The Fall of Cerra Cathedral

Literia, I should be back in a couple hours. – Regi 

Reginald looked up from his neocom once he had finished typing and glanced around the place he had called home for so long: Cerra Manor. He adjusted his collar for the dozenth time–making the sudden transition from the alpine climate of Cerra Castle to the tropical, coastside residence of Lady Shalee Lianne had proven to be fairly uncomfortable, though fortunately he had managed to find lighter clothing in the largely-abandoned manor house. The house had not been all that was abandoned. The once-lively atmosphere of the Terrace had turned to one of unsettling silence, with laughter and the clinking of glasses replaced by the march of boots and the occasional scream of fighters patrolling the skies above the estate.

He could picture how it had been almost a year ago, though the comparative peacefulness and tranquility reverberated only through broken memories: Dancing with Shalee, sipping tea with Katerina, conversing with inquisitors from the Ministry of Internal Order, entertaining Red, fencing with Rebecca, sketching scenes and portraits of Terrace denizens while enjoying the warm ocean breeze. So much had happened since then–they might as well have been memories from another lifetime.

Lady Lianne had ordered an evacuation of her ancestral home following a series of attacks on her Holding and the wider Bleak Lands region as a whole. First, by Minmatar rebels who were responsible for slaughtering the Searie family. Second, by the so-called “Red Templars” that had brought with them a grudge against Templar Thal Vadam. And now, most recently, the Blood Raider incursion, let loose by Omir Sarikusa himself.

He chose not to dwell on the details, instead turning his attention to the final detachment of soldiers that made up his household guard–the remnants of those that had chosen to follow him into exile rather than live under the yoke of Ahrosseas Clarelam. They were arrayed in battlefield formation, the stoic few that had agreed to stay behind to give Cerra Manor the appearance of normalcy to prevent the Blood Raiders from searching for Lady Lianne’s relocated court. Bolstered by additional defenses from the preceding two attacks, they had turned the manor into a fortress, capable of deflecting a significant Blooder incursion to buy time for Imperial Crusade or Imperial Navy intervention.

All the same, that could only happen if the manor was actually manned. He sighed heavily to himself, then consulted his neocom. It had been two hours since news reached him that Templar Thal Vadam had been shot by a sniper that had managed to bypass Classiarii security forces. With such a major breach at Cerra Castle, Lady Lianne was rightfully distressed. To alleviate those concerns, Reginald had agreed to redeploy the garrison from Cerra Manor to the castle, and in doing so, would leave the manor grounds in the care of security drones.

“We’re ready to depart, my lord,” The captain of the detachment–a young officer named Jatad Ashra–saluted, then indicated the armored personnel vehicles that were idling near the road that would lead back to Lady Lianne’s alpine retreat.

Reginald nodded, then made his way to the vehicles, meandering through the men and women who were finishing loading the personnel carriers with the remaining military equipment. A quartermaster ran a tally of supplies as a last-minute check while a pair of security drones hovered above to provide overwatch, a lieutenant nodding to his questions.

Reginald looked around the convoy, then turned back to the captain, “And Bishop Lawson? The clergy?”

The captain frowned, then tried to respond as professionally as possible, “His Grace, Bishop Lawson, declined Her Ladyship’s invitation to join the other refugees in the Castle district.”

Reginald rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated sigh, “Did they give any reasons?”

The captain shook his head, “None, my lord, except that they wish to continue ministering to refugees from other Holdings. The area around the Cathedral has been converted to a humanitarian aid camp.”

“Of course,” He nods, “Wait here, I’ll be back shortly.”

“My lord?” The captain saluted, then glanced back to the convoy.

Reginald responded without looking over his shoulder, “I’m going to try to reason with them.” Again.

***

There were no more official guards at Cerra Cathedral, all of them having been recalled to the convoys exiting the manor grounds. Still, the makeshift refugee tents in front of the Cathedral were guarded by a number of mechanized security drones. They trained their weapons on him as he made his way down the path. There weren’t many of them, and they certainly weren’t as advanced as the drones associated with the military, really only providing a veneer of safety for the inhabitants of the camp.

