The dogmatic city of Sid Mantelis was considered the last remaining vestige of true human civilization. To enter into the sacred protective society of clergy and holy men one must virtually sell one’s soul, promising everlasting allegiance to the city. In return those who lived under the control of the clerics were offered full immunity from enslavement by the aliens. They were supported by verdant farmland where fruits and vegetables were cultivated. An extensive network of sewage and away systems provided the necessary water reclamation and waste disposal, while a literal cottage industry had sprouted up around these sewers just outside the dome where humans survived off of the garbage disposed of by the city’s inhabitants. Huge cathedrals spanned the numerous courtyards that scattered the pastoral landscape creating a brilliant radiance that seemed to shine like heaven itself. The cathedral spires spanning the biosphere leapt from the Earth and splintered the silvery wisps of an oxygen-rich sky. Sid Mantelis was covered with a shimmering translucent dome that prohibited outside air, certain types of radiation, and liquid from piercing through the membrane and reaching the inhabitants inside. This “cordon sanitaire” was made of electromagnetic nanoparticles that acted as a barrier between the cruel environment outside and the safety of clean, controlled weather inside. When night fell it bathed the sacred city in sepia-toned hues and soft shadows that surrounded the grounds of dense foliage. The city was a monument to human achievement in times of great difficulty.
Sid Mantelis contained several parks surrounded by vast interlocking pathways. Each park consisted of elaborately carved bushes in the shape of animals that served as images of the various animistic gods. The images could also be found embroidered on the garments of the people as well, sewn into intricate patchworks or fashioned out of colorful cloth. A small group of dominant men dressed in cowls and albs could be seen walking devoutly about the grounds of the immense super city wearing personas that matched the animals on their robes. The “persona,” or animal mask, was a part of the ceremonial garb that the clergy wore with the rest of their vestments, like the alb and cincture. The albs were ornate with fine patterns of crewelwork representing the self-same animal gods depicted by their personas. The images, referred to as “aspects,” were usually embroidered with silver and gold thread in rich detail and featured prominently on the front of the robe and along the sash when one was worn. The persona disguised the clergy from the laity with a shroud of anonymity preserving the relationship of equality between them. No member of the clergy was to be elevated above any member of the congregation, as a result they masqueraded as representations of the animal deities by keeping their faces covered at all times. Worship occurred regularly at scheduled intervals throughout the day. Beauty belied the evil that stood hidden in plain view.
The magnum opus that was Sid Mantelis grew out of necessity. There was no one person or organization to blame, more of a confluence of actions and a constant redirection of power that allowed it to thrive. The people who gave birth to Sid Mantelis were a group of greedy, lying, back-stabbing, power hungry madmen whose ability to dominate the will of the people was their grand prestige.
Kneeling at the prie-dieu bench Cygnus, a high cleric, delicately turned the pages of a nearly four-hundred year old book of nature specimens published in a time that was considered virtually prehistoric to the current date. The “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” was full of richly colored illustrations, photographs and beautiful descriptions of all the animals of the Earth, and was the cornerstone of their religion.
“Sir,” A young man bowed slightly holding a lavishly detailed alb with sash and cincture depicting the great god Hiassem, the lion, which was reserved for only one man in all of Sid Mantelis: the Chief Cleric. “I brought these for your annunciation service. The persona will be given at your ascension.”
Without turning from the relic, Cygnus asked, “What is the role of religion, Lagos?”
“To provide mankind with a law and a system of morals, sir.”
“No, its chief responsibility, and this is paramount even to that of morality, is to provide man with a method by which to retain his satisfaction with a world in which he finds it difficult enough to live. Much of the world is a horror from which mankind may never be released. Suffering from life is like suffering from a disease, and we are its cure.” The elder cleric stated plainly, “We are the true echo of the gods.” Cygnus turned to the young clergyman, smiled thinly and asked, “Do you understand?”
“Yes sir, I do.” Lagos replied.
“Good, because the last Chief Cleric did not. Which is why Hiassem took him from us; to give us better guidance in these most troubling of times.”
“Omaha.” The clergyman replied upon hearing the name of their most high god.
Cygnus stood and walked toward the young man and, placing his left hand on his shoulder, solemnly stated, “Omaha.” After a brief moment of pious reflection he finally said, “You’ve brought my ascension vestments. Would you be so kind as to place them in my chamber?” He turned around and, looking away, asked, “Will everyone be at the event? Have we gotten a full list of attendance?” What he meant by that was understood by Lagos who was himself being groomed by the elder cleric.
