a tale of Anarill
Chapter 1: An Unpleasant Evening
"You should have attended the Purification with me," Leola said, fluttering her lashes coyly as Dorian lead her from the dance floor.
"I believe your father and brothers provided suitable chaperones," Dorian responded, not looking at his companion.
"Yes, of course, but it would have been better if you had attended as well."
"We discussed this before, many times," Dorian said, keeping his tone polite and noncommittal. "You know I had too much to do at work to leave for any length of time. I trust you enjoyed yourself?"
"Oh, yes!" Leola sighed dreamily. "It was wonderful. I've never had the opportunity to actually watch as someone's soul was cleansed and purified of sin. I could actually see the sin as it left, thick oily clouds of it."
"That wasn't sin, it was smoke," Dorian snapped, disgust getting the better of discretion. He shook Leola's hand off his arm and stepped away from her. "From a man burning alive."
"Of course it was sin! I know he was burning, of course, it is the only way to purify such vile and disgusting sin and make a soul fit to enter into Veritas. What is wrong with you, dear? You sound as if you'd rather that poor man went straight to Perdition, rather than his reward."
"I can't help but think of how he felt, that's all," Dorian said, running his hand through his hair as his guts roiled. "Standing there in front of cheering folk, tied hand and foot to a stake, as the flames crept closer and began to burn, with all the gathered crowd just waiting for his screams to begin. . . The Purifications sicken me."
"You shock me, sir!" Leola's eyes widened, and she stepped back a pace. People in the crowd around them began paying closer attention to the altercation in their midst.
"Have you no compassion? That was a man, I'm telling you, of flesh, and bone, and intellect. Would you wish to feel the flames eating at your body?"
Leola sniffed, tossing her hair. "If I were to become a vile pervert, of course I would want to be Purified. It is, after all, the only way to enter into Veritas. What is wrong with you, Dorian?"
Dorian glanced at their avid audience and sighed. Some battles just didn't warrant the cost of fighting. "Nothing is wrong, my dear," he said, feeling the lie like molten lead eating his tongue. "I am just a touch out of sorts this evening. Please excuse me. I feel the need for a walk in the clear night air."
Dorian bowed to his lady and exited the ballroom, through a trail of scandalized whispers, giggles, and raised eyebrows.
Out in the mild warmth of nighttime, Dorian loosened his slender bow tie and starched collar. He took a deep breath with relief, paused for a very brief moment with his eyes closed, considering his destination, then moved purposefully through the night. Not much choice, really, as Leola would likely seek him out in his home to continue lambasting him with her religious fervor. That meant finding a place Leola would never dream of entering, a place filled with sin, depravity, and men: the Bachelor's Lounge.
As always, the Lounge held a crowd of young men, and some not so young, reclining at ease in padded wingback chairs or hunched over gaming tables. A cloud of hazia smoke billowed gently as Dorian entered. He looked around the familiar old room and smiled. He hadn't been here in a while, since he was technically not a bachelor anymore, and it felt good to be back.
The sound of that voice broadened his nostalgic smile into a grin. He moved towards the source of the shout, his closest friend and Leola's brother, Osval. He hadn't attended the Purification either, on the same grounds as Dorian.
"What are you doing here, Dorian? I thought you were escorting Leola to the Martinson's ball?"
"I was," Dorian replied, grin dimming a bit. "Your sister became upset with me, because I have no liking of the Purifications."
Osval shuddered, but made a properly pious response. "The Purifications are necessary to save the souls of those lost to sin."
"So they are," Frederik, a mutual friend, chimed in from across the card table. "But that's neither here nor there. Sit down, Dorian, and we'll deal you in."
So Dorian sat and enjoyed the company of his old friends as he hadn't in what seemed a very long time, although the pleasure didn't last more than a few moments before the unthinkable happened.
A ripple of shock spread through the room from the doorway before Dorian had even gotten his first ale from the barkeep. He felt a sharp stab of dread and looked up, just in time to see Leola sweeping into the room, head held high and nostrils flaring with exertion. Dorian couldn't help making an irrelevant, and unflattering, comparison between Leola and Osval. Both shared a distinct family resemblance, but the nose that looked perfectly at home on a man's face looked more horselike when applied to a woman. He brushed off the inappropriate thought and rose to greet his lady.
"Hello, Leola, what brings you here?"
"You know perfectly well what brings me here," she snapped, sailing gracefully across the crowded room towards him. "What kind of beau abandons a lady at a ball?"
