When he dropped the golden vial, Antar knew he was a dead man.
They were in the garden of contemplation, Lerenge and he, arguing about the tenets of faith and their service to the Chamberlain. Both of them were privileged Holders who had done a lot of work in the royal court, and the constant friction of daily interaction had filed them into two smooth blocks of solid rock, smashed for so long against one another that they grated past with a minimum of fuss and agony, each waiting for the other to finally crack and break.
Before the vial had even touched the ground Antar was already kneeling for it, his fingers reaching for its shiny surface and his mind working on some suitable excuse. By the time he'd snatched it up again and put it in his pocket he had already decided not to say anything at all, and prayed instead that Lerenge would think the fallen object had been one of the golden buttons on his robe.
And Lerenge didn't seem to notice, going on as he did about the futility of self-devotion when there were so many issues to be dealt with every day. "You don't get anything done if you're on your knees in prayer all day," he said. "The Empire expects results."
Antar, who wanted to get out of this conversation before his trembling hands gave him away, forced himself to shrug and say, "Then I guess we'd better get to it." Lerenge sniffed at him and walked away.
Once he was alone, Antar walked over to one of the benches and sat down heavily. He felt the vial inside his pocket, pressing against his skin.
He had an appointment with the Chamberlain himself in less than a day's time. He needed to keep a clear head and not fill himself up with trash and paranoia.
So he'd gone into the garden of contemplation, picked his thousandth fight with a man who loathed him, and right in the middle of things he had started fiddling with the golden vial that contained his emergency supply of drugs. The golden vial that he had started bringing into the court for no reason whatsoever.
He rubbed his face with his hands, then spread them on the bench, leaned his head back and listened to the susurrus around him, with closed eyes and progressively calming breath.
It was not in the nature of man to deny his own nature. He enjoyed sitting on this bench and having the sun stroke his face. He also enjoyed doing drugs, not merely riding their highs but suffering their calamitous drops as well.
That last part had been a revelation. The pressure of living in high Amarr society, not to mention working for some of the most high-powered men in the Empire, was such that most everyone had to find some manner of release. This was natural and expected, and people dealt with it with prayer and piety. You were expected to suffer for your faith and that you did, meandering through the random mazes of humanity's constructs in the hope of finding enlightenment on the other side. The stress and the pressure meant that you had a need for God beyond the everyday.
But not everyone found themselves able to alleviate the stress through prayer, and sometimes would turn to self-flagellation. It was not uncommon for high-ranking officials to be seen on slow walks around the many gardens in the Chamberlain's courts, gingerly feeling their way towards benches or tables after an evening of bodily abuse. This was smiled at, if not actively encouraged, by the church.
Drug use was forbidden, as was imbibing too much alcohol, synthetic drinks or anything except the mildest brews. But to Antar it came to much the same. It made no sense to self-harm, nor to lose yourself in invocation, because both depended on your strength and willpower to see it through. When you gave your autonomy over to someone else as your faith demanded, Antar felt that the very least God could do in return was to provide an unblocked passageway to Him.
He had gone to the drugs out of frustration and shame at being unable to take the pressure, and out of unwillingness to devote himself to the increasingly useless prayer and pain-threshold testing. And in the aftermath of fugue and tremors, he found himself at last.
He was supposed to suffer and that he had certainly done, spending what felt like centuries in panicked agony of visions, sweats and paranoia. But when it wore off, all he could think of was to do it again. The highs gave him sacrament and the lows gave him vindication. It felt perversely like being closer not only to God but to himself as well: Being true to his own nature and true to the punishing demands of his faith, by enjoying life to the fullest and then suffering for it.
It was the one and perfect way of achieving wholeness, and Lerenge had embraced it wholeheartedly.
He got up, brushed off his robes and looked around. The day was drawing to an end. Sunlight glinted off a nearby statue of a Slaver hound, cast in bronze. Its presence comforted him, for if God had created this vicious, merciless animal, then surely there must have been some concession on God's side to the animalistic nature of human beings.