He flashed his credentials to the drones, which took several attempts scanning his identification and processing it before they allowed him into the camp proper. The tents were arrayed in a haphazard fashion, though a main corridor had been cordoned off that led to the tall double doors that led into the Cathedral. Numerous luminaria were placed around the walls–the soft glow of their candles illuminating the thin paper bags–each one carrying a prayer for the deceased and abducted in the most recent attacks.

He didn’t have the heart to stand on ceremony to these people: Mothers and fathers who had lost a son or a daughter in the defense of Huola, children who cried for their mothers, family torn asunder in a few short hours before the Navy could stage a response. He soon realized that his mindset was superfluous. None of the broken souls were looking towards him in their quiet prayers and stifled tears.

The glow of the candlelit paper bags provided just enough light for him to reach the entrance of the Cathedral. A midnight Mass was taking place with Bishop Lawson presiding. He wore the full vestments of the church, assisted by priests at the altar while other clergy provided blessings to the small congregation gathered in the few front pews. Soft, ancient hymns wafted through the sacred air, hymns everyone knew by heart, hymns that offered solace even in the darkest of times. He found himself humming along to one, the familiar melody resonating in memories from his childhood.

He found a place to stand by one of the ornate columns depicting the history of the faith, saints and angels engraved upon it, the images following a spiral to the top, where statues of well-known saints stood watch over the pews and stone floor below. Even here, the soft orange glow of candlelight illuminated the ceremony, the bowed heads, the robed clergy.

A final prayer was said by Bishop Lawson before the room quieted.

“Go forth, the Mass has ended.”

The congregation responded, then began to file out back towards the camp. Reginald waited patiently, then reverently approached the altar. It wasn’t customary, but Bishop Lawson himself was handling the task of securing the relics and valuables of the cathedral for safe-keeping, allowing the acolytes to return to their families. The altar was covered in some of the most prized relics of the Cerra Family, including a jewel-encrusted chalice, the four cardinal directions being made of the signet rings of four generations of Cerra nobility. It was said that the bones of a saint that had first brought the faith to the Holding before it was a Holding were housed in the base. As Bishop Lawson polished the chalice, lower-ranked clergy excused themselves and led smaller prayer sessions, while others trained in medical care filed out to tend to the refugees. Lady Lianne would have been proud.

“Your Grace,” Reginald bowed upon reaching the altar.

The cathedral was rife with memories for the Lord Adjutant of Lady Lianne. He had been married at the very altar Bishop Lawson now presided over. He still remembered the night, bittersweet though it was. His bride-to-be, Katerina Tzestu, had been an image of ivory. His then-executor, Lady Shalee Lianne, had also been magnificently arrayed. It had been a quiet ceremony, small, not unlike the one that had just taken place.

“Lord Reginald,” Bishop Lawson looked up from the altar, making a reverent sign as he tucked a relic into a safe case, “Confession is not for another hour.”

Reginald frowned. He couldn’t escape the jabs at his station or his history with Shalee, not even in a house of worship it seemed. He shook his head as he responded, “That’s not why I’ve come, Your Grace.”

“It’s true then?” Bishop Lawson removed his mitre and handed it to an acolyte, “Your men are leaving Cerra Manor?”

“On orders of Her Ladyship,” Reginald nodded, “As you are aware, Cerra Castle was attacked. It is imperative we protect Lady Lianne’s new residence.”

“Of course,” The bishop nodded, his piercing eyes regarding Reginald with not a little contempt, “My answer to you is the same I had for her. We are not leaving. Not when the faithful seek guidance in this dark hour.”

Reginald could feel the seething blame in between the bishop’s words. You are a capsuleer. You are the ones who can protect this planet. Where were you when the Blood Raiders attacked? 

“Your Grace,” Reginald replied, “With all due respect, you made that decision when a sizable military force was present. As it stands, there will be little protection here.”

“Are the drones being deactivated?”

“Well, no, Your Grace.”

“Are the radar systems and early-warning detectors being removed?”

“No, Your Grace.”

“Are the lines of communication being cut?”

“Again, Your Grace, no.”