“Yes sir. All the clergy will be present as you have directed.”
“The witch will not be there, sir.”
“Good, seeing as how she is the primary suspect in the Chief Cleric’s murder I don’t believe it would be proper etiquette for her to attend my ascension.” Cygnus knew that denying her an invitation would assure her appearance.
“Nor wise on her part, sir.” He bowed slightly, “I don’t understand why she isn’t locked up.”
“She is a high-ranking member of her order, Lagos. It would not look good to arrest her without any evidence. Even though we know she was responsible there is still protocol to adhere to. Soon enough she will be brought to task. Have patience. Hiassem works in his own time and in his own way.”
With that Lagos left the sanctum and brought the ascension vestments to the cleric’s chamber. Tonight, Cygnus would dress in the Chief Cleric’s alb and cincture. He would take on the aspect of Hiassem and become known as Leo until his death.
Across the city, Trinidad awoke unsteadily from a difficult dream. She had been moaning which drew the attention of Riley who was just outside her bedchamber sending his thoughts to her mind. << A giant red question mark across her door >>
“It’s ok, Riley, you can come in.” Trinidad sat up in her bed. Her thick mane of silvery blond hair fell in curly ringlets framing her face, while a translucent film obscured pale green eyes that remained unfocused to the world.
Riley came into the room slowly. He was a small thin boy with a mop of mousy brown hair and two big brown eyes that peered at the world inquisitively. The two of them found each other by a happy chance of fate. Trinidad had a vision of him in a dream one night and the next day he arrived, a child of the wastes. She had a strong connection with him from the very beginning. For herself, Trinidad was blind, and for him, Riley was mute. Together they had a psychic bond which neither of them truly understood, but were both grateful to have. She was his voice, and he was her eyes. Trinidad was known as the “blind prophet” and was the head of her order, a small group of women who initiated believers into what the clerics of Sid Mantelis referred to as a cult. Known commonly as the Coterie Ule, Trinidad’s order was peaceful and had been of great use to the church in the past because Trinidad’s dreams had a habit of coming true. For this reason alone their order was tolerated, and in return she provided counsel for the Chief Cleric. Now though, she felt this change of hands would threaten her safety and the safety of her coterie when the new Chief Cleric ascended that night.
Images began to flood her mind one on top of the other. << Trinidad in bed tossing and turning, the aspect of the lion, the great central cathedral, an apple, a winged lion soaring in flight >>
“Slow down Riley, I can’t understand you.” She said as she slipped on her robe de chambre, and padded over to the kitchen. Riley followed and visualized her way with his own sight. She put the kettle on the stovetop and prepared two cups for tea. “Now, one at a time. The most important first.”
<< The lion aspect >> Materialized in her mind’s eye.
“You’re concerned about the new Chief Cleric? I am as well.” << Trinidad unable to sleep >> “Yes, my dreams were uncomfortable. I’m sure you felt that, too. And, I know you’re hungry.” Riley’s eyes scanned the fruit basket hanging over the sink and Trinidad grabbed an apple and began washing it for him. << An elaborate silver coffin >> “I know. I’m concerned about what happened to the former Chief Cleric, also. And I’m aware Cygnus has made attempts already to blame Leo’s death on me. We are moving into desperate times, Riley. We must be cautious, but we can’t allow ourselves to be afraid.” << A lion image with a red heart emblazoned on it >> “Yes, we must be very brave, Riley. You’re a good boy, you know that no matter what happens to me you will always be taken care of, right? I would never let anything happen to you.” << Mother duck and ducklings >> “Yes, Riley, just like that. You are safe with me.” Trinidad patted Riley on the head, tousling his hair. << Trinidad in a witches’ hat riding on a broom >> “I know they refer to me as a witch. But, you know that isn’t true. They’re just afraid of what they don’t understand. That’s all. Don’t worry about that.” The tea kettle began to whistle and Trinidad poured the hot water into the cups for them both. “Now, we need to prepare for the annunciation service tonight.” Despite the fact that she was not welcome, Trinidad had no intention of avoiding the ceremony.
All over the city people were preparing to be at the service. Not only would the annunciation be the induction of a new Chief Cleric, but it was also a time for the youth, who were on the verge of ascending into their new aspects, to move up as well. As a rite of passage when young children reached the age of nine they would be given the aspect that fit their burgeoning personality. They would give up the aspect of their youth, and ascend into the aspect that would represent them into adulthood. This ceremony was usually held during the Month of Preferment. However, whenever a new Chief Cleric was named, he was given the special right to open up the Central Cathedral to any new votaries who wished to ascend on that day as well. This was a very special occasion and augured well for the youngsters whose parents chose for them to ascend on the same day as the new Chief Cleric’s annunciation service.
