Common Era 2766
"Awaken, Daughter of Wohena, your time comes swiftly. Come to me. Find me."
Hideous screams and blood filled cries broke over her thoughts. Melting skin, boiling eyes, bone dust being swept away with the gentle springtime breeze. Clutching her head, Florence sat up from the cold floor. A splitting headache always came with these esoteric messages.
Gods that aches.
Dust sprites danced in the muted sunbeams, threatening her with a sneeze. The urge overwhelmed, a violent sneeze echoing off the mossy stone walls, shaking her whole body. Cold shackles rattled, straining against their holds within the packed earth floor.
Pain shot through as thick cuffs scraped sensitive flesh. The smell of iron on iron stung her nose as blood dripped from battered wrists. Florence’s mouth wrinkled with a soured expression.
She doubled over, clutching her aching abdomen, a rumbling stomach bringing cruel thoughts of the food often taken for granted at the Abbey table. For five years, maybe more, Florence had lived on a scarce diet of beige day old porridge and bread crusts.
In an insult to injury, the Matron had locked her down in the old food cellar, chained just shy of being able to reach even a shriveled, abandoned carrot. For the first year, Florence spent each waking moment trying to escape. Digging at the earth under iron fastenings, leaving gouge marks in the dirt, but not much else. Hands left bloody and in tatters, it took another 6 months for her nail beds to heal and grow again.
Each year that passed by beat Florence lower until escape was a whisper in her subconscious mind. She convinced herself that this grim reality had to be the will of Wohena, a twisted life of servitude and enslavement. Only a dim awareness of how wrong it all felt remained.
Torturous smells wafted down from the Abbey kitchen, spiced, sizzling, bringing mouth watering thoughts unbidden. Sounds of cheerful voices awoke her from her dazed musings of fresh potatoes, hot soup, and the why of her existence.
"Hurry ladies, the peasants will be here soon." Harsh laughter echoed into the cramped, makeshift cell. The voice roughened by age and the nightly pipe or five of tobacco.
Keys jingled, Matron Sylvie producing them from some secret pocket in her robes of finely woven linen. Click. Six lock tumblers fell into place in rapid succession. The Matron had new locks installed soon after Florence's imprisonment.
The heavy wooden door opened, allowing a blessing of fresh air to flow into the dank little hole.
Nuns in rough blue and white habits bustled into the room laden with pitchers of well water and folded cloth.
"Sister Florence, it’s time to get ready."
Matron Sylvie stood poised at the door, her sickly thin frame overshadowed by the recent "convert" standing stoic at her back. A mountain of a man in robes holding a mace, with malice etched in his face. Florence dutifully extended her hands to be freed. Thoughts of disappearing came unbidden to the forefront of her thoughts. To disappear into the crowd, to be forgotten.
As they removed her shackles, Sister Florence rubbed the destroyed skin below. It never got easier, her delicate wrist skin never scarring enough to provide protection from the hungry metal.
Sister Marie bustled forward with an earthenware crock. The healing salve inside a welcome sight. She took a glob of paste from the pot and rubbed the mixture into Sister Florence's wrists. Methodical, soothing circular motions helped Florence forget, for just a moment, where she was. Florence soaked in the few, fleeting moments of mind numbing pleasure of another human touch before Matron Sylvie cleared her throat.
"Sister Marie, we need to get to the courtyard soon."
Sister Marie worked faster, giving Florence a tiny smile as she massaged the ointment into equally battered ankles. The little troupe of nuns then moved around in a flurry, stripping Florence of the sackcloth gown that had never seen soap and scrubbing the dried detritus from her skin.
Is that blood or dirt?
The women dressed Florence in a disturbing white habit; her matted black hair tucked away beneath an equally white veil and coif. They had altered the sleeves to conceal her wrists, her tunic drug on the floor to conceal her abused ankles and feet. She eyed the sleeves with quiet disdain.
Why do they insist on garish white?
"The list to be cleansed is long, but the day is short."
