The Street of Gods was not one single roadway, but a route that zigzagged through the cultural and financial districts, so named for the preponderance of pagan temples flanking its course. At any speed its turns were difficult and at this speed they were downright sickening, but the Patriarch held on tightly to his seat as the coachman drove his horses down the narrow streets and made no complaint. Time was of the essence.
“There!” He half-rose from his seat as he saw the flames, fury and despair warring for dominion within him. Was it too late already? “Stop there!” There were dozens of people in the street outside Davarti’s Temple—perhaps hundreds—but it was too dark for him to make out what they were doing. Brawling? Demonstrating? Or simply gawking, as golden flames licked at the ancient building? As he rushed up to the temple’s door—simply pushing aside those who were in his way, there was no time for courtesy now—it seemed to him that some were rushing toward the flames, with buckets in both hands. Good. Something might yet be saved of the building, if they worked hard enough and fast enough. As for the souls within... that was another thing.
He burst into the temple, so filled with righteous indignation that the fae surrounding him seemed to take fire, lighting the air about his head like a halo. Within the temple all was chaos, as groups of worshipers tried vainly to defend their pagan holy ground from the invading mob. He picked out half a dozen familiar faces among the invaders, enough to verify that the angry men who were smashing relics and pummeling priests were indeed members of his own flock. And fury won out within him at last.
“How dare you!”
he cried, and his eyes blazed with rage. Few men heard his voice above the din of the battle, but those few were enough. One man fell back from the icon he had been trying to smash, and the woman who had been trying to keep him away from it followed his gaze to the Patriarch. The invader beside her glanced up to see the cause of the disturbance, and he, too, was stunned into silence by the raw force of the Patriarch’s wrath. One by one heads turned as others responded to him, and a hush fell across the sanctuary like a wave. A few minutes later the only sounds remaining were the tinkle of shattered glass falling to the floor, and the soft moans of the wounded.
you!” he repeated, when their attention was fixed on him at last. With angry steps he strode down the length of the central aisle, toward the dais and its idol. Most of the men in his path got out the way in a hurry, pagans and faithful alike; the few who didn’t found themselves thrown aside, hurled into the stunned mob like pieces of repellent detritus.
At last he reached the altar and stood before it; black paint dripped from the idolotrous sculpture as he glared at the blood-spattered mob. In the distance flames were crackling, but the fire seemed to be confined to a small chamber forward of the sanctuary, and a handful of men were already fighting to bring it under control. Despite the ominous sound of its burning and a faint stink of smoke, he judged them safe enough.
“Is this how you were taught to behave?” he cried. “Is this how you serve your God?” His eyes swept over them, picking out details, memorizing faces. More than one man flushed hotly as the accusatory gaze hit home, all passion for destruction withering to shame before the force of the Patriarch’s rage.
“Who’s in charge here?” he demanded. Silence reigned in the vaulted sanctuary, compromised only by the hiss of flames and the slow drip of blood. “Who’s responsible for this?” Still there was no answer. He waited. He knew that the real issue was not who claimed responsibility—if anyone did—but the simple act of forcing them to
again, to act like men. To throw off the yoke of this communal violence and remember who and what they were, and what God it was they served.
At last a man stepped forward and faced the Patriarch. His face was streaked with sweat and blood and one side of his face was swollen. “We came to cleanse this place!” He gestured toward the altar. “Look! Look at what they worship! Do you want that in Jaggonath? Do you want it out in the streets, where our children can see it?”
The Patriarch didn’t turn to look at the idol, but instead looked out over the mob. The faces of his faithful gazed back at him fearfully, and he thought he saw a flicker of guilt in more than one expression. Good. As for the ones who worshiped here ... their eyes were filled with fear as well, and something else. Awe. What did they see when they looked at him, adorned in all the glory of his faith? A ruler of priests, fit counselor for kings. Little short of a god himself, by their pagan standards; certainly a god’s favored messenger. That such a man should come in person to quell their riot was a thing to be wondered at; that such a man should save their idol and defend their faith was a thing past comprehension.
And that is the difference between us, he thought. That is it exactly.
“The law of this land allows men to worship as they wish.” He spoke slowly, clearly, with a voice that filled the temple; his very tone was a counterpoint to their rage. “The Law of our Church demands that civil order—”
“One world, one faith!” a man cried out. “That’s what the Prophet ordered.”
“And he also commanded us to preserve the human spirit!” the Patriarch countered. “That above all else.” He looked about the crowd; his face was a mask of condemnation. “Is this how you accomplish that? With bestial violence? Mindless hatred? Look at you!” He waved a hand out over the crowd; several men cringed as the gesture included them. “There are demons feasting tonight, my friends. Glutting themselves on your hatred. There are spirits being born in the shadows all around you, who will feed on man’s intolerance forever because that is the force that gave them life. Or have you forgotten that? Have you forgotten that our greatest enemy is not a foreign idol or even a foreign god, but the very force that gives this planet life? Our most sacred duty is to preserve our human identity, and if we fail in that, all the prayers ever voiced won’t win this world salvation.”
He was aware of a crowd that had gathered inside the door as he spoke, gawkers from outside the building, drawn to his words like moths to a flame. Praise God, who had given him the soul of an orator; never was he more grateful for that skill than now. “Yes, the Prophet dreamed of unity. But you can’t
unity—not with terror, not with hate. You have to earn it.”
Silence, thick and heavy. A window pane, weakened during the riot, chose that moment to fall inward; it hit the floor with an accusatory crash and shattered into a hundred pieces.
