Epilogue: The Pope of Zarus
One week later. Zarus, the Holy City.
The halls of Holy Saint’s Palace shimmered under the morning sun that bathed the marble pillars and floors beneath its sacred glow. Cardinal Gallagher’s footsteps echoed through these silent halls as he wandered past Zarus’ religious history, captured in stained-glass windows, and headed towards the holy sanctum. The cardinal’s pace was unhurried. He enjoyed the quiet reflection of his morning walk, particularly before the storm that awaited him amongst the conclave of cardinals.
At forty-two, Gallagher was still considered young to be a prince of the church. His position was a gift from Pope Jericho in honor of the sacrifice Gallagher and two other priests had taken to smuggle the last Divine Heir from the prison cells of old Zarus across the desert to the Holy City.
At the age of twenty-three, Gallagher strangled Jericho’s prison guard and stuffed the future Pope, then a sickly lad of ten years, inside a wicker basket wrapped in furs. His two other comrades had not survived their escape from the conquered city, but they had managed to buy Gallagher enough time to slip inside the tunnels of the hidden labyrinth beneath old Zarus. Once through the tunnels’ maze, Gallagher carried Jericho across the treacherous desert, a distance of over 500 miles, to the Holy City.
The journey had taken them nearly two weeks to complete on foot. Gallagher silently fasted without complaint to ensure the frail boy did not go without food and water. Two years later, at twelve years old, that same pale, sickly boy had taken up his holy robes and office with renewed body and spirit as Pope Jericho the III, the Divine Heir and Ruler of the Holy City.
Gallagher had watched that boy become a man. One strong enough to push back against the tyrant Emperor Arius, rebuild New Zarus, restructure the Holy Church, and even restore the fallen Witch Hunter Order.
The cardinal paused before the statue of Saint Harmonia, the third and last of the saints, and knelt before the undisputed patriarch of the bloodline of Popes.
Saint Harmonia held her bow in one arm and her firstborn, Pope Zigor, in the other. Her divine gaze remained hidden behind a marble blindfold, a testament to Harmonia’s early life when she had been swayed by the deceitful words of witches. The artist cleverly captured the tears of sorrow that slid beneath her blindfold and fell down the Saint’s cheeks, even as she smiled in celebration of her victory.
It was a stirring piece of artwork that always evoked a conflict of emotions from Gallagher. Saint Harmonia was the first saint to live long enough to bear children to whom she passed her holy powers, but she died at a relatively young age of thirty-seven. Along with her will, Pope Zigor declared her final words a prophecy.
“When the last of my line returns to the earth, a new Saint shall appear.”
The past eight centuries had seen the long line of popes flourish. The absence of a new Saint served to enforce the sacredness of their bloodline and power, as well as Harmonia’s prophecy.
Even Emperor Arius, the most omnipotent pure-blood born in the past three centuries, dared not extinguish the last holy descendant to test its authenticity.
It was for this reason and this reason alone that Arius had spared Jericho, the sickly, youngest son of the late Pope Ivan, after massacring his entire family.
For eight long years, the remnants of Zarus had lived in the Holy City in quiet isolation beneath the watchful eye of their conqueror. The young Pope had focused upon his new role and many responsibilities, while the cardinals had done their best to guide and support him. But the fragile tolerance between Zarus and Ventrayna was not meant to last. The death of an inbred witch, Queen Catalina, and the Witch Star’s disappearance had turned the Emperor against New Zarus and its Pope once more.
Gallagher rose and regarded the tears on Harmonia’s cheek thoughtfully as the sun shimmered off her pearl white robes and the painted golden curls of her child.
The sharp thud of feet running in his direction turned the cardinal’s attention towards the approaching figures of two witch hunters who escorted a foreigner, covered in sand, between them.
“What’s this?” Gallagher snapped as he stepped into their path.
“Pardon, your eminence,” the foreigner replied with a hasty bow. “I have brought a message for the Pope from the Abbess of Lafeara.”
“The Abbess?” Gallagher glanced down at the box the messenger held. A modest container of oak wood with a simple brass lock coated and sealed with red wax. “What’s in the box?”
“Pardon, your eminence,” the simple man repeated. “I do not know its contents. I was instructed to deliver the box to the Pope with a message that its contents were urgent.”
Gallagher scratched his brow as he eyed the red wax that matched the scarlet armor of the witch hunters that stood before him. “Very well, you may come with me.” The cardinal turned and resumed his journey to the inner sanctum of the Holy Palace with the foreigner and his two escorts close behind.
