The Apostle was fascinated by places like Delphi, places where the aesthetics of progress, of carbon, and glass, and molded plastics butted heads with the antiquated, aborted geometry of some bygone time. Delphi felt somehow fractured. Weak. There was a line as plain as day that you could cross where the industry of the place was not so much hidden, but manifest in the brick, and concrete, and steel, a place where the people would no doubt identify with the architecture itself and twist it to represent some piece of their identity.
But what was Delphi, really? How would it respond to a reckoning? It was his job to find out and the Apostle thought there was no better place to start than Old Town.
He’d walked the streets the last few hours, getting a feel for the layout, the general structure of Delphi and its inhabitants. The populous was tense and uneasy. People kept their heads down, focused on getting from point A to B without interruption. The few conversations he did hear were almost all conducted in the brusk tones of commerce, with the few outliers being small groups of twos or threes speaking in hushed, conspiratorial whispers. The recent bedlam that had gripped Delphi’s Old Town had reached international acclaim, though none save the Chosen understood the significance. The psychological aftermath clung to the people of Old Town like a night terror.
It was sad the state man often found himself in. The lands surrounding Delphi were ravaged with disease. If that were not sadness enough, Old Town had its own afflictions, the diseases of poverty, addiction, and ignorance. A shame, really.
The disciples were present, of course. The Apostle could feel them. They hung to the shadows, as was their nature, moving with him as he took Delphi’s pulse.
The Apostle was almost certain now, almost certain that this was the place it should start. But there was no reason to be hasty, no reason not to be gentle. Some of them would suffer, but it wasn’t necessary, not required. Not avoidable, not required. If he could do it in an instant he might, but that wasn’t the way it worked.
The Apostle was in one of the more dilapidated areas when he found his subject. The young man was standing on a corner, leaning against a lamppost with the practiced posture of a boy who spent much of his time casually leaning on his surroundings. He wore a coat too heavy for the weather and one of those tight fitting caps with the triangle brim that was in fashion among the youth. The boy’s light complexion and rounded face put him at no more than twenty, possibly younger, but it was his eyes that decided the matter. The boy never stopped glancing about. At every passerby his eyes attended them as a hawk might a mouse.
The Apostle observed for a time. Only twice did the young man engage in his obvious purpose, exchanging small snap vials for the swift, glittery flash of a phone. The boy’s customers would move away with the quick sidelong glances of the criminally paranoid and though they would wait to be out of sight, the disciples informed the Apostle that they almost immediately ingested whatever it was they’d procured from the young man.
The Apostle moved forward, letting his visage settle into that of an unassuming man in a threadbare jacket. He approached the boy as he’d seen the others do, adjusting his mannerisms to that of the addiction ridden street walker.
“What are you selling?” The Apostle said, looking about anxiously. “I don’t wanna get busted.”
The boy’s face broke into a cocky, reassuring smile that puffed his cheeks and made him look like an over proud squirrel.
“Man, I never get busted. You got nothin’ to worry about. Drones don’t even sweep ‘til late. You want a little Jump you’re safe here.” The boy had reached into his coat and was pulling out one of the small plastic vials. “Twenty dollars and I’ll set you right.”
“That’s good, that’s good. My last guy got retired. I was there, but I didn't stick around. I didn’t want to be there when the cops showed up.”
“Man, I pay my taxes and they stay out of my business. We all about free enterprise in Old Town. Now, you want some Jump or not?” The Apostle observed the young man’s stance change from open accommodation to caged aggression.
“Stay out your business dealings, huh. Murder too?”
The young man was clearly agitated now.
“Man, you want a fix or not! Get to payin’ or get to stepin’. I ain’t got time fo…”
The boy trailed off as the Apostle relaxed, letting his body spread. He grew thin and tall, his appendages lengthening, becoming a towering spindle creature, his robes matching the wisp gray vestments of the disciples.
The boy stood frozen his head slowly tilting up to meet the red eyed gaze of his final judgement. He began to scream as the Apostle reached out and closed his hand around the boy’s throat. His voice was silenced almost immediately, the life strangled out of him as his windpipe was first closed and then crushed.
“It’s alright, you’re doing well. Close your eyes and think of something warm. It will all be over in just a moment.”
The Apostle waited patiently until the sputtering kicks and spasms subsided. With that he let the body fall and took up position in a dark shadowed corner, and waited.
