered in the church. He avoided the crowd stood around a small shrine at the back of the church and sat her in a private room. The others, though no doubt worried about the deaths too, had chosen to do as Henry had done, and were keeping their innermost thoughts to themselves.

The pair of them got comfortable, but the woman seemed reluctant to begin. This was relatively common, so Henry began to ask her questions, aware that she needed to be willing and ready more than he had ever been aware of it before. Eventually, she said something that allowed the confession to begin.

‘I have hit a man,’ she said, and Henry flicked his eyes up from the floor for the briefest of moments to look at her large hands. He would not want to be struck by those. ‘I hit him so hard that I made him bleed and then I left him there without going to see whether he was hurt.’

‘Who was this man who you hit?’ Henry asked, because the identity was important if he was to establish who she had sinned against and how severe the sin was. Hitting anyone was bad, particularly for a woman (she should not have been acting in a violent manner), but there were ways in which the sin could be worse. ‘I do not need a name,’ he added, because she was not supposed to name anyone, ‘but tell me their position compared to you.’

‘A clerk,’ she told him.

‘Of what position exactly?’ he pressed her.

There was a long pause. ‘A priest, like yourself,’ she admitted. That was worse than if she had hit a layperson, but Henry still did not know enough about the attack.

‘Where did this happen?’ he asked her. If she had hit the priest in a consecrated place, the sin she was describing would become yet more severe.

‘Inside of his church,’ the woman said, twiddling her thumbs around one another as she spoke, ‘but I was angry at the time.’

Henry decided he had heard enough. The conversation had to move along so that he could deal with her excuse; the old woman would become another on the list of souls he had failed to save if she did not accept responsibility for this attack. By claiming that it had been an emotional outburst, she was shifting the blame away from herself.

‘Why would you do this?’ he asked her. ‘Tell me what angered you so much that you hit him.’

‘I … heard tell from some that this priest has committed adultery with my daughter,’ the woman replied, and Henry sighed internally. Every day he seemed to hear the same stories about clergymen in towns and cities taking advantage of their parishioners. ‘She has now seen the light. She told him that they could no longer see one another, but he became angry with her and said that she could not stop him. I thought I was defending my child, but now I realise my actions were wrong, and I am here to ask God for forgiveness for this sin.’

It was a relief that she seemed to know what she was talking about. Henry felt that she was serious about what she was saying; the woman seemed to honestly want to be forgiven for this misdeed. He was able to relax, the concept of her impending death disappearing from his anxious mind. Her justification made sense and it would have been far worse if she had not had a genuine reason for being angry towards the priest. That did not make it right, but she had clearly thought about the immorality of what she had done.

‘When did you commit this sin?’ Henry asked her. He looked at a spot on his shoes, waiting for her response.

‘It was earlier today. I came here as soon as I realised I was wrong. I didn’t even have time to change.’

At this, Henry stalled. If the woman had not had time to change, that implied one of two things: either she did not own any decent clothes and walked around in rags every day, or the incident she was describing had been more like a fight than a single smack. He approached the subject of a more heated bout carefully.

‘Tell me exactly how you hit him in as much detail as you can,’ he said. ‘Tell me everything you can remember, to ensure that you have fully confessed and spoken of this evil before God. Only when you have admitted all can you be forgiven for what you have done on this day.’

He did not miss another brief pause. ‘I walked into his church. There were lots of people around. I did not hesitate because I knew what I was going to do. I went up to him and struck him in the face. I was pulled away from him by the others who were present and then I left.’

Henry could not help what he did next: he looked up from the floor, frowning at her. ‘How did you get that mark on your sleeve?’ he asked. It was red and looked like blood.

‘Oh,’ she said, apparently caught off-guard by his question. She looked down at the sleeve and then back up at Henry, as though she did not have an answer for him. When she next spoke, she sounded less convincing. ‘It must have happened when I hit him – but I didn’t mean to do it, it was only so that I could protect my daughter! My husband pays alms to the church – it’s well know. We are highly spoken of for our generosity.’

‘One good deed does not balance out a sin,’ Henry pointed out, not wanting to lose track of their conversation. The woman looked as though she was insulted by this comment; Henry backtracked to save himself before the atmosphere turned sour. ‘All I meant to say is that a confession must be full and clear, and that a sin is a sin, regardless of one’s reputation.’

She lightened up a little after those words, but Henry felt that from that point onwards she was trying to avoid the subject. She became just another who thought that confession was nothing more than an obligation and as time went on Henry felt as though she was not really thinking about what she was admitting to. Her clothes might well have been torn as she had been pulled away from the priest, but one swift punch did not seem enough to account for the blood on her clothes.

Henry blamed himself when she left, convinced that she was now in danger and placing the responsibility for anything that happen to her on his own behaviour. If he had not spoken up about how she could not hide this sin behind her donations, then she might have filled in the gaps of her confession, but Henry had been so determined to get things right that his concentration had slipped, and he had made them worse. He made a mental note to watch the woman closely over the course of the month. Perhaps, if there was a way for him to ensure that she stayed in her home on the full moon, then she would be safe.

He wondered whether he was fretting for no reason. He had no idea whether the woman was going to be killed, but he could not get the idea off his mind. This monster was going to return, and Henry did not know if he would ever be able to forgive himself if he sent another person to their death, never mind whether God would be able to forgive him.

The pressure was already beginning to mount. If Henry had not known better, he would have said that he was responsible for all of this, the gruesome murders and all.

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Where the Moon is God – Chapter 2

You can catch up on the previous parts of Where the Moon is God here:

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

Where the Moon is God – Chapter 1

This is mostly character/plot building and backstory, more action will occur in the upcoming chapters.


There was one thing, and one thing alone, that had made Thomas interested in Theodore as a child: the other’s unremitting determination to see things himself, to witness everything before judging it. It was a truly inspirational way to live and one that nobody else did with quite the same ferocity. Thomas often wondered where Theodore’s inquisitive streak had come from, although he had never asked. It was much more fun to watch and learn from Theodore’s gentle, caring personality.

Being a monk made it difficult for Theodore to travel far, and generally the two of them spent their days within the walls of their monastery, where few distractions could tempt them to sin. Theodore had to rely on the written word of others to get first-hand (or sometimes second-hand) accounts. On rare occasions, the isolation seemed to get a little too much for him, and Theodore would leave the monastery to wander alone in the surrounding countryside. What he saw during those times was anybody’s guess, and Thomas did not wish to pry.

It was another element of Theodore to admire, another that made him so different from Thomas but so very likeable. Thomas enjoyed the comfort of the monastery and did not venture unless he had to. He liked to hear news from Henry and he more than liked discussing said news with others, but as far as he was concerned there was no need to get any more involved in goings-on than that.

In the same way that Thomas reflected on the Bible in his moments of silent meditation, so Theodore used his excited need to explore to do the same. When the other man could not explore, he would read and study to diel the apparently endless desire he had to contemplate the issues of the day. Theodore knew more about scholars and religious thinkers than Thomas, purely because Theodore would spend hours pouring over their works. Thomas liked to read and to know, but Theodore liked to study and to understand.

Thomas often found himself wishing that he could be more like Theodore. He wished that he could have the amazing patience of the other man, that thirst for knowledge that could keep Theodore going and going until he became physically exhausted. In truth, however, Thomas preferred to learn from one of the greats than become one of them.

So, whenever Theodore announced that he had received a message from one of his friends around the country (including the favourite Matthew), who wanted him opinion on some argument or philosophy, Thomas would leave him to it. He liked to watch as Theodore moved from one point the next, no matter how obvious or disconnected they seemed, and built up his arguments until he could reach his own conclusion. The way he did it was fascinating.

This was why Henry had asked for their thoughts. Thomas’ brother knew as well as Thomas himself that Theodore was a genius; whenever the three of them were together (a sadly rare occurrence of late), it was evident that Henry admired Theodore almost as much as Thomas did. It had been that way ever since they had been young, and in those days, the relationship between the other two young men had bothered Thomas. It had left him feeling sour. Now that they were all older, he wished he had spent less time thinking about Theodore and Henry’s friendship and more time learning from his friend.

That was why he had naturally rushed to find Theodore with the letter from Henry. Together, they could discuss what was happening, whether it was a wild dog or a human or a demon, and why it seemed to be connected to Henry, until one of them came up with something that would be of use to the priest.

As he sat on his bed watching Theodore pace back and forth in the small bedchamber, with barely enough room for three steps in any direction, he wondered whether he would ever meet anyone else quite like Theodore. It was doubtful. There was certainly nobody else in the world who had helped Thomas to develop his faith as much as Theodore had done. The way that Theodore approached the Bible had done more for Thomas than the church or sermons or the peaceful solitude of the monastery.

