Vivienne is all in. Having been shown things that are mysterious and inexorable, she takes the plunge and sees what lies behind Ignatius’s facade, and in doing so witnesses something horrific.
In a narrow alley just off Cheapside a small church sat by an even smaller livery building. The evening heat hadn’t been helped by Georgiana’s insistence that they walk across town rather than hail a cab.
“Don’t say a word,” said Georgiana, knocking upon the door to the church.
With a smooth thunk a viewing hatch slid open. Two slitty eyes peered out, eyeing the two women for a few seconds. A decrepit male voice asked, “Are you here for nightprayers?”
“For the one who answers nightprayers,” replied Georgiana.
The voice made a harrumphing sound, and the eyes flicked over to Viv. “Who’s this one?”
“Fire has called her.”
“She is known?”
“She was found by fire, and touched by fire. Tonight, she may be cleansed by fire.”
The viewing hatch slid shut with a snap, and she heard the muffled clicks of locks opening.
“What do you mean, I will be cleansed by fire?”
“That is for Fire to decide.”
“You mean Ignatius? Ignatius is Fire?”
The door swung open. Behind it was a stooped, balding gentleman dressed in verger’s cloth, wringing knobbled fingers together feverishly. Beneath his crooked smile a hand shot out and grabbed Viv’s own, studying it, much to her revulsion.
“Water,” the verger grinned through yellowing teeth. “Yes, yes. You’re ready to merge with fire?”
Her heart skipped a beat. Merging with fire; what the bloody hell did that mean? Georgiana must have read her face. “It means you will become one of us,” she said.
After that, neither of them said a word as they led Viv through the church. A side door led down into the church’s small and fusty crypt. The verger walked to the back of the crypt and swept a hand along the dusty wall. He knocked, but instead of a dull thump came a hollow crack against the old man’s knuckles, which made her jump. A second after the crack came a louder scraping noise, and the wall came away.
“This is all very Ignatius,” Viv said.
“This is all very necessary,” snapped Georgiana as the door scraped against the stone floor. “Before you arise you are merely a blind woman, as infertile as dust.” Her hand flicked in dismissal. “Am I wrong?”
“You underestimate her,” came the voice beyond the doorway. Ignatius appeared, sticking to the shadows like a panther. Hunched beneath the stone lintel, he looked as though he were propping up the entire building with his shoulders. “Georgiana. You ought to be more courteous to our newest initiate. You know what she represents.”
Georgiana bowed her head, sullen.
“Vivienne, come this way. You must see what we have planned tonight.”
Viv followed Ignatius through the doorway to a darkened hall; whatever was in it remained covered by shadows, but it must have been pretty big, for the scuffs of their feet on the stone floor reverberated liberally: the skeletal clack of the verger’s feet, Georgiana’s dumpy feet clumping like sacks of flour, her own feet softly padding along, while Ignatius almost floated, making no sound. Viv could just about see he was wearing some kind of red, wide-collared robe.
Ignatius stopped walking, clicked his fingers and conjured a flame from the air. The flame darted to candle sconces on the walls and floor, from one to another around the hall’s edge until the hall revealed itself. When she saw it she gasped.
The ceiling sloped upwards from every corner, to a triangular cutaway apex, a allowing the constellations to peek in. A giant tetrahedron! Just like the penthouse. The three sloping walls were daubed in all manner of strange symbols and glyphs: one side displayed swirls and eddies, waves and currents, people swimming, people diving, and a hundred different types of fish; the next showed yet further currents and waves, but these were lighter, and birds flew among them, soaring high into the sky; on the third side were trees at the feet of mountains, reaching up to the heavens, capped by snowy peaks as ice and air and earth came together.
