Acantha felt numb. Her bare feet dragged along the stone floors. She winced as her toes caught between the flagstones but could not scream out. Muffled voices about her drowned by the long cowl pulled over her head. In the distance she could hear the chanting of the Priestess and the man they called the vicar. Their subtle intonations wound around her mind and started to pull at the magic within her. Deep in her core she felt the movement of the sins already carved into her flesh, as if they wanted to leap forth, to mix with the heat in the air.
The doors slammed behind her and she knew she was back in the chapel. Trapped again and drugged too much. She felt sick and behind her eyes her mind screamed at her. The pain she always felt before the ritual.
Coin would have passed hands outside. A lackey or an acolyte would have taken his share and passed on the rest to the priests until the Priestess, Danna and her vicar took their share. Pulled into the closeted holy of holies she was alone bar the believers and her mistress, determined to purge herself of yet another meaningless sin.
The words came thick and fast. Doped with a little too much of the way-flower they gave her at the beginning of each ceremony Acantha lost the meaning of the intonations in the haze of her dream. She stood slightly swaying, propped up by the two attendants, the Priestess’s own sons. Behind her the mistress, Yarana, strode back and forth, heels clicking on the stone. She wore light white robes and a face that did not wrinkle in the sun as others did.
The words became heavy. Acantha knew the words and knew the meaning even if others did not. She had been through so many rituals she felt as if only she had a moment longer to hear them, just a fraction more and the understanding would be hers. But they always stopped, just as the knife touched her skin and the continuous outpouring of sin from Yarana flowed onto her, into her like so much paint onto paper.
Acantha knelt. It used to be hard, knees against the granite, but the priestess had been kindlier of late and a cushion was placed at her feet. The handlers reached in front of her, peeling her heavy woollen robe away. Naked she shivered slightly. Her hair was up in a bun to keep it from her skin. To her right and left the polished bronze panels reflected her shape. Even in their reflected golden mist she could see the words written across her skin start to glow. She took a breath and looked down at her arms. The tattoos that stretched from her neck to her wrists. She palmed the wooden bit she had into her mouth and tried to empty her mind.
Looking around the chamber of the priestess was as it always was. One of a hundred churches that carried out the rites, the Priestess, Dana, carried them for only the best of families, some said for the Emperor himself. But Acantha knew the sins that were inscribed upon her body. She knew them as if she had been there. All the regret and pain and shame and anger it was etched onto her. What if a ruler had done that to a slave. The slave would never be free, never be safe lest he told what he knew. How many had died for state secrets the Emperor could no longer bare?
The Priestess whirled in her finery at the front of the chamber. About ten metres in length it was secluded in the furthest reaches of the temple, which itself sat at the base of the imperial tower: a chapel to the darker arts that all knew and none criticised. The tall blonde woman stared down at Acantha from the dais and smiled. Her kind eyes and flowing blonde hair were always a calming balm before the agony that was to come. Like the sweet scent of a Dagnar flower before it snapped its jaws on an unsuspecting bee. Behind the Priestess and the infernal shambling old man she called her vicar were the rings that made up the altar. There were a hundred or so of the rings across the land at the most powerful churches. Always hidden, always away in the secret places where the sins were taken and written on another. Acantha watched and saw the circle glow. About a metre across it was pale silver in colour and as thin as the width of her wrist. The hoop of metal engraved with the ancient carvings. It stood an aided, unlike her. She could barely keep her head aloft. Her eyes alone felt like weights, secretly replacing her own and the sights she saw were memories as she sank further and further into a ball.
The chanting increased. The priestess, breathless in her harsh guttural accent quickened and quickened like a runner’s heart reaching the final leg of a race. Acantha sensed the movement behind her had stopped, Yarana held her breath, the vicar strode forward, the words already in his mind; he held a small tray of the ash of long dead men to be used in the rite. Yarana swiftly took her own knife, concealed within the folds of her robe and expertly opened her vein, enchanting the words, remembering the deed as the jewelled drops fell into the dust the vicar held forth. Just enough to make a paste, to make an ink, and then he wrote.
Acantha bit hard on the wood. The vicar raised his right hand, each finger encased in a jade thimble that curved to a wicked point that scraped against the metal plate in his left hand as he mixed the blood with the ash. He drew all five fingers up together and let the viscous fluid drip down as he repeated the words whispered in his ear by Yarana, clutching her wrist to her side, staunching the flow of blood and desperate not to get any on her pristine robes.
He repeated the words again and again until they were a blur in Acantha’s mind, and then they stopped. And Acantha screamed as the hot jade claws dug deep into her flesh. The Vicar worked quickly, repeating the words again and again, letting the magic form the phrases in intricate patterns that danced and fell over the words already scrolled across her skin.
And then as soon as it had started, it was over. Acantha stayed crouched on the floor, breathing hard, drool sliding from her mouth, the taste of pine on her tongue she let the bit fall to the floor. The vicar stood plucking the claws one by one from his fingers. He nodded to the attendants who picked her up and hurriedly dressed her with the uncomfortable robe.
The priestess walked towards Acantha. She could feel the blood running down her back. Hands on her knees she continued to blow the air out, to control her breating. The woman was tall, and aloof. She held a finger under Acantha’s chin and raised her face up so she stood straight, though still a head below the Priestess’s long, elegant frame. Acantha winced with the effort. The Priestess smiled sweetly, reached out to stroke Acantha’s cheek with the back of cold hand and spoke.
‘My dear, you always make such a fuss.’
A sloppy grin spread across Acantha’s face as the back of the Priestess’s hand snapped at her cheek. The crack of the contact stunned the others. The priestess was unmoved. No anger, no fury, just a cold hard stare.
‘Remember next time to control yourself’ she intoned; ‘your groaning gives me a headache.’