Icy rain fell into the chapel of Akatosh. Six months had passed and still its steeple lay in shattered ruins, I shook my head sadly. Its tall windows were torn, the shards of red glass all to reminiscent of demonic teeth. Its high walls were stained with mould, soot and worse. I knelt before the altar, more though habit than faith. Six months had passed since I last prayed.
I raised my hands and closed my eyes but under their dark lids I saw only terror. In the winds’ chill wail I still heard the ghosts of screams, the susurration of flames, the howls of fell creatures. Though it all loomed the image of the fiery gate, the one which haunted my every moment. The portal which had taken me far beyond the sight and knowledge of the gods I knew.
I stifled a shudder. How much did they know of what had happened in there? Of what I did, or rather didn’t, do? Could they accept that I had not choice, can I? I shook the thought away, a thousand times every day I relived the guilt until my own self-hatred threatened to consume me. I stared at nothing for a time until a noise roused me.
The chapel door groaned open. I shrank back from the unfamiliar sound. Someone entered and I craned to look. The foreign sight of another man made me conscious of how I must seem. My straggly beard and unkempt hair lay wildly full of muck. My near skeletal body peaked though a hundred tears in a dusty robe. A part of me knew this, knew my eyes must be sunken from lack of sleep and endless nightmares, but I could not picture it. The man advanced.
He stepped into a pool of light and stopped. I stood. Each of us was arrested by the appearance of the other. I felt that I looked into some strange mirror. Undressed wounds wept puss onto his grimy skin and soaked his shirt. Like myself he hunched but when our eyes met I saw the difference, a maniacal fire burned within him and shone though his clear eyes. His split lips curled into a grin revealing festering black teeth. He advanced upon me.
“Forgive me father for I have sinned,” he said, a droplet of bloodied saliva ran down the corner of his grin.
I recoiled, when had I last seen another human? “The gods can forgive.” I said to him, just as I did to myself a thousand times every day.
“Which gods? I have seen many. As have you. You were not the only one to escape the burning gate.” My stomach twisted, I stamped out the spark of recognition before it flared. Impossible. Few made it out and still less survived the next week. He must have seen something in my reaction for he continued his voice rising to a screech, “You know what I speak of, yet you understand so little. You saw the great towers and spires. The wells of hot blood, the molten rock and the fires and smoke and brimstone.”
He stopped, and gasped. When he spoke again he was calmer. “They took me. Took me inside the tower. The tower…” he broke of into a fit of shivering.
I felt the same cold creep over me. I think I had known the truth since he entered, maybe even before that. Still I did not want to believe it. I knew him. I abandoned him. “I have been in that tower,” I said, the words came almost unbidden, “I met someone there.” I knew I should be relieved that he lived but I felt terror and abhorrence.
“Yes, you did. A man possessed by fear and loyalty.” He let the memory hang.
I could not apologise, I had done the right thing and no apology could redeem my sin. I felt no sorrow. Rather I wanted to smash his face in. He was responsible for the nightmares, the despised part of my mind which whispered day and night. Traitor. I left him to torture and death. And he made me do it. Realisation dawned slowly: the man I had abandoned had destroyed me, and I hated him.
“You told me to leave you.” I said it as an accusation.
“The gate needed closing.” A challenge. For a while we just stared, the storm outside the only sound, “He let me go.”
“Why,” the word escaped before I could stop it.
“He knew it would hurt me more, rather than a clean end with death I am consumed by my own hatred. Little remains of the man you left in that cell. But as I hunted you I came to realise what he had done.”
I held the next question silent.
He answered it anyway, “Tell me, when did you last pray?”
“I pray every day. What else did you leave me?”
“Liar. I do not believe you can pray any more than I can, it killed most of the survivors did it not?”
It was true. For all the hours I bowed my head I knew my desperate pleas went unheard, when I could even make them. I met his eyes and saw triumph there.
“You see?” I looked at him and he frowned, “Or maybe you don’t. I saw and understood. He took us and each destroyed the other. You pray to the wrong gods.”
I hated him, and now I understood. Freed from the fetters of guilt I allowed my hatred to burn in its divine glory. I embraced it. Circumstance had forced me into abandoning a friend. The prince of destruction had planned my ruin. Forced me into a deed I could never forgive, and so neither could my gods. He had claimed me.
As a broad smile brakes on my mouth I see Menian leer back, “So you see dear Ilend? You can’t tell heaven from hell.”
He is already raising his fists as I welcome a new master and launch myself at his throat, finally free.
All that is needed for evil to triumph, is that good men stand idle.