|Artwork © Claudia McKinney|
Scores of crimson snakes coiled around the wooden boats, flipping them with their tails. As Aquinus’ arms melted into his sides, and two legs became one, the adder threaded its way to the surface. The serpent leapt out of the water, smashing vessels in its path, and feasting upon the cowering units.
“The abomination lives…how can this be?” Pope Ruminus gasped. “Still you have ushered him to my stage, and within reach of destiny.” He squirmed in his saddle.
As the creature chased the vampires to the shore, the pontiff raised his staff. “Fire!” he screamed.
Archers unloaded their volley, blasting the serpent in a deadly hail. Arrows crumbled against the adder’s scales, falling harmlessly into the water.
“Ruminus!” The serpent hissed. He dove again, and sprang onto the shore as the water shallowed. “You were a fool to come here.”
“That is what faith is for: to answer when called upon,” Pope Ruminus replied. Dozens of heavily armored guards tightened around him. Soldiers recoiled as more snakes wriggled out of the water.
“The Holy Crescent is a fraud.” The crimson monstrosity stalked the group. “It is built upon your tongue alone. When you die, so does your religion. I am the prophet, standing before you now.” He loomed over them. “Look at me. What does your god offer to substantiate his claims? More empty words?”
“You are nothing but a lesser demon. I am the truth,” Ruminus shouted.
“Is that so?” The serpent hissed. “Then let me set you free.” He snapped down, swallowing pope and steed.
Stunned by the speed of the gigantic snake, the armored guard hesitated, and then charged forward, shattering their swords against his sleek scales.
“Enough,” Aquinus thundered. “I do not wish to retaliate, nor do I expect your blind allegiance. My only wish is that you witness the truth for yourself. The choice is yours: either be hacked to pieces by my impending army, or experience true faith.
“All who have taken arms against me are hereby forgiven; you could not have known the path. I was wayward once, and can appreciate the struggle. Anyone who braves these waters, and joins us on the other side, shall be absolved of their misdeeds.”
A green light emanated from the water.
“This is your right of passage. Everyone who embraces Quorra as Lord and Savior shall be reborn,” said the pontiff.
Serpents on the shore stood on their tails, morphing into humanoid hybrids.
“Come, join me. Let The Serpent Lord awaken thee.” He rose high above The Holy Crescent.
Ten thousand hooves thundered in the distance.
“Choose now!” Pope Aquinus uttered.