The Dignitaries

The two dignitaries walked quietly down the close dark hallway in silence as their footsteps rang within the walls. Painted ceilings sprawled overhead depicting heavenly beings and hellish fiends in constant conflict. Faces of both the blessed and the damned were contorted in pain and anguish. As the torches flickered, the shadows revealed a chaotic battlefield of poorly suppressed bloodlust. Nathaniel wondered what it was that motivated them to fight so ferociously. For the human soul? Or their own?

His brooding continued until their steps brought them out of the tight corridors into the vast expanse of the Skyward Court. Unlike the hallways, the Court was as open as its namesake. Open air replaced the morbid murals of the corridors and the warm, rosy glow of evening sun shined in lieu of torches. Where the hallways of the compound were dark and muted, the Court was fresh and airy decorated with the sound of reverent chanting.  Underfoot, the ground was paved with polished river boulders while the court itself was surrounded by massive arches exquisitely carved by stonemasons millennia ago. Past the arches were terraces and gardens that, at their edge, seemed to float above the valley hundreds of feet below.

Nathaniel followed his companion from the darkness into the gusty openness of the Court. It was then that he took full notice of his partner’s mood. Though Shara had always been a tense woman, especially in the corridors, her demeanor shifted. Despite the change in atmosphere, Shara walked more stiffly. It was a small change, but one he knew all too well. The sound of prayers rose suddenly and Nathaniel noticed a hooded figure past one of the arches to his left. The practitioner swayed back and forth, ebbing and flowing to a spiritual tempo. Nathaniel sensed a twinge of desperation. Shara’s voice brought him from the trance of the the man’s prayers and Nathaniel noticed he had stopped walking.

“The most dangerous kind of man is one who practices without believing.” She whispered in a hushed snarl, her hidden tension laid bare. “Not even the fanatic will turn so quickly, but the faithless bend to the will of the loudest voice. Loyalty means nothing to them. Remember that Nate.”

“Yes, I will. I promise.” The words came by reflex alone as he struggled to put meaning to her muse, but there were facets of his companion he knew he’d never understand. Shara was visibly uncomfortable and that unnerved him.

“Come,” she ordered, “we must not be late for the audience with our host.” They continued their trek down the picturesque walkway. Not all hosts are well-intentioned.