Antar headed towards his quarters. Tomorrow would be a demanding day and he needed to clear his head.
"My dear boy, so good to see you," the Chamberlain said. His antechamber glimmered in the early daylight. The ceiling was high and ended in tinted windows whose glass changed hue according to the strength of sunlight. In the afternoon it would be golden and regal, and in the early evening a bronzed blood red, but the mornings were bright and uplifting. From beyond came the sound of birds.
The walls were covered with icons: Woven tapestries illustrated with the crests of the five Heirs and beset with their iconic gemstones, small crests and smaller paintings of Holders that had performed high service to the Empire, and massive decorations of all sorts that depicted the glorious Emperors of ages past. There was barely room for God.
Antar, still kneeling, murmured into his chest, "I am always at your service, Your Honor." There were no guards inside the room, which was not that unusual. They were for decoration as much as anything, and the Chamberlain often sent them out so he could discuss personal business.
"And so polite as well!" Chamberlain Karsoth said with a laugh. "I trust you've had a good stay in the palace quarters."
"They never fail to bring me happiness," Antar said. This was true. He'd emptied the vial last night and disposed of it for good. The visions had been quite marvelous.
"That's good to hear. I like hearing positive words. We should have more of that in this place, us pitiful, unworthy sinners."
Antar remained silent. He'd always liked the Chamberlain, an opinion that had him in the minority among the court, but the man's conversation style was dangerously comfortable. A genial chat with the wrong word let loose could mean a trip to the cleansing pits.
"Are you contemplating the heavens?" Karsoth asked him in silky tones.
"Always, my lord," Antar said. "How may I serve you?"
This time the Chamberlain did not answer. The silence was so complete Antar could hear his own heartbeats, and he realized with a tiny bloom of terror that the birdsong had fallen silent as well. The audioblocks had been set down.
He kept his eyes resolutely on the ground. Before him he heard the noise of the Chamberlain rising to his feet, the metal pistons in his legs hissing as they supported the man's frame. There was a thunk and another thunk, repeated at higher volumes as Karsoth walked closer. Perfume wafted over Antar.
"From this height I could take off your head," Karsoth said in the same quiet voice.
"I believe you could, milord," Antar said, keeping his breathing as steady as he could. His legs trembled slightly, though whether from strain or panic, he didn't know.
"Lerenge spoke to me last night," Karsoth said.
Antar said nothing.
"I had your chambers searched," Karsoth said.
Antar remained resolutely quiet.
"Do you have something to tell me, servant of the Empire?"
For the first time, Antar looked up and directly into the eyes of Chamberlain Karsoth, highest representative of the celestial court, supreme authority in the Amarr Empire, and the conduit to the living God.
And saw something he recognized.
"Nothing you don't already know, milord," Antar said.
Karsoth smiled and pulled something out of a pocket on his golden robe. Antar had no doubt that he fully knew what crimes Antar had committed, for the man's dark network of spies and information was vast, but seeing the vial in the Chamberlain's hands was still a shock; not merely because it was the final embodiment of Antar's doom, but he was absolutely certain that he had destroyed it.
"Show me how faithful you are, Antar," the towering Chamberlain said to him, that same strange smile still on his face. "Talk."
Antar knew that whatever he said in here wouldn't matter. His fate would have been decided already, and his confession was no more than an amusement to the Chamberlain. Whether he begged, pleaded, threatened or cajoled, he would still end up in the cleansing pits. Nothing mattered now; but conversely, nothing was forbidden. Through the pounding noise of his heartbeat, there surfaced the realization that he was free to say what he wished, in this last confession.
So he began to talk.
In the silence he spoke of pain and punishment, of the fracture between body and spirit and of the ideal nobody could possibly fulfil unless they explored all facets of humanity. He told of the heavenly visions he'd encountered outside himself and the hellish aftermath of the fall back to reality. He confessed his constant, infinite, unyielding frustration with the Empire's insistence on denying itself the divine imperative to be animals.