Built as a palace by Saint Matthew, the Second Saint, the Holy Palace served as a residence for the Pope and his cardinals. The surrounding Holy City was fortified by the Holy Army, who guarded the Pope and the surviving citizens of old Zarus.
The governing of new Zarus was divided amongst the cardinals, who reported to the Pope in the holy sanctum twice a week after prayers and breakfast. Trusting his subordinates to run his city left Pope Jericho otherwise free to focus on his war with the Emperor. To that end, the Pope maintained sole control over the Holy Army and Witch Hunter Order, though he had rarely left the Holy Palace in recent years.
Jericho’s continued absence among the populace of Zarus sprouted a rumor that the Pope’s lifelong illness had become life-threatening. The cardinals and their representatives quickly dispelled such gossip. However, truthfully, Gallagher had no explanation for the Pope’s sudden isolation—though he suspected it related to the pale-haired witch hunter, who had taken up a permanent residence in the Pope’s shadow.
Soon enough, the large sanctum doors loomed before the cardinal and his guests. The impenetrable iron barrier embedded with the skull of a great ice dragon, slain by the First Saint, was an imposing sight to behold. For Gallagher, viewing the legendary creature’s remains was a daily occurrence, but the foreigner beside him quivered in awe as he gawked beneath its monstrous gaze.
Male slaves garbed in black bowed their shaven heads as they strained to open the iron doors. Gallagher turned to the two witch hunters as he waited for entrance. “Remain outside and escort the messenger back after his task is finished.”
“Eminence,” the half-witches replied in unison with a respectful bow.
When the entryway had opened wide enough for three men to walk through side-by-side, the slaves ceased their labor. Gallagher stepped forward then stopped to snap his fingers in front of the messenger’s dazed eyes. “Come on then; we haven’t got all day. Follow.”
“Sorry, your Eminence,” the foreigner mumbled and hastily trailed behind the cardinal.
Ten of the twelve appointed cardinals waited within the holy sanctum. They turned to Gallagher with polite nods and greetings while they eyed the dirty foreigner beside him inquisitively. Gallagher ignored their questions as he took the messenger’s arm—cringing at the grime and sweat upon the man’s sleeve—and led the foreigner towards the Divine Heir.
From his raised golden throne, Pope Jericho observed his cardinals with silent boredom. After twenty years of living in the Holy City, one would think these princes of the church would understand how to govern and keep his people fed and satisfied. Yet once more, he had to suffer through the festering squabble of their complaints, grumbles, and bickering.
‘The Emperor will not need to conquer us a second time if we allow ourselves to crumble from within.’
Jericho shifted restlessly inside the pale golden robes of his office, conscious of the tremor in his left hand that he kept tucked discreetly at his side. He focused on his breathing as he tried to block out the noise of the cardinal’s debate, keenly aware of the headache that clawed behind his scarred eyes.
The inner sanctum door opened, and Jericho recognized the familiar visage of one of the few mortals he trusted inside this room.
“Cardinal Gallagher,” Pope Jericho greeted as his old friend approached the throne with a dirty foreigner in his shadow.
The cardinal bowed humbly in greeting, but even when Jericho motioned for him to rise, Gallagher avoided the Pope’s divine gaze and focused on Jericho’s right hand.
There were few who dared look upon the sacred eyes of the Pope.
Jericho had taken burning coals to his eyes at nine-years-old rather than watch his sisters be raped by witches. His eyesight returned slowly over the years, one of the blessings of the Saint’s bloodline, but the scars on his hands and cheeks remained as a testament and constant reminder of the hatred he bore.
His pupils still retained their cloudy-white color. Jericho was often told his eyes resembled pearls rather than the eyes of a common blind man, but he assumed all such talk was flattery, for while Jericho could see, his vision lacked color of any form by which to judge.
“Greetings, your Holiness,” Gallagher murmured respectfully as he pushed the trembling messenger to his knees.
Jericho’s nostrils flared as a strange odor preceded Cardinal Gallagher and the unwashed man beside him. His gaze shifted from the foreigner’s face to the box held in the man’s trembling hands.
“What news?” Jericho asked. His raised voice trembled with power that silenced the cardinals around the room as they hastily found their seats.
Gallagher glanced down at the quivering foreigner and nudged the man with his knee. “Go on then.”
“I—ah—bring a message—from the Abbess of Lafeara!” The foreigner explained hastily as he set down the box.
Jericho’s white pupils narrowed at the wretched scent that radiated from the box like a dark cloud and slithered in his direction.
