So we rowed, and we rowed, and we rowed some more,
We found ourselves at the door,
The door, the door, that abyssal gate of yore,
We found ourselves upon a bloodied shore,
We kept up our wills and kept up vigor,
We held and held upon the floor,
And then that night something delightful,
Peeped up out from the ocean’s floor,
It was a thing so bright and beautiful,
It consumed every man and left no more.
-The Fear, by the mariner & dragon-rider John Scabbard, 319 I.Y.
The government of the Empire Among the Stars was a delicate, three-pronged affair. This was not terribly unusual when compared to the older systems of government. Those featured three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The Empire had adopted a bent version of that system: the houses, the Emperor, and the Church of Stars.
In general, the three rattled their sabers and whirled their dicks at each other ceaselessly. But it was rarely meaningful. Of course, there were exceptions. One such exception would be a great house funding an attack on the imperial family. The legitimacy of such a claim was exactly what young Amarissa Mith was set out to find.
She had come upon a man with bone-white skin, eyes so dark brown as to be black, and long, delicate fingers, perfect for reaching into pockets unseen or for curling around an unsuspecting neck. This rather ghoulish looking lowbreed was Captain Mason, whose activities Amarissa was intimately familiar but she was not as familiar with his personage.
They’d scheduled a meeting at a regular Imperial Intelligence spot: the Church of Stars’ library/basement on Nexus. It was a dreary place, lit with undying but low yielding candles, and filled with thousands upon thousands of books. It was a lengthy, straight shot into rows of darkness, where a lost wanderer would be find themselves surrounded by manuscripts of all kinds.
Amarissa cleared her throat when she approached the skeletal Captain. “We found ourselves upon a bloodied shore,” she sang lowly.
“We kept up our wills and kept up vigor,” Captain Mason responded in kind, setting a book of old naval poems and songs back on the shelf nearest to them – The Anchor’s Drop by John Scabbard & Sons.
The two were alone in this sacred tomb of knowledge. They took a seat at a nearby desk. Amarissa unfurled the report from Captain Mason about the attack on Vel’garde. He snatched it up, drew & struck a match from his jacket pocket, and lit the report ablaze.
“Eyes surround you at all times, ma’am. To carry such a thing is…unwise,” Captain Mason warned quietly with a slight curling of his bottom lip.
Amarissa was taken a back, but nodded in agreement after he explained himself. She had doubts there were eyes down here of all places, but she knew the report inside and out by now and so didn’t fret the loss of parchment.
“If I may thrust to the point, the purpose of this meeting?” Captain Mason asked in a slightly confusing manner.
“The point,” Amarissa whispered, “is that I believe House Jelta is to blame for my brother’s death.”
Captain Mason looked down upon the desk. It was built from a type of elder-wood only found on Nexus – it was both highly resistant to fire and unlikely to rot even in a somewhat musty place like this. He locked the tips of his fingers together and then blurt out, “I believe you.”
Amarissa was, admittedly, a little surprised. She knew the proof was loose at best. “And what is the belief worth to me?” she asked, not letting onto her surprised nature.
He unlocked his fingers from each other and spread his palms wide open in a somewhat suggestive manner. “All of the resources at my disposal, of which there are plenty,” he answered. “Well,” he added, “with the caveat that I must dedicate myself to your father’s commands first and foremost.”
Amarissa let the rank of old books and burning candles linger silently for a moment. “So, second fiddle? I can work with that,” she said, although if she was being honest with herself she hadn’t expected one iota of support from Imperial Intelligence and certainly none from this ghoul.
“Onto other matters,” Captain Mason pushed the conversation forward, tapping his long index finger against the desk, “and by that I do, of course, mean your sanctity and security.”
“Your safety is now of utmost concern,” he said.
“Second to my father’s?” Amarissa asked, the answer already known.
The captain released a short shrug and let his jaw hang a little low for a moment, “I simply request that you do not make these little trips of your by yourself anymore. I can have an I-I agent await your instruction at the Imperial Palace if you wish.”
“Fine,” Amarissa said before she was interrupted by the approach of a man of the cloth.
“Greetings, I am Bishop Martin,” Bishop Martin introduced himself with a short bow of his head. He was a far fuller and brighter man when compared to the near-death look of Captain Mason. He kept his chin up and had a nice tan he’d earned by preaching out doors. His hair was short and he kept the back of it in a small bun.
Captain Mason left without a word, as his type so often did.
“Well met, Bishop. I’ve attended your services many times, but I don’t believe we’ve had a private meeting before,” Amarissa smiled and stood up from the old desk, shaking the bishop’s large hand.
He smiled in return and then turned about. She followed him back up the stairs and into the heart of the church. There were dozens of rows of pews and chairs along the sides of the Imperial Church. It was the largest temple allowed in the Empire – anytime someone wanted to build a church bigger than this one, the Imperial Engineers came and upgraded this one. They had kept it surprisingly consistent in terms of style, material, and so forth, despite having renovated it dozens of times by now.
They sat down at a small, circular table at the far end of the church – not six feet from where the bishop might occasionally preach if the regular minister was out.
“Do you understand why I have invited you here, Amarissa?” he asked, cupping his hands around hers in a somewhat invasive manner.
“I have an idea,” she responded, withdrawing her hands from within his.
Bishop Martin chuckled, “I would suggest – by that mere motion – that you do not yet fully understand the ordeal that awaits you.”
“So tell me,” Amarissa responded curtly.
“Indeed I will,” the Bishop said. “The ordeal that awaits you is occasionally referred to, by those outside of the Church, as the short trial. It is a one hour test of your spirit. For the purposes of ascendancy and in acquiring the Imperial throne, you can think of it as a rehearsal for the long trial – a six hour affair of an otherwise identical nature.”
Amarissa nodded along, “What will this test involve? Shall I sharpen my quills?”
Bishop Martin chuckled, “Nay, it is not of that sort.” He reached beneath the silk table cloth and brought up a small, black box. It had two slots on the front side that were shaped for hands.
“It is a simple enough device,” he described the black box. “But don’t let that fool you. You have perhaps heard of the ordeal described, falsely, as torture. Torture is a many-layered beast designed to slowly kill a long-loathed foe or, more commonly, to extract a piece of information from a similar foe. The ordeal before you is a test of your spirit. We do not seek an answer from you directly; your ability to withstand the ordeal is your answer – your answer to the Five.”
“What will I be withstanding?”
“An unimaginable pain. It will start off weak and exclusively within your hands. But it will multiply and spread until every inch of your body is screaming with agony. That is when the Church feels your spirit is truly being tested. And here is the test indeed: do you withdraw your hands early? If you do, the pain is ended instantly – but you will be a failure. No clock will be shown to you. No time will be reported to you. All gems and other magical devices will be confiscated from you. A simple but unbreakable hex has been placed upon the box that would deny you access to any other cantrip,” the Bishop recited. He’d given this spiel more than once.
The Bishop continued, “It is thus the simplest test imaginable: you versus your spirit. Do you give in to the pain or does your spirit persevere in pursuit of a higher power?”
“Let’s find out,” Amarissa said nonchalantly. Internally she had reached an indescribable level of anxiety, but she’d grown accustomed to hiding her turmoil.
“So we shall. Given as this is your rehearsal and not an official ordeal, I will trust you to not cheat in any way. It would only harm your chances come the day of reckoning,” Bishop Martin, sliding the box into the dead center of the table.
Amarissa took a deep breath in through her nose and out through her mouth and then slid her hands, palms facing down, into the little black box. There was a soft twitch in her musculature and then nothing. Amarissa approached the void and the void approached her.