Arcanum 1780: A New World
Tales - Dabbling in Heresy
Dabbling in Heresy
Sunlight filtered through the roots in the ceiling of the cave, casting everything in hues of gray, broken only by the warm, inviting light of the a circle of candles. They had been arranged atop intertwining lines of salt and talc dust, interspersed with drops of human sweat. León gripped the sword slung from his belt, hoping it would lend him some strength, some comfort, but the cold metal stung his palm. He found himself unwilling, unable to let go, even as the tremors coursing through his hand rattled the sword in it’s scabbard. He attempted to bring steel to his voice, but found it cracking the first time he brought it forward, causing him to cough and try again. “Be mindful, Father, of what you do here. You are dabbling in heresy, and I have my orders…”
He was interrupted by the squat old scholar in front of him, crouched over the inscribed circle, “Yes, yes. Orders to kill, maim, and intimidate. You have said as much so frequently I am starting to wonder if those words are all you know.” He hiked his robe a bit further up his legs as he swung them out of the circle, keeping clear of the candles. “I assure you, this is a pure and reverent scholarly pursuit.” He paused over the trunk of literature, hand hovering over the bible resting there before selecting a slightly dustier tome. “You might make yourself useful, mind, and bring some more light in. My old eyes aren’t quite what they used to be.”
When León failed to un-plant himself from the entrance to the small cave, Diego sighed and shuffled over to the light slithering through the ceiling. Peering at the diagrams inked within, he grunted, then shuffled back to the circle and began making almost imperceptible corrections to the circle. León’s curiosity and fear began to overcome his caution, and his voice caused Diego to jump. “What are you doing, Father? You have been toiling over that circle for hours now, to no discernible end. Surely this is all a wasted effort – that book is obviously full of deceit and falsitude.”
Diego scoffed as he sprinkled a big more talc on the ground. “You think I would break my back bending over like this if I thought there was no chance of it working?” He paused and straightened himself up, stretching back as his back groaned in protest. “I’m not as spry as you are, my young boy. Why, back in the day, I put heretics to the sword with the best of them. Back in those days, you couldn’t swing a stick without hitting a heretic.” He sighed and returned to his trunk for more ritual supplies. “Those were the days, let me tell you. Must be very hard for you, trying to decide what exactly counts as heresy and what doesn’t”
León’s nose wrinkled at the smell of the powder the old man next sprinkled around the circle. “It’s not difficult! Heresy is heresy, and that’s all there is to it!” Diego smiled to himself as he sprinkled more sulfur around. Ah, to be headstrong and young again. As the young inquisitor looked down his nose at the stooping old man, he felt overwhelmed by a morbid sense of curiosity. “What is it that you are doing out here in this cave that you claim to be so essential?”
Diego took his time straightening up, smelling at his fingers before dusting the remains of sulfur off on his robe. “Ah, this is a special cave, my boy! The natives who used to live here referred to it as The Birthing Cave – this is where many of the mothers of their tribes would come when they wished their children to be born healthy and strong, with the strength of the earth, the swiftness of the stream, the growth of the trees, and the wisdom of the skies above.” He gestured to the walls of the cave, cupped his ears to listen to the brook babbling outside, then nodded to the roots jutting through the sunlight above. Then, he paused, waiting for León to catch up. “Obviously, we know this to be superstitious hokum, but there is a pleasing curve to the floor in some parts where a mother might find comfort in being cradled by the earth. This is a powerful place, and needs to be researched and documented – if our experiment here goes well, we will need to come back with scribes, more of my Brothers, and, of course, more Inquisitors.” He nodded to León, almost imperceptibly.
Suitably appeased, León felt his muscles relax slightly. “So we are just here to determine the power of the place? This seems like a good deal of effort you are going through for something that should be quite simple. We have already been here for long enough for it to start growing cold. How much more time will we need to spend before we can go back?”
Diego paused as he picked up the most precious small box he had ever had occasion to set his eyes on. The light from above glinted in off the gold inlay, causing his eyes to sparkle. “It will be at least two full turns of the hourglass before I am satisfied with the results, but that is because I am an old man, working alone. If I had a strapping young lad such as yourself helping me, I wouldn’t be wasting nearly so much time straightening out my poor old back.”
León finally let go of the hilt of his sword, approaching Diego. “Very well, old man. Tell me what you need and it’ll be done.”