‘How long has it been since a witch dared to parade their tainted magic before me?’
“And just what sort of message requires a box?” Jericho raised a hand and snapped his fingers. The box shuddered as the red wax cracked, the lock snapped open, and the lid popped free. “Why don’t you show us.”
The foreigner nodded vigorously and lifted the lid back. He took one look at its contents, and with a choked guttural squeak, fell over in a faint.
Gallagher gagged as he staggered back from the stench of rot that permeated from the human head inside the box. “Wh-what—unholy curse is this?” The cardinal riffled through his robes for a handkerchief to thwart the rancid stench.
Jericho stared into the dead man’s empty eyes as his memory stirred. He turned as the pale-haired witch hunter behind his throne stepped forward and whispered a name into the Pope’s ear. A sly smile slid across Jericho’s lips as he studied the priest’s now withered complexion. “It would appear that Father Alden has returned to us.”
The cardinals murmured in surprise. Many of whom appeared to have forgotten the name of the priest who had requested a witch hunter be sent to Lafeara almost two weeks ago.
“Cardinal Gallagher, there is a small bag tucked beside the priest’s head. Fetch it for me,” Jericho commanded.
Gallagher glared at the unconscious foreigner as he approached the open box.
Jericho shook his head as he watched the cardinal struggle to breathe behind his handkerchief. ‘Those robes have made you soft, old friend.’
With a great deal of discomfort, Gallagher managed to locate the hidden object. The cardinal tugged the soiled brown bag free and held it gingerly between his fingertips as he examined it cautiously.
“Permit me, your Eminence,” murmured the pale-haired witch hunter.
Jericho turned to his shadow and nodded. “Very well.”
The Commander of the Witch Hunter Order bowed and moved swiftly down the steps to Gallagher. The cardinal eyed the white-haired witch hunter with evident fear and distrust but relinquished the blood-stained satchel with visible relief.
“What is it, Ripper?” Jericho asked impatiently as the witch hunter untied the bag and pulled out a stained rolled parchment.
“It would appear to be the Abbess’s message, your Holiness,” Ripper replied as he turned towards the Pope.
“Read it for us,” Jericho commanded as he leaned forward with interest.
Ripper unfurled the bloody scroll with long pale fingers, cleared his throat, and read the message aloud.
“Greetings to the Divine Heir,
I have sent back what little remains of the priest, Father Alden. With heavy regret, I must inform you that his death came at the hands of his witch hunter, Sir Nero, as witnessed by the sisters of my church.
The witch hunter Nero has fled Lafeara. He is pursued by a pure-blood fire witch who wears a blue ghoul’s mask. They were last seen heading west towards the mountains of Tharyn.
I understand such news will require an official investigation from the Holy Church. Our doors remain open, and I extend to your representative what humble accommodations we sisters may provide.
However unfortunate his demise, my sisters and I take heart knowing that Father Alden is now closer to your ancestors, the Saints.
Your devoted servant,
Ripper’s gaze had darkened by the time he finished reading. Jericho watched his Commander compose himself silently as Ripper rolled up the scroll and returned to the Pope’s side.
“What sort of ludicrous claim is this?” demanded Cardinal Murdock as he rose from his seat. “A witch hunter turning on their priest? How is such a thing even possible?”
Jericho accepted the blood-stained scroll and motioned for Ripper to withdraw. Although Jericho derived no small amount of comfort and security from his shadow, he was well aware of the effect Ripper had over his cardinals.
“Set aside your doubts, Murdock. It is clear enough to all that Father Alden is dead!” shouted Cardinal Langham. “An investigation will prove or disprove the Abbess’s claims, though what could she possibly gain by such a lie, I wonder.”
“You have long questioned the trust his Holiness places in the Witch Hunter Order,” returned Murdock. “Do not forget that we would be unable to quell those foul witches without them.”
“Do not forget it was a witch hunter who betrayed Pope Ivan and his family and brought about the fall of Zarus,” Langham snapped back bitterly.
“That is hearsay!”
“Let us not leap to conclusions so easily,” interrupted Cardinal Halstone. “Where is the rest of Father Alden’s corpse? Where is his witch hunter? Who is this pure-blood witch the Abbess mentioned? An investigation is necessary, not conjecture, and further discord.”
“I agree with Cardinal Langham,” added Cardinal Lentulus. “The presence of a pure-blood, the death of a priest, and a witch hunter’s sudden betrayal of his oath? I suspect the Abbess is not telling us everything. This is what happens when a woman is left in charge instead of a Bishop.”
