A sea of mourners flooded the lower rooms of the elegant farmhouse. The voices rose and crashed against Beatrice's door like an angry tide; a steady chorus of sympathy mingled with broken laughter. Theirs was a siren's song, tempting her with promises of relief if she would only venture downstairs. Instead, she pulled the blankets up around her head and buried herself deeper beneath the covers on her bed. They would expect her presence soon enough and then they would demand it. Her fingers curled around the pocket of her dress as she savored her last moments alone.
It had been her mother who had insisted on having the ceremony at home rather than in the Citadel as ordinance demanded. "It is only proper he be received at home. Everyone will expect it, and there will be even more talk if we do anything differently," she had insisted. The circumstances surrounding her brother's accident had spawned numerous rumors which had spread like wildfire across the town. Sudden, tragic, and suspicious. These mutterings were to the chagrin of her mother, of course, who was eager to have the matter not just settled, but settled resolutely and without question. "There are always exceptions for those like Justen." Beatrice knew this to be true, but she had also heard that their Tribunal was particularly cautious. Their scrutiny of every detail and adherence to ordinance had protected the village in the past from the blind folly of the grief-stricken. She had only been a little afraid to speak to them when they asked for her testimony of her brother, but she managed to tell them, and made sure to tell them the truth of what he was like. The decision of the Tribunal to concede to her mother's wishes had come as such a shock to Beatrice after the testimony she had given, that her faith in their counsel had been shattered.
A soft knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. "Beatrice, dear?"
The girl clutched at her blankets and drew them in tight around her. She held her breath and closed her eyes. Maybe if they thought she had fallen asleep, they would go away? A second knock, gentle as the first, indicated that they were determined to intrude upon her solitude. "Beatrice? It's your Aunt Lu. May I come in?"
The doorknob turned without her permission and Beatrice quickly twisted around to face the window, pulling the covers down slightly to make it appear as if she were indeed asleep. Tears welled up within her eyes, but she closed them tightly and held her breath. Oh please go away. The floorboards creaked at Lucinda's approach and the bed rocked gently when she sat upon the edge. A gloved hand reached out to stroke against the side of Beatrice's hair and curled some of the delicate ringlets her mother had forced it into for the occasion around her shoulders.
"Little Bea, I know you aren't sleeping," Lucinda cooed. Beatrice whimpered and stifled a sob with her blankets.
"I know, dear. This is hard on everyone. Your brother..." Aunt Lu's words caught in her throat. This broke Beatrice's heart. She liked Aunt Lu who had always been sweet to her, always listened to her. She wished she could make her understand, make her leave and get far, far away from this house.
"Your mother told me you don't want to come down because you're afraid of the ceremony."
Beatrice turned her wide eyes upon her aunt and nodded violently. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't find the words. Her mother had yelled at her after she had talked with the Tribunal and warned her of what would happen if she said another word against her brother. What would Aunt Lucinda say? She snapped her mouth shut and pulled the blankets back up to her face.
"You don't need to be frightened, dear. Jus...your brother..." Lucinda brought a tissue up to dab at her eyes and Beatrice couldn't help herself anymore. Aunt Lu looked so pretty in the fading sunlight streaming in from the window. Her pale complexion in the black gown made her more radiant, especially with her golden hair tied back into loose braids. She looked like an angel without the wings. Beatrice sat up and threw her arms around Aunt Lu and began to cry. Aunt Lu wrapped her arms around Beatrice and the girl snuggled into her warmth, as they cried and comforted one another.
"He didn't deserve what happened to him, Bea. He was a good soul, a good heart. The Tribunal would not make a mistake. Come down now, Little Bea. The cleric will be here soon and you won't want to miss the...the ceremony."
Beatrice trembled and shook her head. She tried to pull back from Aunt Lu, but wasn't strong enough or quick enough to escape her grasp. "Shhh, there there. There's nothing to worry about. I'll hold you. I know it can be scary your first time, but-"
"No! Please Aunt Lu!" The child wailed. She caught a glimpse of herself in her vanity mirror over Aunt Lu's shoulder. Her eyes were ringed and red from crying, her blonde hair was in disarray from having the blankets pulled over her head, and in the little white dress her mother had picked for her, she looked more like a ghost than a girl. This terrified her all the more. "No! No! No!"