Of the two of them, Theodore was the strong-minded one. He had always known what he wanted and what he believed in, and had gone out of his way to follow his desires in the right way. He was so focused on success and yet so down to earth that he was granted both mental and physical health. Although he was not physically as strong as many men, there was no reason for him to be. He had everything he needed in order to be good at what he did.

Thomas, on the other hand, was a quiet enthusiast who liked to observe greatness rather than be a part of it. Theodore had been awe-inspiring even as a child, a too-thin little boy from a poor family who had taught Thomas a lot about less fortunate people. As an adult, Thomas had always felt stronger with Theodore around, more sure of himself and more capable of completing his tasks and goals. He no longer wanted to be Theodore – those days had long passed – but he did hope to one day be that pious himself.

When Thomas had previously voiced his thoughts about this reliance on his friend, Theodore had only laughed kindly and said that Thomas should have more faith in himself. That had helped to boost Thomas’ confidence. Theodore had pointed out that every man showed his faith in different ways, and that Thomas did not need to be like Theodore to show how deeply religious he was. He did not need to go on these grand adventures he imagined Theodore went on to have a full and interesting life.

Thomas found it strange that Theodore seemed to admire him equally. Theodore would dismiss gossip and try to bat Thomas away when he brought news, but in the end they both knew that he wanted to listen, that he would stare with wide and excited eyes until Thomas had finished the story. Theodore did not hear gossip as Thomas did – but then Theodore was forever caught up in his own thoughts, never paying as much attention to the world around them as Thomas did.

When Theodore had told Thomas that the Lord did not care how they demonstrated their belief as long as it was true, he had reminded Thomas that they would both be loved equally and welcoming into His kingdom upon their deaths. Then he had added that he had always admired Thomas for the dedication he had shown to Theodore when they had run away from the city and from their families to become monks, and that Thomas was the greatest gift the Lord had ever given him.

It was an unusual compliment to be called a gift from God, but Thomas had clung to it ever since those words had left Theodore’s mouth. They had made him want to beam with joy, but he had waited until he had been alone before he had allowed himself to grin. Praise from Theodore was a marvellous thing, never giving him more belief in himself than was good for the soul, and it brightened up even the darkest days in a way that Thomas did not think anybody else’s praise could do.

His world did not revolve around Theodore. It was difficult for Thomas to imagine life without the other, but there were times when even he had to admit they both needed a break. His life was dedicated to none other than God. Nevertheless, there had been a few occasions when Thomas had wondered where exactly admiration ended and the worshipping of a false (and very human) idol began.

Theodore, for as much as he sang Thomas’ praises, seemed to view their friendship differently. He had always been oblivious to the way that Thomas revered him – which was not necessarily a bad thing – and likely would have condemned the behaviour if he had ever caught on. Although he had always led, and Thomas had always followed, Theodore had never done anything to take advantage of that position.

Thomas could not remember the first time they had referred to one another as ‘brother’, because long before they had started on the path to become monks Theodore had heard other monks using the title and had adopted it for himself. He had integrated it into their friendship and Thomas had enjoyed the new term just as much. It had focused his attention on both Theodore and the monks.

Despite how Thomas had always walked in Theodore’s footsteps, willing to do anything the other had wanted of him, Theodore had never mentioned noticing it. He had certainly never used the position to his advantage, although he could have done so if he had ever wanted to. Thomas knew Theodore would never play on that power. Henry had made signs that he had spotted Thomas’ admiration, but what he thought of it was a secret known only to the priest; he seemed content to allow Thomas to live his life the way he wanted to, in Theodore’s shadow.

Theodore was kind and considerate, the nicest person Thomas knew, with such a sensitive soul that Thomas sometimes did not feel good enough to be in his presence. That was what he thought as Theodore paced up and down, muttering quietly to himself as he thought about what had happened in Lincoln the previous night. Theodore would not rest until he had found his answer, because nine people had already died, and each death was a tragedy regardless of the extent of one’s sins. The dead might have changed their ways, if only they had been granted more time.

‘Wasn’t there a full moon last night?’ Theodore asked suddenly, making a scuffing sound on the floor as he stopped in his tracks. It pulled Thomas out of his own thoughts. Thomas scowled in his concentration. He had never paid much attention to the cycle of the moon; Theodore seemed to find it far easier to keep track of things like that, because Theodore noticed everything.

‘Yes … I think there was …’ he answered with some uncertainty.

Theodore made a sound that was half disbelief and half amazement. ‘Yes, I remember waking up and looking out of the window in the middle of the night! I had a bad dream.’ Thomas knew what that meant. He recognised the frightened look in Theodore’s eyes: it must have been an awful nightmare.

‘What was it about?’ he asked. Theodore visibly shook at being reminded of the dream.

‘I was being chased by something – or rather, by some things. They were monsters, demons, and hungry animals. I saw their faces.’

He hung his head for a moment and breathed a long sigh. Thomas thought about getting off the bed and going over to comfort the other man, but before he could decide what would be the best way to do it, Theodore had raised his head and started to pace again.

‘You’re safe here,’ Thomas told him, feeling weak at his hesitation. ‘They’re just nightmares.’

‘I know they are. I thought I’d conquered them, but … they keep coming back. Even meditation wouldn’t help me this time. Before you arrived at breakfast I was caught in madness and confusion. Each nightmare I have is worse than the previous one.’

Theodore stopped at the window and stooped to peer out of it. He ran a hand through his fair hair and squinted up at the sun.

‘You’re too tall for this building,’ Thomas told him, hoping to change the subject. He always felt uncomfortable when Theodore spoke about his nightmares, because there was nothing that he could do to help. Theodore did not seem to hear him.

‘Yes, the moon was full and bright,’ he muttered, still staring out of the window. Theodore did not elaborate further, until Thomas decided to push him for more information. People had been killed, after all, and they were distracted by the topic of the moon.

‘Is that relevant?’ he asked, one eyebrow raised.

‘I have no idea. I would be interested to know if the other six deaths had also occurred on a full moon.’

‘That would fit a pattern.’

‘It would do more than that. It would explain why your brother seemed to know exactly when to expect the deaths – why he was so quick to write to you. I’m not saying it’s certain, but – Henry must have suspected that something was going to happen. Perhaps this killer only strikes on a full moon.’ Theodore turned back to Thomas after he had finished; he did not look pleased with his own analysis. He rubbed his chin. ‘You know how I feel about superstition. People have felt spooked by the moon ever since we were first cast out for our rebellion. There’s something eerie about it.’

‘Well, of course there is,’ Thomas agreed. ‘It’s something we’ll never be able to touch.’

‘I feel like a fool for mentioning it,’ Theodore admitted.

‘There’s no need to. You’ve found something that might link the three nights together. It would be foolish to suggest that this is some creature from a folk tale designed to scare children and uneducated people, but the cycle of the moon could be a valid point. Henry didn’t say anything about it, but I’m willing to bet he knew.’

Theodore nodded. ‘He probably didn’t want us to label it as nonsense straight away,’ he said. ‘Do you think common people might believe it to be a folk-creature?’

‘That would explain why the witnesses have provided such useless accounts. Of course, they are an uneducated lot – we can’t forget that. Their minds are small, and they often struggle to understand even the most basic of truths – but then, you know that already, Theo.’

‘I was merely suggesting,’ said Theodore, the smile on his face revealing that there had been no need for Thomas to remind him of lay ignorance, ‘that perhaps they would have another view of this that we do not have. After all, it is laypeople being killed; relatives of the deceased doubtless have their own theories about what killed them. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to find out what they think. Consider it, Thomas – if you were a demon, what better way would there be to create terror within common people than by taking the form of a monster from their misguided beliefs?’

‘Those people only see what they want to see,’ Thomas replied awkwardly. He had not considered whether the creature might want anything more than to kill. ‘So, you’re saying that if the common folk belief it’s something that intellectuals know doesn’t exist … then the demon can keep killing for longer?’

‘Exactly. Let’s suppose it is a demon. Maybe it could even move from one place to another without suspicion in this manner.’ Theodore sighed. ‘I don’t know. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m not convinced this is a demon, but I keep thinking that it has to be something other than a human. That little guiding voice in my head is saying “what if?” – well, what if the entire thing is just exaggerated, silly rumours? What if they catch the man responsible tomorrow?? What if, what if, what if!’

‘I feel the same. The cities …’ Thomas shrugged.

‘You still don’t like the cities, do you?’

 

Theodore did not need Thomas to answer that question and they both knew it. If he had not already known the answer, then he would have been able to tell what it was simply by looking into the other man’s eyes.

Thomas’ father had been furious with the pair of them when they had left Lincoln as young men. As far as the older man had been concerned, Theodore had stolen his son from him. The confusing games that Thomas’ father had played, designed to manipulate Thomas and force him to reconcile with his angry father, had led to the monk holding a powerful and negative opinion of cities and the people who lived within them.

