Authors: Vox Day
Whom I love truly, madly, and deeply.
Thanks to Jeff, for his courageous vision and baseless confidence. 494 days of madness! Jamsco, for his keen and Christian eye. JartStar, for his excellent map and his encouragement. Markku, for his inimitable attention to detail. The kids, for their patience and understanding when Daddy is writing. And no, you can’t read it, not yet. Kirk DouPonce, for yet another spectacular cover. The Dread Ilk of Vox Popoli, for their enthusiasm. And my mentor, the Original Cyberpunk, for finally convincing me to focus on the story, not the subtext.
“Who are you?”
Ahenobarbus stared at the faded painting in the gilded frame mounted on the wall in front of him. The flickering candles cast an eerie glow upon the scene: Six armed men stood over the fallen body of a seventh man, from whose face Ahenobarbus, or as others reverently called him, His Sanctified Holiness Charity IV, couldn’t take his eyes. The victim was nude, and though there were six assassins in the painting, the body bore seven wounds. Someone had struck twice.
“Why did they kill you?”
The painting was entitled
, “The Death of the Undying.” It had once been considered a masterpiece. But now it was here, deep underground in the storage vaults. Quintus stood in an insignificant room occasionally used for receptions by minor functionaries deep in the bowels of the sanctal palace. The painting had recently been moved here from the storage areas, but this wasn’t exactly an honored location.
The bright colors and the flat, unnatural perspective were typical of the artist: Mariattus, the great Nardine. Only the face of the stabbed man was facing toward the viewer. The six assassins were all in profile. It was almost as if Mariattus had intended to draw particular attention to the face.
Ahenobarbus reached out an arthritic finger and lightly traced the outline of the fallen man’s jaw. “And how can it be that you are not dead?”
There was a soft, respectful knock on the door behind him.
Through the door came Giovannus Falconius Valens. Even dressed as a simple monk, as he was now, Valens could never be mistaken for anything but a noble prince of the Church. He was a tall, handsome man with a demeanor that most perceived as arrogant, though as his sometime confessor, Ahenobarbus knew better. But Valens was the very man whom Ahenobarbus required now.
“Holiness.” Valens kneeled and kissed Quintus’s sacred ring of office. “How may I be of service to you in this…unusual setting? I was surprised when Father Hortensius said you wanted me in the vaults. I half expected to find you knee deep in dust and relics. Are you well? I saw Gennarus Vestinae led the evening mass.”
“I am as well as any man with twelve years more than his allotted four score and ten may hope to be, my son.” Ahenobarbus led him to the painting. “What I require of you at the present is your eyes. I suspect they are keener than my own. This picture here. When you look at the man who has been struck down by the others, what do you see?”
Valens frowned, and his eyebrows momentarily rose. No doubt he found the request puzzling. But the obedient habits of a lifetime reasserted themselves, and he turned his attention toward the painting. For a moment, there was silence, and then it was broken by a sudden intake of breath.
“By the Virgin!” he exclaimed softly.
“So, you see it too,” Quintus said. It was not a question.
“I do, Holiness.”
“And what do you make of the resemblance to Laris Sebastius?”
“I…I could not say. A coincidence, mayhap? Perhaps even a descendant?” Valens took a candle and used it to peer more closely at the victim’s face. “The likeness is uncanny, especially when the limitations of Mariattus’s primitive technique are taken into account.”
Ahenobarbus smiled. “Of course you would recognize the brush. How does a poor monk come to know so much of art and culture?”
Valens shrugged slightly. “I fancy myself an ascetic aesthete, Your Holiness.”
“Have you seen this painting before?”
“I have not previously had the privilege,” Valens said. “The style and theme is readily apparent, of course, as Pisanus describes it in his catalogue of the ancients. It could not be anyone but Mariattus. That peculiar shade of orange—you see it there—he habitually used it in the place of yellow, and it is unmistakable.”
Valens set the candle down. “If I may hazard a guess, I should venture to say this is
No, I fear my memory fails me.
Painted sometime around the year 185 Provitiatus for a noble of the Severan house. It came into the possession of the Church after the fall of Andronis and the establishment of the Republic. I did not know it had been removed from the vaults. Had I known, I would have come to see it sooner. It is a joy to behold.”
“You have a prodigious talent, my son.”
“Mariattus had a prodigious talent. I am merely blessed to appreciate his skill.”
“We are but as the Immaculate has made us, Holiness.”
“Aptly put. And yet, if this is not a coincidence, if this is not a trick of the familial bloodlines, then we must ask what this is that the Immaculate has made here? Long life is not sinful in itself, of course. Indeed, there are elves who were old when this was first painted. But this is no elf. Can it be there are truly men still living among us who live five hundred years or more?”
“I should not have imagined so, Holiness. And yet, we know from the Inviolate Word that the First Men were said to live as many as two thousand years. It has always been assumed that the great decline in the lifespan of Man was a result of the departure of the Lesser Gods from Tellus Demittus, but the proposed connection between the two events has never been more than circumstantial. Oxonus emphasized that the Inviolate itself is mute on the matter.”
“It is conceivable, then. Difficult to credit, unlikely, and yet conceivable even so.” Ahenobarbus turned his eyes back to the painting and the disturbingly familiar face of the fallen man. “We must know more of this, Valens, and we must know it soon. Preparations for the investitures have already begun, but we cannot permit them to proceed when we are not even sure we are dealing with a mortal man or not. To welcome our elder brothers within the bosom of Holy Mother Church was one thing, but to permit one who may be unsouled to advance higher in the hierarchy would be unthinkable!”
“Without doubt, Holiness. But the candidates will not begin their fasts for another three days. The ceremony could be postponed.”
“If necessary, we shall do so. Speak to no one of this. Tomorrow we shall order an inquisition into each of the candidates. That should suffice to allay any suspicions that our attention has been drawn to a particular individual. You will be assigned to the candidate of interest. The inquisition will spark a few rumors, which is to be regretted. But even that may prove beneficial. Even the most outlandish whispers will appear far more credible than our true concern.”
Valens bowed deeply. “You honor me with your confidence, Sanctified Father. If there is aught amiss, rest assured I shall uncover it.”
“Three days, Valens. We must take a decision in three days. In the meantime, we shall arrange for a reasonable excuse for delay, in the event one is required.”
“A propitious timeframe, Holiness.” Valens smiled faintly. “The Immaculate shattered the Gates of Hell in three days. I shall pray that the secrets of the
will reveal themselves with similar alacrity.”
“We shall do likewise, my son.” Quintus extended his hand.
Valens knelt again to kiss it. “Your blessing, Holiness?”
Beatus homo qui invenit sapientiam.
” Quintus lightly sketched three lines on the younger man’s forehead, and his finger left a trail of white light glowing briefly behind where it had touched. “
In hoc signo vinces, in nomine Puri, in nomine Immaculati, in nomine Domini.
Valens, his eyes closed, waited until the light faded from his skin. Then he rose gracefully from his knees, bowed again, turned, and walked quickly out of the room. He closed the door silently behind him.
Ahenobarbus, who very rarely felt either sanctified or holy, picked up the candle Valens had used, and he held it closer to the painting, peering closely at the rough texture of the brushwork. He had heard that artists often incorporated hidden meanings into their works. Was there any significance to the seven wounds or the six killers? To the fact that only one face could be seen? And then there was the title of the work—“Death of the Undying”—was that not a sign of some import? There were so many questions.
He wondered what would happen if he ordered the palace guards to bring the bishop concerned down to this room to confront his painted doppelganger from the distant past. A crude stratagem, perhaps even a dangerous one, but it might be that a direct approach would be the simplest path to the answers required.