The Apostate Saint: Chapter 4 – At the Foot of the Stairs

“Alaricus, are you deaf or are you choosing to ignore me?” demanded Valoricus, Alaric’s father, in the overbearing tone he had adopted toward him in the years since his older brother Quintus had died. Alaric stopped his singing and rested his fingers on the lyre strings, thinking about how to best respond this time. He knew better than to ignore his father, and Alaric sensed real concern in his father’s inflection. “Is everything alright, father?” he responded just loudly enough, wrapping his response in his typical charm that worked on everyone else in the City except for his father. “No,” his father bit back, louder. “You must come here at once!”

Alaric placed his lyre down gently on its stand in its rightful place next to the carefully alphabetized papyri sheet music. It bothered him more than he would care to admit that he was leaving the room without first putting away the sheet for song he was playing. It was one of his favorites, “Through the Ivy Gate,” a somber song of two ill-fated star-crossed lovers. He would have to come back and finish the song later, after whatever ‘extremely important’ errand his father had for him.

“Here I am, father.” He spoke before he even realized that his father had donned the House’s ceremonial garb, something he had only seen his father do once in his life – at Quintus’ burial. Alaric’s imagination ran amok with tragedies unwritten. “Is everything alright?”

“Get dressed. Something momentous has happened and we must leave at once.” His father spoke the words without even turning to face his son. He handled his gem-encrusted cane, inspecting its brilliance in the sunlight from the doorway. A multi-colored orchestra of lights danced on the parlor floor and wall as he rotated it in his hand.

Alaric couldn’t imagine what would be so ‘momentous’ as to require him to dress in his finest linens with such urgency, but he knew better than to press his father for further answers. Still, he lingered for just a precious second to try to read the emotions in his father’s eyes. He was a man of few words, but Alaric had been determined to pick up on every nuance in order to better understand him. His father never turned to face him, but he did turn when Alaric’s mother Dacinia entered the room. She wore stately but still lovely attire, a dress that distinguished her as the lady of Caballarius, one of the finest Houses in the City.

“Mother?” Alaric said, hoping that her softer heart would shine some light on the situation. She put on a maternal smile for him, but he could still see the unease hidden just behind her smile. “Get dressed, dear,” she echoed his father, uncertainty betraying her body language.

“Wear your sword,” said Alaric’s father as he went to his chamber.

Valoricus Caballarius Aesculus, as he was known to the City, always had a typical cool and collected demeanor that befit his station whenever he was about in public. All of that had fleeted in favor of something quite out of character for him, when the Senate had called in an emergency hearing that drew him away earlier that morning. The result of that meeting was still a mystery to young Alaric, but because of the commotion on the streets as they approached the Outer Sanctum, he was able to ascertain that something major had happened. Whatever it was, it was shaking the very foundations of the City.

When they arrived, they were not even close to being the first people there. Everyone who had any status in the City was already there, dressed in their most elegant attire. They gathered around the bottom of the Pearly Stair, the marble stairway that led to the Highest Height, where the Sealed Sanctum of the Toriad stood. Here, in the most hallowed section of the City, was where the Toriad ruled, before he disappeared. The First Man, the speaker of the Namer, used to rule over the City for thousands of years. Now, power was splintered between the Church that bore His name and the Senate, made up of representatives from every influential House in the City.

Alaric had not lived long enough to experience such a gathering on the Holy Site. His curiosity nearly got the better of him, but the tension in his father’s face kept his questions at bay. He would just have to wait to see what the hubbub was all about, and it was beginning to drive him mad.

It wasn’t long before Alaric would bear witness to history. The bystanders’ faces all turned up toward the Sealed Sanctum, wonder and awe and confusion washing over them. Alaric looked up and saw the imposing figure of a man cloaked in a bright red light, like a hot iron picked from the furnace. He was naked, apart from the foreign leggings that he wore. So bright was the light shining from his skin that Alaric had to turn away to protect his eyes.

“Father, what is that?” Alaric finally asked, forgetting himself. Valoricus remained stoic and gritted his teeth. “Mother? How is it that that man is allowed to ascend the stair?”

No man was permitted to go up the Pearly Stair under any circumstance, aside from the Torian High Priest, and that was only on the Day of the Toriad, the anniversary of when the First Man departed from the City. Even setting a foot upon the Pearly Stair was an act punishable by death or being cast out of the City from the walls. There were always four guards stationed around the bottom of the stairs. For whatever reason, those guards were now absent.

Alaric noticed his father’s hand gripping his sword. He eyed Alaric with a grim visage and motioned for to him to do the same. Alaric now fully understood the gravity of the situation. If this man had come to defile the Sealed Sanctum, he must be struck down. Alaric had sparred with the best of the fighters in his class. He had never killed a man.