Aunt Lu's grip turned into a vice, her tenderness turned into a trap. "Hush now," Aunt Lu said sternly as she scooped Beatrice up off the bed. "We must be strong like your mother. Not another word."
Beatrice sobbed as the woman swept her from her room. The last rays of the sun were disappearing from her little window and all was falling dark. This was the last she saw of it as Lucinda carried her down the stairs.
The blazing lights and general tumult of the multitude gathered below was initially disorienting to Beatrice. Lucinda danced her way deftly through the crowd, parting through rapt conversations and skirting well meaning sympathizers with a practiced grace. Beatrice had never seen so many people in the house before today. She wished they would all just go away. Her hand returned to her pocket and she squeezed it for reassurance, making sure what she had put inside hadn't fallen out while she was in bed.
Aunt Lu turned a corner and Beatrice realized with horror where she was being carried to. Justen had been laid out on a simple stone table. He looked ready to rise at any moment. His golden hair had been oiled and shone brilliantly in the light. Make-up had been applied to his face so that he appeared to be merely sleeping, and it was difficult to be certain he wasn't still breathing. Her mother had chosen a white robe with golden trim around the neck, sleeves, and hem for the ceremony, and lavished gold jewelry to adorn him. Golden chains encircled his neck bearing sigils of peace and comfort. Gold rings with similar designs had been placed upon his fingers. A chain with the symbol of joy was clasped in his hands. A pair of coins baring the symbols of charity had been placed over his eyes, and a pair of golden sandals had been strapped upon his feet to speed his journey. Beatrice squirmed frantically against Aunt Lu despite the woman drawing her nearer and nearer to her brother.
"No, please! Don't bring me near him!" Beatrice screamed. This momentarily hushed the crowd and halted Aunt Lu's progress. Her mother materialized from the crowd at this moment, however. She, like her son, was lavishly decorated for the ceremony. A splendid white and gold gown had been purchased for the affair, and glimmering gold jewelery bearing sigils of peace and comfort practically dripped from her neck, wrists, and fingers. She looked as if she might join her son tonight and this made Beatrice forget everything else she had been worried about.
"It is her first ceremony," her mother explained with as much dignity as she could muster. This was all that needed to be said. The crowd returned to their soft chatter. Her mother fixed her with a smoldering glare, then turned on her heels and disappeared back into the crowd. Beatrice watched after her until she was gone, then slumped back against Aunt Lu in defeat.
Aunt Lu hovered over Justen with Beatrice for a long time. With every slight movement of her aunt, Beatrice could almost believe she detected movement from her brother. No one else seemed concerned or gave him the proper distance. They didn't know what he was like. Beatrice shuddered at the smile on his face. She imagined it was the same cruel, twisted smile he always gave to her when he was up to no good. The same smile he gave her when he was about to beat her with sticks, or rocks, or even his belt. He always did it so no one would notice too much and warned her that there was worse to come if she ever told anyone. It was the same smile he had given her the day he tied her up in the woods and left her for the beasts and monsters which dwelt within. The entire day had passed before he had come back to find her. She remembered him taunting her for 'being a baby' and believing in the monsters. When he had brought her back, everyone had been so proud he had found her, and so angry with her for running away from him in such a dangerous place. They had called her a wicked girl and praised him for his bravery. Her stomach twisted and turned with every bitter memory, and yet he still taunted her with that smile even now.
The ringing of the door bells signaled the arrival of the cleric. Beatrice clung tightly to Aunt Lu once again. The time for the ceremony was at hand. She watched her brother's smile seem to grow wider as she was carried from his side and into the foyer. The Presentation of the Family was the beginning of the ceremony. The cleric would offer his blessings for the immediate family of the deceased in the hopes of warding off disaster. Everyone whispered around her of the novelty of the formality in light of such certain assurances from the Tribunal. Beatrice turned to see the procession arrived from the Citadel when, to her horror, she saw only a cleric being received by her mother.
"But...but where are the Knights?!"
"Oh we don't really need them, Little Bea," Aunt Lu whispered in her ear, "not for someone so young, so innocent. You'll see."