Diego smiled, and for the next hour they worked in relative peace, as Diego rested at the edge of the circle, directing his young charge at placing reagents while he focused on tapping into the energy of this place. The light grew dim and the candles guttered as a gust of wind tore through the cave. Diego’s eyes snapped open. “Quickly, León, the box. Open the box and bring it to the center of the circle.”
León staggered at the immediacy of the command and couldn’t help but comply. He opened the box and stepped through the sulphur, salt and talc, until he stood in the center of the circle. He began to turn towards Diego when his leg buckled from underneath him. He fell backwards, crying out, only to be welcomed by darkness when he hit the cave floor.
When León awoke, his leg felt like it was on fire, his nose was full of sulfur, and he could barely hear through the pounding in his head. His skin itched, but when he went to right himself, he found that his hands were bound together. When his eyes focused, he saw himself standing at the mouth of the cave, looking down at him. How strange, thought León. Have I died? I do not remember looking quite as clean… His body approached, slowly, until it leaned down and he stared himself in the face.
When he heard himself speak, he knew there was something wrong. “Oh my young León. If only you had listened to your instincts. Alas, the young and strong-willed are the easiest to play. I learned that lesson many years ago.”
Bound on the floor, understanding blanketed him like Diego’s old robe. “Diego? But why? This is an act of heresy, it will not…” His strength drained from his body – he could barely keep his head lifted up off of the floor. As his skull thudded into the stone floor with a crack, he felt nothing but pain as he slipped into darkness.
When he came to, the trees around him were moving, dragging him along in a funeral procession. Their roots grumbled and creaked as they rocked him forward, every stumble and step causing his head to pulse with pain – he remembered hitting his head, but the pain was far too acute for that. He opened his mouth to try and speak, to ask the trees where they were taking him, but something was wrong. All he could manage was a stifled croak, and suddenly the trees stopped moving. Rather than drop him, however, he stayed cradled in their arms until a shadow loomed over him. When he saw his face looming down over him, he knew he must be dead, and then he remembered just before he hit his head. He strained his body to get up, but found himself to be bound down by vines – ropes, they must be. He was in a cart, being driven by a madman.
At the look of confusion and anger dawning on León’s face, Diego let out a hearty laugh. “Oh my boy, my boy. I know you must hate my face by now, your own face, but it is necessary for you to not struggle. It will merely make things worse for you. I regret the necessity of taking your tongue, but it was the only way I could ensure your silence. What I did to your face, likewise, regrettable, but I could hardly have you looking like me, could I?” León felt an utter repulsion at seeing Diego wearing his skin, smiling back at him. As Diego reached down towards León’s face, the revulsion continued to build until he was consumed by blackness.
Diego stood at attention in front of Master Inquisitor Prieto, wearing León’s smile as he gave his official report. “It was a good thing you sent me along, sir. Diego Morales was a heretic of the first degree, as we suspected. The knowledge in that tome was far too dangerous – the experiment should never have been allowed to proceed. Whatever power he called on proved to be too much – it poisoned his mind in a way that I have never seen, twisted his body. He was babbling incoherently for hours afterwards – that only ceased when he convulsed and bit his tongue clean off.” He savored Prieto’s discomfort at the description of what he had done to his prisoner.
He paused, less for dramatic effect than to still the thunderous beating of his heart. To be this close to the heart of the Inquisition, and for them to be completely unaware… “As for the tome, it was purged with fire, as the knowledge it contained was too dangerous to be meddled with again. I would have rather seen it locked away in the vaults, but after seeing what it had done to the man, I had no choice. As for Diego himself, his mind is completely gone – nothing he says makes sense any longer. I have had him committed to an sanitarium for care and protection – he is allowed no visitors, no communication with anyone, nothing but liquid food. Even though his mind is gone, he is still a heretic and considered a danger, but his mind needs to be sound if we are ever to see him tried properly. Until then, we can only keep him observation.”
Diego’s heart hammered at the inside of his chest, waiting for the ruse to collapse around him, but Prieto nodded and dismissed him. Pride swelled within him so quickly that he almost skipped away from the meeting, ruining the credible cover he had established for himself. As he took measured steps out into the hallway where he had stashed his satchel and grimoire, he could not hold back his smile. Three months without the supervision of the Inquisition. Three peaceful, productive, months… He rubbed at the uncomfortable scaling that had appeared on his upper back and thigh, thankful that the high-collared inquisitor’s uniform concealed the scaly rash that was creeping up his neck. There is always a price for greatness. I pay mine gladly.
- Rase Cidraen