A Waxen Miracle

Something felt off that morning when Sacrist Polonius rose for work. For a start, he wasn’t in his bed. Instead he lay on a steel bench in a room lit by harsh lumen strips. 

He did not remember bedding down in this unfamiliar place, but he had been desperately tired when he’d finished his work the previous evening. Perhaps he’d nodded off on the way to his usual dormitory. 

There was no time to dwell on it. After sixty years rising at the same hour, Polonius’ internal clock was finely calibrated and he knew he had overslept.

He berated himself as he hurried through the winding corridors of the underchurch. The God-Emperor gave so much of Himself to bring goodness and light to the galaxy. All He asked in return was that Polonius rise early and light candles in the basilica – and Polonius could not even manage that. 

His age was no excuse. That night he would take the discipline and flog himself raw in penance.

Wherever the room he’d awoken was, it was a long way down from the cathedral. Polonius climbed staircase after staircase before he arrived, puffing and sore in his knees, in the God-Emperor’s sacred hall. 

Late as he was, he could not resist a glance up at the soaring arches of the ceiling, the cherubs and winged skulls sculpted in rich gold. And, of course, the candles, candles beyond counting, from floor to ceiling, in alcoves, and ornate candlesticks upon altars and in hanging chandeliers, glowing, dripping, guttering out.

There would be no darkness in this house of the God-Emperor. Bishop Aurelian had decreed that eight hundred years ago and the hundreds of sacrists who tended the candles in the vast basilica ensured it was so.

When he was a younger man, Polonius had dreamed of being one of those chosen to climb the narrow ladders to set out and light the candles in the highest vaults of the ceiling. For some reason, the Deacon had never taken a shine to him and he was left to tend the lights around the shrine to Saint Theodora the Younger.

On that day, he was shocked to see another sacrist working around his shrine, which was set in an alcove off of the basilica’s main nave. She was young, and from the way she fumbled with the candles, he judged she was new to the job. The scarring where the finger-flamer had been grafted to the index knuckle of her right hand was still purple and wet-looking.

She did not turn around as Polonius approached. He cleared his throat. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘I think they’ve sent you to the wrong area.’ The young sacrist glanced over her shoulder – glanced right at him, in fact – but continued making her way along the row of candles, scraping off the old slumped stubs, saying the short prayer and touching the flame at the end of her finger to the fresh wicks.

Polonius tried again, speaking a little louder. ‘Sister, do you realise this is the shrine to Saint Theodora?’ She turned right around this time, but she seemed to look through him. She frowned and turned back to her work.

Anger seized Polonius. He would not stand for this – this disrespect. He barged in beside her as she replaced the next candle, rushed through the prayer and lit it with his finger-flamer. She paused, shocked, and he snatched a candle from the basket she carried on her back, stuck it in the next holder, prayed and lit it.

The young sacrist’s response was most unusual. She shrieked, shrugging off the basket so that it fell to the floor and scattered candles everywhere. Well, that suited Polonius just fine. He stooped to pick up some of the candles and got to work setting them in the alcove and lighting them. 

Other sacrists from the neighbouring shrines had come running. Polonius heard the young woman say in a stuttering voice: ‘The candles! They… they’re lighting themselves!’ He snorted and continued with his work. He’d never heard anything so ridiculous.

‘Emperor save us, she’s right! Look!’ another sacrist said. ‘Somebody fetch the Deacon.’

That was the first sensible thing anyone had said, Polonius thought. Unpleasant as he was, the Deacon would set them all straight. 

But when he finally arrived, the Deacon behaved just as strangely as the rest of them. He took one look at Polonius, who was still lighting candles, and sank to his knees. Polonius had never seen such fervour from the man.

When his prayer was finished, the Deacon fled and the rest of the sacrists went with him. The worshippers followed, and then Polonius was alone in the vast cathedral.

Something strange was going on and it had all started when he awoke in that unfamiliar room. Perhaps, if he went back there, he might get to the bottom of it. Though it pained him to pause in his holy duty, he headed back down through the winding corridors of the underchurch.

It took him some time to find the mysterious room again, but after some wrong turns and deadends he made it. There were several of the metal benches in the space he noticed, and racks of narrow bunks on the walls. Each bench and each bunk was occupied by a member of his order. How strange that they all had chosen to sleep on their backs.

With a start, he realised that the people were not sleeping: they were awaiting their funeral rites. Poor fellows. He wondered if he knew any of them. A man lying on a bench in the centre of the room looked familiar. Polonius stood beside him and looked down at his face. He’d seen it somewhere before, he was sure… But in the end he couldn’t place it.

In any case, he’d wasted enough time. The God-Emperor was watching; Polonius would not let His hall go dark.

About the Author

Jack is from New Zealand and enjoys painting grey plastic and stumbling around in the grimdark.