|Photo courtesy of Magnus Rosendahl|
The red pope squirmed in his crimson chair. “Ruminus will come, that much is certain.” Aquinus stroked his orange beard through the opening in his scaled mask. “The only question is when.”
“Your eminence.” General Zain bowed. “Even if the Crescent attacked now, it would take weeks to position their army. River Kranth lies between us, and in addition, the lake that isolates us from the mainland. Even at night, we can spot their advance to the outer shore.”
“Yet clouds have descended upon us. There will be no moonlight this evening, nor the nights following. It all feels contrived,” said the pontiff.
“There is also the inconvenient burden of the sun, your graciousness. Such an advance would be impractical, even if they slipped through the holy army in the shattered lands,” Zain added.
“These are vampires we are talking about. Though weakened, they can still move about during the day. And they do not hold our beliefs dear, nor recognize The Almighty; but soon he shall be upon them. The fools will continue swallowing up the red lands until they reach the expanse.”
Pope Aquinus rose. “In a way we are too much like Red Wind. We are the gateway to the southern territories; they have little choice but to pass through.” He paced. “But faith and devotion to The Almighty sustains us. If we spread his good word, and fill our ranks with the enemy, we shall endure this. Ruminus’ grip over the enlightened is waning, and once his servants witness the true power of the blood serpent, they will bow in awe, and beg forgiveness for their heresy.
“Until then, we must maintain vigil. If we can encourage Ruminus to engage another front, he will crumble.” He turned. “Have you made the preparations?”
“Yes, sir,” said Zain.
“Good,” he grinned.
They walked to a balcony overlooking the kingdom below.
“As instructed, we redressed the illumination of the kingdom at night. A network of torches and lanterns has been installed, except for parts of the outer wall.” He pointed to rings of firelight below, winding around them like a snake. “No one can approach without being spotted.”
“And the unbelievers?” Aquinus asked.
“Their bodies are illuminating the shore,” the general replied.
“Visibility is excellent.” The pontiff nodded. “Did you seal the remaining structures?”
“Stone slabs were ferried in from the mainland. All remaining wood has been purged from the fortress; fire will not scald us ”
“And the neighboring inhabitants?” said Aquinus.
“Fodder or followers, sir,” said Zain.
“Excellent.” He hissed. “And with the lake defenses, we might consider ourselves impenetrable.”
Fireflies dangled in the air, landing on his shoulder.
“This reminds me of a parable of The Almighty Serpent,” said Aquinus. “A man walked up a hill, seeking solace from his troubles. Despite his best efforts, rodents infested his dwelling. As he pondered, the serpent visited him. ‘When the enemy wants inside, tricks and schemes matter little; the cunning beast will always exploit your weakness,’ it said. ‘Instead, invite him in, and learn to eat rats.’
“Only a fool would think himself impervious.” The pontiff gazed into the distance. “They are here. If they wish to adorn our table, so be it.”
Suddenly the torchlight from the outer wall flickered out, followed by the ring farther inwards.
“What in God’s name?” General Zion uttered.
A spiked ball arced down, smashing his skull. His body crumbled against the stone rail as it retracted, and wrapped around the pontiff’s neck. More chains slashed down, seizing his arms, but Pope Aquinus did not budge.
He laughed deep, his bellow echoing over the kingdom. As he pulled back, the chains snapped until a winged vampire fell from the sky. She slammed against the stone walk and rolled to her feet.
“Come to slay a God, Vangelica?” His eyes blazed. “Then let me reveal him to you.” He tore off the mask.