Sometimes, Thomas’ father had seemed to regret his words, to relent, but it had never stayed that way for long. The last time that it had happened, he had demanded that Thomas either return home to wed or stay out of his life for good. Thomas had chosen the latter and stuck to the country ever since. Thankfully, the only word Thomas heard of his father was from Henry, and even this was sparse.

Theodore had his reservations about cities, too, though not to the same extent as Thomas. They were a breeding ground for corrupt clergymen, the priest Henry being the exception. City clergymen accepted bribes and seemed to have a passion for adultery. They even claimed power over the monasteries, with no rights to them. They were greedy, sinful men, who led the laypeople living under their wings into the Hell-fire along with themselves.

As well as this, cities were filthy, smelly places. Theodore recalled how angry and unhealthy the people he had lived with in Lincoln had been. Stepping into an urban area would produce gluttony, lust, or any other sin imaginable; Theodore had wondered on more than one occasion how long it would be before he himself was tempted by the sheer corruption within large towns and cities.

Then there was the ignorance. It would only serve to make Henry’s situation worse if the so-called witnesses were speaking of monsters from scary stories. If people were seeing what terrified them in the darkness, Theodore would hate to discover what he would see if he ever faced this killer.

Things were simpler in the country. The monks examined philosophical and theological arguments, and spent little to no time dwelling on the problems of city-folk. Nevertheless, there were occasions when they were impossible to ignore.

Providing a religious purity that was unobtainable in cities, the wide expanse of open farmland and grassland around them allowed Theodore to withdraw from the physical world and reach a glorious state of mind that was untroubled by human affairs. This letter from Henry seemed to be dragging him back to the physical world, but he did have an ability to look beyond things that could offer him an insight Henry simply did not have.

Thomas shifted on his bed, his fists twisted in the covers; Theodore made a mental note to suggest meditation later in the day. Talking about the place where they had grown up was clearly wearing on Thomas. The sitting monk sighed and, after a brief silence in which they had both been allowed to think, he responded to Theodore’s earlier question.

‘It’s not that I don’t like the cities,’ he said hesitantly, ‘it’s that I think the people who live in those places are … they’re too desperate for proof of what is obvious, if only they bothered to look. They see God and devils and all manner of things in places where they are not. They make up lies, they don’t look to the church as much as they should, and they invent explanations for the world around themselves. They could find Christ on the soles of their shoes if they stared at them for long enough.’

That was exactly how Theodore felt, but he thought better than to prolong their conversation. He acted on his mental note to suggest they go meditate, and Thomas offered him a grateful smile in return. They left the room and headed down the hall, to the quietest room in the monastery.

As he sat there on the floor with his eyes shut, Theodore felt his mind slip into rest, and was thankful that there was nothing to distract him this time. He lost himself in the tranquillity; after an age, he was pulled back into the real world by Thomas whispering in his ear.

‘Thanks, Theo,’ he said.

Theodore opened one eye to look at Thomas, then the other. He smiled. ‘I think it helped us both,’ he replied.

They went to eat, and Thomas seemed much more cheerful. Theodore watched the other man, his mind sinking back into those busy, complicated thoughts that were always going around in his head when he was not focusing on clearing his mind. He could not meditate forever. They would soon need to discuss Lincoln again, and when they did Thomas was going to have to try his best to focus on the issue at hand, rather than on their past.

Theodore had tried to help Thomas overcome his hated of urban areas, but he had never been successful and had sometimes wondered whether he did not know the whole truth about the other man’s father. If Thomas was hiding something, then Theodore did not dare to consider what keeping that lie was doing to his immortal soul. His own attempts to help had only ever made the situation worse. A letter that he had written to Henry during one of his most concerned moments, asking how they could help Thomas to leave his fury in the past, had only left Theodore hurt when the priest had told him never to bring up the subject again.

It had been an odd and blunt thing for the priest to say, but Theodore had a great deal of respect for Henry and had decided to follow this instruction. Henry had, after all, been the one who had helped the pair of them escape from Lincoln, and who had stayed behind to protect them after his father had discovered him attempting to make his own escape. There was nothing Theodore could ever do to repay the priest. Shutting up when Henry asked him to was a start.

Thomas noticed Theodore was watching him between mouthfuls and put his spoon down. ‘You know, I cannot imagine how this culprit is going to be caught other than with blood on his hands,’ he said, mistaking Theodore’s concern over him for concern over the dead in Lincoln. ‘I wish nobody else will have to die, I do, but I do not see how they might be discovered otherwise. Clearly, neither Henry nor the constable have enough to go on to find them.’

‘That is not something we need to solve,’ Theodore reminded Thomas, picking up his own neglected spoon as he tried to act casual. ‘Henry just wants our advice. The king will send others to deal with this killer, should he feel that the constable cannot handle the job. If there is anything the constable has not uncovered, the king’s men will find it. We must remember that it is not our place to hunt down murderers; we can help in other ways. Our opinions are treasured. If this is a demon, they’ll find the right people to deal with it.’

‘It sounds like a powerful one,’ Thomas pointed out.

‘Yes, it does. They might ask the bishop to expel it.’

Thomas paused for a moment, then said, ‘You’re right, Theo.’ The excitement he had shown when he had first spoken of Henry’s letter was gone, replaced by an almost disinterested gaze. ‘Of course – and I can understand why Henry wants our advice. Whatever it is, it’s circling him.’

‘It seems so,’ Theodore agreed. He reached across the table with his free hand and grasped Thomas’ shoulder gently, hoping to reassure the other with his touch. ‘I’m sure it’ll be resolved, and the perpetrator dealt with accordingly, because it can get anywhere near him.’

Thomas smiled at that, a more genuine look than any Theodore had seen on his face so far that day. Perhaps all he had wanted was a bit of comfort. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said; Theodore removed the hand and returned his attention to his food. Thomas did the same, finishing without any mention of the poor taste this time.

They spent the remainder of the day focused on their own tasks. Theodore wrote a letter to Matthew asking if the man had ever heard of anything like this killer before, then returned to studying in the hope that he might find an incident strange enough to relate to Henry’s letter. It was late when he gave up and retired to his chamber.

He would try again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until he found something useful for the priest. Theodore sat at the end of his bed that night, contemplating to himself. He had no doubts that Henry was in trouble until this killer was caught.

Laying in his bed, Theodore glanced briefly out of the nearby window and was reminded of his nightmare by the silvery moon. Perhaps he should not have cast his dream aside so lightly – had those wolves been a warning, a message from a higher being that there were monsters in Lincoln? People had visions from God all the time, especially those who lived simple lives such as his own. He had always assumed that it would be obvious when one received a direct message from the Lord, without any need for interpretation, but he found this suddenly in doubt.

If he had not opened himself up to the idea of divinely inspired dreams enough to recognise one when he had it, then he needed to grant himself the time to understand whether there was any meaning behind his nightmare. He could not ignore the dream when it and the deaths had happened simultaneously.

The idea that the Lord was telling him personally that there was a demon in Lincoln came with another problem: it would likely mean Theodore was somehow involved. The nightmare had been incredibly vivid, and he could remember it so well that the more he thought about it, the more the connection seemed to make sense. Yet, if this was the case, why had he not also had nightmares during the other six deaths? Why would God not have alerted Theodore sooner, so that he might have averted those earlier deaths?

Groaning from the dull ache growing in his head from such thoughts, Theodore closed his eyes and reached out with an invisible hand, searching for any feelings of divine influence over him. After several minutes he gave up, deciding that he was probably looking too far into the dream and that there was no reason for him to definitively link it to what was happening in the city.

He rolled onto his side and buried his head in his hands, trying to drag the thoughts from his mind so that he could get some sleep. There was nothing he could do to bring those people back.

Theodore slept easier that night, soundless and without any terrors to wake him or make him sweat. When he woke the next morning, he had managed to convince himself that the nightmare was of no importance and that he had been looking for an answer where there had been no question.

This would settle down, and justice would be served. His advice would no doubt be useful to Henry, but this was not his fight.

Where the Moon is God – Chapter 1

You can read the first part of Where the Moon is God via the link below:

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

I hope you enjoy reading!


Theodore considered himself to be a generally very calm and collected individual. He was reverent and deeply religious, a monk who worshipped God as truly and faithfully as any man could. His mind was free of wicked thoughts, his body of sinful deeds. He had escaped from the evils of the world many years ago, delivered himself to a better place – a purer place – and forgiven those who had done him wrong.

It was rare for him, with all his composure, to be haunted by nightmares. Bad dreams were the only dreams he tended to have, when he had them, and they disturbed him deeply. There was no word he could think of to describe what simply terrifying things his unconscious mind was able to invent.

He lived in a large monastery in the country, isolated enough for the monks there to enjoy the world around them without getting too involved in its affairs. If nature could not calm his thunderous heart, then there was nothing that could. Nature, it seemed, was all out of ideas this time.

