The creatures were lined up in three rows, each a little shorter than the one preceding it, so that their formation was pyramidal, pointing straight toward the relic. A large milky white stone, the relic was as tall as three men standing upon one another’s shoulders, making it just slightly taller than the creatures themselves. A bell was struck and those in the short row nearest to it lowered to their knees and knelt before the stone, and when they were all bent to the earth, those in the two rows behind followed suit. One of the creatures stood behind all the others, posted at the mammoth double doors at the end of the chapel. The doors of gray stone, etched with swirling designs, had been opened, and the creature stood guard ensuring that they remain so until the ceremony was complete. Like the others, its face was waxy and featureless, its forehead broad and flat. The bald head was webbed with traces of the blue veins just beneath the thin skin. Its flesh was pale and glossed over with a silver sheen. The tip of its scimitar was planted in the crevice between cobblestones on the ground in front of its clawed feet, its long sharp fingers were knotted as they rested firmly over the hilt. Light shone through the windows beyond the relic, passing through shards of stained glass of black and white and crystal hue. The bell was struck again and the creatures began to hum all together. Ahead of them, the stone glimmered faintly as though a light were flickering from within its opaque depths. Slowly and silently, the creature which stood at the door lifted its blade and eased its way towards its prostrate brethren. The hem of its own dark robe brushed softly over the ash colored stones of the floor, making a whispering sound whose warning was drowned out by the humming. With a growl, he leaped over the first row and landed for an instant with both feet upon the back of a startled creature kneeling in the second row. Then bounding gingerly forward, it drove the great scimitar downward into a creature that knelt in the center of the third row. The humming ceased, broken apart by startled cries that sounded like giant icebergs tearing the hull of a metal ship. A murmur of alarm and confusion boiled over. Those creatures nearest the attacker spilled away from the murder like the waters of a stream parted by a boulder, scrambling upward and outward at once to see what had landed upon them. There was a shout of,"The Elder, the Elder is slain!" as the assailant pulled the bloodied blade up and out of its victims bony old back. It wiped the steel clean upon the old creature’s black robe and the Elder fell over sideways and lay in a crumpled heap. Another creature flung itself recklessly at the murderer in an attempt to grapple the blade away, but the guardian of the door cut it down with hardly an effort. In a swift sweeping motion, the blade slashed across the belly of another that rushed at it from its right. The robe of that other parted as a male human tumbled out and hit the ground trembling. It was he that had absorbed the blow and blood was soaking through his white garments causing it to cling to his wounded breast. The creature that had housed him beneath the folds of its robe had a moment to cast its eyeless face downward, regarding its lost cargo with shock before attempting to block the attackers next blow. The one who had been the guardian threw the other creature back with a forceful shove and buried the point of its great scimitar into the center of the man, nearly cleaving him in two. The creature that had harbored the man shrieked, doubled over and collapsed.
Another of the creatures from the furthest row had come fully to its feet and while many of the others were following suit, this one threw back its robe, revealing a pale haired woman. She sat within a concave space in the creatures center, hanging over its sexless pelvic mound so that her legs dangled between the larger ones of her carrier. The interior of the creature was a nearly perfect throne, its flesh encased ribcage opened around her head like a crown of antlers, and delicate tendrils reached from its own heart, pulsing beneath thin membranes of flesh above her head, where they rested upon her temples and snaked over her shoulders to touch the bare flesh over her own heart .‘Cardea! Stop this! What are you doing?" she cried.The one who had been the guardian pulled back one half of its own robe and revealed its passenger, a pasty man with dark circles under his eyes. He was fitted within the creature just as she was within hers, but he gazed absently with wide unseeing eyes as if he were asleep and dreaming. A trickle of clear saliva slid its way out of the corner of his gaping mouth."Cardea! Cardea!" The woman screamed at him to no avail. "Cardea control your demon! See what you are doing! Cardea!"But the creature only dropped the robe and let it cover its inactive occupant up again. Raising its blade, it took one step forward, then another, and another, closing the distance between them. The room was swarming like an ant hill which has had water poured over it, but the way between them was clear. The woman screamed, her voice cracking, and the strange reverberating voice of her creature bellowed in unison with her own,"Cardea! Do you hear me?" She and the creature in which she was perched held their ground as the killer closed the last little gap between them. A great noise thundered through the air, silencing all other sounds, as a gun was discharged. Cardea’s creature stopped mid step, the crown of its head suddenly absent. Under a