Come Ye Now to Worship
By Ethan J Pollard
The land here was raw as flayed skin, barren beneath a cloudless pit of sky. Though it was not yet noon, the sun seethed mercilessly overhead.
The woman slowed, drawing her horse up within a ring of carved stones and desiccated trees. She squinted, cupping a gloved hand to her brow. A sickly collection of weathered buildings shimmered in the distance, dark against the pale strata of wind-sculpted mesas, a steeple jutting from their midst.
She lowered her hand, eyes narrowing in something like satisfaction.
“Did I not tell you today would be the day?” The voice of her companion cut the sluggish air. “The bastard’s hours are numbered.”
She glanced over at him. He’d drawn his horse up next to hers and was staring at the distant village, blue eyes burning with righteous fervor. His winning combination of blond hair and imperious jaw was currently somewhat diminished by a heavy sheen of sweat and sunburn, undoubtedly a result of the resplendent plate armor he wore in spite of the heat. It was a traveling suit, true—much lighter than their usual uniform—but still. He’d risen early each morning of their long trek to don it with a religious determination verging on the beatific. She’d opted for extra sleep.
She returned her gaze to the waiting village.
Their quarry—a murderer, degenerate, and suspected cultist—had led the Queen’s Justice on a grim chase for near seven months. He evaded capture and slipped confinement with the facility of an eel, littering his wake with desecrated bodies and tableaus dredged from nightmare. She’d tracked him since the beginning, dogged as a leech, and now, finally, justice long-overdue would be delivered.
She almost smiled. Time to run the fucker to ground.
“Eh, Ceriss? Did I not tell you?”
Her companion turned to her and grinned. It was a boyish expression, betraying an excitement at odds with his usual zealous bearing. She felt suddenly much older than him, though they were no more than a year or two apart.
“So you did, Davin.” She kicked her spurs. “Let’s be done with it.”
With a clatter of hooves, the Queen’s Justice began the final leg of their long pursuit.
The village had neither wall nor gates. A long thoroughfare led through its center, dilapidated buildings clustered along either side like fungal growths, slumped against great pillars of stratified rock. A black church dominated the end of the street, windowless and decaying. Behind it, a ridge of hazy mountains loomed like the spine of a vast, slope-shouldered beast.
Few people were visible; those that were lounged unmoving in darkened doorways or shaded eaves, leery-eyed and indolent.
Ceriss was familiar with the feeling of being watched. A Hand of the Queen’s Justice was ever in the public eye, a spectacle of lawfulness amidst disorder, a beacon for the common man. In general, she cared little for the attention of strangers, favorable or otherwise.
Here, though, it stuck beneath her skin like a splinter. She kept her back straight by an act of discipline, eyes scanning ahead. Her fingers itched for the weight of her sword.
A child darted suddenly from an alleyway to her right, bare feet pattering dry earth. Before she had time to react, the urchin reached her, halted, let loose a skin-scraping shriek, and then dashed away, cackling. She watched him disappear into a crack between two buildings, slithering out of sight with uncanny nimbleness. A woman watched from nearby, grinning with unwholesome teeth. Ceriss stared back, sweat crawling down her neck.
“Godless heathens.” Davin’s jaw was set in a resolute line, but she noticed him fingering the sun pendant draped on his breastplate. The sigil of the Queen’s Justice glittered from the back of his glove, but both symbols felt suddenly devoid of their usual potency.
Do what’s needed and get out. No mess, no lingering. You’ve dealt with worse than a handful of ill-favored yokels. You’ll see this to its end.
In spite of herself, she glanced over her shoulder. A scattering of the town’s inhabitants had gathered in the street behind them and were watching intently, ragged as sun-bleached vultures. She turned away, suppressing a shudder.
Mastering herself, she motioned to a slightly less decrepit building, the only one on the street with a stone foundation. “There. Might be a guildhall of some sort.”
Davin nodded and they angled their mounts toward the structure.
Ceriss dismounted, gritting her teeth against the sudden feeling of exposure. Davin thumped to the earth beside her with a rattle of steel and leather. The smell of sweat and dust wreathed her nostrils, along with some indefinable decay.