“Quit squirming, Mona.” Her mother said, trying to wrangle her daughter into her older brother’s ascension robe.
“But, it’s itchy, Mama.” Mona couldn’t stand the fact that she had to wear her brother’s old robe, nor that she was going to ascend into the aspect of the Bull, either. Both her children had illustrated headstrong independence, which sat just fine with their mother because it meant she didn’t have to tailor a new robe for her daughter.
“This is the same robe your brother ascended in on his Preferment Day and he didn’t complain nearly as much as you.” Tamias said chidingly.
“It must have gotten itchier in the closet for all those years.” Mona grumbled.
“Mom, I can’t find my bull pendant.” Her son whined.
“Did you look in the drawer of your nightstand?”
“Of course I did, mom, I looked there first.” He opened the drawer of his nightstand and there it was. “Nevermind, I found it.”
“It was in the nightstand wasn’t it?” Tamias questioned him.
“Yes, mom.” Bo replied quietly.
“Thank you, mom.”
Tamias’s children were good kids, if only a little stubborn. Despite her bellyaching Mona finally shrugged into the robe so her mother could fit it. She just needed to hem the sleeves and take off some of the length. The Annunciation of the new Chief Cleric would be the first time Mona would be allowed into the Central Cathedral and, unlike other children her age, she wasn’t excited. She didn’t care about the ornate fixtures of the other cathedrals, and had assumptions that the central cathedral would be even more opulent. Church was a place of restriction and pious contemplation, neither of which appealed to Mona’s independent spirit.
“Quit squirming, you’ve got a rat’s nest growing up here!” Tamias was brushing her daughter’s hair to get the tangles out, much to Mona’s aggravation.
“But, it hurts! Owwwwie! You’re ripping out my scalp, momma!”
“Well, if you brushed it more often it wouldn’t get this way!”
“I wish I were a bird, so I could fly away from here and never have to brush my hair, or get dressed up or anything!”
“I swear, you and your brother are complete opposites! But, you’re both stubborn in the same way. You’re too free spirited. I hope one day you start taking things seriously!” Tamias said exhaustively.
In fact, Bo and his sister couldn’t be more different. Bo, a pious and obedient child, planned to follow his father and join the Sentinella. He was consumed by all the pomp and circumstance of everything ecclesial, and reveled in all its glory and magnificence. Mona, for her part, was a dreamer who fascinated herself with thoughts of the outside world, and considered Sid Mantelis to be a cage for the mind. That night Mona would take on the aspect of the bull and become known to all of Sid Mantelis as Tauri from then on.
An ornate mahogany staircase led to a long hall opening into an enormous room. The ceiling was covered with hand-beaten copper that gave the appearance of sunlight, even in the twilight hours. It was early afternoon now, and between the luminous marble floors and polished canopy it was difficult to discern where the room ended and the heavens began. Tamias’s husband Urso, a member of the Sentinella, was standing guard just outside the Chief Cleric’s salon where he could hear Cygnus complaining to the other clerics about the youth’s ascending on his day of annunciation.
“I don’t see why we allow these urchins to steal my limelight! This is my day!” Cygnus called out to the clerics as he dressed in the washroom. He was a handsome middle-aged man dressed in a garish silken raiment.
“Cygnus, this is an opportunity for you to show favoritism and extend a small amount of Hiassem’s glory onto the young initiates of the faith. It’s a simple gesture really, and one that bestows deference and illustrates your loyalty to the people.” Tike, one of the elder clerics, stated.
“It’s also a gesture of your humility, and reminds the people that no man is above another.” Lupus added.
“I’ve been thinking about that. Perhaps we should change that.” Cygnus mused walking out of the washroom wearing his persona. “The people crave leadership, they want to believe someone is in charge. What better way to do that than to reveal ourselves to them?”
“Bite your tongue, Cygnus! What you’re proposing is heresy, and goes against the very foundation of the church and the promise of the faith!” Tike argued.
“Perhaps what I am proposing. But, when I am Leo it will be the word of Hiassem himself. No one would dare defy their Lord, now would they?” Cygnus said ominously. “Now, if you will excuse me gentlemen, I must prepare for my annunciation ceremony. Your counsel has been most… informative.” He said disdainfully as he crossed the room and swung open the doors inviting them to leave.