“Then I see no reason why we should–“

But the Bishop’s sentence was drowned out by a siren. A siren that had been drilled and drilled in the days following the Blood Raider incursion that had struck Kamela, Huola, and Anka. He could see the clergy in the procession freeze and stumble, their heads turning towards one another and the ceiling, as if they could see through solid stone simply because it was an emergency.

He turned to Bishop Lawson, his eyes wide with urgency, “We need to leave.”

Bishop Lawson shook his head, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the chalice, “We simply need to have faith in the Almighty to deliver us.”

Reginald was beginning to lose patience, “The Almighty never intended for us to be sitting around while–“

It was Reginald’s turn to be drowned out, this time by an explosion that rocked the ground. The siren had stopped. Deciding that explosions spoke volumes, he attempted to hail Captain Ashra over his comms link.

“Captain, what is going on out there?”

The sound of frantic screaming and erratic gunfire was the response, a multitude of voices all vying for some sort of effect in the background.

“Hold them here!”

“This is Echo Four requesting immediate air support on this location–“

“Medic!”

He almost threw the comms-link to the ground in frustration as he made his way towards the entrance of the Cathedral. That’s when more screams erupted from the camp.

“Shut the doors!” One of the younger priests yelled, running to the iron doors and beginning to shut them with the help of other clergy.

Reginald was too far to stop them cut off their primary means of escape, or the portal that led to sanctuary for those outside. The staccato gunfire from the security drones echoed through the stone walls and off of the stained glass amidst screams, yells, and pleas for mercy. Fists banged at the doors–the scratches of clawing, wailing. And then silence.

The only sounds within the Cathedral were the tense breathing and muttered prayers of the assembled clergy, who had all begun to congregate towards the altar away from the door. Reginald took the opposite route, twisting and turning his body so as to not collide with them. None questioned his resolve. He was the Holder, after all.

The door burst open seconds later with an explosion that almost unhinged the massive iron constructions. Men and women began pouring through, armed with knives, guns, and who knew what else. Blood Raiders.

“Lord Adjutant Reginald Sakakibara, I presume?” A masked figure stepped forward, wreathed in red and black. A liquid dripped from his garments onto the sacred floors of the Cathedral–a christening in blood.

Reginald swallowed, looking at the figure, “Correct.”

“Good.”

***

Bishop Lawson was last. And Reginald had been made to watch.

The rope was taught, strung from his ankles as he had been for the duration of the executions. They had brought in a large metal tub, scraping it through the center aisle without a hint of ceremony, and had set to work almost immediately. That’s when their chants began, the candles rearranged around the altar as they began their ritual. The acolytes had been first. Then the priests. The nuns–or what was left of them. And now Bishop Lawson.

He had been hanging upside-down above the altar for what seemed like days, though he knew that less than an hour had passed. The bodies of the dead clergy had been put on a macabre display, many of them populating the front pews once they had been drained of blood, carefully propped up to watch the spectacle of bloodletting. Others had been dragged down into the catacombs, to be debased in ways Reginald couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Bishop Lawson was forced onto his knees, before the Blooder that had spoken to Reginald grabbed a tuft of his hair and yanked it over the iron tub. It had overflowed early on, allowing slick crimson pools to coagulate around the altar and pews.

“And unto You, Almighty God, we commit this soul. God is great.”

With that, he drew a slash across the Bishop’s neck before sticking a finger into the incision. He stuck the warm blood into his mouth, then smiled, “Are you sure I cannot tempt you, my lord? It’s warm, though not as sweet as the Mother Superior’s.”

Reginald would have thrown up at the question had he not done so several times beforehand. They had cut his wrists at the beginning of the ritual, but had been sure to keep him conscious. Masters of blood flow as they were.

“Now, my lord,” The figure sloshed through the blood before the altar while his companions took turns drinking blood from the metal tub using the sacred chalice of the Cerra Family, “This just leaves you.”

He had screamed his lungs hoarse with protests. He had begged them to let the clergy go, to trade his life for theirs. But they knew he was a capsuleer as soon as they stripped him naked to humiliate him. And that had been the death of the others. Capsuleers wake up, after all, and, as Reginald learned, his blood was of special significance to the Blood Raider Covenant. Reginald simply looked down towards the altar, his blood splattering into crimson stars on the smooth surface.

