Chapter 28

The Sanctuary, The Grey Plains, Pendragon

Abel was kneeling before the altar in prayer along with all the clerics of the Sanctuary and some two hundred or so layfolk who had not taken refuge down in the catacombs. They prayed for deliverance from this terrible scourge, but it seemed that God's wrath would not be so easily assuaged. If the defenders outside were not already dead, they soon would be. With their numbers, they could only delay the inevitable.
His flock looked to him for answers. Why had God brought this calamity upon them? What sin was so great that they deserved this? Abel did not have an answer for them, not one he believed truly. He told them the story of Iona who was sent to prophesy against the city of Nineveh. The Ninevites, for their part, from greatest to least, man and beast, humbled themselves and so averted the wrath appointed for them. He did not tell them of the other times when God's own people were put to the sword, the famine and the pestilence when His holy anger burned against them. Abel had to give them hope, however fleeting and false it might prove to be.
There had been a great din outside, almost incessant, shouting and screaming, louder and louder as Cain's horde of brutes pressed toward the Basilica. After hours of this noise, everything went strangely quiet. Not entirely silent, but the overwhelming noise was brought down to a dull rumbling. Abel was not the only one who lifted his head from his prayers to wonder at what had happened.
The reason for the relative quiet soon became clear. The voice of his brother Cain could be heard shouting his name.
"Abel! Abel! I know you're in there! Praying for a miracle, are you? I don't think your God is listening!"
Cain had been impious from his youth, so his mockery and blasphemies were nothing new to Abel's ears, nor were they even particularly shocking anymore. For those who had lived sheltered in the Sanctuary, however, his brazenness would burn their ears, but it would only get worse from here. In this, at the least, Cain did not fall short of expectations.
"If your God cared about you, your precious Sanctuary wouldn't be burning and your dead wouldn't be piled up in heaps like so much dung! Your God won't save you! He can't save you! But I can!
"Come out here! Hand yourself over to me and I'll spare those wretches you've got cowering in there with you! I thought you'd like that! The good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep and all that rot. Or you can be the craven I know you are and I'll burn the whole damned thing down! How about that!? A taste of the hellfire that's got you on your knees in fear and trembling day and night! Make your choice and be quick about it! You know I'm not a patient man!"
Abel took a deep breath. He knew what he had to do, but he did not know if he had the courage to see it through.
Lord, give me strength.
He stood up, bowed to the altar, then turned and started to make his way toward the narthex.
"Your Grace, what are you doing?"
It was Old Thames. He was lying on a pallet near the altar. He had been grievously wounded earlier and his Templars carried him here. Though he ceded active command to his vice captain, he continued to direct the defense of the Basilica both within and without. Of course, he would never countenance what Abel meant to do and Abel did not need to say anything for his intentions to be made clear.
"No, Your Grace," Thames said, "you cannot do this. You know better than to take that man at his word. He will kill you and then put this place to the torch... or else he will keep you alive long enough to watch the remnant of your flock slaughtered before your eyes."
"I do not expect him to keep his word, my dear Thames," Abel replied. "What I do expect is for him to take his time pouring out his cruelty on me. I would imagine he has been waiting for this day since the moment I was born. He will not make it quick, of that I am quite certain. It may not be much, but I can buy you some time. I do not know what plan you could devise to save these people, but whatever can be done, do it. This is my final command as your prince and Bishop... my last request as your friend."
"Your Grace, no..."
Thames tried to get up, but the pain of his wound proved too great for him. He was the only one with the strength of will to speak against him. The others would obey without question regardless of their misgivings.
"Clear the way," he told a Templar, "then restore the barrier when I have gone."
All the benches in the nave had been piled up at the door to at least slow down Cain's marauders should they try to force their way into the church. It took some time for them move the benches out of the way so that Abel could exit. The wait made it all the more difficult for him to keep his nerves steeled. He could not begin to imagine the horrors that awaited him, but as far as his imagination would dare to dip into the darkest depths was enough to terrify him. As much as he prayed for courage, he could feel his resolve wavering. The only reason he did not break down into a sobbing wreck was the certainty that there was no escaping the horrific fate that awaited him and the preciously slim possibility that there might be some hope for the hundreds taking refuge here if he surrendered himself willingly.
As agonizing as the wait was, it was over all too soon. The way was clear. All that remained was for him to go forward.
"Block the door once more when I have gone," he reminded the nearest Templar. "Whatever happens, do what you can to save these people. And pray, of course."
"There are not many of us left, Your Grace," the Templar said, "but we would fight. We would fight to the last."
"Save you strength should worse come to worst," Abel said. He motioned to the faithful behind him. "If you must lay down your life, let it be for them."
"Your Grace..."
"Pax vobiscum."
The Templar hesitated for a moment, then bowed and replied, "Et cum spiritu tuo."
Abel steeled his nerves once more, but before the door could be opened, the chapel was filled with the sound of this horrible moaning.
"Fatherrr!" a monstrous voice wailed. "Do not go!"
Abel should have known that he would not be silent. There were few who knew of Igor's existence, so his haunting voice served to frighten the poor layfolk whose nerves were at the very breaking point. Even the Templars showed clear signs of unease. The truth would give them no comfort.
False indignation brought with it equally false courage as Abel raised his voice to rebuke the sad creature in the walls.
"Be still! You do not have God's purpose in mind, but mortal attachment. I am but one man. Better that one man should sacrifice himself for many. If you wish to do what is right, my son, devote yourself to your prayers."
"Fatherrr!" Igor cried again before breaking down weeping.
His cry was joined with the voices of others mourning Abel as already dead. Abel could feel the paradox of him wavering while at the same time being inescapably compelled to go forward. He could not possibly surrender to mortal cowardice now.
He sighed. He would have liked to leave on a kinder word for pitiful, wretched Igor, but for the sake of appearances, he had to be harsh to appear stronger than he was. It would perhaps be his final regret.
Abel nodded and a pair of the Templar's bannermen opened the doors. Immediately he was assailed with heat and smoke from the fires that had been raised to slow the enemy's advance. Of course none of the Templars, their bannermen or the layman levies were left standing. As Cain had said, their bodies were piled up in gruesome heaps. What was it, some eight hundred men? Nine hundred? Such a needless waste of life...
And there stood Cain with his army of brigands, looking like Satan himself at the head of his legion of devils. Sir Bruno stood to his right and that ill-favored counselor for his--what was his name again?--was at his left.
"So you came after all," Cain said. He took a swig from the cup in his hand. "Perhaps there's some iron in your nerves after all. We'll see how long that lasts."
Cain gave Abel a scornful grin and gestured for several of his men to seize him. And so his taste of Hell began.

