Ritual of the Midnight Lord - Todd Stewardt

“A true supplicant would welcome the pain with an exultant scream.”
The priest’s voice was strict and measured, reverential to his unholy sacrament yet subtly mocking. He looked sternly at the woman who was hooded and bound to the iron wheel suspended in the chapel’s center.

“A true supplicant would welcome the chance that you have tonight, child.”
The bound subject of the congregation’s morbid delight shivered as she tried to react in the way that they expected, as someone wanting, no, –needing- masochistic release at the hands of her captors. Yet she knew she could not provide them the spectacle they required, the broken submission of a faithful worshipper of Zon-Kuthon. They would brutalize her without mercy. They would find their worship through her torment, but they would inevitably find something else at her core. And then the spectacle would be interrogation and sacrifice rather than ecstatic elevation.

HISS! The scent of burning flesh, acrid and unique, rose like incense as the priest touched a burning brand to her outer thigh. The resulting scream and the suddenly frantic, involuntary rattle of shackled limbs drew an anticipatory gasp and trailing hush from the assembled throng of Kuthites.
“A true supplicant would embrace holy agony and gain strength, wisdom, and bliss through their most righteous misery of the flesh.”

The priest whispered a prayer, invoking an appropriate stanza from the Umbral Leaves before touching her with the brand again. She screamed in response, but this time feigned as much ecstasy as agony.

“Please…” She whimpered, knowing it would only grow worse as the priest began to speak to his gathered flock of theological vultures.

“Lord of Shadows and Prince of Flesh, reveal to us now this most unworthy one and grant us the tools, the discipline, and the will to craft her screams into a hymnal paean in Your temple tonight.”
As the priest finished his invocation, his attendants lit a circle of candles around the chamber’s periphery. The gathered worshippers began to move around them. Icon to icon they went in turn, kissing grotesque images of Zon-Kuthon and his divine servitors, mortifying their flesh and leaving crimson drops behind them as personal sacrifices. They spoke not a word and made no outcry through their self-inflicted pain. The only sounds were the crackle of candle flames, the hot coals, and the woman’s terrified whimpering.

“We have taken you tonight into the embrace of joyous pain as a blessing and an honor. Any true supplicant of Zon-Kuthon would beg to be in your position. But you are no true supplicant, are you?” The man sneered, his features exaggerated by the harsh shadows. In the angry red glare of the burning brand in his leather-clad fist, his face was a diabolic mask.

Abruptly her hood was torn off, revealing the trembling captive’s terrified face. She winced at the sudden light, though the candles were dim. Her face contorted for a moment before her eyes adjusted to focus on her captor. Tears ran from dark, almond-shaped eyes, smearing her cheeks.
Her long, dark hair hung matted, framing her face like the other congregants’ hoods. They’d torn most of her clothing away, as modesty was hardly called for in their rites. The only wounds she bore were fresh ones; prior to binding her on the wheel, they had tended to her unintentional injuries and washed her flesh. Regardless of what would come, each and every human tableau was to be brought pristine before the altar. She was fit, young and lacking any of the hallmarks of slavery or a difficult life. She had known privilege.

“Cordelia of Nisroch.” His hand deftly touched her lips with a discordant tenderness, as the heat of the brand inched closer to her thigh. “You have been chosen tonight on this new moon, when no light pierces the dark bastion of our land. You have been chosen as the altar of our worship. Your flesh will praise our Lord in Chains, and the pain will elevate you to a state of worship beyond ours.”
His hand lifted her chin up to look into his eyes. “That is, if you prove worthy.”

He was younger than she would have expected, maybe a year or two older than herself. Kuthites rarely survived that long, and based on the white lacing of scars that covered every inch of his bare forearms, he’d been raised on the priesthood’s tender mercies prior to joining it: the abuser drawn from the ranks of the abused. Other than his lack of a hood or veil, there was little to differentiate him from his congregants. Like the others, he was dressed in close-cut black garments that left the ornate tracery of scars and burns on his arms and chest fully exposed.

The priest looked down the length of his hawkish nose as he slowly paced around her. His features were somewhere between Kellid and Chelish, and his body was strong and well-formed save for the scars. Under other circumstances, she might have considered him a delight to the eyes. But standing over her with scourge and brand, his dark beauty was terrifying.

His footfalls on the stone were the only sound. The assembled crowd was silent, their faces clothed in featureless black veils, their scarred skin proudly exposed. Anonymous, covered but hardly concealed, their yearning for what was to come was clear in their perverse mannerisms.
“Who do you worship, little girl?”