The two clerics left the salon in haste. Fear surrounded the appointment of the new Chief Cleric, but they knew there was nothing they could do to stop it. The rites would be said in a few hours and once Cygnus donned the persona of Leo, there would be nothing they could do to stop him. Immediately they thought to seek counsel with Trinidad and her order, perhaps there was something she could do to help.
They traveled the pathways through the courtyards to Trinidad’s home, a modest little abode hidden behind a wall of lush greenery. The windows were open, as they always were, allowing fresh air to circulate within the space. Trinidad heard the knock at her door while Riley saw the personas of the dog and wolf waiting patiently on the doorstep. Trinidad called to them from within the austere dwelling, inviting them inside. She and Riley had just finished lunch and were about to start picking out their garments when the clerics arrived.
“Tike, Lupus, to what do we owe the pleasure?” Trinidad said in a lively and polite manner.
As the two entered they greeted her with the reverence deserving of her position. “Dame Trinidad, thank you for receiving us.” Lupus said, extending his hand and grasping hers while Riley looked on.
“The pleasure is truly mine. Rarely do we get such esteemed visitors. And, so far from the citadel.” Trinidad cooed as she turned to the kitchen to make some tea for her guests. “Tea?”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself. We won’t be but a minute.” Tike stated.
“Sure, have a seat.” Trinidad directed them to the sofa.
“It’s about Cygnus.” Lupus began. “Already his language is fringing on heresy and he hasn’t even ascended yet. We fear the decision to appoint him was made in haste.”
“We were wondering if there was anything you could do, or say, that might… caution him against being too rash. Perhaps a testimony, or prediction that might bode … unfavorably. Something to buy us some time?” Tike continued.
“At least until we can talk some sense into him. His predecessor trusted you, and he will, too.” Lupus finished.
“That all sounds nice, gentlemen, but I am the chief suspect in his predecessor’s murder. I seriously doubt he will listen to me. He didn’t even invite me to his annunciation ceremony.” Trinidad countered.
“An error, someone simply overlooked it.” Tike argued.
“Besides, there’s no evidence to prove you had any involvement with our former Chief Cleric’s disappearance.” Lupus added.
“Yes, he’s only presumed dead.”
“You’d be doing us a huge favor. Please attend the ceremony and deliver an omen, of sorts. Something he must take seriously.”
“Please, for all our sakes, for the sake of Sid Mantelis. Please do us that.” Tike begged.
Trinidad was unmoved by their pleadings. She had already planned to attend, but she didn’t make erroneous conjurings. She only spoke when the spirit moved her. But, she knew she had to do something, more than just for their sake, but for her own as well. “I will do what I can gentlemen.”
“Thank you, thank you.” Tike responded.
As they headed toward the door Trinidad asked, “What does Cygnus plan to do to me?”
The two men looked at each other and then back to her. “He plans on arresting you. But, we will protect you.” Tike started.
“Yes, we will. It’ll just be a formality, to keep up appearances. To show the laity that he’s strong, as a deterrent to further criminality.” Lupus ended.
“Ok. Well, I trust you gentlemen have my best interests at heart.” She smiled wanly. “Omaha.” She said, tilting her head in a slight bow.
“Omaha.” Both men replied in unison. And with that they left Trinidad’s abode and headed back to their own chambers.
The annunciation ceremony was held in the Central Cathedral, and was as opulent as Mona had feared. Her mother and brother brought her in with them and ushered her to the front pews where the young votaries would sit awaiting their ascension. Her father, Urso, being a member of the Sentinella, would join them all later for the after ceremony where they would celebrate with the other youths his daughter’s age. The ceremony began with the reading of the initiation rites.
“Blessed Hiassem, we are gathered here today to usher in the ascension of our new Chief Cleric, Cygnus. He has been chosen by a majority of elders to accept the persona of Leo and take his rightful place as the living representation of your voice for the people.” Hugo implored the gods. “Bring him into your wild kingdom and bless his ascension within the tribe of Omaha.”
Everyone in the cathedral spoke in unison as a response to the holy word, “Omaha.”
“Cygnus, please step forward and receive the persona of Leo, and take your new position as the ordained aspect of our Lord Hiassem.” Hugo entreated.
Cygnus rose from his seat and made his way through the nave to the apse in smooth graceful movements. He presented himself to Hugo, the officiant of the ceremony. With his back to the congregation Cygnus allowed Hugo to remove his swan persona and replace it with the lion persona. “With the persona of Leo now given to you and the aspect of the lion represented on your vesture you are now, and will be until your passing, the voice of Hiassem. May you judge fairly and manage honestly.”