“Go home,” the Patriarch commanded. “Go home! Pray for guidance. Beg for forgiveness from your God, and for a new and purer communion with Him. You’ve seen the evil we fight with your own eyes now; you’ve felt it in your hearts. May you be stronger than ever in your faith for having known it.”
No one moved. A curtain in the balcony caught fire, and he heard the men upstairs crying out instructions to one another as they worked to smother the new flames before they could spread. Still he remained where he was and stared at his faithful, his very presence a reminder of what their God stood for, and what He expected of them.
Finally, with a curse, one man stirred. Throwing down the crowbar he carried, he whipped about and strode from the building. Then a second man. A third. The fourth put down the vase he held on the stand beside him, oh so carefully, and then stepped into the aisle and bowed to the Patriarch before he, too, hurried out. The Patriarch drew in a deep breath, exhaled it slowly.
Thank you, God.
Others were moving now, exiting the building in twos and threes. The anger and hatred that had welded them into a mob had dissipated, at least for the moment; though he harbored no illusion that it was gone forever, the Patriarch was grateful for the brief moment of victory.
Be with them, God, now and always. Guide them. Protect them. Nurture their human spirit.
More were leaving now, too many to count. Now that they were separating it was possible to judge their number, and to asssess the contingent of priests and worshipers who had tried to stop them from defacing the temple. So few, he thought, gazing down at them. Most were spattered with blood. and more than one lay moaning on the floor. He noted at least two broken limbs, a handful of equally serious injuries. So very brave. It never ceased to amaze him what courage men could show when their faith was threatened. Any faith.
The Prophet was right, when he said that faith was the most powerful force on Erna.
He looked at the pagan emblems on the wall and shook his head sadly.
If only we could harness it in unity, as he intended.
All of his people had left the temple; he made sure of that before he stepped down from the dais, his long silk robes dragging in blood as he made his way out of the sanctuary. One man stepped into his path, and for a moment he thought there might be some kind of confrontation. But the priest bowed deeply, as one might to a great lord.
“Thank you,” he whispered. His voice was shaking; his forehead was streaked with blood. “Thank you for stopping it.”
The Patriarch looked back at the idol on the altar. A human figure with eight sets of arms and four pairs of male and female genitals crouched upon a square stone pedestal. A face was set into the lowest crotch, tongue extruded, and a tiny human form had been thrust into the mouth headfirst; the twisted legs appeared to be struggling as he watched. There were scars on the statue where crowbar assaults had chipped out pieces of the stone, and thick black paint dripped down its head to pool on the altar beneath it. Like blood, he thought. Just like blood.
He turned back to the priest, revulsion thick in his throat.
I didn’t do it for you,
he thought darkly. Knowing that this man would never understand what had happened here today, or its importance. To them it was a simple assault, terrifying but finite; to him it was but one more battle in the war for men’s souls.
The siren of an ambulance wagon was drawing near as he exited the temple. He strode through the throng of gawkers as though they were ghosts, and like fearful wraiths they parted, making way for him. His carriage had pulled to the curb a good two blocks away, out of reach of the mob, but he did not signal for it to come closer; after the smoky confines of the pagan temple the short walk in the night air felt good. Hate-wraiths fluttered overhead, spawned by the violence of the night, but for now they kept their distance. In time they would gain more substance and learn to hunt men.
Created by my people, in the name of my God.
His face flushed hot with the shame of it.
Will they never learn?
As he came up to the carriage, the driver looked at him; though he would never dare to question the Patriarch, it was clear he was brimming with curiosity.
“Riot’s over,” the Holy Father said shortly, as he climbed up into his seat. “Davarti’s safe. For now.” He lacked the energy to go into more detail, but fell back against his seat as the carriage pulled about and started back. The man would hear enough details when word got back to their own Church; no need to rehash it all now.
How many other riots would there be, he wondered, before this madness ended? The horses pulled the carriage about and started back toward the Cathedral; an ambulance wagon rushed past them, headed toward the temple. How many other assaults on the innocent would his people commit, wielding the name of his God like a standard? A year ago such raids were nearly unheard of; now they were commonplace. Why now, after so many years of peace? What was the catalyst for such a change? He had asked himself that a thousand and one times, and still he had no answer. There was no one thing he could point to, no single person or happenstance to blame. Violence was spreading like wildfire among his people, and he didn’t know how to combat it. Where had it come from, this fever of destruction? How could he manage to tame it?
The headache he had experienced previously was blinding by the time they reached the Cathedral’s stable; he lay back in his seat with his eyes shut, trying to deny the pain. His soul might be that of God’s tireless statesman, but his body was seventy-two years old, and sometimes the strain of all those years was almost more than he could bear. Especially now, with his life’s work falling to pieces around him. That made every year count double.
“We’re here, Your Holiness.” The coachman offered an arm to help him dismount; after a moment he took it. At least this riot had been cut short, he thought. At least this one night he wouldn’t dream of blood and shattered glass and broken idols, as he had during the other riots. One small thing to be grateful for.
There was a servant waiting for him outside his chambers. The look on the man’s face made it plain that he had bad news to deliver. With a dry smile the Patriarch greeted him. “Some new problem, is it? Don’t worry, my son. There’s not much you can say to me now that will make this night any worse.”
“Vryce is back,” the man said quietly.
For a moment he just stared at him. Then, with a deep sigh, he rubbed his temples again.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “That did it.”