Florence winced at Matron Sylvie’s brusque words. You could see the Matron tallying the spoils for the day before the peasants had even handed coins over. The mountain of a monk grabbed Florence by the upper arm, whisking her and the entire party through the corridor.
The door swung open, blessed sun hurting Florence’s weakened eyes. Heat suffused her face as a light wind played with the hem of her skirt. She gazed forward into the courtyard. Every fifth day, people filled the walls from end to end. They each held on to a shackled and often squirming person. They bring their sick to be cleansed by the hands of "Saint Florence".
Down the line Florence walked, a picture of grace and piety, laying her hands upon the brows of the people. No true cleansing ever took place during this. Florence couldn’t bring herself to it. This song and dance in the courtyard was all for show. These people rarely had a sin beyond pittance.
She turned now, arms outstretched to the sky.
"Good people! Rejoice and be well. Your lot is free of the strife of sin. Now go home and be well!"
A slight smile played upon her lips at the happiness and laughter that bubbled forth from the mouths of the people.
Each group left whatever tithe they could afford in the hands of the Matron. A sly eye would see her tuck the bag away in a hidden pocket.
With the last person unshackled and shuffling away, Florence turned, unbidden, towards the opposite end of the courtyard. The pathway her eyes lay upon led through the thick, deciduous forest. Oak trees bent with age shaded the path and tickled the tops of heads as the party walked.
The small clearing at the end of the stone path held Ciaran Chapel. Ominous sounds of wailing and rattling chains came from the open doors. Sounds of laughter and mixed bits of conversation also wafted on the wind, contrasting with the sounds of misery.
The rough-hewn stone chapel stood at the ready, filled near to bursting with the climax of this wretched circus. Florence sniffed the air. The putrid smell of blood-soaked Dhampirs, dank Vurkolak musk, and the tang of human fear turned her stomach.
On the opposite wall stood the accused, shackled to the wall and awaiting the judgment on high. Metal rattled as the humans of the batch tried to break free.
Chains alone wouldn’t hold the creatures. Instead, the Adalsindian soldiers forced on the creatures a potent sleeping drought of herbs to keep them sedate and compliant.
Gods, I hate this part.
Florence silently gathered strength, breathing in the mossy air. Inside the chapel stood a regiment of armored soldiers. Each bore the crest and colors of the Crown of Adalsindis. They stood in a stark, well-trained line along one dark wall. Their belts bore a silver sword, accompanied by a sanded stake, and a Wohenian rosary.
The oaken pews had their fill of Brothers and Sisters from many abbeys and monasteries from across Adalsindis. They sat, clasping their rosaries in prayer for the souls of the damned among them.
Ah yes, the piety contest. They know they’re here for the spectacle.
Sister Florence walked through the doors, causing a deep hush to fall over the crowd. She stepped quietly to the dais at the front of the church, the stones of the sunrise mosaic ever familiar under her thinly slippered feet.
Matron Sylvie stepped up in front of the congregation, hands in repose.
"Today we gather in the name and light of Wohena, to send these souls back to her embrace. Let them be reborn anew, free of sin and wretchedness."
She clapped her hands, bringing the soldiers to a start.
"Bring the Vurkolaks first, their stench makes my nose ache." She said, hiding behind a silk and lace kerchief.
The first of the beasts, in human form, was drug limp limbed before the altar, his feet dragging along the ground.
The shaggy-haired man whimpered through his chemically induced slumber as if he knew what was to come. His dirty bronze beard brushed against his chest as they placed him on bent knees.
Florence reached out to his face, the barest caress of comfort, before she merged her thoughts. Boiling light bubbled deep within her chest, seething and roiling with anticipation. Searing, the light pushed outward, searching for the corruption within. Seeking, destroying all traces.
In moments, the man’s body was smoking, a billowing black cloud that rose through the vents in the roof. The erupting flames licked at Florence, but not to burn. They knew her like an old friend.