"Clearly an unsatisfactory one," Frederik laughed, rising as the lady approached. Osval rose as well, taking his sister by the arm and attempting to guide her back out of the bar. She shook him off.
"Indeed," Leola glared. "And to find you here, in this smoke pit, rather than out walking as you claimed, merely increases the injury done to me. You, sir, are on dangerous ground for one who claims to love me."
"I never said that."
The words popped out before he could stop them and he groaned, clapping a hand to his forehead. "Leola, forgive me, I—"
"Oh!" Leola reeled as if smacked. "Well!" Her cheeks paled, then flushed, then paled again, and she drew herself up to her full height. "If that's the way you feel, then, you may take your poor manners and your dislike of our religion and do with them as you will. I have no more time to waste on the likes of you."
Head held high, Leola exited the Bachelor's Lounge, leaving a wake of stunned silence behind her. Osval glanced at his sister, then his friends, then his sister again. He sighed, then followed after Leola.
"Uh. . . Now what?" Keltas, another friend from childhood, spoke up, breaking the silence to voice the words echoing through everyone's minds.
"Now," Dorian drew an unsteady breath, "I am going to sit back down and drink my ale when it gets here. Then I think I may go home for the evening."
"Sounds like a good enough plan," Keltas said, reaching for his own ale.
Dorian settled back into his chair, moving slowly. He wondered at his own reaction. Nothing. He felt absolutely nothing he should feel, only a ringing sense of relief. The breakup may as well have happened to someone else.
He sipped at his ale when it arrived, brooding. What made him feel so wrong inside? The truth nibbled at the edges of his consciousness, but he ignored it. He ignored his friends, as well, nursing his ale and allowing the card game to flow around him, steadily sorting through his thoughts and feelings. All pointed towards the secret within him, the thing he didn't want to think about.
Dorian set his half-finished ale down and slipped quietly away from the table while three of his friends argued over the point value of a certain card and its conditional modifiers. He ignored the looks from other patrons of the club, whether concerned, condescending, or amused. In fact, he ignored everything, shutting the world out of his consciousness as completely as he could manage, moving steadily through the gaslit streets to the sanctuary of his home.
Once inside, he locked the door securely behind him and ran a hand through his hair, disordering it.Why not? He felt disordered on the inside, after all, why not look the part?
The sideboard held a bottle of fine spirits, an engagement gift from Osval. He snorted. So much for the future. Well, perhaps the strong liquor would ease his discomfort better than a simple beer.
Perhaps it eased him too much. Dorian rarely drank strong spirits. The effect of the first glass, which went down smooth as honey, had him feeling all sorts of warm and tingly, that perhaps his secret wasn't so bad, and that he really wanted more of the lovely spirits. The drink made him feel good, physically at least, so he went ahead and had more, then even more after that. Part of him remained conscious of his thoughts, but most of him focused on his body, and how unusually good he felt. Things never done in polite Bandoran society suddenly seemed a good idea, such as taking off some of his restrictive tight clothing and thinking about his shameful secret as just a part of himself, nothing to be ashamed of, something to be enjoyed instead. Off came more clothes.
I'm drunk, he thought at one point. Drink is a sin. Sin is fun!
So he went ahead and sinned some more, a sin even bigger than mere drink, and fell asleep on the couch with a smile on his face, dreaming of his secret. His beautiful, wonderful secret.
A sudden urgency roused Dorian in the dark of night and sent him stumbling for the flushpot. His body wanted to be rid of all the spirits he'd drunk, and held him retching miserably over the flushpot for entirely too long. When the heaves ended, leaving him empty of everything inside, Dorian realized he was cold and sent his body staggering for his warm bed instead of the couch, then dropped into unconsciousness once more.
The second time he went scrambling for the flushpot wasn't nearly as pleasant as the first, and far more undignified than merely throwing up.
Why did I do this to myself?
His body didn't answer, just tried to turn itself inside out. He groaned, thinking about sin and the wages thereof. Perhaps the Churchmen were right.
By the time Dorian reached his bed again, he was shaking and more than half convinced he should renew his faith. If this was the aftermath of sin, he never wanted to sin again!
Faith. Simple, direct, easy to understand but hard to live. Perhaps if he made a greater effort to follow the teachings of the Church, his life would simplify a bit. The teachings of the Church were meant to guide people through life, and he felt in sore need of some guidance now.
But would the Church embrace a sinner such as himself?
Dorian passed out again.