Lucinda deposited her next to her mother, but held onto her tightly all the same. She didn't need to fear Beatrice running off now. The girl was so terrified, she was rooted firmly to the spot. The cleric, mistaking her worry, praised her bravery and strength. He prayed the blessings over her and her mother to soft applause of support and approval from the crowd. This drew a small smile of gratitude from her mother and Aunt Lu, who then suggested it was time for the crowd to gather in the make-shift sitting room for the ceremony. Beatrice's hand slipped down to clutch at her pocket. Her other hand was swiftly taken up by her mother who led her, along with the rest of the crowd, back to where Justen lay.
"These are most unfortunate times, and the loss of one so young is indeed tragic," the cleric began and his words brought a hush to the crowd, "we must remember that this is just a shell from which shall come something far greater."
The crowd politely applauded the cleric's words. Beatrice turned her face into her mother's gown and she sobbed softly against her. Her hand was released then, and her mother gently patted her head, then forcibly turned her away from her dress to watch her brother. The cleric began to speak at length about all the wonderful things her brother had done: how he taken such great care of his mother and his sister after the death of their father, how he had accomplished much for the village, and how he had done all these things at such a young age. Her mother and Aunt Lucinda had turned to embrace one another at these sentiments. The crowd generally nodded and agreed with all the cleric had to say. Beatrice alone had begun to edge away from the stone table. No one paid her any attention now, but she still had to battle her way through the sea of legs and arms. So many people were crowding around to witness Justen's transition that it was nearly impossible to get through.
An excited cry came from the crowd. "His hand moved!" A woman called and this only made everyone begin to press into the room all the more.
Beatrice pushed her way between people she hardly knew, her ears straining for the words of the cleric as he spoke, "The time has come! Our brother's final journey commences!"
The cries of joy and excitement drowned out the prayers of the cleric, but Beatrice no longer cared. There was a reason why the Tribunal favored the Citadel in such affairs and insisted upon the attendance of Knights. There was a reason why only a delegation from the family was ever sent to bear witness to the ceremony, and why the results were later relayed by the clerics to the rest of the family and the village. All those ordinances were for people like Justen. She had to get away. They didn't know what he was like. They didn't know what he was. But she did, and soon they would too.
She had managed to pull herself away from the throng and was hurrying towards the stairs when a horrible, wailing howl erupted from the room where Justen lay. The entire house shook in response. The crowd of villagers was brought to their knees and moved to cover their ears. A violent sickly, red light was illuminating the room from which Beatrice had just escaped. With difficulty, Beatrice turned her gaze towards the stairs and reached into her pocket.
The first cry is fire, the second is ice, and the creatures that follow don't play very nice. The nursery rhyme chilled her as she pulled the ear plugs from her pocket and pushed them into place. Cover your ears. The second cry was too muffled to have much effect on Beatrice, but it did indeed send a chill down her spine. She had to get away. Now. Bury your head. It took every ounce of effort for Beatrice to pull herself up the stairs. She glanced back only briefly to see the shadow of something terrible outlined in the red light from the room below. Everyone else was frozen in place, some reaching for the door, all with expressions of horror on their face. Her heart pounded in her ears and she drug herself agonizingly slowly up the stairs. "Oh please, please," she begged, "help me, please!" And pray that the darkness takes them instead.
She strained with the effort, moving faster and faster despite the ache in her arms and legs. Another howl made the house shudder and then the screams began. Beatrice could hear the crunch of bones as the creature that had been Justen began its rampage. The girl somehow gained the landing and pulled herself into the darkened bathroom. She threw herself against the door and stretched up to bolt it closed. Despite the lack of light, Beatrice was familiar enough with her house to know where she was going. She crawled along the tile, feeling along the wall until she came to the cabinets beneath the sink. With the rest of her strength, she pulled the cabinet doors open, climbed inside, and pulled them shut behind her. This is a nightmare. It's a dream. It has to be, please! I'll wake up and he'll be alive and I won't ever cry about him again. Please, please just let me wake up!
The blood curdling screams, despite being muffled, followed her up the stairs. Crashing, thumping, and shattering filled the house along with them, as did the wild howling and screams from the beast. Beatrice pressed her knuckles against her mouth to stifle her cries lest she give herself away. Eventually the beating of her heart was the only noise she could hear. The stillness of the dead took on an oppressive presence within the house. The girl trembled violently in her hiding place, her eyes unable to adjust in the darkness. She thought she still heard something below. Something shifting? Moving? Yes, heavy footfalls were taking the stairs. Had someone survived? Beatrice dared to hope.