* * *

Abel did not consider himself to be the sort of person who feared death, but he could never understand those who sought it out. He could not even begin to imagine what it must be like to long for death. Until now, that is. Bound in chains staked to the ground, naked, broken and bleeding. He knew what it meant seek death as the only escape from mortal suffering. True, this was but a taste of what the holy martyrs had suffered, but he was desperate for it to end.
All the abuses heaped onto his flesh were one thing, but more it was the horrors he was made to witness that flung his soul into the pit of despair and made him crave for death as man wandering the desert hopes to find an oasis. Cain's cruelty knew no bounds and there was no evil that came into his mind that would not be carried out by those devils in human shape in his hire. Only Sir Bruno showed even the slightest trace of horror and basic human decency. He even dared to speak against some of the more vile abominations once or twice, but his inaction in the face of these atrocities would ultimately condemn him. Abel would pray for his soul. If he could bring himself to pray. These were the times when prayer was needed most, but his spirit flagged within him.
Was this what the Lord felt on the cross when he cried out, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani"? Only Abel was not appointed as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. In all likelihood, his suffering and death would not save a single life. Perhaps it would have been just as well to remain with his flock in the Basilica as it was put to the torch. Surely Cain was going to burn it anyway. In the end, what good did all this serve?
Now, Cain had renounced all belief in God ever since he was young, but knowing how close Abel's faith was to his heart, he took great delight in taunting him about it. He tried to goad Abel into cursing God so that his suffering would end sooner. Even if Cain meant what he said when he declared Hell a myth, he nevertheless seemed to relish the thought of blackening the soul of one who clung to the hope of Heaven and instead sending that soul into the depths of the fiery abyss. Perhaps he only wanted company.
All through the night this parade of horror continued. Abel was exhausted to the point of death, or so it seemed. Unfortunately, his body was not as ready to give up the ghost as he thought. As his head started to droop, Cain approached him and splashed him in the face with wine from his cup.
"I can't have you passing out yet, Brother," he said. "We're not done yet. You haven't told me what I want to hear. Let me hear you say it."
All else was lost. Only Abel's soul remained. Would he give up that and trade temporal torment in this world for eternal torment in the next?
"Tell me," Cain said. "You preach your God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and all-wise, but if that's so, how did all this happen? Either your God is lacking in those qualities or he's something else altogether. If he exists at all, which I'd say I've made a strong case against it."
Abel tried to answer him. His jaw moved and his lips worked in vain to form words, but he did not make a sound. Cain squatted down to get closer to his face. The stench of sour wine on his breath was nauseating.
"What was that? Speak up. They haven't cut out your tongue yet."
It would seem that Abel had lost his voice. Annoyed, Cain refilled his cup and forced some wine down Abel's throat. Abel coughed and sputtered, but once he managed to catch his breath, he was able speak again.
His voice was weak and raspy as he began, "Men..."
"Men choose... to make this world Hell..."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
Abel did not tell him. Telling him would not make him understand. Seeing sees not and hearing hears not.
In the distance, beyond the Wall, the first rays of the morning sun were appearing over the horizon. Never had the dawn felt so empty. What would this new day bring but more blood and terror?
And then he heard it. The sound of horns. What could it be? Ten legions of angels come to purge these wicked men from the face of the earth? Perhaps not, but the way Cain sprang back up showed that those horns did not herald any glad tidings for him.
Whoever it was, whatever it was, may it prove to be an instrument of justice. Would that it were so. And with that thought, Abel bowed his head and was swallowed up by the void. Ex nihilo, ad nihilum.