Cygnus turned to the laity wearing the golden persona of Leo the lion and, raising his hands, solemnly said “Omaha.”
“Omaha.” The congregation responded joyfully.
Hugo led them in a hymn and then asked the young votaries to come to the transept and have their new aspects bestowed upon them in like fashion. Mona’s mother encouraged her daughter to go up to ascend into her new aspect, beaming with pride.
After the children had all ascended, Leo had a few words to close out the ceremony. He stood and began by thanking everyone for attending, congratulating the youth on their ascension, and then spoke gravely about the former Chief Cleric. “I am told that his killer is among us at this very moment.”
A shock fell across the crowd as murmurs arose from all directions.
“Trinidad! Come forth and confess your crime to the people of the community, and let Hiassem proclaim his justice.” Leo stood unmoved as Trinidad and Riley stood and crossed the nave to the foot of the steps of the apse. “Trinidad, Hiassem spoke to me this morning while I read the holy book. He asked for mercy on your soul, but revealed to me that you were the soul actor in the murder of the former Chief Cleric, and demanded that you be punished for your actions. It gives me no pleasure to do this, but I must ask that the Sentinella take you into custody at this time.” At that moment the Chief Cleric’s private guard surrounded Trinidad and Riley, taking them by the arms and walking them out of the cathedral. She was wordless as they ushered her away toward the prison cells beneath the citadel.
Riley was consumed with fear, he looked to Trinidad for support. << Don’t worry Riley, we’ll be safe. >> She spoke to Riley through their psychic bond which allowed them to communicate in such a way that nobody could hear them. << Urso is a friend of ours, he will make sure nothing happens to us. >> << The Bear aspect >> << Yes, he’s the one. He’s Mona’s father. Do you remember Mona? >> << The Monkey aspect >> << Yes, that’s right. Now, come along we’ll be fine. We’re just going on a little adventure. >>
The cells were dark and damp from disuse. It was uncommon to have prisoners in Sid Mantelis; so the jail rarely saw any detainees, and certainly not for any length of time. Occasionally, the odd overindulgent drunk might end up gracing them with his or her presence, the distilleries not being strictly forbidden, but it wasn’t the usual occurrence. Theft being even less rare, and murder rarer still. So, when Trinidad and Riley made their appearance in the dungeon cells in the basement of the citadel, the jailers were completely unprepared. To have such a high profile guest, and for such a vicious crime, it was unconscionable, but most of all it was unbelievable. As a result she was still treated with the same regard and dignity deserving of her station. Many didn’t believe she was guilty, and that went a long way toward her treatment. And, of course, she was afforded the protection promised to her by Tike and Lupus.
“Dame Trinidad, my wife sends her regards, and knows you are innocent. This charge is ridiculous.” Whispered Urso.
“Thank you, Urso. Tell Tamias I expect to see her and your daughter, Tauri, both soon.” Trinidad replied, using Mona’s new aspect name from her recent ascension.
The cell door was locked and Urso turned to leave before stopping to mention something quietly to the jailer, then continuing on up the stairs and out of the basement.
The morning sun found itself blanketed in red clouds, and the new Chief Cleric prepared for his first duties since his ascension. After a hearty breakfast he commanded Lagos to have the Sentinella bring the prisoner to him to face adjudication. The quicker he passed judgement on the witch, the quicker he could begin acting unopposed making any changes he saw fit to the customs and practices of the religion of Omaha.
Trinidad and Riley were led to the solar by four large men decked out in black and silver regalia each one emblazoned with their individual aspects, the Sentinella. The Sentinella were the Holy Guard of Sid Mantelis who carried ceremonial halberds, tall spiked staff weapons with decorated blades featuring the aspect of the lion in gold gilt and hooked flukes. As they made their way up the marble staircase and across the promenade, Urso kept a close eye on the pair, his protective gaze would ensure her safety… or so he hoped. Once inside, Leo instructed the men to wait outside the doors until he was finished.
“You can remove the shackles, I’ll be fine. Raven doesn’t mean me any harm, do you my dear? Thank you, gentlemen.” Leo stated calmly.
“My name is Trinidad, you know that.” She replied acidly.
“Oh, but that name is not the name of your aspect chosen by Hiassem. He would have me speak to you properly in order to pass judgement.” Leo responded as the doors closed with the Sentinella on the opposite side. “Tell me, Raven, did you really think you could oppose me openly without any retribution?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“That little prophecy of yours.”
“My allegiance is to the truth.”
“We’ll see about that. You will die a traitor’s death. I’ll see to it.” Leo dictated to them both, “You and the boy.”