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The priest threw his arms wide, robes flaring and voice bellowing. Words of wonder and faith, of redemption and second chances shot forth from his mouth. His words dropped to a whisper, then rose like the tide to a melodious shout. The church, of hard stone marble and whitewashed floors, where stain glass windows lit up the room in all the colours a man could imagine, was filled with the hymns of the priests. The common folk, dress of light greens and stark browns, crowded the enormous building, packed shoulder to shoulder. Despite the heat and smell, of sweat and dirt, the citizens remained unfazed, heads bowed in reverence towards the stand located at the front of the church. The church had two levels, with hundreds of seats made for the masses. The second level gallery allowed more comfort, with cushioned seats and small windows for the breeze. But this area was reserved for the priests not leading the sermon, dressed in flowing silk robes of the purest white, as they sat around and gossiped like gulls. They passed around small chalices of gold, filled with juices from all around the Garden. Their chatter was indecipherable from the ground, but the citizens knew they were there.
One man in particular stood out, a common citizen, who stood near the back. He kneeled, but his eyes wondered, fingers twitched. Where others showed reverence, he showed curiosity. His hands clasped, he toyed with a small colourful box he’d found earlier in the ruins. Those beside him turned away, eyes shying, skin tingling from his touch. The priests above couldn’t see him, his hunched form obscuring his deft hands. Where others had the rough look and leathery skin of farmers, of earth workers, hands hard and calloused from field work, he had soft hands and fair skin. His eyes seemed too large, always open, always exploring, sharp blue gems in a pudgy face. His hair was matted, slicked back but messy, tufts sprouting out like trees in hellside. He wore a grey polo style shirt, another treasure recovered from the ruins.
Nearly done, he thought, deft fingers twisting and turning the cube at a blurring rate. He felt it, the little cube, made from even smaller cubes, each a different colour. It was smooth, or was mostly smooth, the surface cracked and rough in places. He assumed it had been smooth once, for who would want a rough cube? He shook his head and smirked,
He looked up, smug grin plastered across his face. But of course no one else grinned, because who would ever let religion be fun? He sighed softly and slipped the small cube back into his shorts.
His eyes lifted up slowly, tracing the crowds of citizens and settling in on the priests, who waddled around on the stage. He sighed again, slightly louder, and got several looks of disgust from his neighbours. He shook his head and turned it back towards the priests.
“And the Prophet foresaw our dilemma! The Lord gave him the visions to guide those worthy of redemption to survive the Hellfire! And he gathered those he thought worthy, and he chose those whose blood was pure, whose children would lead his new kingdom, and he named them his priests! So…” the portly priest droned on, voice never faltering nor falling. All the priests, with their waddling gait, outstretched arms and white clothing always reminded him of those large gull-like birds that frequented the waters. Pelican wasn't it? Yes, that sounded right.
The man tried to stretch, but ended up jostling those around him and gathering a fair amount of glares.
“Gotta love Sundays”, he quietly sighed.
The man strolled along through the streets, the sun glistening its last rays of light as it slowly slipped into oblivion. The air was chilly; like small knives of frost being stabbed through his skin. It always surprised him how quickly the temperature changed, from a blistering heat during the day to freezing temperatures at night. He shivered, pulling his trench coat closer, as he bumped through the crowds making their way home. The streets were packed, a formless mass of humanity, each with hunched shoulders and blank faces. They moved through the streets, the roads black and hole-ridden from decades of use with little to no repair. The buildings stood beside them, some little more than steel and cable skeletons of once great houses. Others were in full form, with glass windows as large as some men were tall. People veered off into these buildings, scurrying away into the shadowy seclusion of their houses. Few buildings produced light, and all of those were the flickering, dancing light of torches and candles. He moved through the crowd, for once just another member of their world. But, in truth, he never would be. He shouldered and moved past them, following the flow. But still he drew glances; from large farmers to small curious children, he was glanced at. Evaluated. Judged.