He settled himself down quietly in the middle of a small room in the monastery. It was a part of the building largely reserved for meditation. Theodore was cross-legged on the floor, his eyes closed and his bottom lip quivering with effort, but his hopes of reaching the tranquillity that meditation usually granted him proved fruitless. It had been many months, perhaps even a year, since Theodore had woken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat; the previous night had been a cruel reminder that he would never wholly defeat his demons.

It had been unlike any other night he could remember. He had tossed and turned in his tiny bed for hours, too hot one minute and shivering with cold the next. Once he had gotten to sleep, he had seen images of demons and inhuman monsters flashing through his mind. They had been hungry creatures, searching for their prey – searching for Theodore. He had thrown himself violently from side to side, as though kicking at the thin bedcovers might get them off his scent and end the dream. In the early hours of the morning, he had woken with a throbbing headache, after three mere hours of rest.

He had climbed out of his bed and walked over to the tiny window, bent his neck to see out of it, and looked up at the sky. The full moon had stared back at him and he had put the nightmare down to a superstitious mind that should have known better. After a few minutes walking back and forth in his room waiting for his pulse to return to normal, he had climbed back into his bed and attempted to return to sleep, but it had eluded him. Eventually, there had been movement from outside of his room, and giving upon sleep he prepared himself for the day, with a head that was still throbbing.

Seated on the floor of the cool room, the sun shining down upon him from a high window, he could tell him foolish he had been to be frightening of made-up monsters. It was never easy to see that in the darkness, when all kinds of people could imagine all kinds of things with little persuasion. Demons were real, of course, but then it was not the demons that caused him to cower like a child. Wild dogs could have been a danger, if he slept out in the open, but what he had dreamt of had been able to turn from a man into a wolf and back again, apparently at will.

Most enlightened scholars had rejected the concept of werewolves. Theodore had read a lot on the topic – certainly more than he was supposed to have read – but he had never seen any plausible argument to suggest that they were, or had ever been, real. There were strange creatures out there, far away in eastern countries, but England was not brimming with monsters. There was no reason for him to be afraid.

As much as demons could taunt him by inventing these nightmares, he would be able to overcome them. He had his faith. He had painstakingly trained himself over many years not to want or lust for anything, and so demons posed no threat to him. All that Theodore had to do was chuckle to himself until he remembered that werewolves were not real; anyone else in the monastery would have told him the same.

He would not talk to just anyone, of course. If he wanted to share what he had seen behind his closed eyes, then he would choose to speak with someone who was not going to judge him. There were few in the monastery who he felt would react in the right way: he did not want sage advice or some foul-tasting drink that was supposed to prevent him from having further nightmares. He wanted someone who would listen and nod, and then tell him he was an idiot once he had finished speaking.

First, however, he needed to calm his mind. Theodore knew that he was too distracted to concentrate. The fear that had gripped him when he had first woken had faded away slowly, until it had become little more than a silly memory. Something remaining behind, something he was unable to name. Something that puzzled him.

He could only vaguely remember the last time that a nightmare had woken him and shook him to his core. The rarity of bad dreams only served to make them feel more intense. He remembered how cold he had been when he had shot out of bed, exactly like this time, shaking as though from a fever, freezing despite the heat of the night. Questions had filled his mind that time, too.

How was his unconscious mind able to generate so many grizzly images, when he had done everything within his power to live a life of charity and simplicity? He had never seen a man beaten, stabbed, or ripped to pieces, so how was he able to imagine those tortures so vividly? He had an idea of them from descriptions and the odd image in texts, and although he could appreciate both he knew that there was a clear distinction between those and real life.

Apparently, his lack of witnessing anything gruesome could not stop his brain from filling in the gaps of his knowledge: the guts that he had seen spilling out onto the ground had seemed all too real, not just some sketch on a sheet of parchment by a skilled hand but something that was there, right in front of his eyes. He had dreamt of people taking their last breaths, choked gasps still echoing around in his ears.

Theodore shook his head as though this might dislodge the thoughts from his brain, breathing slowly and deeply to clear his mind. It was unsuccessful.

With such vivid images still swirling around in his head, meditation proved useless. For the first time in a long while, he abandoned his morning routine, resigning himself to some breakfast so that he could try again on a full stomach. This was not the way that he was supposed to do things, but he was shaken up, and that was a good enough excuse to adapt his behaviour.

The bread and the water that he had every morning were bland and tasteless. They did nothing to improve his mood. A silent prayer at the table helped to appease him slightly, and his worries faded somewhat as he felt the comforting feeling of the holy watching over him. Not long after he had finished his prayer, he was joined on the wooden bench by another monk.

The newcomer placed his bowl down on the table with a clunk and looked at Theodore with a grin that was far too cheery.

‘Good morning, Theo!’ the new arrival said, the grin turning into an even wider beam that split his face in two. It was a look that Theodore had seen opposite him every morning for many long years, something that would always manage to cheer him up, as though the other man’s happiness was somehow infectious. It did not seem to work on that morning. It was not a good morning, and no amount of saying that it was a good morning was going to make it one. Theodore mustered up the happiest voice he could.

‘Good morning, Thomas.’ He sighed, then ran a hand over his eyes, trying to shake the strange feeling that he was still in the dream. ‘You sound as though you might burst into song at any moment.’ Theodore paused, cocking his head to one side as he studied Thomas. ‘Please refrain.’

‘The sun is bright. It’s a beautiful day!’ Thomas ignored Theodore’s comment and continued to smile. He picked up his bread, tore some off, and examined it playfully before putting it in his mouth. Theodore watched, unable to hide his amusement.

‘Do we thank the Lord for this glorious sunshine?’ he asked Thomas, holding a piece of bread up himself and moving it between his fingers; it was a little too hard and a little too dry. They both knew the question was not serious.

‘Theo, we are Englishmen,’ Thomas replied. ‘When we get sunshine, we definitely thank the Lord.’

They chuckled quietly, mindful that some of the other monks had made vows of silence and that their whimsical conversation would not be encouraging to those devoted men. The pair shared a meaningful glance before returning to their meals, a look that said they were both glad to be in the other’s company. Theodore wondered whether anything had bothered Thomas in the night but did not ask. Thomas would want Theodore to discuss his own dream in fair exchange.

It was not long before Thomas spoke again. He had always enjoyed talking a little too much and Theodore had drawn attention to this more than once, but this was hardly enough to stop the man. Thomas pushed his half-empty bowl into the middle of the table, rested his elbows on the table, and leant on his hands, looking across at Theodore. Theodore put down his water, waiting for whatever the other wanted to say.

‘Have you heard the news from Lincoln?’

Theodore simultaneously grinned and sighed in exasperation. He shook his head slowly, chuckling to himself. Thomas seemed to know every scrap of information brought to the monastery before any other man, and his wide, excited eyes could not hide the fact that he considered this information to be something special.

‘You should stop your gossiping, brother Thomas,’ Theodore warned with a waggle of his finger. ‘It is not so good for the soul.’ He knew that the other monk was not going to finish speaking until he had shared everything he knew with Theodore, but then Thomas knew that Theodore wanted to hear it. Theodore liked to think that this was because Thomas knew how to tell a good story, but not even a monk could tire of good gossip.

‘Nonsense! I am not gossiping! It is news!’

‘Very well,’ Theodore said, still laughing quietly. The playful glance that Thomas shot him encouraged him to give in, a sly look that the other man had been able to pull off since well before they had arrived at the monastery. ‘Come, come then, brother Thomas, and tell me what news comes from Lincoln today.’

Thomas shuffled about in his seat as though the wait between announcing that he had news and Theodore asking to hear it had been too much for him, then moved his elbows off the table, his eyes fixed on Theodore’s. There was a moment of hesitation, a stillness that hung between them during which there was nothing else in the universe but them, before Thomas spoke. It was a pleasant moment: they had known one another before they had become monks and had always treated one another as brothers, although they were not related either by blood or marriage. Each man could read the other purely at a glance. Thomas was excited but also uncomfortable about what he had to say.

‘There were some horrible animal attacks inside the city walls last night,’ he finally said, unable to pass his voice off as casual. ‘I heard the news from my brother. He says he’s been keeping an eye on them.’

‘This news has come quick,’ Theodore commented.

‘You know Henry. He sent a messenger out here before the sun had even come up – he must have suspected something was going to happen and sent his messenger as soon as it did. He likes to keep me informed about goings-on in the city.’

Theodore nodded; Thomas’ brother often fuelled his gossip. ‘Wait – what do you mean? Is he looking out for attacks?’ he asked. He was shocked at the topic: animal attacks were rare in cities, especially in those with a wall. ‘Have there been others?’