Earth, air, water. So where’s…
“Fire,” spoke up Ignatius, now at the centre of the hall, his voice echoing gently off the stone. By him stood a throng of silent figures, all clad in plain red robes, their faces uncovered yet expressionless. Viv thought she recognized one or two of them, perhaps from one of the parties, but couldn’t remember where or how. Confusingly, apart from Ignatius himself, they all looked thoroughly unremarkable; these weren’t models, or famous politicians, or rich philanthropists. It is in the shadows of other men and women where you’ll find us, Ignatius had said. When recognition finally hit, her jaw slackened; it was the bloody penguin, the waiter who’d served her champagne. I’m like you; I’m not one of them, she’d thought back then. Unbidden, a smile wrinkled out of the corner of her face as she finally understood. She hadn’t been like the penguin at all; but maybe now she might be.
“Eternal life,” continued Ignatius, slowly walking around the robed figures, touching each unmoving figure lightly upon the shoulder. Viv yearned for the warm press of that hand. “Elementary life. It allows us to arise. To resurge. To build. To guide those in need of guidance. But remember, ours is a brittle order, as brittle as kindling. So we must strengthen our resolve with new flesh.” He looked at her. “Fresh blood.”
My blood. Viv’s pulse quickened at catching his eyes; an itch to turn and walk away ran up and down her spine; she glanced towards the door but the way was blocked by Georgiana’s fat, doughy bosoms. Her chest felt constricted; all this secrecy and theatre once felt like hollow performance, but now it felt like the centre of the universe, and she hated it. It made a mockery of everything – all the learning, all the science, all the knowledge – she’d ever amassed.
“Come,” said Ignatius, and he walked away from the throng. At his word, the robed disciples walked away from the centre of the hall to its edges. A bulb of bile had risen into Viv’s throat as she saw the pyre revealed from behind them. It was long, four feet high, and stacked with piles upon piles of kindling. Her stomach turned, but Ignatius was by her side, and placed his warm hand around hers. His touch instantly soothed the trembling in her gut.
“Is that for me?” Viv’s voice was shaky.
Ignatius chuckled. “A little severe, for an initiate, don’t you think?” Before she could answer he walked away from her. A large figure, cloaked and hooded, was brought by two others from an unseen entrance into the centre of the room. When Ignatius reached them he sent the two attendees to the outer reaches of the room, and whipped the cloak off to reveal the naked, wheezing mass that was Anton Petrowski. She covered her mouth, repulsed: his flesh was dappled with blotches and liver spots, sagging over his chest and hips in disgusting mounds and rolls; a short, podgy penis popped its head out between two blancmange thighs, like a bald meerkat; his bald head was dry and pasty, covered in flaky eczema. His passionless face regarded Ignatius, who came to him and took his head in his warm hands. He whispered something inaudible in Anton’s ear before running those hands over his face and finally taking Anton’s fat, podgy hand in his own, and leading him to the pyre. Viv’s stomach churned in understanding, and she took a step back. She felt Georgiana’s firm, heavy bosom prod her in the back, preventing further egress, and she stood still. Her throat, parched, demanded water, but somehow digging into her bag for that big bottle felt untoward, and she let herself go dry.
“Life beyond the elementary is linear,” announced Ignatius. “Birth, growth, procreation, diminishment, death. Dust to dust, blown away by air and sea. But within the elementary, life becomes cyclical; a weary and spent life is not merely fated to shrivel, calcify and retire to below the ground. Fire…” he flicked a flame from his finger, illuminating his face in the shadows. In the dim light Viv made out Anton clumsily settling himself down on top of the pyre, eventually facing the ceiling. Viv winced; the sticks and wood digging into his back must have been agonizing. “Fire strips away the old and dead,” continued Ignatius, “revealing new possibilities beneath.” He gestured to some of the robed acolytes around the edge of the room.
“He’s to be burned,” Viv whispered to Georgiana.
“No,” came back the hushed but animated reply. “Reborn!”
Two acolytes brought forth large goblets to Ignatius, who took them and poured their contents over the huge trunk of Anton Petrowski. The huge whale moved nary a muscle as the oil, slick and copious, explored his every crevice, preparing him for the flame. Viv turned, but only saw Georgiana’s fat face leering at her. “Not going anywhere, my dear.”