It took ten minutes for the body to be noticed. A woman moved forward and tentatively spoke at the corpse. She gave a quick look around to see if anyone was watching before pulling the boy’s coat from his body and running off down the street. It was another hour before someone called it in. Within five minutes of the call a police drone flew in to get eyes on the scene. It took another fifteen minutes for officers to arrive.
Hhhm, curious. Ignored by passersby, some of whom knew the boy. And yet the police are swift. The people have given up on themselves, but society has yet to give up on its people. Delphi really is special.
Xavier looked listlessly out the window of his car as it navigated gently through a warehouse district in one of Delphi’s many industrial parks. This was usually a ‘relax with a scotch’ sort of drive, but today he was tired. He’d been up late reviewing possible candidates for Lilith’s team. As she’d said, the roster was growing thin and Xavier found himself in the rare position of not knowing precisely what to do.
Xavier owned most of the property in this area. It was a sanctuary where the people in his employ could come and go quietly as they went about their day, performing various duties with skill and efficiency. Crime around his properties was low. Xavier made sure of that. It kept noses away. Anyone who looked at a map of crime statistics would find a curious void here. As far as anyone knew it might be a drug den, or a smuggling ring, but probable cause is a beautiful thing and even the most curious cop had no excuse to trespass. Airspace over the area was restricted, resulting in a less than normal amount of drone coverage, but the odd bird did pass over, so a few strategic awnings had been placed here and there just to keep things mysterious. It had been years since they’d had any kind of break-in. Xavier wondered how many people had disappeared before everyone got the point. A few security guards lazily made their way around the compound, looking rather dull, but easily capable of removing a man from history if the need ever arose.
Xavier’s car pulled up near a loading dock and he made his way into the bland, innocuous building. His footsteps echoed in the large steel and concrete space. A few boxes were scattered about, supplies waiting to be dispersed and organized for the benefit of the deacons and priests. Most of the clergy led pretty normal lives, all things considered, but someone always had to be onsite, so work was divided in shifts and comforts were provided: food, water, vestments, good beds, and private spaces. Thick metal stairs led to the basement of the warehouse, all pretty standard. It was at the bottom that things began to get interesting.
A final security door waited, and once opened, metal and concrete gave way to thick marble slabs. The cathedral had taken years to build. Excavating tons of dirt and rock without raising notice had been a costly endeavor. Dodging and rerouting utilities had required planting someone in the city development department who could relay information without suspicion. Endless trucks full of debris had to be taken out of the city and emptied in discrete places. Craftsmen had been brought in from other cities. There was an entire cast of laborers for this. People who could be trusted to perform the work needed without the risk of vetting local contractors.
As the bone cold hallway opened up to the cathedral proper, iconography began to appear. Dark stained glass windows were illuminated from behind by large gas lamps, to produce the illusion that the cathedral was built above ground. The symbols were etched into Xavier’s mind from childhood: The Star of Spears, The Tree of Blood, The Tear of Mourning, The Uroboros, sacred symbols passed down through generations to embody the sacred doctrines, some without contention, some a little more subject to interpretation.
The entryway felt muted, illuminated only by glowing glass and candles, but upon entering the nave light poured through the room from bright white electric lamps placed where candles would have been a hundred years ago. Some argued the artificial light was far too modern for such a sacred space, but Xavier found them both practical and convenient. At any rate the baroque style cathedral was itself very modern compared to temples in the ancient world where sandstone pillars and open ceilings had once been the order of the day.
The Archdeacon usually met Xavier in the transept. There were a lot of fussy, busy things the Archdeacon could do there, like arranging altars to prepare the lesser offerings for people who came for meditation and guidance: doves, rabbits, snakes. Medium sized offerings like goats and lambs were usually by appointment and could only be performed on certain days. The largest offerings were done in the basement and only a chosen few were allowed to attend. Many people came to pray or perform the lesser offerings weekly, although it wasn’t specified that this should be the practice. Xavier found it a hysterical melding of modern Christian thought applied to a philosophy much older and more cryptic.
As Xavier neared the choir he was surprised to see the Archdeacon already waiting for him. He was ghostly pale and began to approach Xavier, almost stumbling, whispering frantically as soon as Xavier was in earshot.
“Thank God you're here Bishop^” The Archdeacon spoke frantically. “He’s been coming here for days. The clergy hardly make a move without two eyes hovering over their shoulders. The parishioners are terrified. They come for fear of rebuke, but almost never approach the altar. He looms over us like a great torment, and won’t state his purpose other than to criticize our every prayer and ritual.”