‘Henry says there were some killings last month, too,’ Thomas explained. He picked up another piece of bread from his bowl and chewed on it for a few moments before continuing. Theodore had given up on his own bread. ‘He says the bodies were all of sinners – well, you know the sort of people who wander around cities at night – and they seem to have been attacked by some wild beast, something with huge claws and gigantic teeth. He thinks it’s probably a wild dog. Three were killed last night: one woman of the night, one gambler, one adulterer.’  Thomas counted them off on his fingers, the slender digits unfurling slowly. ‘Three also last month, and three the month before that.’ He reached nine and held his hands in front of Theodore’s face, as though this reiterated some point Theodore was missing. ‘He doesn’t think it will stop.’

‘It sounds as though he might be right.’

‘Yes. The constable got involved last month.’

‘They don’t appear to have done much.’

‘According to Henry, they killed a lot of dogs in the city, not that it’s done any good. There were a few suspects, too.’

‘People?’ Theodore raised his eyebrows, watching Thomas carefully. ‘Human suspects?’

‘Yes, well … Henry says all nine victims were morally corrupt.’ Thomas frowned. ‘It sounds strange … he did say they look like animal attacks, but you wouldn’t think an animal would be able to get past the wall or the guards month after month. Animals would go after anyone, maybe the guards themselves, not nine sinners … it sounds as though the constable will be baffled. Henry is baffled. He thinks our opinions on the matter might be useful.’

Theodore stared across the table at Thomas, his face blank, as he thought to himself. He watched the other man finish his bread and water and saw Thomas eyeing what was left in Theodore’s bowl.

‘Take it,’ he said, not wishing to be distracted from his thoughts. Thomas thanked him and snatched the bowl away, scooping up the last piece of bread and finishing it off. ‘Let me think for a while.’

‘Of course, brother,’ Thomas replied. He too fell into a thoughtful silence. Theodore watched the other man for a while, wondering what advice he would be able to offer that might help or comfort Thomas’ brother. Murders were not the forte of a monk.

This was not the first time Henry had asked for their advice, but it had only ever been matters of religion before. He had been a great support to them when they had been young, when they had played together despite the insistence of both sets of parents that they were from separate worlds and should stay that way. When the time had come, he had helped them to set off on the long path to become monks, and so they tried to assist him whenever he requested it.

If the truth was to be told, Thomas had always had an interest in things that should not have concerned him, which was how he had become friends with Theodore – a poor child with almost no education at the time – in the first place. This might have been another example of Thomas trying to get involved in something he should not, but that kind of thinking would not help Henry. It would be wrong to ignore these deaths based on Thomas’ over interest.

Theodore emerged from his thoughts to notice that Thomas had not come to a useful conclusion either. He tried to go back into his own mind, but found distracting questions floating to the front of his mind and slammed his fist down onto the wooden table in frustration.

Thomas jumped. The other monks, seated at the surrounding tables, jumped. The whole room stared at Theodore, who muttered a feeble apology about needing to meditate more and waited for the rest of the room to go back to their breakfasts before he spoke to Thomas.

‘Does Henry really think we can come to any kind of conclusion about what could have done this?’ he asked. ‘Man, woman, demon, wild dog … I doubt we can give your brother anything more than he already has. We will be no more helpful than the constable. Yes, there are wild dogs in the forests around this monastery and yes, they could get to the city and back in a night with ease. As far as I know, they live in packs, and they do not go beyond the treeline, otherwise we ourselves would be unsafe.’

‘Someone would surely spot a wild pack,’ Thomas agreed. ‘I think Henry just wants any help he can get.’

‘That, I understand. I’m not saying that I’m not convinced it isn’t an animal. I’m just saying … I … don’t know what I’m saying. Even if it is an animal, there seems to be no way to find it unless it is caught in the act. There are so many, but … no, no, I don’t believe it was an animal.’

‘Neither do I,’ said Thomas. ‘Which begs the question: what is it? You think a person can tear people apart, cut deeper than bone, and that they would eat …’ he stalled, one hand over his mouth, as though trying not to be sick. ‘Because I don’t think a human would.’

Theodore scratched his chin thoughtfully and noticed that he needed to shave. ‘I don’t think so, either. Do you know what I could do? I could message my friend Matthew, the monk from St. Albans. He likes to document strange things that happen, so he might have come across something like this before. You remember him, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I remember him. Good man. Likes to talk.’

‘It might take some time for him to reply, and he might not have anything to say, but …’

‘But it’s worth a shot,’ Thomas finished for Theodore. ‘I’ll tell Henry you’ll write to Matthew, but we should also think of some suggestions of our own. He’s evidently very concerned about his parishioners being targeted like this.’

‘Wait – his parishioners were targeted?’ Theodore asked. This was beginning to sound less like a wild dog and more like the work of someone or something evil and sinister that was targeting specific people.

‘Yes … all nine of them were his.’ Thomas picked at a few crumbs that remained in the bottom of his bowl and scowled. ‘Do you think this food is getting worse? Anyway, the constable had guards stationed around the area last night, like they knew it was going to be there. No idea whether they saw anything, though. Apparently, there have only been a handful of sightings of this thing. Henry say’s he’s spoken to people who have seen it but not got much from them. Stories of vague shapes and monsters lurking in the shadows. Well, you know how people make things up sometimes.’

He paused, still playing with the crumbs. Theodore waited for Thomas to continue. ‘That’s not even the weirdest thing about it,’ Thomas said eventually. ‘You see, all nine of them had confessed their sins to Henry shortly before they had died … within the month of their deaths, as far as Henry can remember. He wrote that none had been ready for forgiveness, and had not taken their penances seriously.’

Theodore could not hide his surprise. ‘How very strange. They are sinners,’ he pointed out, a shake of his head accompanying the final word, ‘and it is the cities that breed them. They’re everywhere in populated areas; whenever you look, wherever you turn, there they are. Maybe it’s a coincidence … but it would be an impressive coincidence indeed. Your brother does take a lot of confessions, and not all of those people are able to drag themselves out of the corruption of the city as easily as we did.’

Thomas nodded in agreement. He glanced around himself and kept his voice low to avoid being overheard. ‘I suppose there’s always the possibility that it’s someone close to Henry. My brother seems to be contemplating divine involvement, or even retribution. All things happen for a reason.’

‘I don’t want to think it could be someone Henry knows,’ Theodore replied, ‘and divine intervention, even in the case of the worst sinners, is extremely rare. Could all nine really have done enough to warrant it? God would have been willing to forgive them, when they were ready.’

Theodore was stumped. It was Thomas who brought up the final possibility.

‘It might be a demon,’ he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. ‘That sounds like the most realistic option to me. A demon is roaming the city, punishing souls that do not see the light.’

‘It could be a demon,’ Theodore agreed, his own voice only a breath. ‘It could be.’

He left the statement there and fell silence once more. Theodore did not like to put words in God’s mouth and always liked to ensure he had clear evidence before crying out his support for something. He had been that way ever since his father had first encouraged him to embrace Christianity fully and join the church, then only a boy. That was how he had first met Thomas, and their relationship had developed from there. Theodore wanted to know that there was no chance that these attacks were being caused by an animal before advising Henry to protect himself and his flock from something far more sinister.

VALHALLA RISING – Part 9

This is the final part of Valhalla Rising.

If you need to catch up, you can find the rest of the story via the following links:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

VALHALLA RISING – Part 7

VALHALLA RISING – Part 8


The theme music could only be described as basic, at best. A few notes played in quick succession, repeated several times, and then the title appeared in the centre of the screen.

 

VALHALLA RISING

 

Zuwrath immediately decided that she did not like anything that associated the human camp with improvement. She placed one elbow on the edge of her desk and rested her head in her hand, her eyes concentrated on the screen on the opposite wall. Her tail smacked against the floor a couple of times as she waited for the words to fade away.

She should have been at home enjoying her evening, but there had been essential clarification on her new demands that Maureen Bradshaw had requested Zuwrath complete before the morning. The Controller had the sudden thought that she might not have been suspicious enough when she had received the Liaison’s unusual message.

The camera zoomed in on a virn male seated at a metal desk. Zuwrath did not recognise him, and from his appearance he was not full-blooded. His eyes were rounded in the middle, a pale blue colour, with circular pupils unlike slit-like virn eyes. Next to him was a human woman in full virn make-up, apparently made to look like a prosperous virn lady.

Zuwrath clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and huffed a long breath out of her nose. It was distasteful to see a lesser species dressed up in such a way.

For a second, a microphone dipped down from the top and was visible on the screen, but the mistake was quickly corrected. The part-virn cleared his throat, then began to speak.

Good evening and welcome to Valhalla Rising, a programme dedicated to breaking down the barriers between virn and humans, seeking to explore our cultures and shared values to bring us all closer together. I am Slick.’

And I am Lebonn,’ said the human woman, apparently abandoning her human name for one that sounded more virn.

Though from time-to-time we may refer to stories which have not been told in the more popular media, Valhalla Rising will largely be focused on allowing you to explore our lives, beliefs, and the benefits of improved virn-human relations.’

A Slick spoke, Zuwrath swiped her finger across her desk and opened a blank document.

