Aziel stood on the balcony of his chambers, gazing out over the city, contemplating his plan, as always. It was early evening with few clouds and the sky had just begun its daily descent from blue to red. A dance to a song conducted by the sinking sun. A patient man, he would often wait from the earliest signs of the evening until nightfall, eager to read the stars as soon as they awakened, ready to resume his nightly mining on high.
Ambition driving patience: on its surface, a conflicting notion. Ambition tends to drive actions, and waiting is rarely considered an active pastime.
There was a knock on his door.
“I bear ill news from the scriptorium”
The vizier’s mind flashed with remembrance of the last time he heard those words. The scriptorium served a vital role in honouring and communicating with The Ones. Functions with grave consequences if they were not met. Quickly refocusing his mind, he calmly asked,
“What is the matter?”
“My lord, they report dwindling resources. The ink is running low. We haven’t had any luck finding new sources of it, and after your last orders-“
“It must be done!” he interrupted, “I will not tolerate delays.”
He stopped to think, dropping his gaze slightly towards the ground. When the courier motioned to inquire, Aziel lifted his hand with the palm facing the man to silence him.
“Go and tell them I’ll have a plan to solve this by the morning”
The courier turned to leave, but when the vizier saw his back, he asked,
“What happened to your shoulder, messenger?”
The man stopped and looked, “A scratch, my lord, from a small accident earlier today.”
“It looks rather deep. It seems you’re still bleeding,” he declared curiously.
The man quickly put a hand over the wound, a slight panic in his eyes, and looked at the vizier, who grabbed a piece of parchment for the man to cover the wound. “Send someone in your stead and have that looked at,” he demanded. The man bowed slightly, and left with haste.
Looking at his hand, he noticed a drop of blood accidentally smeared there by the courier. “Now is when we must test the strength of the people’s faith”, the vizier said to himself slowly as he raised an eyebrow. “I can turn this to my advantage; to their advantage” he said, looking up into the sky that was darkening with orange and red, spotting the first star of the night.
“Yes. They will be all willing.”
Word spread quickly. By morning, the entire city knew that Aziel would give an announcement that day. Some speculated that the gods must have revealed themselves to him overnight if he wanted to speak to them with such short notice. A sense of anticipation surged from every corner. Could this be another message?
At noon, the citizens gathered by the temple. As the sun reached its zenith and shadows shrank to the bottoms of everyone's feet, the vizier stepped out. He observed them reservedly in the silence. His audience was sweating while he, although having just emerged from the cool temple, seemed to take little notice of the baking sun and its blinding light.
Then he raised his voice:
“My people! A desperate need has befallen us; a challenge to our goals and prophecies presents itself this very moment. As you know, it has been decreed that amongst our most holy of duties lies the necessity to document our holy commandments. We must show our heavenly masters that we understand their words and their wishes! We owe them absolute insight into our devotion.” An energised whispering was heard and heads nodded across the crowd.
“But the sanctity of the scribes is hindered. While their fingers are still strong and their minds overflow with holy rhymes, their pens thirst and their pages are blank. He can but scratch his wisdom into his parchment; she can only sing her revelations into our halls, hoping they will echo there forever.” A confused murmur of a shared sentiment rose like a stench from a swamp into the hot air.
“While these are dire terms for the fulfilment of our cause, you can change the route of fate. My people, hear me! We need a sacrifice! Spill your blood, for the preservation of our new-found dogma! Become the pages of our history; the lines of the doctrine; the ink of the holy words! Become one with the message, the stream in our wells, and manifest the will of The Ones!” A zealous roar from the crowd sounded throughout the city, shedding all vestiges of midday drowsiness and stupor in the baking sun and turned them into screams of excitement. Hypnotic dance took hold of many individuals, a fire burning in their spirit.