“Oh, and I was supposed to give you a message for your little poem on the Intergalactic Summit the other night.”

He leaned in close to Reginald’s head as the Holder slowly died. His breath reeked of blood and gore, “Bloody Omir ran away…

Danse Macabre I

Blood had long-stained the walls of the bedroom that had become the unhallowed tomb for Tara’s parents and siblings. Her mother and father lay upon a canopied bed–they would have been immaculate in their finery had it not been for the fact that their heads had been severed, the sheets now drenched in various shades of crimson. They had been left to rot by the Minmatar rebels, the putrid stench of rotting flesh engulfing anyone and everything in the chamber.

She curled against her binds–chains that had been affixed to the bedposts–as she choked on the air again. She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, only that the acrid reek of her dead family and the darkness of the room had become her world. She turned her head weakly to her sister, who had been chained similarly. Her sister’s eyes were milky, the expression empty, much like that of a doll’s. She wore a blue dress bedecked with lace, though a bib of blood had darkened the priceless clothing. They had moved to behead her as well, though they had made jokes about it as they sliced through her neck–that Tara should have at least one family member to converse with. And so they left her sister’s head attached, slightly off-center, allowing blood to encrust around the incision, serving as mortar to keep it in place. Flies had long since found roost in her neck, tiny wriggling maggots feasting on her flesh.

Sometimes, Tara would try to say something to her. But there was never a response from her companion, only the macabre dance of maggots seeking nourishment.

That’s when she heard the sound of fresh voices, though they were muffled from traveling through floorboards and doors. They weren’t the accusatory tones of the Minmatar, which were rich in hatred and contempt, nor were they the faint whispers of shadows at the edges of the room–echoes of her siblings and parents. Rather, they were the sound of two newcomers–one had a full voice, the accent of one that could speak the Amarrian court language. She picked up on it instantly, a male voice, the shrewd and conniving mind hidden behind the polite inflections of the role of a guest. The other was a woman’s voice and though Tara couldn’t quite grasp the reason–she could feel the thin string of a connection to her. Perhaps it was her guarded tone or how it was obvious she was only suffering the noble out of necessity–Tara could always tell when someone sweetened their voice, a necessary skill her parents had told her, otherwise flatterers and sycophants could ruin a Holding. But these new voices gave her an emotion she had not felt since her parents had been brutally executed in front of her: Hope.

A new flicker of courage surged through her as she opened her mouth again, her voice hoarse and barely louder than a whisper, “Help!”

Tara could scarcely recognize her own voice, hope beginning to fade away as quickly as it had reinvigorated her broken mind. She slumped back against the bed, kicking away the metal plate the former slaves had thrown to her several days before. She had consumed what little they had given her with gusto despite the strange taste of the meat.

The door handle then creaked open and a Civire woman appeared through the opening, quickly shutting the door quietly behind her. Tara watched with immense trepidation as the woman gagged on the smell, their watered eyes meeting briefly. The woman raised a finger to her lips after she became acclimated to the stench, indicating for Tara to remain quiet. She shouldn’t have bothered–Tara could barely squeak, let alone scream, her throat dry from lack of water.

“Reginald, are you alone?” The woman asked. Tara recognized it as a communications link, her breathing becoming more rapid as the possibility of escape seemed within her reach.

A voice–the noble’s voice–responded, “Yes, for now. Gotfrik is speaking with several staff members. They might be sent to look for you. Have you found anything?”

Gotfrik. Tara stiffened at the name of the man who had betrayed her family, had left her to rot in a room amidst the unburied dead. He had once been their butler, her brothers and sisters trusting them with secrets and sweets, but in the end, he had been the one who let the rebels into the manor–the one who plunged the knife into her father’s heart.

The woman’s voice wavered slightly, “Reginald, they’ve slaughtered the Amarrian nobles. There is one girl left up here, chained and barely alive. We need to leave.”

The voices in the distant corners of the room suddenly coalesced in Tara’s mind, whispering out a single word in unison.

Run.