I know what you are trying to do, she wrote. The language: calm, casual, more for virn than human viewing. The faces: virn, or at least some pathetic attempts to make them look virn. The costumes: extravagantly virn, so unlike human newscasters. The placement of words in sentences: virn comes before human, not the other way around. It is clever, I cannot deny that.

She allowed her hand to dangle over the keyboard as she retuned her attention to the unannounced programme. And be sure to tune into Pika channel 22 tonight, Maureen had ended her request, I think you’ll like what you see. Zuwrath ground her teeth together as the words floated through her mind. The woman, Lebonn, was talking.

‘… like virn society and culture, human society and culture is very complex and multi-layered,’ she said. Zuwrath’s fingers twitched. The keyboard noticed the movement and she had to go back to delete the jumble of letters that had sprawled across the document from the motion. ‘Today, as this is our first episode, we have decided to bring you something very basic from various human cultures for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure: recipes from Sol 3, or Earth as humans call our planet of origin.’

Zuwrath saved the document, closed it, and leaned over her desk to get a little closer to the screen. She frowned, and smacked her tail against the floor a couple more times. This was not the direction she had been expecting the broadcast to go in. Those behind it were certainly a cunning lot.

The broadcast featured nothing that was of great substance in and of itself. As well as a couple of recipes, there were readings of poetry, book recommendations, a short recreation of a funny sketch from a television show that had been salvaged from Sol 3, and descriptions of games played by both human children and adults.

And that was it.

Human cultures sneaking its way into everyday virn life like a pest burrowing its way into virn homes. Simple things, harmless things, the sorts of things that virn children or teens or laidback adults would be willing to try and (should they discover that they enjoyed them) perhaps even share with their friends and families. Things that they could discuss in polite conversations without the need for anything to become heated. Essentially, things that could be associated with humans without being a part of the “human problem”.

Things that Zuwrath could not possibly stop the average virn from doing in their private lives, behind closed doors where she could not pry. Things that they could not be held accountable for trying, because they would be doing nothing wrong.

There was no mention of the attack on the human child that Zuwrath had rejected for broadcast – but this, she found as she thought about it after the broadcast, was a hundred times worse than that. With Valhalla Rising, the pro-integration sector of virn society and politics would not need to spend nearly as much of their time persuading the ordinary virn that human culture had positive and interesting elements. No, they would be able to focus more on giving their movement the momentum it needed so that within a couple of generations, they would outnumber those who were pro-segregation.

Zuwrath reached for the case of pens on her desk, picking up a handful. She snapped them in half with one hand.

This was completely unacceptable.

Somebody was going to pay, and she knew exactly who that somebody was going to be.

~

Starg! Starg! STARG!

Starg stood his ground. He walked calmly through the hallway that led towards Zuwrath’s office, as though he had all the time in the Empire to get there. Some of the things that Maureen had done to keep him waiting over the years had annoyed him immensely, as had many of those Zuwrath had done, but they had always worked. He was not sure if the Controller’s tricks would work against her.

He did not wish to anger Zuwrath further, yet neither did he want to appear perturbed by her shouting. If she noticed that he had something to hide (as if she could not already know), then she would go to whatever ends it took to get every single scrap of information out of him.

Starg pushed open the office door, satisfied with the length of time it took to slide open, and nodded at her once. He took the seat opposite Zuwrath without her permission.

Good day, Zuwrath,’ he said smugly.

You have been spending too much time with the Liaison,’ Zuwrath replied. She glared at him as he sat, and hissed sharply. ‘Get on your feet!’

Starg did not get up. He kept his expression calm. It was difficult, because his face wanted to fall into a sly, proud smirk, but he managed it nonetheless. He kept his lips thin and tight, and his eyes wide in a false surprise as he said, ‘Is something the matter, Zuwrath?

Yes, there is something wrong!’ she replied. A few strands of her hair fell into her eyes, but she did not push them away. ‘Did you not see it?

It … it …’ Starg forced his eyebrows together and looked up at the ceiling, flickering his faze from one light to the next. He wondered if he looked as though he was confused or lying. ‘That broadcast, do you mean? Ah, yes, bits of it, now, what was it? Valhalla People? Valhalla Risen?

Valhalla Rising. Do not play the fool in front of me, Starg. I bet you watched every second of it. I bet you were salivating just thinking about it. I bet you knew long before I did.’

I happened to catch the second half of it after one of my secretaries messaged me to inform me that it was being broadcast.’

And broadcast in your region, no less.’

Starg lowered his eyes from the ceiling and returned his gaze to Zuwrath. She was leaning over her desk, both of her palms flat on the wood, her stare intimidating as her face hovered above him. He swallowed to prevent himself from flinching back at the sight of her so close.

Are you implying what I think you are implying?’ he asked Zuwrath.

What do you think I am implying?’ she replied.

That I am in some way responsible for this … this … this awful programme.’

Are you?

Of course not!

Well, how many others are there in Pika who are as close to a human as you are?’ There was a glimmer of something in Zuwrath’s eyes as she spoke, and Starg knew that she was challenging him. ‘In fact, how close are you exactly to Maureen Bradshaw? It seems to me that there may well be something more going on than what I have been led to believe.’ Starg maintained his gaze at the sneered comment. He held his head high, defying his fear of her anger. He would show Zuwrath that he was as strong as she was.

You know the Liaison is as professional as I,’ he retorted. ‘As for your first question, I would think that this is something you should know. Are you not supposed to be in control of our relationship with the humans? That is why they call you the Controller, is it not? I have no idea where the underground group who did this are, or who they are – but I would have thought that someone in your position should have known about them and stopped them before they could get this far, Zuwrath.’

Zuwrath flashed her teeth at him. ‘How dare you question my ability to do my job!’ she hissed.

How dare you accuse me of first being involved in this scandal, and secondly with the Liaison!’ Starg replied.

Zuwrath raised her arm, and for a moment Starg thought that she was going to hit him. Then, when he held his ground, she lowered it again, although the look of hatred on her face never changed.

Get out of my office.’

With great pleasure,’ he said, and left her presence as coolly as her could.

~

When Starg received news that Zuwrath, though disgraced, was not going to be removed from her position, he found himself snapping at everyone he came across in his irritation. He shut himself in his office there he stayed, hoping to remove the heavy feeling of disappointment off his shoulders.

He sat down behind his desk and tried to think of a new plan.

When nothing came into his mind, he stood up, walked around the desk, and sat down in the opposite seat, as though this might help him to think more clearly. He stared at his empty seat and scratched his chin. His tongue flickered out to wet his lips as he racked his brain for ideas.

This had been so close! The idea had excited him, thrilled him even, and now he felt the impact of a failure that was not his own, but might well have been.

Zuwrath already suspected Starg of permitting the broadcast. She knew he had permitted it, she just needed the evidence. Starg had been forced to bribe some questionable people to get the broadcast slot and he did not believe that they would keep quiet for long if the Controller found them. He could not afford to sit back and hope that Zuwrath would slip up, or that she would ignore the problem, but neither could he allow this to go much further without facing repercussions. Zuwrath likely had her own people stationed around him, watching his every move.

Whatever Starg was going to do next, he was going to have to do it quickly. He would not have much time to plot Zuwrath’s downfall.

He was not going to back down just because his time was short.

The Controller messaged him, instructing him to meet her on her advance to Valhalla, with no indication of what she had planned. Starg was no closer to a solution. He supposed that, should he see an opportunity to disgrace the Controller, then he would have to take it.

~

Zuwrath was stood in front of one hundred virn police officers dressed in full riot gear. Each held a loaded rifle. Starg saw them before he got out of his transporter, and stepped off the vehicle with the air of someone who was unnerved by the sight of so many armed officers. Zuwrath sneered as he approached her.

What is the meaning of this?’ Starg asked, once he was stood before her. He was pleased to note that his voice was steady.

It is for the humans,’ Zuwrath replied casually.

But why do you need armed officers? It was only a broadcast …

They need to be taught a lesson. I want to make sure this does not happen again. I want to make sure those behind this will not dare.’

Starg felt himself shiver a little at the uncaring tone of her voice. ‘And what about the virn who helped?’ he asked.

Zuwrath narrowed her eyes at him. Her sneer widened, and Starg was sure that she could see right through him. ‘Oh, they will get what is coming to them, too. Perhaps when they see how defiant we are to their pathetic attempts at making humans look our equals, they will think again. I can only hope that they will …’ she hissed low, as though savouring the sound on her tongue, ‘… reveal themselves in some way.’

Then we shall both hope that it is so,’ Starg replied. He swung an arm around, indicating in the direction of the camp. ‘Shall we?’ Zuwrath did not mention his sudden movement away from the subject under discussion. They began to march, the heavy footfalls of the officers behind them creating a rhythmic, doom-laden sound in Starg’s ears. Nobody would miss them coming, and nobody would be under any illusions.