“Stay with the horses. I’ll check inside.”
Davin nodded again, eyes tracking the slow movements of the locals between buildings. Quietly, he unbuckled a leather case slung from his saddle and removed the elite-issue crossbow he’d insisted on carrying all the way from the citadel. With swift, practiced motions, he began to assemble it, keeping his gaze on the street.
With a last look at the villagers, she turned and made her way up the moldering steps to the front of the building. The stone foundation seemed far more ancient than the weathered grey wood, carved wholesale from the surrounding rock and mottled with imprints of ridged, spiraling shells and thick venous masses.
She reached the door and pushed it open, unconsciously tensing to meet an attack. None came. The interior was dark and smelled moldy, an odd sense of wetness permeating the entire space. Shafts of light speared feebly down from gaps in the roof. A few chairs and tables were scattered about the floor, and what looked like a long counter crouched in the shadows against the far wall. A tavern?
“A tavern, a cavern, a hole in the ground. There’s sights ye have not seen, lass. Will ye have a drink?”
The voice startled her, croaking from somewhere behind the bar but seeming to reverberate from other hidden corners of the room. An odd, sticky noise underlaid it.
Glowering, she strode forward, fist gripping her sword. “You. Barkeep. I am here on behalf of the Queen’s Justice, and I would speak to an authority. Have you a mayor or burg-master?”
“Mayor? Aye, aye, I am the mayor. I am he. Welcome ye to the house of Old Rake. Will ye have a drink?”
“You are the mayor?” She slowed as she approached the bar, peering into the gloom. A figure was visible, small and indistinct, yet somehow loathsome for all its lack of detail.
A sound like licking lips. “I am the mayor and the herder and the disciple. Speak thy piece.”
She regarded him a moment, then spat the words out. “I am here with my fellow officer on a mission of the Queen’s Justice. We seek a murderer. He has been linked to a spate of violent desecrations in the city of Erstus. My companion and I are here to arrest him for trial and execution. Here,” she produced a folded parchment and flattened it on the table, “is a sketch of the man’s features. Do you recognize him?”
The man was silent for a long while. She could make out his eyes, unmoving in the darkness. A sound like chewing emanated from somewhere in the room.
Finally: “What will ye have to drink?”
She ground her teeth. A headache threatened behind her eyes. “I do not wish to—”
“I have seen him. I know where he resides. A drink, and I shall tell ye what ye wish.” Bottles clinked beneath the bar. “What ye desire. What ye long for in blood and bone and belly.” A wet smile wreathed the words, and she felt a chill snake down her spine.
Do what’s needed. Get out.
“Fine. A drink for your loosened tongue. Fair warning: if you’re still having difficulty afterward, I’ve other means.” She tapped the pommel of her sword pointedly.
The man cackled and stooped, reappearing with a grimy bottle and small cup that looked hewn from stone. Ceriss reached into her belt-pouch and surreptitiously palmed a small, iron vial containing a powerful alchemical concoction, a neutralizer for most known poisons. Very rare, very expensive, and part of every elite Justice’s field kit.
He poured and pushed the cup toward her. She took it, carefully tipping in a few drops of the neutralizer, and raised it to her lips. It smelled like any strong liquor. She tossed it back. Swallowed.
Something squirmed in the back of her throat. She coughed, spat, hurled the cup away. The man laughed uproariously, palms smashing the bar, rattling glass.
Her stomach lurched and nausea rolled through her belly, hot over her neck. Then rage hit her. She seized the man and dragged him over the counter, slammed his flabby weight to the floor. His laughter did not cease.
“What was that?” Her voice was hoarse. Red rimmed her vision.
He spoke, voice bubbling through continued hysterics. “I have seen him and I know where he resides. A son of Old Rake he is, beautiful boy, blessed in bone and blood, spittle and sputum. Watcher and teacher and minister. He crawls in the cracks between all things and he has seen wonders.” The man moaned through his teeth, hideously aroused. “He has seen the throat that hungers at the center of all things. He has heard stars scream in the void where no ear may hear. He leads us and feeds us and breeds us and we are made open through him, made beautiful. Oh yes, yes. Made beautiful!”