When the body became dust, the soldiers brought forth the next for judgment. Men and women fell to dust through her scorching hands.
At last, she had cleansed the group of Vurkolaks. Except for one. Florence could still smell the faint musk. Out from the dais, the sounds of a scuffle came as a soldier rounded the corner from the cloister.
"This one was too little to shackle, so we had to tie her up in the broom closet." The soldier laughed. In his rough hands, he held a squirming, biting little girl.
They had bound her wrists and ankles; her emaciated frame covered only by an old burlap sack held up by virtue of the width of her shoulders. A bruised face told the tale of brutal treatment. Someone had shaved away her hair, leaving a choppy, auburn mess. But her bronze eyes spoke of her cursed existence and a hatred for the man holding her away from his body as she wiggled and squirmed.
Ice formed in the pit of Florence’s soul, holding her breath hostage, mind racing. Never had she seen a child brought before her in this place. Pieces cascaded through her mind, forming a cohesive picture of her reality.
This was a child, an innocent child that reviled inhuman possession could not corrupt. And yet, here she lived and breathed, a Vurkolak. A wolfish beast in the skin of a human, but still yet an innocent through and through.
This is wrong. This can’t be the will of Wohena.
The statement rang through her skull like a crashing of waves, repeating like an echo, an absolute truth.
Steeling herself and stilling her trembling, Florence stood taller.
"Give me the creature."
Grinning, the soldier dumped the poor girl at her feet. The little thing wriggled like a caught snake, chewing the ropes around her wrists.
She can’t be over twelve summers in this world.
Matron Sylvie clucked her tongue, "Get on with it already, you’ll make supper late."
Florence dipped low, white veil falling forward, as she looked into the child’s dirty face. Defiant eyes stared back, but not a word came from the girl’s mouth. Vurkolak musk and the sweet scent of wheat came to Florence, the wheat reminding her of home and of freedom.
Without hesitation, she spun on her heel, habit billowing out around her.
"You lied to me! How many were innocents?" She shrieked at the Matron, the air in the chapel becoming electric.
"How many have died at my hand for nothing!"
Reaching, she touched the wrinkled brow of Matron Sylvie. The old woman seemed to crumple in on herself, a resignation to fate.
Deep concentration took over her body. Florence held back from retching as the taste of wretchedness filled her mouth. Faster and faster than she could comprehend them. Images assaulted her mind.
Matron Sylvie, now a flaxen-haired young girl, whipping a servant’s child, a look of joy on her face. Covered in blood, standing over the body of a woman who looked like Matron Sylvie herself. Pulsing images connected into a cohesive memory, dropping Florence’s consciousness right in the thick.
A coiffed and powdered woman stared out through a stained glass scene, pensive. Matron Sylvie stood at the woman’s side, a slight smile playing on her lips as she puffed a pipe.
"Another Saint your Grandness?" She said with confidence.
"Indeed Sylvie, a young girl out in Ciaran bears the Gift of Wohena."
Sylvie’s nose wrinkled. "Ciaran? That’s almost in Feichin! Wretched, backwater of a place."
"You will oversee her."
Sylvie nodded, biting into the stem of her pipe out of sheer irritation. She gathered the skirts of her silk habit, bowing to the woman.
"And Sylvie? Try to keep this one alive longer. We need to wield fear in order to keep the creatures at bay and we can’t do that if you keep killing the weapons."
Outside of the reverie, the chapel stood motionless, locked in place by fear as the Matron screamed, her eyes pooling with blood and her skin bubbling into ash. Piece by piece she fell apart to the chiseled stone floor, another pile of dust for the broom.
All hell broke loose.
Soldiers scrambled for their swords, brothers and sisters gasped and shouted in horror, the Matrons hulking guard lifted his iron spiked club ready to strike!
But Florence was faster. One breath to another, she lived, scooping the emaciated child off the floor. Sprinting for the heavy oaken double doors, she slammed her body into the middle seam, the wood groaning as they swung wide.