Once we arrive, we will locate those responsible for this broadcast and shut them down. They should be easy enough to find – the presence of an armed force should persuade somebody to talk. The half-blood will be an easy target.’

What are you going to do with them when you find them?’ Starg asked.

Zuwrath chuckled darkly. ‘What happens will happen.’

Starg kept his eyes focused on the camp in the distance, as he said, ‘Yes, I suppose it will. And you want me with you as a show of solidarity?

I want you with me, Starg, so I know what you’re up to. To remind you I’m no fool.’

Starg did not reply. He marched in time, highly aware of the rifles behind him. The long walls that separated Pika from Valhalla came closer, but Zuwrath veered off to the right and Starg followed. The officers turned too, their boots filling the still air with thunder.

They walked around the wall, to an empty patch of land between two factories, where the wall had been knocked down to grant the workers an open space for their breaks. It was full of factory workers enjoying their limited free time. The buzz of conversation died down as they approached.

There was silence. All eyes were on Zuwrath and the officers behind her.

‘I want to speak to Maureen Bradshaw,’ Zuwrath announced. At first, nobody moved. The Controller threw her head back and snarled. ‘You,’ she said, pointing to a human male in front of her, whose legs shook as she glared at him, ‘fetch her. Now.’

The man ran away as fast as he could. Starg could not help but feel impressed by the power of her presence, even as he wondered what he could do to ruin her. He breathed through his nose slowly, trying to calm himself down as he waited. Zuwrath, apparently, felt no reason to say anything further, and seemed quite content to let everyone else around her stand in their uncomfortable silence.

As time went on, the managers of the factories came out to see why their employees had not returned. Then, other people who lived close to the factories came out of their tents and containers, curious about what was going on. The crowd of humans became so large that Starg could not tell how many of them there were.             Zuwrath made no indication that she was bothered by their presence.

After what to Starg was an age, the people at the back of the crowd began to whisper. They parted, as though to let someone through, and the movement spread through the group until it reached the front of the crowd. The human Liaison and her daughter emerged, both with expressions of polite confusion.

‘Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, as the people around them look on in amazement at her confidence to address the Controller. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’

‘Valhalla Rising!’ Zuwrath hissed. Many humans jumped in fright at the sound of her natural tongue. ‘I want the brats responsible for that offensive broadcast!

Maureen laughed. Starg could hardly believe it when he heard it. She stood there opposite Zuwrath and laughed in the Controller’s face like nothing Zuwrath could do or say could possibly frighten her. ‘Offensive broadcast?’ she asked, blatantly refusing to use virnin in response to the Controller’s outburst. She turned to the crowd behind her, and added, ‘Tell me, my friends, did any of you find Valhalla Rising offensive?’

Those who were brave enough to speak, likely encouraged by Maureen’s own display of strength, muttered words of disagreement; others shook their heads. Zuwrath snarled.

‘I care not what you people think!’ Zuwrath shouted, this time for all the humans to understand. ‘I want those who are responsible for the broadcast, and I want them now! They will pay!’

‘Pay? For what?’ Christine, who Starg had seen but once in a photograph Maureen had shown him, asked. She stepped forward as she spoke. ‘For telling virn that we’re worth no less than they are?’ There were further noises from the crowd, this time of agreement. ‘For letting them share in our culture, our society, our reality?’ The murmuring grew louder. ‘For showing ourselves as your equals?’

‘Silence!’ Zuwrath roared, as the crowd’s agreement became almost deafening. Out of the corner of his eye, Starg noticed that some of the officers behind him were uncomfortable with the crowd’s reaction: they likely did not wish for the situation to turn violent – that would be an unmitigated disaster for all involved. ‘I said silence!’ she shouted again, when some members of the crowd continued to murmur. It took a few more seconds before they fell silent again.

An idea – a terrible, awful idea – leapt into Starg’s mind. He could see the humans turning on them, and (despite their superior weaponry), they were outnumbered enough for him to foresee the humans defeating or severely harming them. He was defenceless, and he did not like it.

He turned to the officer behind him. The officer noticed the movement, and leaned towards Starg to allow the Keeper to whisper to him as Zuwrath continued to stare down the crowd. Maureen was saying something to the Controller, so she was comfortably distracted.

I think it might be a good idea,’ he whispered, ‘if the humans could see that I, too, was armed. As a former soldier. They look restless … it might be a useful deterrent.’

The officer nodded, and passed Starg his rifle. He then pulled the pistol out of its holster, and returned to his former position. Starg spun back around and fingered the rifle. He was not entirely sure what he was doing, or who he was most afraid of.

Maureen and Zuwrath were arguing over Valhalla Rising. Starg was shocked to note that Maureen was not trying to hide her role in setting up the broadcast.

‘You know who was responsible, then?’ Zuwrath asked her. ‘You, in fact, were involved in this broadcast?’

‘Not at all,’ Maureen replied. ‘Only in securing the broadcast time.’

‘You know,’ Zuwrath repeated, ‘who was responsible?’

There was a moment’s pause.

‘Yes.’

Zuwrath grinned in victory. ‘Then give me names, Liaison, or you shall be removed from your position.’

‘Oh, please,’ Maureen said, waving an idle hand. She stepped forward, away from the crowd, and began to pace up and down, her hands behind her back. ‘I’ll be stripped of my title regardless, after this. I’ve got no reason to give you anything, Zuwrath. You’ve got no authority over me. That’s why you’ve brought these officers: the only tactic left to you is intimidation. Do you think you can scare me – us – into giving you answers? Just because you’re pissed off? You do realise that this situation is a direct violation of the agreement first laid down by our parent’s generation, don’t you? Bringing troops with weapons onto human-occupied land is a physical threat to my people.’

‘I do not care about your people,’ Zuwrath spat back. ‘Just give me the names I want.’

Maureen stopped pacing and smiled at Zuwrath pleasantly. Her eyes flickered to Starg for the briefest of moments, and he gripped the rifle a little tighter in response.

‘I can only give you one name,’ Maureen replied.

‘Then give it!’

Again, Maureen’s eyes flickered to Starg.

He nodded his head to show her that he understood.

‘Do you believe in karma, Zuwrath?’ Maureen asked. ‘It’s something we humans –’

‘The name, damn you!’

Starg adjusted the rifle again, as subtly as he could.

‘It was me,’ he said.

Zuwrath turned to him, her eyes wide, and Starg could see the proud retort that she had suspected him all along written on her lips as he did the only thing that made sense in that moment.

He raised the rifle and shot her.

~

The rifle beam travelled through the space between Starg and Zuwrath as though in slow motion. On one side, the virn police officers stood, caught off-guard by the attack. They were stunned for long enough that Starg managed to duck behind a nearby metal crate before they could shoot him. On the other side, the mob of angry humans stood in equal shock, their jaws dropping open in their surprise.

Every single eye of everyone who was present had followed the beam of light from Starg’s rifle to the centre of Zuwrath’s chest. The Controller had been thrown backwards, several police officers knocked out as she landed on top of them.

She was dead before she hit them.

There was a pause. A moment when there was neither sound nor movement, and human and virn alike stared at the limp body of the bitter Controller. Then, something began to ripple through those present, and a thunderous noise erupted from the centre of the human mob. They reached around them and grabbed whatever was in their reach – bricks, stones, pieces of metal – then began to charge at the virn officers, attacking them with their fists if they had nothing else at hand.

The virn were well trained, despite their temporary lapse at Starg’s surprise attack. They reacted faster this time, turning their weapons on the humans and firing on them. Their superiority was immediately obvious, as the first wave of humans were sent crashing down into the mud and did not get back up.

The roar of the rifles did not deter the other humans, and those who managed to reach the line of officers began to beat them mercilessly. A couple managed to take hold of the rifles, which they turned on their former owners.

Both sides struck at the other, but the virn advantage was evident from the beginning. Humans fell over one another and were shot at short range, whether on their feet or their knees. Their corpses began to pile up, and still the virn continued to shoot. Maureen and Christine darted this way and that, swerving to avoid rifle beams and fists alike. Nobody seemed to know or care who they were attacking.

Maureen reached the wall, and threw a hand out for Christine to take hold of. Her daughter caught it, and Maureen dragged her around the side of the wall to protect them both. On the opposite opening in the wall, they saw Starg, who had moved from his position behind the crate to behind the wall. He still gripped his rifle. His eyes were closed, his face screwed up, as though he was trying to wake from a bad dream. He was also muttering something to himself. They were only ten strides apart, but it was too far to hear what he was saying over the noise of the fighting.

‘Starg,’ Maureen called, trying to catch his attention. ‘Starg,’ she repeated, a little louder this time, but again he made no indication that he had heard her. ‘Starg!’

Startled, he jumped out of whatever unreality he had been in. For a moment, it looked as though he was about to turn the rifle on them, and Maureen pushed Christine instinctively behind her to protect her. The moment passed, and recognition dawned in Starg’s narrow eyes.