He smiled and his lips pulled back to his ears. His teeth were sharp.
“Be ye welcome in the house of Old Rake, law-bringer. We have a place made ready, and love enough for even ye. Be made open and beautiful. Sing with us the songs of—”
She struck him across the face. Raw emotion such as she had not felt in years gushed behind her eyes, rancid-hot in her mouth. She struck him again and again, a frenzy of blows, pulping his flesh with her fist. Blood spattered in thick strands. The man continued to laugh, ceaseless and grinding. Her brain shrieked in lunatic circles.
Something inside you, something inside you, something inside you—
With an unholy surge of strength, the man rose to his feet. She tumbled, landing awkwardly, jolted by the impact. Her knuckles were sore and her mouth tasted of blood.
The man faced her, grin unbroken behind the ruin of his face. His voice dripped through his teeth like pitch. “Come ye. It is time to worship.”
He turned and walked toward the door.
She lurched to her feet, bent double, tried to vomit. Produced nothing more than an acidic belch and a dribble of thin bile. A chill clenched her bowels, gut roiling ominously. Her hands trembled.
Slowly, slowly, she straightened and wiped her mouth with the back of one glove. She closed her eyes, breathed in, out.
What God-cursed nightmare have we stumbled into?
She clenched her jaw, hand seeking her sword. The blade rasped from its sheath, the familiar heft of it comforting in her grip.
You’ll see this to its end.
Breathing through her teeth, she strode to the door on quivering legs, making the sign of the sun over her chest.
Ÿlloh uphold and preserve your servant in the dark of the valley…
The old prayer faltered as she stumbled back out into the burning light.
Davin and the horses were gone. The street was filled with the village’s inhabitants, a slow procession toward the black church. She followed their movement, caught a flash of sun on metal at the open doorway, a hint of blond swallowed by the yawning maw.
She raced toward the doors, shouldering villagers aside. The church seemed to grow as she approached it, angles uncanny, edges boundless, the very air warping around it. Her eyes throbbed and she looked away, focusing on the doorway, searching for any trace of Davin within. The space was a cavity, black and beckoning.
She reached the threshold and froze. Something scrabbled in her chest, screaming at her to turn, run, hide. There was wrongness here, otherness like a monolith of oiled stone, incomprehensible and malignant, vast as the sky.
It will turn its eye upon you and you will be seen and hunted and swallowed and opened and—
Before she realized, she had taken a step backward, alerted by the crunch of sand beneath her heel. Fury burst like a tarry bubble in her chest.
Piss on that.
She hefted her sword and stepped across the threshold.
The interior was cavernous, torchlit, smelling of smoke and rot and blood. Black, soot-stained boards were covered with scrawled text and ecclesiastic imagery, scenes of worship and revelation and divinity rendered in diabolic shapes and the glistening colors of overripe fruit. Swollen tongues, rippling tendrils, dark-stained teeth. Her gorge rose and she looked away.
Davin stood at the far end of the space, sword drawn, feet planted, looking up at something like a pulpit that sprouted, humped and asymmetric, from the stone floor, twice the height of a man. Behind it, a painted triptych dominated the wall. The two side panels depicted flayed, cruciform bodies suspended in shafts of unnatural light. The center panel at first seemed pure, depthless black, but as she stared, transfixed, she beheld impossible colors writhing within it, splitting, coalescing; the shifting iridescence of a carrion-beetle’s wing. Below her belly, something writhed to its rhythm.
A sudden choral note filled the room, dozens of voices lifted in harmony. Behind her, the doors swung shut with a boom and rattle. She spun, panic spiking her throat. There was nowhere to go. The village’s inhabitants filled the sanctuary, mouths open in song, rapt faces upturned to the pulpit. She turned back, following their gaze.
A figure mounted the pulpit. He was slender, dressed in finely-cut black fabric, and moved with uncanny grace. Cold certainty gripped her. She watched him ascend, turn to regard the congregation.