“Zon-Kuthon.” She whimpered, shifting her weight to edge –closer- to the brand, something that a true supplicant would yearn to do. Her actions lied just as much as her words.
“No.” He said, moving the brand away with a chuckle. “Clearly not the Midnight Lord.”
She shuddered. Clearly, they had suspected for some time. Despite her superficial veneration of Zon-Kuthon, they must know of her heresy and her illegal worship of other gods.

“Shelyn preserve me.”The thought was quick and transient, but it was there nonetheless. Though she had not worshipped any god in particular, her grandmother had been a priestess of Shelyn. Her grandmother had also vanished before her twelfth birthday, either having fled Nidal or been picked up by the agents of the Umbral Court: Nidal’s theocratic rulers.

In Nidal, the worship of any other deity besides Zon-Kuthon was illegal. There was the slender exception of quasi-official pardon for devil worship, a consequence of Nidal’s political subjugation by House Thrune of its southern neighbor Cheliax.

“Life is slavery, but it is life. It is existence, it is survival. The flesh is punished, taxed, and made strong.” Lines from the Kuthite creed ran through her mind. Whether it was a transcendent philosophy or merely cruel justification for the city’s rule by their cult of mad sadists, she could not guess. Those who dared to disbelieve were hunted down and made into object lessons.
“Like me.”

Certainly some found liberation and even spiritual transformation in the Kuthite creed, a blissful freedom in being enslaved to their nightmarish god. But at its rotten core their faith was a blight upon once-proud Nidal, its people the soul their nation had sold to the Midnight Lord to survive in the aftermath of Earthfall so very long ago. In return for eternal obedience, they survived.
Cordelia dared to disbelieve.

For years she’d feigned outward obedience to Zon-Kuthon, performed what minimum number of rites and rituals were needed, but in her heart it was hollow. In times of difficulty her heart went to other gods. Desna, Shelyn, Iomedae, even Pharasma were the objects of her infrequent prayers. Even though she was hardly devout, they received what worship she had in her heart to offer.

The slick, cool touch of leather brought her out of her thoughts. The Kuthite priest was whispering soft words of meaningless comfort. But there would be no comfort for an unbeliever. If they found proof of her heresy, it would be an execution. That was their way. Stolen away in the night, dragged from your home, they exalted you in earthly pleasures: food, drink, drugs, sex, and then they tortured you for days. Those who survived and adapted joined the priesthood, damaged and brainwashed by neurochemical addiction. Those who did not adapt served as sacrifices.
“I’m going to die.”

The lash fell upon her back. One strike every twelve seconds, each punctuated by a liturgical response from the congregation. By the second she was screaming and drowning out their words.
“By this juncture a true supplicant would beg for more.” The priest’s flogging paused. “Their body would have adapted to the pain and they would be drunk with ecstasy. But this would ruin our fun.”
“WHAT?!”

Cordelia blinked. Even though the hazy, nearly blissful detachment of unwanted endorphins, she recognized the sick sadistic promise in his voice. The words of a prayer followed; an incantation, and then the pleasure ended, abruptly, cruelly replaced by a tidal-wave of blinding pain.
“There will be no pleasure in your torture.” The priest explained. “Your body will not protect you from the vicarious touch of the Midnight Lord. You will feel it all in its agonizing glory.”
The barbed, nine-tailed whip connected once more with Cordelia’s back and her screams drowned out the priest’s words. At the next strike they increased in pitch, drowning out everything but the burning pain.

Hours passed under the priest’s ministrations. Blood and salty tears stained Cordelia’s naked form.
“Tell me child. Who do you worship?”

“Zon-Kuthon.” She whimpered. The priest backhanded her.
Cordelia sobbed, struggling to breathe through the pain. “Shelyn, if you can hear me in your dark brother’s domain, please help me.”

She wasn’t a true worshipper of The Eternal Rose, but in the darkest moments of her life, it was to the sister of Nidal’s dark, deific prince that she looked and hoped. Overwhelmed by pain, she prayed.
“My grandmother venerated you, and in another time and place so would I have. Every prayer to your brother has been lip-service. It’s the price to be paid for someone of means in Nidal with no noble blood to ensure safety and privacy. Please, please help me. I beg of you. Please save me.”
A single tear fell down her face, sparkling as it rolled down her cheek to splash upon her breast. There was no response but the Kuthite priest leaning in once more to ask his damning question, a private liturgy to which she would respond time and again with the same automatic and meaningless response.
“One last time child. Who do you worship?”
“Zon-Kuthon.”