At some point, through the fugue of quiet panic, he realized he had stood up and was looking the Chamberlain in the face. He kept talking.
And at last he stopped, falling abruptly silent like the last page turned. He felt clean and empty, like anything Karsoth could do would be an afterthought to a life already ended.
The giant man watched him for a long time, the smile on his face not completely faded. Then he leaned in, the supports on his legs creaking with effort, and said, "You are the man I've been looking for."
Antar stared back, with a dull and uncomprehending mind.
"Do you know what is going to happen to you, faithful one?" the Chamberlain asked.
"I will die," Antar said. "Eventually."
"That you will. But first you will follow me." Karsoth turned and walked to the wall behind his throne. For a moment he stood in front of a painting of someone Antar had never known.
There was no sign; no laser outline, no shimmer and nothing that indicated a change. Karsoth merely gave a short grunt of satisfaction, walked towards the wall and melded into it.
Not vanished, Antar's brain told Antar's incredulous eyes. The Chamberlain had not been abducted or turned invisible, but neither had he merely walked through a holograph. He had entered the wall as if it were a porous membrane, and the wall had melded itself to him, rippled and moved, and let him pass through.
Karsoth's face pushed back out, its surface area such a picture-perfect replica of the wall he'd entered that Antar could only make him out by the outlines of his jowls. "The passage is active for a few more seconds, acolyte," he said. "You come now or never."
Antar's feet took over from the rest of his stupid body and propelled him through.
On the other side were ... people. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no external lighting, but torchlight glinted off naked skin. Some of them were ingesting things.
"Contrary to what you might believe, I am extremely faithful," Karsoth said, as if in passing. Antar nodded, unable to tear his gaze from the mass of humanity writhing in front of him. The air in the room was heavily perfumed, and the people were making low sounds. He felt light-headed.
"But I despise the god of the people we serve, for it is not the one true god. He would encourage indulgence and unfettered belief."
"He?" Antar said absent-mindedly, not having heard a word.
Karsoth misunderstood him. "Or She. God can be anything you wish."
"What happens to these people?" Antar said, still not entirely back in reality.
Karsoth gave him a stern look. "What do you think happens?"
"Before I saw this, I would have said the cleansing pits," Antar replied. Karsoth grunted.
They watched the display for a while. In a controlled voice that betrayed the slightest of tremors, Antar said, "Milord, I should ask, for I expect the question includes me as well. What does happen to these people?"
Karsoth put a hand on his shoulder and in a benevolent voice said, "They are forgiven, my son. And they go on."
"Where, milord?" Antar said. He thought for a moment. This was Karsoth. "And in one piece?" he added.
The Chamberlain laughed out loud, a raucous roar of noise that echoed through the room. "Yes, Antar, they'll be fine. They come here now and then to tell me news from the darker parts. Most are free to wander the court as they please, but they tend to prefer each other's company until they depart."
Karsoth turned to him. "Understand, acolyte. There exist a people who think like this. I found them through much the same crisis of faith as you extemporized to me, a truth that defied the death you were staring in the eyes. I will send you to them now, as my emissary. You have served me well in the past, and you will serve even better in your new position."
"Milord, I... - well, what is there to say? I serve," Antar said, and bowed.
"So you will," Karsoth said. "There is an enemy out there that needs to be dealt with, for she stands against all that we are; not in innocence, which is easily enough countered, but a different kind of darkness altogether. You will never see her, for it would kill you, but you will hunt down the ones closest to her. And you will do it among your own kind at last."
"So you will be off, but I need to know now - and believe me, I will see the lie on your face - do you want to go? Do you understand that you will leave behind everything you knew and disclaim every trace of the life you had?"
"Yes, your grace," Antar said. "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Who are these people?"
Chamberlain Karsoth smiled. "They are called the Blood Raiders."