It was him.
Murderer. Defiler. She began to raise her sword.
Then he spoke.
“O, my children, my brethren. It is good and sweet to be in the house of God with you today. Be made open and be welcome.” His voice ran like warm honey, smoothing the edges of her resolve. “I have been too long away from you, at the sacred work of preparation. Bloody, beautiful, sacred work. And now, o children, now the time is upon us at last. Your longing is answered! Let all that is within you cry out and rejoice; let your flesh quiver and creak with expectation! Open your mouths and call upon him.”
The song swelled, joined now by a throaty chanting. Cries of ecstasy punctuated the chorus. Something thickened in the air. The minister turned his sharply beautiful face to regard the congregation, smile flickering with reflected torchlight. His eyes swiveled to Ceriss, then Davin. The smile did not falter.
“Blessed be the newcomers, children, for Our Father desires gifts. Which of them shall be the first to open—?”
Davin’s voice cut him off, shockingly loud in the vast chamber. “You, murderer, are hereby summoned to stand trial for your crimes and submit to the punishment of the Queen’s Justice. Will you comply peaceably?”
Cold sweat broke across her brow. She readied her grip on her sword.
The minister’s eyes paled, grin widening. “So kind of you to volunteer.” He raised a hand, gestured. “Take him.”
Davin moved quickly, dropping his sword and whipping the crossbow out from where it had hung unnoticed upon his back. The bolt took the minister in the eye, snapping his head back in a black spray of gore.
A wail of rage and dismay billowed through the chamber. The crowd surged toward Davin. Already moving, he hurled the spent crossbow into their midst and dropped to retrieve his sword. She was running before she knew it, body moving on instinct, her own weapon upraised to strike.
They reached him before she did. He cut the first few down with the wet smack of steel into flesh, blood whipping from the point of his sword. Then she was at his side, fending off clawed hands, gnashing teeth, zealous, fevered faces. She moved with swift, drilled precision, legs planted in guard stance, blade flickering in a swath of destruction. The rhythm of battle took hold.
Through the shoulder, into the chest. Split ribs dotted white in red. Free the blade, turn, take another in the neck. Gurgling choke, spray of blood on her teeth. Duck, swing, into a knee. Crunch of gristle. Scream. Spin, split a belly. Spill of intestines.
The bodies crowded closer, undeterred.
We are alone here.
She stumbled. A flash of pain in her calf, another in her arm. Bodies dragged at her, fastened by clamping jaws. She cried out, shook her arm free. Tearing pain. She kicked, dislodged the other, brought her boot down upon a jaw with a sickening crack. Blood coated the floor. The bitter smell of offal thickened in her nostrils.
“God smiles upon you, o children and brethren! Yes! Press in, take and hold them, for they shall be our prize and offering. Sing and rejoice!”
Her blood froze. She chanced a look over her shoulder and saw him, squatted on the pulpit like a spider, black ichor running down his face, the bolt quivering obscenely in his eye socket. The geometry of his face and body was subtly, horribly altered, human skin animated by inhuman musculature. His smile was radiant.
“He approaches, children! Old Rake of the Wastes, Id-Rakah, first spawn of Golammech. He Who Waits Beyond the Wall! O Father! O Maker! Receive these offerings, these sweetmeats upon your table. Rise! Wake, O Sleeper!”
The song swelled, feeding upon itself. A violent, joyous frenzy filled the room. Stomping, clapping, wailing, singing. Something vast and imponderable moved beyond the veil.
A cry. Davin. She spun in time to see him borne down beneath bodies, sword flashing a final time before vanishing. She screamed, leaping for him, but her feet skidded in blood and then she was held fast, able only to watch as they swarmed him like ants, rushing in with rope and dirty knives.
In the end, the armor availed him little. He was cut free and borne aloft, naked, bound, limbs cruelly outstretched. Blood matted his hair and ran from his mouth. One eye was swollen shut, the other swimming with wearied defiance.
