Blessed are the Meek
Le Monastère dans les Montagnes
16 Belabaut, 597 Année de Paix
Deep underground beneath the Monastery, nestled in the dark and mossy rocks of the mountains, a man sat in a windowless cell. The cell was one among many; a whole host of cold, stone rooms which housed the prisoners of the monks — and, often, the skeletons of those prisoners that had been forgotten long ago. Most of the captives here were political and religious dissidents. These men and women had been kidnapped from their homes and all traces of their existences had been wiped from the face of the earth. As it pertained to the common folk, they had never existed.
But the monks knew the truth. The monks knew the truth and they took pleasure in meting out justice where it was deserved. For these political dissidents had gone against the will of Ántou. And that could not go unpunished.
Arielle Challant was nearly seventeen years old when she was pulled out of history class to attend the interrogation of one such dissident. These individual ‘experiences’ had been going on for months now; in groups of ones and twos, the young women in her year would be taken to the bowels of the monastery to take part in...something. Whatever it was, those who had returned seemed to have no wish to speak about it. But it was no surprise when a nun pushed open the door of the classroom and called her name.
“Arielle. Emilié. Follow me, please.”
Emilié Redeaux was her closest friend. The pattern seemed to go that way. Those in control seemed to prefer the trainees to experience this event in pairs of friends, and they had been uncannily accurate in their knowledge of the social intricacies of the group. Arielle did not think it likely that there was a spy in their midst, but she enjoyed entertaining the idea for the sake of her own amusement.
As they descended through dark and damp passages, the air grew colder, and Arielle pulled her cloak more tightly around herself. The nun pushed open a reinforced door which, Arielle knew, was usually locked; as they entered the dungeon the torchlight shifted to a darker, more sinister quality, as if the flames burned with some chemical that enhanced their crimson color. They could hear whimpering coming from the far end of the hallway, and Arielle exchanged a furtive look with Emilié.
The dungeon felt closed, silent and still. Unlike the Catacombs, which were said to breathe. Unlike the outside world, where the wind blew and the leaves rustled. There was a petrified, timeless age to the stone, and it made Arielle’s skin crawl. She tried to look into the cells that they passed, but it was too dark and the barred windows were too small to see anything.
The whimpering grew louder, and the three of them finally stopped outside a cell with an open door. Inside, two monks stood over a ragged, sobbing man, whose grief and frailty gave him the air of being older than he truly was. The gray monotony of the dungeon was broken by a brilliant splash of scarlet: a pool of dark blood that oozed over the stones. Arielle suddenly realized that the white specks in the blood were teeth, and she repressed a grimace. Why were they here? Was it a test? A threat? An indoctrination? Her heart raced.
“You know as well as I do, Monsieur,” said one of the monks to the man, “that the demons of the mountains were slain eons ago by Sant Amilaus.”
“Oui,” the man whispered between ragged breaths. “Of course I do.”
The monk smiled a mirthless smile. “Well, then, explain to me again how it is possible that you saw these...demons...with your own eyes?”
“I swear, Monsieur, I do not know! I cannot explain...I have told you only what I saw. You must underst—aack!”
The last syllable was cut short with a guttural cry as the monk sliced his arm through the air. Arielle had not noticed the whip in his hand, but the unmistakable crack it made echoed through the dungeon and stung her eardrums. An angry red welt appeared on the prisoner’s face.
“You lie.” The monk’s voice, though not particularly loud, carried the burning intensity of a scream.
“Non, non, je le jure!”
“Then you are lost to the Darkness and blinded by visions of falsehoods. Look within and confront — your — insanity!”
On the final three words, the monk delivered three sickening blows with his fist which left the man crumpled on the ground, weeping. As the torchlight flickered, Arielle’s stomach churned and her heart pounded, but she did not dare avert her eyes. Some part of her hoped that by remaining still, she might be unnoticed.
It was too good of a hope to be true.
The monk turned to her and Emilié with a solemn look. “It is your turn.” He reached to a rack on the side of the room and pulled a small wooden club from its sheath; then, flipping it in a fluid motion, presented the handle to Arielle.
The raw, knotted wood sat dully and heavily in his palm. As she stared at it, she could see flecks of red on the widest part. Dried, congealed blood. Slowly, she reached out and placed her hand on the weapon. They gripped it together for a moment, sharing its weight, before the monk let go and Arielle took on its entire heft. She looked at the man, who was still crying, and hesitated.
He was a full-grown adult. In health, she was sure, he would have been able to easily overpower her. Kill her, if he wanted. It was the sort of control that she had always dreamed of having because she knew it would never be hers. Yet here she was, possibly holding his life in her hands, and she felt none of the ecstatic freedom that she had imagined. There was only guilt, pity, and shame. She realized that her hand was quivering.
The monk’s voice was soft, with no hint of the anger that had been there moments earlier. “Is something wrong, Arielle?”
“Why?” she asked simply. “He is insane, and of no harm to anyone. Why must we torture him so?”
The monk smiled a knowing smile. She understood that he, too, must have felt the same as a trainee, and had learned something in the years since that had turned his heart to ice and his mercy to empty apathy. “It is true, he is of no threat to the world. But, young one, what matters is not only how you present Ántou to the world: it is how you feel within. His disloyalty runs deeper than the eye can see; into his heart. But we can change that. We can save him.”
The silence rang in her ears as the room filled with the prisoner’s breath. The monk spoke again.
“Just one stroke, Arielle. That is all I ask of you. One stroke to beat the Darkness out of him.”
“Just one?” When she spoke, her voice sounded like that of a child’s — questioning, uncertain, afraid.
Arielle tried to avoid making eye contact with the prisoner, who looked at her like a mortally wounded animal. His eyes wordlessly begged to her. Arielle thought of the prophecy. She thought of the magic that ran through the Catacombs and tried to block out the sounds and sights of the dungeon with her memory.
The club made a wet thunk as it connected with the prisoner’s skull, and he crumpled, still breathing, but bleeding and shaking weakly.
“Thank you,” said the monk quietly. He took back the club, and Arielle stared at her hands. A fleck of dried blood remained stuck to her palm.