The priest smiled, smug and haughty, offering no reply except to hold aloft a black and silver amulet in his right hand. The soft glow of magic swirled around the holy symbol of the Midnight Lord, and she felt an ephemeral hand brush across her mind like the priest’s hand had touched her cheek. It was then she realized they hadn’t known. Suspected perhaps, but they’d had no proof till she’d whispered a prayer. A prayer the priest had heard every word of in her mind, just as if she’d spoken it aloud.
“No. No you do not.” He smirked. “How unfortunate for you…”

He casually released his grip upon the amulet’s chains, dropping it silently from his hand. Before it hit the floor, an acolyte knelt and snatched it up without a word. A second youth, this one young enough to be her daughter, stepped from the gloom behind the priest to hand him a sacrificial blade.
“Lord of Darkness,” he intoned. “Look kindly upon the sacrifice of this unworthy flesh as we cleanse this land of Nidal of all but your chosen.”

“Help me.” She begged, no longer confining her prayers to her own mind. “Shelyn. Anyone. Save me please.”
“Witness this heretic’s profane begging for mercy! Witness!” The priest cried out. “There is no mercy for her. There will be no salvation!”
“Not here!” He shouted, not to the congregation, but to Cordelia’s face with an expression of ecstatic malice. “Not for you!”
Then, something happened.

Golden light flared in Cordelia’s eyes, washing out the dimly flickering candles and the chains and leather surrounding her. Her bonds were gone, her limbs were free, and all was replaced with a featureless white expanse. Confused and still shaking in terror, she began to scream. Yet it died stillborn in her throat a moment later. All was calm, all was still, and a sense of overwhelming comfort sank into her battered flesh. She was safe. Somehow she was safe.

“Hello, child.” A voice from behind and above her called out, melodious and beautiful.
Cordelia’s vision blurred as she turned and without thinking fell to her knees, sobbing tears of joy.
“You heard my prayer. You saved me.”

Floating above her was an angelic being clad in robes of gold, mirror polished armor and a bejeweled gorget. She sat adrift on open air, white wings folded, holding a trumpet of burnished bronze across her lap. The archon’s alabaster skin was flawless and her form lean and muscular, an artist’s vision of perfection. Her ebony hair flowed past her shoulders and almost touched the ground, with streaks of gold dancing through it in the white, supernatural light. Her eyes were wellsprings of compassion and strength, orbs of sapphire and flame, a place where weakness was nonexistent and evil saw only its own terror reflected back at it.

“Your prayers were heard, Cordelia.” She explained, drifting down and closer to the huddling mortal. “All of them. Always. Not just in your moments of most dire need.”
“Thank you, oh thank you!” Cordelia wept, collapsing into a limp pile at the archon’s feet. The celestial lifted her up, cradling the broken woman in her arms, stroking her hair like a mother to a child.
“You have never been alone,” she whispered to Cordelia. “Not even once in the darkness of your native land.”

“It has so often felt that way.” She glanced up into the archon’s face, pausing in awe as she looked fully into that divine face.
“The gods and celestials hear you. They listen, and they yearn to protect and defend each mortal life on your world and all those beyond it.” Lightly, the celestial kissed Cordelia’s forehead with beautiful crimson lips. “And beyond anything else, we admire those of you mortals who become lights within the darkness yourselves, examples for your fellows, leaders, fighters, and martyrs alike.”
“I am nothing.” Cordelia whimpered, humbled by the archon’s suggestion.

“You are here though, are you not?” The celestial asked, gesturing first to their illuminated surroundings, and then to herself. “And I am here with you. Would that be so if your prayer had been hollow, simply desperation, and not a plea from someone whose life was good and just, and whose heart held the gently burning coals of a torch, a source of light that we in Heaven admire beyond all else?”

“Where are we?” Cordelia asked, only beginning to understand the celestial’s answer.
“In a place without location. In a moment between moments when all is still, and what is to come has yet to happen. You are here with me, and you are safe.”
Cordelia did feel safe, held and sheltered in an expanse of peaceful light, far away from the hellish darkness of the Kuthite temple. Still, something was wrong. It felt much too easy to simply pray and escape certain doom. And there were the celestial’s words about being an example, a light, and the mention of martyrs.

Slowly, realization dawned. “You’re not here to save me, are you?”
“It’s a complex answer.”
Cordelia’s brow furrowed. “I prayed for help. I begged for mercy, not from the Kuthites, but from Shelyn herself.”