He shivered and continued on his way. He could see the peaks of the buildings, now that the sun's last rays were out. Where the too large buildings from the old times, from before the Prophet, stretched up and dared to touch the sky. Some were well over three dozen storeys tall, some, supposedly, even larger. He could see between them, the tarps created and placed to stop the sun at its peak. And above that, waving lazily in the late night breeze, were the crops. Cane, wheat and other foodstuffs were regularly grown on the tops of the buildings, where they wouldn't be underfoot of the citizens underneath. He could just see, if he craned his next, the little tips of…
He stumbled into the person in front, knocking the person almost over. The tall man spun, sputtering a curse but turned back to what he was watching. Steadying himself, he managed to walk around the tall man and get a look at where he was.
Ahh, he thought, of course,
I’d hoped to avoid here
But apparently he hadn't. He’d been too focused on the flow of people and not where he was going. As he moved up, he saw today's unfortunate victim.
She couldn't have been a day over twenty-five, skin nicely tanned and without blemishes, her body curvy but not plump. She stood in the grassless city centre, a large circle of hard dirt in a perfect circle. It was one of the only places where the tarps didn't cover, as no buildings were near enough to erect any. Standing within the very centre of the circle was a tall iron pole, easily over nine foot tall, its body free of rust or blemish. Connected to the very top was a pair of shackles, high enough that only the tallest of people could stand comfortably whilst wearing them. The girl was weeping, tears streaming down her dirty face, carving pathways of skin amongst the dirt and grime. She thrashed and shook her shackles, but for all the care the Arbiter showed, she could've just been a sack of refuse. And maybe that's all people were to them. It stood back straight, eyes scanning the crowd, its face without emotion, without pity, without mercy. It turned its head towards the girl, each movement precise, calculated. The creature was well over six feet tall, with a clean shaven face and a strong jawline. If it had been any other person, in any other uniform, most would have called it handsome. But this creature wore the black uniform of the Arbiter, a sharp overcoat with a high collar and a large red cross emblazoned across the right breast. It bore a large sheathed blade on its side and a black leather whip on the other hip. This it brandished in a flurry, and many in the audience, despite this being the norm, still gasped audibly. These were quickly muffled as the Arbiters eyes fell upon them. It turned to the girl, her eyes pleading, and body shaking. But it simply raised the whip and struck her naked body.
“For crimes against the Church”
“For crimes against our Great Prophet”
“For crimes against Our Lord Father”
“I judge you as, his appointed child, his holy judge upon his earth”
“And I find you guilty of the dark arts, of practicing the blasphemous scientific fields”
“You will live your life, however long or short”,
“You will live as a sinner”
“Forever outcast from your brothers and sisters”
“May our Father have mercy on your soul”
Its arm moved in a blur, each strike spraying a small cloud of blood into the air. She screamed as each lash struck, destroying her once envious skin. It beat her, ignoring her cries, until the she was still, silent tears streaming down her face and making small pools around her feet. The creature seemed to stop, stepping backwards. The Arbiter held its hand out then, where a small man in brown scuttled out with long length of iron, head glowing a furious crimson.
The Sinners Brand.
It took it from the man and in one fluid motion slammed it into her left breast, right above her heart. She screamed, body bending, contorting, writhing in pure blistering agony.
It didn't flinch, however, hand held firm, body stiff and powerful. It continued to stare blankly as the woman screamed. The large audience gathered showed mixed reactions; some turning away, some drifting away and a small even giving a little cheer. The man fled away then, away from the horrible sights and smell of singed flesh and smoke. He tore through the streets, uncaring of the people he shoved and pushed, feeling that creature's eyes upon him, following him all the way home.
He got home in less than half an hour, his panicked retreat halted by the masses flocking home. He quickly went into his house, a small white shack of moderate size. But in the Garden, such a house was reserved for only the special or favoured. Or the Gravemen. Men like him. As he entered the front door, his assistant sat at the back, starting up the large stone furnace set into the back. She turned as he entered, taking his coat and making her leave,
“Goodnight Gabe,” she whispered as she disappeared into the night, leaving his cloak on a bench.
He shook his head, and walked to the back of the room where his furnace blazed. The room was large, the inner walls taken out long ago. There was only a small side bench and a large steel table in the very centre of the room. And stacked on-top of it was a pile of corpses. Ghastly looking, the tongues of the flames threw the faces into different expressions, some smiling, others crying, all their lives caught in a single expression. There was well over two dozen tonight, all different kinds. He smiled as he worked, carrying their bodies from the centre of the room and into the furnace. He gave final send-off; he was the last thing the bodies felt before they became of fire and ash. He liked to imagine who they were, what they’d done in their lives, what they'd loved and hated. He gave each a small prayer as he placed them tenderly into the furnace. Tonight there was such a variety.
