Jacob rested his back against the cold stone wall and took a deep breath. As he waited for Brother Silas the fingers of his left hand unconsciously traced the tattoo on the inside of his right wrist, a habit so deep he no longer needed to look to know his fingers followed the pattern precisely.
The tattoo was of two overlapping circles, one towards his palm, the other towards his elbow. The mark of the High religion, Heaven converging with Earth.
Jacob was tall; he was broad in body and in features, muscled and tanned from working the hard soil of the outlands. Seven years he’d spent among the Outliers. At first they had barely tolerated him, but with time they had begun to accept his presence, had begun to talk with him. When he talked of Heaven though, they would look away, or change the subject; all except a few of the younger ones. Maybe the next generation would have seen the truth, maybe they would have earned themselves a place.
That was never going to happen now.
“Brother Jacob.” He jumped, he hadn’t noticed Brother Silas approach. “You’re still in your travel robes, and still troubled, I can tell.”
The anonymous, dark grey robes were standard journey-wear for priests, although not uncommon for other travellers too. Jacob nodded. “Can we talk in your office, brother?”
“Of course, step inside.”
The office was as austere as any room in the mission. A wooden desk, pitted and stained, a similar bench and two chairs. Brother Silas opened the shutters, letting in a little of the season’s cooler air. It looked to be another cloudless day, not good for the land. He waved Jacob to one of the chairs, and took the one behind the desk.
“Tell me about Ashfall, Brother Jacob. How was the city?”
Jacob took a deep breath; he leaned forward in the chair with his elbows on his knees and his fingers steepled. When he looked up, his dark eyes, usually so placid, seemed haunted. His thick brows creased with the difficult thoughts he was grappling.
“It was... disappointing, Brother.”
“I waited at the Ministry for thirty days and thirty nights before anyone would see me. They kept telling me I should go to the city churches, I kept telling them it was too important. Why would they not take my word, are we not all servants under Heaven?”
“They have a city to run, Brother, it is not such an easy task. But you saw someone eventually?”
“I was escorted, escorted, to see Minister Brand. His office was,” Jacob looked around their bare surroundings, “vulgar. Cushioned chairs, gilt picture frames, glass in the windows. I could go on.”
“Maybe the Lords have seen fit to grant him a taste of Heaven in this life, for his services. We each serve in our own way. What happened next?”
“I told him the horror I had witnessed. The savage people like wraiths in the morning mist but horribly real, the slaughter, the bloodshed. I told him what they did to the bodies afterwards. How I had to take the dripping corpses from the spikes and how I burnt them all that they might find their way to Heaven.”
“That must have been difficult to relive.” Brother Silas looked at him pityingly. “And what did the Minister say?”
“He thought I was exaggerating, as if my own imagination could conjure up such images. I will never get them from my head. He shrugged off the idea that the savages could be any threat to the city. Then he asked if the village had begun donating a tithe.”
Brother Silas frowned, “They hadn’t, had they?”
“No, Brother, they hadn’t. They are further North than most, we had not been visiting them for many years. But they were starting to see the truth.”
Jacob looked down at his hands. His gaze rested on his right wrist. “The Minister said it wasn’t enough. That Heaven would only take those who had served it in this world.”
“That is what the Lords have taught us. I was afraid he would answer you in that way.”
“Why would Heaven allow such suffering with no reward?” Jacob’s throat felt tight.
“Heaven does not dictate life on Earth, Brother Jacob. Heaven is gracious to allow us respite in the afterlife, in return for serving the Lords, its envoys, on Earth.”
“What have I done, Brother?” Jacob knew his eyes were red, on his cheeks he felt the streaks of fat tears. “They will not be allowed into Heaven and I have denied them their own afterlife. If I had only put them into the ground, they might have returned to the Earth, as they believe. I have set their spirits loose with nowhere to go.”
“You did what you have been taught, Jacob. You did no wrong. I worry that you show some belief in their Earthbound teachings.”
“Heaven is my master.” Jacob answered quickly, “but, I find my thoughts shadowed by doubt. I must find myself, brother, and my faith.”
“Heaven tests our worthiness in many ways, Brother Jacob. Where will you head?”
“I have no desire to return to Ashfall in the south, and certainly no urge to go north to the savages. With the sea to the east I have but one direction: west, with the setting sun.”
“West will eventually lead you to the sea, also.”
“But not for a while, and if I reach the sea and still have not found myself, well...”
“You will seek the Farland over the waves.” Brother Silas looked worried, “if it even exists.”
“I will. Peace on Earth, some say, or certain death. May Heaven guide me.”
Haunted was written as a stand-alone character study. So what place does it have in Spare Parts, a chapter of Missing Pieces where I am experimenting with serial flash fiction? Well, Jacob is part of a larger world, the world of Dusk.
And Dusk is a serial work. It is also the collaborative work of four writers. In a world centuries beyond a global apocalypse, human civilisation of a scrappy, malformed sort has risen again. The old world is no more than ghosts, and the final night approaches. This is Dusk.