Xavier listened, his concern deepening with every word. The ramblings made no sense. No one had ever infiltrated the cathedral, even if they had, the Archdeacon had authority to eject anyone from the church and the muscle to follow through with any threat. Lilith had men stationed at all hours who could solve problems, if it came to that. The Archdeacon was a proud, conceited man who didn’t stand for criticism. He was studied and had ironclad opinions on any point of doctrine. If he was afraid, something had gone terribly wrong.
As Xavier transition from the choir into the transept his eyes caught hold of a terrible shape. A white haze almost difficult for his eyes to land on. The smell of him was grotesque and ancient. His billowing robes looked as if they had laid in a crypt for centuries, slowly eaten away by time. Xavier had never seen anything so abstract, so unexplainable. In a world where miracles happen everyday it was strange to feel so off guard, so tentative.
The strange figure had with him a great book and a long feathered quill, and seemed to be taking notes on the various modes and methods of worship, moving a trinket this way or that as he worked.
As Xavier approached the creature slowly wheeled in his direction, making another mark in the tattered book.
“So, this is the respect you pay your clergy, Bishop Xavier? The Archdeacon has called to you these three days and nights and only now have you graced him with your presence.”
The last thing Xavier expected upon entering the cathedral was an empathetic rebuke from a creature he’d never seen or heard of, a creature the Archdeacon had several opportunities to mention, but for some unknown reason had withheld the information.
“True, although if the message had been more clear, I certainly could have been here sooner.”
“As a Bishop, Xavier,” the wraith spoke, the great quill and tome vanishing in a wisp from his hands, “you’re a humble servant of the faithful in Delphi. Your parishioners. Your life is theirs.”
What the fuck is going on!
“I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced.” Xavier said, moving in a little closer.”
“I’m the Apostle Menelaus, servant of the Great Prophet. He asked me to come and oversee preparations for the second reckoning. The preparation of your circle one of the paramount tasks.”
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“I see. I wish we’d been introduced sooner. It’s been difficult for us to coordinate with the Prophet, since he’s been working in such isolation.”
The Apostle gave a wave of his hand, attempting to allay Xavier’s concerns with the pale, skeletal appendage.
“I understand. The Prophet moves in his own ways, and frequently sends his followers far afield. Although I doubt it provides any comfort, my presence would have done very little to prepare you. His methods are often mysterious, even to me.”
“So, why come now?”
“The Prophet believes that a great evil has fallen upon Delphi and, should it fail in its judgment, the city must be cleansed.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Cleansed? Clarify ‘cleansed’. Delphi’s not perfect, but ‘cleansed’ feels extreme.”
The Apostle’s wraith like head seemed to nod sagely and Xavier was beginning to find the combination of unsightly monster and ceaseless compassion irritating.
“I know you’ve grown attached to this place. Delphi is special in its scope and grandeur, but we do not get to choose the place of final judgement. The great evil will gather its strength in a place of beauty and splendor during its brief dominion over earth. Such a place is almost certainly doomed to destruction. It would be easier for me if there were more deacons to assist us, although that isn’t your way, is it Xavier. The Archdeacon has instructed me on your methods for optimizing the rituals, it’s impressive in its intent, but I’m shocked to find such a small gathering in a city this size.”
“Delphi has the tightest security of almost any city in the world. A small group is harder to find. It’s a perfectly reasonable strategy. I didn’t know about a reckoning or judgement. How could I have known? How can I be expected to manage so much chaos?”
The Apostle opened his arms in gentle, infuriating tenderness.
“These are trying times, Xavier. We all will be tested. Where’s the priestess?”
“She needs to know what’s coming. Her resources are inadequate.”
“Oh hell!” Xavier exclaimed, running his fingers through his hair. “I can have her here in an hour.”
“I hear her ranks are growing thin. Another ‘innovation’ of yours Xavier?”
“Yes, but not precisely. We’ve been under attack from somewhere. People have been disappearing without explanation.”
“This is not without explanation. It is part of her trial. She must prove her faith, that she is worthy of the trust placed in her.”
Xavier looked up at the Apostle in tired resignation.
“So… how bad are we talking?”
Xavier watched the Apostle draw himself up, the true terror of his form brought to bear.
“It is said the streets will run with rivers of the dead.”