“She heard your prayer. She has heard every prayer of yours since you first stood in her secret temple with your grandmother so many years ago.”
A tear fell from her eyes as she remembered that long-ago moment with her grandmother, before the Kuthites took her away or forced her to flee. “Look up when you pray. There’s no need to be afraid, no need to be scared…”

“…she’s looking down at you and smiling when the sun shines on all things beautiful, and watching over you when you sleep.” The archon finished the sentence from Cordelia’s memories.
“That’s what she said. Was it true?”

The archon nodded with a smile born of having looked a goddess in the eyes.
“When this moment is past, you will have to be strong.”
“That’s shit.” Cordelia said, causing the archon to wince. “What kind of advice is that supposed to be?”

“I know what you have been through, I heard your prayers, and I understand more than anyone else how it feels, Cordelia.” The archon’s voice was compassionate but oddly sorrowful.
“That’s so easy for you to say.” She spat with resentment.
The sorrow touched her perfect blue eyes. “Trust me when I say I know exactly what you’re facing. I know precisely how you feel.”
“I don’t believe you.”

The celestial’s light dimmed for the slightest of moments. She looked hurt by Cordelia’s disbelief. “Why?”

“Look at you! Just look at you!” She shouted. “You’re beautiful and I’m normal at best. No one will ever call me beautiful unless it’s a drunken mercenary. You’ve never known hunger, you’ve never known thirst. You dwell in paradise, and I live in a corner of Golarion forsaken to the Midnight Lord or the King of Hell depending on which day of the week it happens to be.”

“I’m sorry if you feel that way.” The celestial neither interrupted nor looked away. Her gaze never left Cordelia’s face. “But know that I have stood in the way of a horde of demons pouring out of a rift in the Maelstrom. I have fought against devils. I have seen thefaces of gods. Yet I admire you and what you face, and how your heart does indeed burn with a light that is seen even in the heavenly realms themselves: brilliant, powerful, and beautiful.”

Cordelia matched the archon’s gaze. The celestial wasn’t lying. She was incapable of it. She believed in her, respected her. Even if she was unable to appear and save her by whatever immutable laws constrained even the hosts of Heaven, she had come to comfort Cordelia and let her know that whatever would happen she would neither be alone, nor would it be in vain.
“Am I going to die?”
“I can’t answer that question.”
“But you know the answer?”
“Yes.”

Cordelia gazed into the archon’s eyes for another long moment, lost in their beauty and wisdom, admonished and humbled by what answers it could give. She thought of her grandmother, of Nidal, and her looming fate. It could not be stopped. But even so, there would be a light in darkest Nidal, perhaps to pierce the gloom even in Pangolin. The priest and his ilk would not forget her.
“I understand.” Cordelia said, looking back to the archon. “Thank you. Watch over me please.”
“I will.” One last time the archon stepped to the ground and embraced the mortal, holding her tight before kissing her forehead. “More than you can know.”

“I’m ready.” Cordelia said, slowly slipping from sight as the light began to fade for her, accepting what would come.
As her mortal companion faded from view, the archon’s expression was unreadable for a long, pregnant moment before a tear fell from her eye. She rubbed one marble-skinned hand across the bejeweled gorget encircling her throat. She seemed lost in thought, the recurring gesture automatic and dredged up by memory. Finally, she smiled.
Time resumed.

Cordelia’s eyes snapped open, regained their focus on the priest’s face and for a moment, the Kuthite flinched at the intensity and conviction he saw burning within those pale blue spheres. As he shrank back, her voice came clear and unafraid. “I deny Zon-Kuthon and all his works. I pity you still in his thrall, and I ache for Nidal. There is a light beyond this darkness, and this I will testify.”

She smiled almost tenderly at the congregation, some of whom paused in their requisite self-mortification and simply stared. The priest’s knife flashed quickly to silence her. Cordelia’s second smile was ragged, bloody, and carved across the base of her neck, neatly severing her jugular and spilling out her lifeblood in a spurting, erratic torrent.

“The sentence is death.” The priest’s voice was loud, but it rang oddly hollow.
“See you all now the price of faith in any other but the Midnight Lord?! See you all the penalty of weakness, the penalty of not accepting the pain of this life, the penalty of neither submitting to the will of your betters or to your own thirst to inflict and rise above?”