It could still all be a trick, she wanted to say to the doughy fat woman, but she knew it would have been futile to argue with her. She probably had dough between the ears. It could have been a trick: everything, the visions, the words, the people, this… pain shot up her arm as Georgiana’s porky fingers clamped around her wrist and contorted her into submission. Georgiana’s other hand grabbed the nape of her neck, as if she were just a puppy, and forced her to regard the scene as Ignatius threw the goblets to the floor, where they crashed with a loud, echoing clatter. The fine hairs on Viv’s arms began to raise and stretch, yet she still felt warm.
“When life becomes tired,” said Ignatius, casting a potent look around the room, but seeming to linger on Viv’s eyes, “or when the dull eyes of those untouched by the elements look upon us too long; that is when fire will reinvigorate us, and allow us to transcend what the others believe. And, in time, we will guide them to somewhere better. Somewhere eternal.” He looked intently at his finger as the flame suddenly grew, licking its way along Ignatius’s arm, before he put his flaming finger onto Petrowski, where it caught and greedily drank in the precious oil, crawling over him like so many orange hydra, taking the flesh for its own.
Viv tensed all over. Yards separated her and the pyre, but she could still feel its heat from there. Her mind swam with headiness. Instinct screamed at her to escape, to get away, but the iron clamp upon her wrist prohibited any movement.
“Water.” The word emanated from her like a ghost, as if unsummoned, an unconscious vapour.
Petrowski’s body was almost entirely hidden beneath growing, rising flames, but where it had initially been calm, it now started to twitch. A sound eked out from Petrowski’s mouth, a kind of spasmodic clacking, and then a howl, a shuddering screech, freezing Viv’s blood and creeping across her skin. This wasn’t right. It was a trick. The heat oppressed her. Noises came from her mouth, vainly trying to drown out his terrible screams. Tears choked Viv’s voice and clogged up her eyes, but she couldn’t tear the vision away. This wasn’t rebirth; it was just death; horrific, pointless self-sacrifice. And she would be next. Her hands flailed, trying to free herself from Georgiana’s grasp, but the fat woman swore and held her fast. Watery vomit rose in her throat and spewed out across Georgiana and the floor. Repulsed, Georgiana recoiled for the merest moment, but it was enough to overcome her cramping stomach and wriggle away on her hands and knees. The water bottle spilled out of her bag and rolled across the floor. Ignatius must have seen the kerfuffle, for Viv could hear his voice above her, sharp but hushed. “What the fuck are you two doing? Georgiana?”
Viv didn’t look at him. His penetrating eyes would be unbearable. “I need my water.”
“Dear Christ,” spat Ignatius. “Georgiana, let the woman drink some water. And if you disrupt this any longer, I will burn you. I’ll burn you in fucking hellfire so you’ll never be reborn.”
Viv shuddered at his voice. It was beastly and dark, like lava. Georgiana’s voice cracked to a whimper, dough becoming jelly. “She was trying to leave.”
“Vivienne,” he said, helping her to her feet. She wouldn’t look at him, but his hand, warm, reassuring, seductive, almost quelled her thumping heart. “Watch, my dear,” he whispered. “I understand the fear. Do you think I’ve not felt afraid before?”
The stink of molten pork wafted across the hall. Black smoke billowed up, up, cascading upwards around the three sides of the hall, passing the tableaux of earth, air and water, before disappearing into the London air through the cutaway. Viv’s stomach, already sensitive, curled in on itself again. Seeing this, Ignatius gestured to her water. “Take a drink.”