The other seven cardinals quickly grumbled their agreement as they turned towards the Pope, who slowly turned the scroll between his fingers as he examined Father Alden’s empty gaze.
‘It’s clear enough that a witch killed or had something to do with Father Alden’s death. Only one foul order of witches would bother eating the eyes of a priest. But why invite the inquisition to their doorstep? And why accuse Nero of such a crime?’ Jericho crumpled the message in his hand and discarded it upon the white marble steps. ‘This drawn-out war and the Emperor’s barricade has left our granary severely depleted. At such a time, I cannot overlook the promised aid of Lafeara from King Henri. I must secure Crown Prince Nicholas as a future ally—but just what sort of deception am I being pulled into?’
“We suspect there is treachery in Lafeara,” Jericho said aloud. His calm voice soothed the nervous agitation of his cardinals, who each resumed their seats. “Crown Prince Nicholas’s coronation approaches with this year’s Holy Celebration. We must use Lafeara’s long-held tradition to our advantage and secure Lafeara’s future king as our ally.”
“And what of his future queen? This adopted niece of that murderous Emperor?” protested Langham.
“We suspect our young ally was forced against his wish to fulfill his father’s treasonous promises to the Emperor. The work of the Dowager and her followers, no doubt. We must solidify his loyalty first and foremost and then aid him in securing his power as King,” Jericho replied patiently. “According to our spies, the union between the prince and this tainted princess has yet to be consummated.” He glanced towards Gallagher and smiled. “Perhaps we may offer Lafeara’s future king a way back from this unfortunate marriage.”
“It is a good plan, but will he be willing to risk offending the Emperor?” questioned Gallagher. “We are little able to repel Ventrayna’s forces ourselves.”
“The sacred ground of the Holy City has not fallen in a thousand years,” snorted Cardinal Murdock. “Nor, I suspect shall it fall in another thousand years.”
“Our efforts to reclaim old Zarus have been thwarted time and time again,” Jericho continued with determined focus. “It is time to consider another path. Perhaps our union with Lafeara may provide us with such an opportunity, but we must deal with this atrocity first.” Jericho leaned back and wrapped his scarred hands around the throne’s golden arms. “The agreement with Lafeara and our Witch Hunter Order still stands. We will locate whatever nest of witches has taken roost within Nicholas’s kingdom and burn them out.”
The Cardinals rumbled their approval.
“And who will lead this inquisition, your Holiness?” Gallagher asked curiously.
“Ripper shall go as our representative,” Jericho replied without hesitation.
Gallagher’s hopeful expression crumpled, and the room fell silent as the witch hunter stepped forward again and bowed to the Pope.
Cardinal Murdock rose to his feet unsteadily. “R-Ripper? Your Holiness?”
“Yes,” Jericho confirmed with a thin smile. “And you shall accompany him, Cardinal Murdock. We suspect our churches in Lafeara need reorganization and a trusted figure to comb through and remove the unfaithful. As our cardinal, you will have all the authority necessary to see Lafeara’s churches are purged of any who would betray their vows to the Saints.”
“Y-yes, your Holiness.” Murdock bowed and then glanced hesitantly towards Ripper.
The white-haired witch hunter’s ice-blue eyes gleamed as he regarded the cardinal. “Don’t worry, your Eminence. I shall ensure you survive the journey in one piece.”
The cardinals shivered and murmured sympathetically as Murdock sank back into his seat a few shades paler.
“You doubt our reasoning?” Jericho observed somberly. “Ripper is the only witch hunter strong enough to take down a pure-blood. And if, as we suspect, a coven skulks within Lafeara, he has the experience necessary to draw them out and exterminate them.”
“But—your Holiness,” interjected Cardinal Langham. “The Abbess’s letter stated that Nero and the pure-blood fled to Tharyn!”
“The Abbess’s letter is a magpie’s nest of lies,” Jericho snarled. “Which is why Cardinal Murdock will take over leadership of the holy church in Lafeara while Ripper begins his inquisition with Abbess Mercy and her sisters. Let them prove their innocence through blood and tears.”
Jericho rose from his throne and folded his arms behind his back as he proceeded towards the sanctuary doors. He paused briefly beside the unconscious foreigner and the pungent rotting head. “Ripper.”
“Yes, your Holiness?” The witch hunter asked as he regarded Father Alden’s remains thoughtfully.
“Bring that to my chambers.” Jericho nodded at the priest’s head. “A witch may have eaten Father Alden’s eyes, but I will carve out whatever secrets lurk within his soul.”
“As you wish, your Holiness.”