Chapter 2: To Walk the Path
The next time he woke, he heard someone knocking on the door to his small townhouse, followed by the sounds of a key in the lock and the distinctive squeal of the lower hinge. No matter how many times he oiled the thing, it still squealed. Dorian groaned and fumbled his way into his dressing gown. Only one person other than himself had a key to his house.
"Dorian? Are you here?"
Sure enough, Osval's voice sounded from the parlor. Dorian rubbed his forehead, then called out to his friend. "In here. I'll be out in a moment."
"There is a lady present," Osval called back. "Be sure you are decent."
Dorian groaned again, rubbing his head. Leola. Drat. Instead of going straight into the parlor, he detoured into the bathing room and splashed cold water over his face, frowning at his reflection in the mirror. Puffy eyes and thoroughly mussed hair. He ran a brush through his hair, then shrugged and tightened his dressing gown. Not much he could do about the way he looked. Such was the price one paid for drinking to the point of unconsciousness.
He slid his feet into some soft houseshoes and made his way into the parlor, feeling decidedly feeble.
"So, you are alive!" Osval greeted him with a grin, then cocked his head to the side. "Or are you? You scarcely look like you had a restful night, my friend."
Dorian resisted the urge to glare resentfully at his best friend and Leola, who regarded him down that long nose of hers with suspicion. "Greetings, Osval, Miss Leola. No, I did not pass a restful night, but that is none of your concern. What brings you two here this morning?"
"My sister wished to speak to you, and I wanted to find out why you were not at our workplace this morning. From the looks of you, I'd say you still belong in bed. What gives?"
"I have been contemplating my life," Dorian said, neatly sidestepping the truth of his deep and shameful sin.
"Perhaps it is high time you did so, sir," Leola sniffed. "Although it is best to contemplate from a position of pure sobriety."
"My lady, I must apologize," Dorian said, ignoring the small, panicky voice inside, the one that wanted him to chase Leola right out of his house and admonish her to never come back. "I behaved horribly last night, and I humbly crave your forgiveness."
Leola blinked in surprise, then smiled a satisfied little smile. Osval stepped back a bit, to watch the interaction from a better angle.
"Forgiveness for such insulting behavior is not so easily given," Leola said, giving him a coy look. "To achieve forgiveness, one must offer some form of meaningful action."
"I know," Dorian admitted, misery in his voice. He didn't want to do this. Part of him felt he'd come to the completely wrong decision in the dark of night. That part wanted to commit more sin, this time without the alcohol. He snatched his eyes back under control when they turned to Osval. "I have realized the error of my ways. I intend to return to the fold of the Church, and renew my faith, for it has slipped into a dark place of late."
"Oh!" Leola drew herself upright, a delighted smile breaking free of her decorous control. "Good sir, do you mean to say you will walk the Path of Redemption?"
Osval's breath caught in a sound not quite a gasp. Dorian glanced at his friend and saw utter shock on the young man's face.
"I have not decided yet," he hedged. "That is a pretty extreme step, and yet. . ." His voice trailed off, and he shrugged. "I have committed grave sins in my time, and perhaps such is the only true way to expiate them from my soul."
"You're not going," Osval said sharply.
"Brother, how could you? Dear Dorian must redeem himself in the eyes of God and Man if he ever hopes to reach Veritas." Leola smiled at Dorian now. "I do wish I could walk the Path someday, and yet I have never strayed from the teachings of the Church. I just think it must be wondrous, to journey so far from the ordinary world that a supplicant reaches the very edges of Veritas itself! Ah, such glory awaits the humble sinner who reaches the goal. . ."
Dorian swallowed hard. He had a somewhat less idealistic view of the Path, which everyone knew led through the fringes of Perdition long before it brushed up against Veritas, but he almost felt it was the only way to expiate the sin he'd done last night. His eyes turned to Osval again, and this time he let them.
"What do you mean, I'm not going? I've only said I might, not that I will. I feel. . . dirty inside. Unclean. Like I need to find a new meaning in life. What better way to do so than through religion?"
"I can think of plenty other ways to add meaning to life that don't involve a journey to the deadliest place in the world." Osval shook his head. "Honestly, Dori, I can't believe you're even considering such a thing. Apologize to my sister, go to Church more regularly if you must, and just keep your personal opinions of the Purifications to yourself. There's no need to go risking your life because you shot off your mouth to the wrong person."
Leola turned on her brother angrily. "I can't believe what I'm hearing, Osval! Did you seriously just advise your good friend to risk the loss of his immortal soul? Because that is what will happen, you know, if he dies without expiating the sin from his soul. He will be lost, damned straight to Perdition with no hope of redemption."