The crowd was hushed, but not by his words. Cordelia’s smile remained on her face, her expression unchanged, unbowed, unbroken even as her body shuddered and slumped and that piercing gaze faded from her eyes, replaced by the glassy sclera of a corpse. The crowd was hushed not by her death, not by her failure, but by her triumph. Silent echoes of it spread, and would continue to do so for years to come.

For Cordelia, time stopped and then resumed. The passage of the soul from this life to the next is an uncertain thing, with little parallel to the experiences of the living. The life beyond this one is not the same as that of the mortal coil. The passage of time is not necessarily objective. Time is an odd and unmeasurable quantity in the infinite realms of the Great Beyond.
Cause need not presage effect.

The starting point upon a circle, be it a timeline or a Catherine Wheel, need not predicate the path of circumnavigation.

Immeasurable time passed in a flurry of images and sensations, backlit by the mixed emotions of triumph and sorrow. A glowing silver void and the uncountable souls of the newly dead gave way to a towering spire rising up from the roiling chaos of the Maelstrom. With the looming face of Groetus staring with mindless patience from high above, she passed through Pharasma’s courts, past judgment of her soul and all of her deeds and beliefs in life, and finally into a portal of radiant light.
All was warm. All was bliss. Gone was the agony inflicted by the servitors of the Midnight Lord. Gone were life’s fears, worries, and uncertainties.

“Hello child.”
The soul of Cordelia of Nisroch opened her eyes and looked up into the face of a celestial once again. It was not the one whose words had comforted her; the one whose words had given her the strength to accept that which she could not change. This one was different. Golden light streamed down from the heights of an impossibly tall mountain that loomed beyond a massive archway before which the celestial stood.

“Welcome, child, to the paradise of Heaven.” The archon’s voice was that of an adult smiling down at a frightened child, proud, caring, and comforting. His voice was resolute and powerful in a capacity that Cordelia had never thought possible.
“You lived a good life, child.”
“Even though I paid lip service to something terrible?”
“But you did not believe in that creature.” The archon responded, glancing over an entry in the great book it carried. “You avoided deeds in its name, you cared for those you loved, and you were good to your fellow man. You lived a good life.”

“Cut far too short,” she lamented. “But I’m proud of how it ended.”
“As you should be.” The archon replied with a measure of respect.

He motioned towards the gate behind him, a titanic arch open to the great mountain’s foothills. There were lush forests brimming with every fruit imaginable, and where the trees abated, Cordelia could make out bejeweled towers, golden palaces, great works of art and beauty. Paradise waited beyond the gate, and the celestial now beckoned her forward, standing to one side to allow her to see through, to see what awaited her if she was ready.

Bliss washed over her and for a moment she only wished to throw away her cares, throw away her worries, throw away her memories of mortal struggle and embrace the archon’s gift of eternal serenity. But in that same moment something stirred across her ears, or perhaps only her mind, but it was a voice nonetheless.

“Cordelia…”
It was familiar, though she’d never heard it before. It was gentle yet powerful beyond belief, and she paused simply to hear it calling her name.
“Are you ready, Cordelia?” Cordelia didn’t hear him, focused as she was on that other, greater voice from beyond the gateway, high upon the mountain’s unseen summit. Something calling her name. Something beckoning her to follow it. Something calling her to greater things.
“Are you ready, Cordelia?” The archon asked once more, looking down at her much the same way that the avatar of Pharasma had done. “Are you ready to accept your reward for a life well lived and a heart that gave itself for others even to the very end? Will you accept your reward of eternal peace and joy?”

His voice was resolute and powerful. It was the voice of a being who knew the meaning of eternity, but even he was momentarily humbled when Cordelia made her reply.
“No.” Cordelia responded, looking up at the archon, unblinking and resolute. “Oh that I could accept. But I have somewhere to go. I have a voice to follow. I have a calling to accept. There is someone that eventually, somehow, I must meet again.”

At last she understood.
“So be it, child.” The archon responded with a measure of immortal pride. “I am so very proud of you. Find what you are looking for, and when you return, I will welcome you as kindred.”
Cordelia bowed before the archon and strode beyond the gate, towards the impossibly high mountain of Heaven. Seven layers above there was a garden waiting for her, its gate wide open, and somewhere within a voice was calling out to her. Resolute and understanding, she began her ascent to the summit, there to follow a voice, there to find her calling, her mission, and her destiny. There to become what she would, and then to find herself again and complete the circle.

Ritual of the Midnight Lord - Todd Stewardt

Carrion Crown: Kyle's ktle1985