rain of blood and guts, the blade slipped from its grip and clattered upon the stones. Then its towering bulk toppled over, lifeless.The doors had been thrown open and one of the sentries from the hall stood a few feet within the chapel, a smoking hand cannon held in its claw. A man with a bristling red beard leaped out of its belly and tore across the room. His vacated creature trailed close behind him. He looked up at the woman sitting in her demon, her face streaked with tears. He offered a hand to her and she came down from her creature. The man kissed her forehead, his beard brushing her face like the needles of a young pine tree."You’re alright then?" he asked her and she nodded. "The Elder." she said and they looked to the heap beyond Cardea. Together they rushed to the Elder’s fallen demon. Two more creatures strode over and gently rolled the large body out. The woman pulled open the robe, revealing a withered old man with long white hair, the top of his head matted with blood. Most of it had been spilled from the pierced heart of his demon, but his own skull had been cracked by the deadly strike. A sob caught in the throat of the white haired woman as she stepped backward. The bearded man stood behind her and gripped her arms to comfort her. A ring of creatures gathered about the Elder. More poured in through the opened doors of the chapel. An unrobed creature pushed its way through the crowd. Its passenger, a young flaxen haired man with thin and wiry arms, was clearly visible."There must be no crying here." He commanded. "All of you, retreat to your chambers for silent meditation. Only the heads of The Order should remain to help me to tend to the fallen" Slowly the mass began to shuffle back out the way it had come.The bearded man spoke up,"With your permission Reverence, I would like to conduct interviews in the great hall to ascertain the direct nature of this tragedy."The blonde haired man looked down from his seat at the other. After a pause he asked,"Aram isn’t it?""Yes Reverence.""So long as they are conducted quietly, one person at a time, then you have my permission.""Yes Reverence, I understand. It will be so." Then Aram turned the woman around to face him."You will be first Roan. Meet me there when you have collected yourself sufficiently." He gave her arms another squeeze and she nodded. Then they parted. He took his seat within his demon and strode out with the others.
Roan however, waited until she would not risk being trampled. Then she walked on her own two feet with her demon following several paces behind. She walked all the way to her quarters. The distance was greater than she had remembered. Years had passed since she had last walked it herself rather than relying on her demon. She supposed that this was the case for most. At the doorway, she paused to observe her demon standing tall and silent as a phantom, still dressed in the black ceremonial robes. Silently, she willed her demon to open the door and together they passed into their private chamber. Inside, Roan opened a small chest that sat upon her vanity. Within it, three vials remained undisturbed, held snugly in place by a sponge-like padding. There were empty indentations in the padding where the fourth, fifth, and sixth vial had been stored. Quickly she closed the chest and locked it with a brass key. After stowing the key in the pocket of an old coat hung within her wardrobe, she summoned her demon and took her place at its core. Back in the hallway she willed her demon to hasten the pace. She took care that they were not seen, turning once into an adjacent hallway and ducking into a doorway, and waiting there until the approaching footfalls echoed away into the distance. At last they reached the door that she sought. She silently willed the demon to lay its head against the door and through it, she listened to be sure that no one stirred within. Assured that the chamber was empty, she pressed the door open with her demon’s clawed hand and slipped inside.
Cardea’s bed was unmade. The wax of a candle had been spilled onto the floor and left to dry among cast off shirts and socks. A plate of partially eaten food stood upon the night table. There, near the plate, she spied what she was looking for. An emptied vial. One of those that she had given to him. Her demon snatched it up from the nightstand and deposited it in her own hand. After a careful search, she discovered the two remaining vials; one under the bed, another by the wash basin. Fingering the last vial, she recalled standing in just that spot, watching Cardea splash water over his face. She had offered him that first vial then."What’s this?" he had asked, taking it from her."Something that I mixed up. Something to ease your burden." She had told him.When the three empty vials had been placed into their spaces in the chest upon her vanity, she locked it and hid the key in the old coat once again. She smoothed her hair and checked herself in the mirror."Now, Aram, I have collected myself." She said quietly, her hand pressed upon the box. Then she mounted her demon and made her way to the Great Hall where Aram would be waiting. Any trace of guilt in her face could be hidden by sadness, any trace of shame could be hidden by despair. Her path was clear. Nobody would ever know what had really killed the Elder. Nobody would ever know that an attempt at rebirth had ended in destruction, that a simple wish for life had ended in sudden unexpected death. Nobody but Roan and the demon that carried her in its entrails, like a microbe of flesh in a giant body of stone.