Dorian looked at the two again, his best friend and his former betrothed, and sighed. One wanted him to stay safe and sinful, the other would be utterly thrilled to hear that he'd died on the Path. Because, of course, death on the Path meant you were forgiven, and God wanted to bring you into Veritas immediately. He'd probably never share Leola's religious obsession, but perhaps she offered some redemption as well, of a sort.
"Maybe I just don't want to lose a friend I've known for so long," Osval tried to shrug off the angry words casually, but his tension showed clearly in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders.
"Both of you have valid arguments," Dorian broke in. "But honestly, the choice is mine to make. Only I know the full extent of the sin which has consumed me, and which I wish to rid myself of."
"Well spoken, dear Dorian," Leola smiled. "Perhaps upon your return we may discuss reinstating certain future plans."
"Perhaps," Dorian smiled, although his heart sank. But what else could he do? Leola offered his best chance at a normal life, horse face and all. "I shall look forward to that discussion. But for now, I feel the need to begin the process of cleaning myself up, so I believe you two should be on your way."
"Dorian," Osval shook his head. "Please tell me you didn't just make up your mind to undertake this madness."
"And what if I did?"
"I," Osval's voice faltered, then he swallowed hard. "I will go with you."
"Now, Osval, there's no need for that," Dorian began, a hint of panic in his voice. Damn it straight to Perdition, he couldn't expiate the worst sin of all with Osval there!
"You don't know that," Osval responded sharply. "I have my own experiences with sin to worry about."
"What could you have possibly done that is bad enough to walk the Path of Redemption?"
"That is none of your concern."
Leola looked at the two men in a state akin to rapture. "To think, I will know two people who have seen Veritas itself!"
"Leola, you're being silly. I think you need to go home. Dorian and I have things to discuss."
Leola pouted a bit at that, but she also nodded. "Very well, I shall leave you two to your plans. I will go to the Church and pray for your safety."
"You're not talking me out of this," Dorian said, barely noticing as Leola sailed out of the parlor in a rustle of skirts. He focused so completely on Osval it hurt his head. Somehow, in the last several minutes of debate, he'd become utterly convinced that the Path offered his only chance for salvation.
"Why not, old friend?" Osval's eyes held sick worry. "You have to admit, your plan sounds crazy."
"I think not." Dorian crossed his arms over his middle, which churned uncomfortably in response to the weird stresses of the morning, added to the alcoholic sickness of the night. "I have a perfectly valid reason to seek redemption. You, on the other hand, do not. You are the one that seems crazy here, not I."
"Come on, Dori, this is me you're talking to here. Remember me? Osval, the friend you've been closest to for years on end? Quit sounding like a bit of booze turned you into a religious fanatic."
"Osval, believe me, I am fully aware of who you are." Dorian sighed. His head hurt. "I think I have to do this, though. Alone."
Just the one word, but everything about the way it was spoken reinforced Dorian's decision. "Never mind the why, my friend. Just accept that I've decided to free myself of sin and mend my fences with your sister, okay? And the best way to do that is the time-honored method of cleansing oneself on the Path. It's scary, I'll grant you that, but I feel it's something I must do."
"And what if you don't come back?"
"Then you and Leola can rest easy, knowing I found my way to Veritas."
Never mind that he shivered with fear at the thought of death on the Path.
"Look," Osval said desperately, "you can't even be sure the priests will let you make the attempt! I know you. You're no irredeemable sinner."
"No fear there," Dorian said, with an ironic smile. "Trust me. My sin is deep and dark enough the Guardians will pass me through in a heartbeat."
"I find that difficult to believe." Osval sighed, sagging a bit. He gave Dorian a deeply troubled look. "Very well. If you truly believe you are such a corrupt, sin-filled soul that you must risk death on the Path, then so be it. But I'm still going with you, and you can't stop me. If need be, I'll follow along behind you."
"Don't be stupid," Dorian sighed.
"There's a lot of stupidity in here this morning. Why shouldn't I have some for myself?"
"Osval, stop being an ass!"
Osval nodded approval. "Good word choice, for an ass is quite the stubborn little animal, and so am I. You are not going to face this ordeal alone."
"Why are you so determined to do this? It's stupid for someone who hasn't had a crisis of faith!"
Osval gave him a steady look. "You don't know what goes on inside me. If I choose now to expiate old sins of my own, that is my concern, not yours. And I have made that choice. If you walk the Path of Redemption, I will be there at your side."