Brown eyes, black hair, large hawklike nose.
Sandy blonde, emerald eyes, a moon-shaped scar on the left eyebrow.
White hair, with a sharp pointy beard and blue eyes…
Gabe froze, hands stiff as he looked closer at the body. Of the soft, woollen brown garb, the tanned yet clean skin, the well-trimmed facial hair. He dropped the body, his breathe heaving and blood racing, eyes bulging like a frog. Collapsing onto his knees, his mind was numb and blank. And slowly, ever so slowly, he turned towards the portrait above the furnace. The same face displayed within every house, every building that knew the touch of human dwelling. A soft face, a face of white hair and blue eyes. The face of the Great Prophet, granted with eternal life from the Holy Father. The face of the corpse now sprawled across his floor. With shaking arms and an unsteady heart, he slowly heaved himself to his feet, where he nearly toppled over. Almost limping he made his way towards the window, pulling back the curtain and looking out towards the night, empty streets full of shadow. Steadying his breath, and his heart, he slowly wandered back to the corpse, which blankly stared into oblivion.
How, his mind whispered, how
Then it struck him
I have to escape!
That thought seemed to energize him. He raced towards his secret box he had hidden underneath a loose floor panel; a collection of shirts, trinkets and alcohol he’d managed to find throughout the city. He grabbed as many shirts as he could carry, as well as his second pair of leather sandals and his colour cube. His breathe quickened again, heart pounding, threatening to break through his ribcage.
Then the door was thrown inwards, flying, snapping of its hinges with an inhuman kick. Appearing into the room like a shadow, the man, made of death itself, unsheathed his sword and strode inwards. The furnaces fire flickered, shadows playing over the hard features of the Arbiter; the same one from the Post. He glided through the room at a blurring speed, blade brandished and glinting in the firelight. Before Gabe even reacted to the door, it was beside him, arm snaking out and yanking him off his feet. He lifted Gabe a good foot off the ground, one hand still holding the blade to the side.
“You have seen something you shouldn’t have little graveman,” it hissed, voice like the rustling of a viper in the underbrush.
His mind raced, clawing madly at ideas and thoughts. But his mind was as lucid as sand, for every time he grasped thought it slid through his fingers.  He tried to struggle, but it simply irritated the creature, who slammed his back into the wall, winding him.
“The Church has had its eye on you for a while, little graveman. Too curious for your own good,” it growled, “Tell me where you got the body and maybe, maybe you’ll survive this night”.
He tried to squeeze out an answer, but all that came out was a gasp. His arms flailed wildly, grasping at the thick black overcoat of the Arbiter. With the strength of a desperate man, he tore the tough fabric off the creature. With a start the Arbiter released him, grabbing the coat, but by then it was too late. The man could see the sprawling black veins spreading out from the creature’s chest, fat, thick lines which bulged out of the skin. Gabe gasped loudly, but had enough awareness to dive under the steel table, cowering in fear.
The Arbiter roared a loud, inhuman thunderclap of wrath. It appeared in the blink of an eye above the table, bringing its fist down at lightning speed. The table crumbled before it like paper. Its boot collided with his chest and sent him flying across the room, smashing into the wall, cracking the plaster and breaking several ribs. As he collapsed into a weeping pile the Arbiter grabbed his head and lifted him, singlehandedly, raising him off the floor once again. Its fingers dug into his flesh, eyes streaming blood and ears popping.
“Ple…please” he begged as his hands dropped numbly to his sides,
“You’re meant to be God’s Guardians…” he croaked, his voice failing him.
The creature grinned, toothy and large, splitting its head almost in two.
“You think my power comes from God? You think that dead sack of flesh over there was holy?” it mocked, “He was a puppet!”
It c***ed its head, and almost appeared empathetic,
“God is dead little graveman”
The last thing Gabe saw was the harsh steel of the furnace. The last thing he felt was hellfire.

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