They mounted him upon the pulpit, suspended an arm’s length above the floor. The minister clambered down to help. His head rotated on his neck and he grinned at her. He opened his mouth and his voice was many voices.
“Gather ‘round, children. Behold, the time is nearly at hand. Our Father comes. From the deep cracks of the heavens, from the bloated corpses of stars he crawls forth and descends. Blessed are you! Sing and rejoice!” He slithered bonelessly back into the pulpit, honeyed voice turning bloody. “Now make open the gate. Fill yourselves and be sated. Spill the blood of the sacrifice. Make way for the coming of God!”
The choir surged with shrieks of joy.
Davin’s anguished gaze found hers. His voice cracked. “Tell… Tell my—”
“Children!” The minister’s roar filled the sanctuary. “Come ye now to worship!”
They overran him. Tears blurred her eyes and her screams blended with his as he was torn apart, muscle shredded, bones snapped, joints wrenched from sockets with sickening cracks. They spread him throughout the room, hand to hand, mouth to mouth, flesh devoured by men and women and children alike. His shrieks—horrible, throat-ripping sounds—gave out only when his ribcage split open with a final wet, rending crack. The smell of his flesh clotted her throat and she vomited.
When at last nothing remained but wasted bone and a shock of once-blond hair, they drew back; sated, expectant.
A hush descended. The music died, her sobbing the only lingering sound.
A low, squirming thrum. The air grew heavy and filled with the smell of the sky before a storm. The thrum deepened, black as pitch. A crack like rending stone. The triptych’s middle panel bulged inward and the church was thrust into shadow, torch flames guttering out.
Renewed celebration, prayers and screams and weeping and laughing. The stone of the pulpit rippled, heaved, began to devour the bones still bound to it. Davin’s corpse disappeared as though into heated tar.
A god stepped through.
YOU HAVE CALLED.
The voice bled through her, between bone and flesh, behind her eyes, over her tongue. The room filled with moaning.
I HAVE COME.
Old Rake fell upon them. Screams ripped the air as adoration turned to fear, supplicants to fodder. A storm of carnage such as only a god could unleash. Here was power unadulterated, the primordial made flesh.
A god as gods should be.
Silence fell like a headsman’s axe, one final scream silenced in a crunch of bone.
She stared. Her breath quivered shallow between her teeth. Only she and the minister remained.
He stepped toward her, many-jointed, ever-bright smile nearly all that remained of his human form. Old Rake drifted behind him, a shifting vastness of ridged, bony limbs; of tendrils, eyes, and wicked beak. One eye rotated to fix upon her, searching.
“My sincere apologies for your companion. A regrettable necessity. Rituals…” The minister sighed. “Such particular requirements.”
She swallowed, fought to speak past the trembling of her body. “You… You are…”
He chuckled. “Many things, child, I assure you. And yes, your murderer among them. It’s been fun, our little game of chase. A pity it must end.”
He rippled toward her.
Unthinking, she roared and swung at him, sword still clutched in numb fingers. The blade bit deep. Black fluid spilled over her hands. He hissed, jerked the weapon from her grip with a twist of his body. She stumbled, fell.
Looked up and into the eye of the old god fixed upon her.
Reality dilated. Stars spun about her in a terrible dance, dying and birthing and dying. Something writhed inside a womb, dimpling the heavens. A mouth opened, closed.
She looked into an eye large enough to swallow her. An intelligence—sweeping, arid, immense—brushed against hers, abrading her very self where it touched. A scream built in her throat, but she did not release it.
Fuck you. I won’t die on my knees.
A new sensation, something like…amusement?
Time unwound and she was back in the church, gasping on her back. The minister reached for her.
A limb snapped out, impossibly fast, crushing him around the waist. Confusion melted into horror and then he shrieked in fury.
YOU HAVE CALLED. I HAVE COME.
A second limb seized his feet and pulled. His body came apart in long, whipping strands, inhuman anatomy unraveling. Ichor sprayed down upon his once-congregation, the smeared carpet of bone and tissue. He bucked, wailed, and was fed screaming into a clicking, tearing maw.