The water, sloshing around the plastic bottle as she picked it up, seemed filled with life. So different to Petrowski’s body, writhing, convulsing, and emitting a pathetic whistling sound. Every now and then there’d be a pop as some part of him exploded. Unbearable. The top was off the water, but she couldn’t drink it. She was running to the pyre before she could help it. The heat raged, and pushed her back, but she fought it. Water flew from the bottle as she shook it, covering the burning body with droplets. They sizzled and disappeared on impact, but she had to do something to stop it. If she was water, this was what she was supposed to do. Kill the fire. She was closer now, the heat blistering, furious, but she bore it. This whole charade: trickery, cultism, bloody murder; she scolded herself for being duped by it. Pouring a bottle of water over a burning body might achieve nothing, but it was her final act of resistance, and she’d see it done. The water covered Petrowski now, killing some of the flames. His screams turns to howls as the water blistered and puckered his flesh.
“No! Vivienne, stop!” Ignatius was upon her, wresting the bottle from her and flinging her to the floor. He cursed when he saw it had been spent, and stooped to grab her by the arms. His face, split with rage, was almost touching her own. His breath was as hot and as foul as the burning corpse of Petrowski. He clutched her jaw and forced her to look at the pyre. Black acridity drifted from the grey-pink body of Petrowski, which lay naked, shivering and convulsing. The fire had stopped. Impossible. How? She saw the water bottle lying empty; it couldn’t have held more than a litre of water. So how…?
“You corrupted the ritual of rebirth,” growled Ignatius, pushing her head away in disgust. Her stomach was water, and though she wanted to vomit again, there was nothing left inside her except raw ache. Trembling, she tried to speak, but managed only a cry when the body of Petrowski started to twitch, and then sat up upon the pyre. It moved creakily, like a badly-oiled automaton. Despite the heat in the room, her blood was icy cold. The Petrowski-thing reached out, putting a jellylike hand upon the crumbling wood. It collapsed, sending him to the floor with a crash and a groan. Then came the agony. A ghastly, guttural roar as the creature awoke. Ignatius, eyes widened, regarded the creature with pure horror.
“Anton, my dear Anton…”
The creature stood unsteadily, liable to collapse at any moment. Dollops of partly-charred flesh dropped from it, while spools of pink and dark liquid wept from various wounds and orifices. Viv blanched as it turned to look at her. One eye had been melted away, but the other was on orb of purest white and drilled its gaze into her unrelentingly. Shakily, it raised a hand and managed to point at her.
Ignatius turned to look at her. “I know,” he said. From nowhere a long, stiletto-style blade appeared in his hand as he rose to his feet. Suddenly she was aware of the eyes of all the room upon her. This blade wouldn’t be for his arm.
“Please, Ignatius, please, I’m…”
“Water,” he said, his face calmer than before. “Water. I’ve never been able to tame you. You always… you always burn me so.” He flourished the blade, walked behind the Petrowski-Thing and slashed its throat. Black blood gushed over its molten chest as it finally collapsed. The acolytes had gathered behind Ignatius.
“Please, Ignatius. Don’t make me into that. I… I can’t be burned.”
Georgiana and the verger were in the throng. “Let me bind her for you, Fire,” she said in thick, hateful tones. Viv wanted to steal Ignatius’s blade and stick it through her vicious, piggy eyes. Instead she sat, cold and trembling, waiting for the inevitable.
“No, Georgiana. If water will not submit to the flame, then I cannot rule it.” He turned to Viv and his hawkish smile had returned, though somehow diminished, sad around the eyes.
Viv tried forming words, but she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Some part of her had wanted to taste the flame, to live forever, but that feeling had fizzled out like the embers of Petrowski’s doomed pyre. She got to her feet, tottering, fearing she might collapse and be unable to rise again, but she willed herself to stay upright. She looked at the way she’d come in. It was closed, but unattended. Seeing her glance, Ignatius nodded. “Go, if you wish.”
She walked to the door, wishing away the dozens of judging eyes. When she stepped through, she didn’t look back. Walking away from the church on the main road, she cast her eye up to see the merest tendrils of smoke dissipating into the air, and noticed the weathervane atop the church. It was in the shape of a dragon, belching fire.