‘Maureen!’ he called, his voice barely carrying across the empty space between them. His free hand reached out towards the two women, but they dared not cross to him in case they were shot or dragged into the fighting. Maureen shook her head, and Starg lowered the hand.

‘What’ve you done?’ Maureen asked. Starg’s eyes widened, and he took a brief glance around the side of the wall, as though he had not truly accepted the consequences of his actions yet. Then, before either of them could go any further, the mob moved back through the gap in the wall and they were surrounded by blood and screaming.

Christine tugged on Maureen’s arm, and they moved further along the wall to get away from the mob. There were no longer any rifle beams, as though the virn officers had abandoned their weaponry in favour of their fists, or else had it pried away from them by the eager but unarmed humans. Patience had worn out on both sides; there was no sense of damage control, just pure carnal rage.

Starg followed the women, dashing across the empty space that the mob had passed through. He ducked away from the fighters, and the motion caught Maureen’s eye. She spun, knocking the weapon out of his hand in one smooth movement. It landed on the ground a short distance away, and Starg watched it go, his mouth hung slightly open, his eyes clouded over.

Why did you do that?’ he asked her.

Maureen refused to speak virnin on her own land. ‘You won’t get involved in the fighting now, will you, Starg?’ she snapped at him, pointing at him with her left hand even as Christine tugged on her right. ‘You’ll shoot Zuwrath no problem, as long as you know you have some temporary advantage, but once everyone has gathered their sense, you won’t get involved. You caused all of this, and yet here you are waving a gun around in loose fingers as you hide behind corners.’

She grabbed hold of his face, and tilted his head so that Starg could see the fight. It had spread out, and other humans from deeper in the camp were starting to get involved, pulling the offending virn off one by one and joining in the attack.

‘This is what the Keeper of the Peace in Pika has done. This is your legacy, Starg.’

Starg’s face paled as he watched the brawl, Maureen’s fingers holding him tightly in place.

‘Is this how you wish to be remembered? As the man who caused this?’

‘No,’ Starg replied weakly.

‘Well, what are you going to do about it? You can’t stop them now. Here, humans and virn will die together, hating one another more than they ever have before.’

Starg grabbed Maureen by the front of her jacket with both hands, his scales digging into the flesh of her neck. ‘Hide me,’ he begged her.

Maureen turned to look at those fighting. There were humans she recognised within the crowd. People she had seen on the streets begging for scraps, people she had spoken with, people who had been shamed for the desperate things they had done just to feed their children. More lay amongst the dead. All of them were people who would have been able to live good, honest, wholesome lives, if only they had been given the chance. If only they were equal to virn.

She looked back at Starg, his pitiful face squashed between the vice-like grip of her fingers, tears beginning to form in the corners of his eyes as he watched the thoughts flickering through her mind.

‘You don’t know me nearly as well as you think, Starg,’ she said. ‘More’s the pity. We could have been friends.’ She let go of him, tossing him onto the ground. ‘You shot Zuwrath. You started this. You can deal with it.’

As she allowed Christine to drag her away from the fighting, Maureen wondered how much damage this incident was going to cause.

~

In the end, it was nothing more than a shadow. A whisper. A blur on the edge of vision, then a blinding light, and then …

As a wise virn prophet had once said, only the dead know what follows the light.

Starg did not seem them. Perhaps that was because once Maureen had disappeared, he allowed himself to sink down into the muddy ground, his tears obscuring his vision as his sobs shook his body. The world was nothing more than an obnoxious calamity of noise and violence, and there he was in the middle of it, his brain shocked beyond comparison.

This was his violence. Starg had wanted to remove Zuwrath so much that he had been blind to the consequences. In the end, he had done little more than create chaos. He was the god of the destruction that was happening around him.

He saw the outline of a rifle pointing at his head, aimed directly between his eyes. Someone must have picked it up, but he could not make out whether they were virn or humans. He saw the rifle light up, and a beam came out of the end.

Then he fell, lay still, and became one with the dead.

~

It was nobody’s surprise when Maureen resigned. She had always been determined to do her best, and witnessing the brutality of the massacre on the border of Valhalla had been the final straw for her. She delivered the resignation letter to the remains of the human government personally. Each expressed his sadness that she had chosen to leave.

Christine did her best to cheer her mother up after the initial feeling of failure, mingled with the pain of such a senseless loss of life. She did not see her mother smile one in the week that followed the attack, and that hurt. The virn government on Montague 7 did not seem to know how to handle the situation, because both the Controller and the Keeper of the Peace in Pika had been shot by virn weapons, and at least one by virn hands.

The virn media was hushed up, but the human media spoke as loudly as it could about what had happened. Valhalla Rising appeared again, to make a brief by powerful broadcast on what had happened. It was permitted to broadcast on virn channels, perhaps lest a cover-up was suspected, and made a statement on the number of dead, not distinguishing between humans and virn, decreeing it a dark day for all species. It was as respectful as they could make it, given their shattered faith.

Everybody involved in the programme knew how delicately they had to handle the situation. The human government reacted before the virn government or empire could, though they still took their time as they figured out how exactly to respond without being accused on telling only one side of the story.

A day of mourning was declared in Valhalla, one week after the massacre. Initially, Maureen refused to attend. Christine hoped that her mother might change her mind on the day, but this did not happen, and she spent most of the morning trying to figure out how she would get Maureen to the border for the scheduled time. The attack had occurred in the afternoon, and the vigil was to begin at that same time.

She was eventually forced to go alone. Maureen sat in their container, as she had done every day since the massacre, staring at a blank wall. She did not move, and she did not respond to her daughter when Christine announced that she was leaving.

When she reached the border, she was surprised at what she saw. Several people asked her where Maureen was, and she made an excuse so that she could return to the container to fetch her mother.

‘Mum,’ she said, bursting through the door, ‘come on, mum, you’ve got to come. They’re waiting for you.’

Maureen did not immediately make any sign that she had heard her daughter speak. Recognition was slow to appear on her face, and she blinked several times before turning to Christine, as though she had only just realised that her daughter was there.

‘I always told myself I was doing a good thing,’ she said, in a dry, croaky voice. ‘A good thing.’

‘And you’ve done the best you could do,’ Christine insisted. She knelt in front of her mother, looking up into Maureen’s tired eyes. She did not seem to be fully aware of her surroundings.

‘I only wanted to help people. To make things better.’

‘Mum,’ Christine said, cupping Maureen’s face with one hand, ‘this is not your fault. There’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent it. Starg had his own agenda, and the virn troops reacted to it. You couldn’t have stopped it.’

Maureen blinked a couple more times. She opened her mouth as though she was going to say something further, as though there was something on her mind that she had done or said, or should have done or should have said, but then closed it again.

‘They’re waiting for you, mum.’

‘Who are?’

‘Everyone.’

‘Everyone? Why?’

‘Because it’s a memorial for all the victims. Everyone is there, and everyone is waiting for you.’

Maureen shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no, I’m not going there.’

‘Well, you’re going to have to step outside this cannister at some point. And when you do, then everyone will ask you why you didn’t turn up to the memorial, and then you’ll regret not attending. Anyway, I think you need to see this. It’ll help.’

Maureen frowned at her, but Christine only smiled and stood, holding out a hand for her mother to take. A few moments of hesitation, and then Maureen took it, allowing her daughter to lead her outside. Maureen was dressed in clothes that she had not changed for days, but Christine did not think that her mother would have appreciated any delays had she been in her right mind at the time. Once Maureen saw what was waiting for her at the border, then she would understand.

Christine led her mother towards the border as fast as she could. Around them, groups of other humans walked in the same direction, all of them silent and solemn.

They carried candles with them, but none were lit yet. The human government had asked that nobody light the candles until they arrived at the sight for the memorial. It was typically a virn tradition to remember the war dead.

The ancient virn had apparently believed that, if the candles were lit anywhere other than on the site of the victim’s death, then any souls which the burning candle passed would follow them to the memorial site. This demonstrated a lack of respect for those who were being remembered by the lighting of the candle, and disturbed the dead. The belief had been passed down until it had become mere tradition; acknowledging it made the memorial service legitimate on a virn planet.

When Maureen and Christine rounded the final corner, and saw the gathering of people there, Maureen’s hand fell away from her daughter’s. Christine spun, half-expecting to see her mother running back the way they had come, but Maureen was stood there, staring at the gathering before her. Christine smiled.

There were countless humans there, either holding or lighting candles, but they were not alone. Stood with them, around them, between them, holding candles and keeping their silence, were just as many virn, their faces contrasting those of the humans in the flickering light. Some of them turned their heads as Maureen approached, and Christine handed her a candle to light and hold above her head. She then joined her mother with her own candle, stood by her side.

They stayed there in union, their silent vigil saying more than their words ever could have.