The man with flame for skin slowly descended the stairs, one by one, as he took in the sight of the crowd that had amassed there. When he got halfway down the stairs, he stopped and commanded the masses to stop their chatter and listen, simply by raising two hands into the air. The crowd grew quieter and Alaric waited with everyone else to hear what this man – this being – had to say.

“The Master has gone!” He shouted in a booming voice that sounded rather inhuman. “Woe to you, to have carried on for so long, a flock without its shepherd. Look around! See how your gardens wither! See, your quarries stripped of their resources! You are a generation away from destruction and yet you live like you can carry on forever in this way. Soon, the very ground you walk will crumble into the earth. Your homes will be rendered unto dust. What made you think you could thrive forever in such a confined space, taking from the earth to build endlessly upward? See, how your buildings, your grand monuments to your delusions of grandeur, nearly rival the splendor of the Holy Temple! Woe, unto you, I say. You have replaced your god with images of yourselves! You have committed the very same folly that brought about the damnation of the Great Society – you have forgotten your vows to the one who has given you your name.”

A murmur grew in the crowd as the man momentarily stopped his train of accusations. Alaric could feel the tension beginning to boil over. It wouldn’t take much more for the masses to erupt into chaos. He prepared himself mentally for what might transpire next. A voice called out from ahead and to the right of Alaric.

“And who are you? What gives you the right to judge anyone! You stand on holy ground!”

Alaric managed to spot the source of the voice right as the response finished. It was Tolamirus Aurumantian, one of the Senators alongside Alaric’s father whose politics were often directly at odds with Alaric’s father. His son Geilamir was one of the best swordsmen in Alaric’s class, where much of the tensions between their Houses were exercised by proxy through them. Valoricus trained his eyes directly on Tolamirus, like watching prey about to fall to a predator.

The glowing god of a man allowed an uncomfortable silence to build between them before he responded.

“Are you the steward here?” the man asked.

“One of them!” Tolamirus replied, quick to impress upon him his status. The man on the stair scanned the other faces to gauge their reaction.

“How long have you lived?” the man asked, with either genuine curiosity or preparing ammunition for a kill.

“That’s irrelevant!” cried Tolamirus. Another voice called out from somewhere. “He’s fifty one!”

“Fifty one years old?” the man asked, shocked. “Has your master’s absence only amounted to a few decades? And this is the state of his home?”

“He’s been gone for hundreds of years!” called out another voice, the elderly age in the voice apparent.

“Hundreds of years. That makes more sense.” He turned again toward Tolamirus. “Then, how can you claim to be one of the stewards if you have only lived a fraction of the time the master has been gone?”

Alaric sensed an imminent danger and suddenly feared for Tolamirus. Despite their differences, they were citizens of the same City. Alaric spotted Geilamir trying to get his father to stop talking.

“My ancestors were there, among those who were left to lead the City after his disappearance. We’ve kept the City safe and secured vigilantly and dutifully since that time.”

A pronounced cough was hurled as a weapon at the legitimacy of that claim.

“So it is by virtue of your inheritance that this City is yours?” the man questioned. The crowd didn’t like Tolamirus continuing to assert his authority. He was only a senator, after all. There were dozens more just like him who had just as much power as he did in the City. The stranger was right about one thing – the City was undeniably top-heavy.

“Then I suppose this City is in your capable hands!” the man shouted. He descended the remainder of the stairs without further words. All eyes were on him as he simply walked away from the Pearly Stairs and out toward the crowd, which split to give him room. None, it appeared, were ready to stand against him, but there was one person there who didn’t move. It was an old, crippled man who had been left to stand against the man on his own. The stranger stood before him, sizing him up.

Then, he bent down and extended a hand to the man. The man took his hand, and although the man’s legs were clearly withered and were shaped grotesquely, he was lifted up to his feet. At first, the man looked like he was going to topple over, but then a blinding flash of light emanated from where their hands connected. The crowd gasped and cried out in confusion.

And then, the light was gone and the stranger let go of the cripple’s hands. Instead of falling over immediately as was expected, the man stumbled but caught himself and managed to prostrate himself after a few attempts. Through tears and laughter, the cripple cried out in abundant joy. He embraced the stranger and the stranger held him close to his chest, whispering something to him that no one else could hear. The cripple kissed the man’s hands and rushed out to the place near the Pearly Stair where the crowd had gathered.

The healed man proclaimed, with renewed strength and energy impossible for a man so ailed, “He has returned! This man is the Son of the Toriad! He is the true heir of the City and he has come back to set us all free! Rejoice! Rejoice!”

With that, the crowd began to accept the stranger as their savior. Everyone but Valoricus, and perhaps the other Senators whose positions, like the City’s foundation, were all of the sudden far more precarious than they had ever been before.

As for Alaric, it seemed that he finally had something beautiful in which to believe. It inspired him to write a song. But what would he name it?

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