Dorian muttered something that probably counted as a major sin. "Fine. Do as you will. But do not expect me to like it."
He turned his back on his friend and returned to his bedroom, rudeness being about the only thing he could control in this unforseen situation.
He shut the door behind him, careful not to give in to the childish urge to slam it. Safely in his bedroom, he collapsed on the bed, shaking and feeling generally horrible, worse than a common hangover could account for. How had all that happened? Somehow, he'd gone from considering renewing his faith, to making the most extreme commitment a person could make. Not that he thought he deserved better than enduring the walk. Simple penance worked fine for minor sins, such as gambling or visiting with a streetwalker. But what he'd done last night. . . Now, there was a major, soul-destroying sin, although it had been wonderful at the time. So maybe he needed the Path.
But how could he find redemption if Osval walked the Path beside him?
No answers came immediately to mind.
Dorian lay quietly on his bed until the trembling and spinning sensations eased up, although nothing much good happened for his head. His hand lay a short distance from his face, one finger fiddling aimlessly with a fold of the blanket. He watched it, feeling some of the distress ease from his mind and heart. So what if Osval wanted to follow him to the very fringes of Perdition. Fine. So be it. He still felt compelled to go, to carry through the mad plan and cleanse himself of all sin. Maybe it would be harder with an audience, but the end result would be worth it.
Dorian sat up, stifling a groan. Better get moving. He could feel the sinful thoughts within him even now, wanting to grow and take over his life and soul with their evil. No more.
When seeking the Path of Redemption, one must make certain preparations. Dorian gave his bedroom a sober look. All the material objects within looked back at him, singing their alluring song of comfort and familiarity. He put the voices aside and moved to his wardrobe, finding the simplest, most basic outfit he owned. Plain shirt, woolen trousers, a simple, unadorned vest, and a plain cloak. He only owned one pair of boots, so those would have to do. Nothing else. All the fancy party clothes, nice shoes, and even the casual but elegant working outfits, would have to stay.
He felt a little shiver of apprehension as he tucked his comb into his pants pocket. What a dramatic step he was about to take! Dramatic, frightening, and very necessary to redeem himself in the eyes of God and man.
"Goodbye, life," he muttered, turning his back on the comforts of home. It hurt. Was it supposed to hurt? Did he dare ask a priest? Because, if abandoning all his worldly wealth wasn't supposed to hurt, there'd be one more sin blackening his soul.
Dorian locked the door to his home for the last time with a feeling of unreality. It seemed like he floated just a bit seperate from his body, watching himself do incomprehensible things. But out here, in the light of day, with the brilliant sunshine stabbing right through his eyes like daggers of light, he felt even more certain. Yes. Do this. Walk the Path and rid himself of sin. Because he couldn't carry the weight of his secret around with him anymore. It shadowed every part of his life, made each day a trial and not a blessing. Just be rid of it, and move on.
The strength of his resolve reassured him, allowing Dorian to take his first steps down the frightening road ahead. He thought about taking a cab, but in light of his decision to commit to cleansing himself fully, he walked instead. Through the quiet cobbled streets, with genteel old homes looking down on him, beneath the shade of well-grown trees, all the way to the Church he walked, alone with his thoughts. Perhaps Osval had changed his mind. Perhaps this would work out well after all.
But no, there stood Osval, waiting for him outside the Church.
"It's about time you got here," his friend said, scowling. "You're the one wanted to do this, you should go first."
"You don't have to go with me."
Dorian forced himself to walk past Osval and into the Church without pause or hesitation. The big wooden doors swallowed him whole.
The Church interior spread out before him, cool and dim. The only light came from the glow of beautiful stained glass windows. A single beeswax candle burned upon the high altar, but it kept its pool of light around itself. Dorian swallowed hard and went to the Supplicant's Door.
Inside, a priest met him. Dorian felt an instant sense of panic. He'd been afraid of the breed for most of his life, a fear that stemmed from something that happened so long ago he couldn't remember it at all. All he knew was that every priest, in their flowing black robes, frightened him at a very deep level. And it didn't help that they all preached a constant stream of repression and intolerance.
"Priest, I need to change my life," he blurted out, around the visceral stab of fear.
"You have come to the right place, Supplicant," the priest intoned solemnly. That was another reason Dorian disliked priests. Everything they said or did sounded straight out of a morality play. "You may begin by listing your sins."
Here we go, Dorian thought, and began with the sin of disliking priests and the Church in general.