"Beatrisssss," she could barely hear the sibilant voice calling her name, imploring her to leave the safety of her cabinets. "Beatrissss," the call was painfully alluring. "I can sssssmell you." Claws raked across the door to the bathroom. Beatrice shrieked despite herself.
"Open the door! Open the door Beatrissss." Justen screamed at her in a frantic, horrid voice, "I'm coming for you."
"Oh please! Please help me! Please!"
The claws dragged violently against the door, a great weight threw itself upon it over and over. The hinges rattled and the walls shook. It would all be over soon.
"Lord help me!" Beatrice screamed.
A sharp crack echoed throughout the room. Two more followed. A great weight slammed against the door. The crash of wood on plaster told her that it had finally given way. Beatrice's heart hammered in her chest and she sobbed hysterically. The clamor of heavy steps stopped directly outside the cabinet.
The doors flew open and Beatrice shrieked, throwing her arms up in front of herself protectively. A pair of gloved hands reached out and pulled her from beneath the sink. The girl struggled against the hands which pressed her up against someone's shoulder. She saw a flash of black material and gasped in surprise. A hand tried to force her head down against a shoulder, but she fought hard enough to catch a glimpse of the beast that had been her brother. It was a gruesome thing, like a mangy lion with scales. It was dark with blood and appeared to be all teeth and claws from the little she could see. Beatrice buried her face in the comfort of her rescuer and fought no more. The sharp crack of a pistol resounded again and again as she was carried down the stairs and out of the house.
The girl whimpered against the strong arms that held her, comforted her, protected her. The shots fell silent and moments later a sonorous masculine voice cut across the distance from the house to where Beatrice and her rescuer stood.
"No," her rescuer replied, but it might have been the same voice if not for the distance between them. She could ascertain as much even with the earplugs in place.
"Any idea why?"
Her rescuer nodded against her, "She took precaution."
Her rescuer shrugged, "Providence?"
Beatrice pulled back to finally see who these men were and couldn't believe her eyes. They both had the same brown hair, cut in the same short style, with the same intense gaze, and the same facial features. They wore the same clothing, the black armor and accoutrements of the Paladins of old, and were each armed with a pair of silver pistols. Each also wore a heavy silver cross around their necks. Twins! Beatrice gasped as she realized this. And Paladins of the Cross.
The paladin holding her attempted a comforting smile, but there was nothing but sorrow in his eyes. "The cleric?"
"All of them. But not her?"
"Not so much as a scratch."
Beatrice shuddered and fell back against the paladin. His arms tightened around her, comforting her.
"This is folly, Altar. Especially from a Tribunal."
"We are all human in the end."
Altar shook his head slowly against her, "Not here. We'll take her with us to the next village. Temple..."
"It's clear. All of them."
"Best to make sure." Beatrice was settled upon a motorcycle. She had only ever seen one in a photograph, but she had heard the paladins rode them in their travels. Temple came over to stand beside her, but his eyes were on his brother. Altar gathered several bottles with rags hanging out of the top of them to himself. He carried them with him up to her house and lit the rags on fire. "May the flames purify what we might have missed." Temple muttered while Altar went about hurling the bottles one by one into the house. The house was quite a ways from town, so Beatrice was not surprised that the panic and carnage had not sent the Knights or Tribunal running to lend aid. The fire, however, would be hard to miss.
"It's strange, don't you think?" Altar muttered, rejoining his brother and Beatrice. "That they took no precaution."
"Troubling. Perhaps they thought they were safe at this distance?" Temple nodded towards the town, "But they will come soon now. Better leave, I think. This diversion has cost us time and I do not want to lose more to bureaucracy."
"Agreed, " Altar said and took up a place behind Beatrice. His arms stretched around either side of her and he gave her a wink. "Don't you worry, kid. We've got angels riding with us."
Beatrice believed it. The paladins' motorcycles roared to life and in a flash, they were nearly flying away from the blazing house. The girl settled back against Altar as the town rapidly fell further and further behind them, happy to be going anywhere as long as it was far away from here.