With both hands, the vizier held a long ceremonial knife, as big as a sword, in front of his face, its tip pointing towards the stone block on which he stood. Gripping the blade, he slid one hand downward from the shaft until his blood-dripping fingers grasped the air in a fist. He continued with loud fervour, unaffected by the pain: “Who will be the first to give their lives for the future of our people? Whose blood shall fuel the divine calligraphy and fulfil our prophecies?” A pool of blood now formed in front of him to the awe of his on-lookers. He remained still, staring as tightly at the crowd as his fingers’ clasp around his bleeding wounds. Behind him were large stone plates flanked by ritualists armed with equally large blades and cold eyes. People rushed to the temple, pushing and shoving chaotically to his great satisfaction. Finally, the first offerings were placed on the stone plates, eager to be strapped down. The flame in their eyes was quelled by a blinding linen, but their bodies writhed with excitement. Maniacal laughter filled the halls, a contagion most effective in spreading their ardour for death. Soon, the rest joined in, only contrasted by the solemn faces of the executioners and the vizier himself.
He fought an inner battle, his hand burning from the pain, but it intruded little upon his consciousness. “I must not give in,” he thought, “like a creature of mere flesh and blood. The will of my masters gives me strength.”
He smeared the chest of each sacrificial body with blood, marking the knife’s target. With synchronised motions, the ritualists closed their eyes as they raised their knives into the air, compelling the people into momentary silence. They buried their blades in the cracking of the thorax in front of them, a sound whose echoes resonated with the dying screams of those sacrificed. Songs of demise resumed, and glory filled the souls of all those present.
Large wooden bowls were placed on the rims of the stone plates. Once filled, servants rushed to the scriptorium in order for the scribes to commence their work. “Hurry, the blood must be fresh and warm!” urged the vizier, now consumed by the preservation of the first blood, “Its waste would be sacrilege, you fools!” The servants walked with care and whatever speed they could muster, well-knowing that, although the vizier demanded speed, he required absolute safety of the liquid above all else. The next round of avid participants were placed on the stone plates, and silence fell over the crowd once again until blood sprang from the squirming flesh. This rhythm of stillness and violence, a cycle of pain and laughter, cheers and slaughter, kept on for hours until the vizier demanded everyone’s attention once again.
“Glory to all! The Ones smile upon the blood that has been spilled today. Their will has been done, their will has been done indeed! Let us pray for these men and women”, he said, pointing at the line of corpses that adorned the floor, “that we may see their faces once again upon the coming of the end. Know that they have given much more in death than they ever could in life. Now go and revel in their honour!” The dancing and celebrating renewed, music sounded from the rooftops of buildings, and it looked to be a raucous hallow night. The corpses laid cooling, blood pooling in the bedding beneath to be wrung into bowls once each body was entirely spent. The head of the ritualists approached the vizier from behind amidst the noise.
“My lord, what of the bodies?”
“Fling them into the prison pits for feasting once they have served their purpose,” he said, turning calmly and with a piercing look, “Those in there have already shed their humanity. The least we can do is mercifully extend this... privileged time in their human forms.”
The ritualist dropped his jaw slightly, then sighed and passed on the order to his men.
It was night. Aziel returned to the temple, then went through back alleys to the scriptorium, avoiding the jubilating masses. The plan had worked. The writing of the scriptures could proceed uninterrupted now, indeed even better than originally planned; he had proven the faith of the people to The Ones, but, of equal importance, also to him- and themselves “This is a turning-point for the cause. My cause. This is what I have been working for. It’s all coming together.” A brief smirk appeared on his face, but he quickly concealed his humanity again, and moved along towards his destination.
He went down stairs into the ground. The occasional drop of blood on the floor caught his attention, and he wrinkled his nose. Such a waste. As he went deeper into the sanctum of scripture, the smell of blood became increasingly overwhelming. He covered his mouth and nose with his cloak, thinking, “If only I could shed this wretched form and its pathetic senses...”
A basin at the floor level had been filled with the blood carried into the chambers. Both to and from it ran many smaller channels and open pipelines filled with life’s liquid inside and engraved with symbols on the outside.
“It is working just as intended,” said a still, hooded figure by the basin in a menacingly deep and raspy voice.
“I trust that you have overseen every bowl that came here, grand magus?” said the vizier. The figure kneeled down, sank a finger into the basin, then licked it clean and grinned.
“Indeed I have. The bloodwells now live up to their name,” the grand magus chuckled.
“And the scribes?”
“They are most pleased," he answered slowly.
Menacing laughter started to fill the chamber from above, seemingly spawning from nowhere in particular, and echoing dissonantly between the dark pillars.