“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.
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.”