The two clergymen stood before the tall diamantine door of Saint Inoritas’s reliquary chamber in the lower vaults beneath the great cathedral.
‘Dear friend, you have our most heartfelt gratitude for permitting us to lay eyes on this most storied of relics,’ the Pontifex declared. His stentorian timbre, always compelling, felt even richer in these close confines.
High Sacristan Niemund Laurense already kept his head bowed lest he tower too egregiously over His Holiness; he inclined it a little further still.
‘We shall not forget this,’ the Pontifex continued. ‘It brings us a measure of spiritual succour in these troubled times. Especially with Deacon Praun ailing, as we believe you know.’
Laurense nodded. He knew, too, that the devout demeanour of His Holiness concealed certain unbecomingly secular longings. Most importantly, he knew that this small favour might well put within his reach the office of the soon-to-be-late deacon.
‘So!’ The Pontifex’s chubby cheeks bulged with an almost giddy smile. ‘The skull of Saint Inoritas himself! The noble soul who delivered Purvikan Hive from wickedness! Pure of heart and bold of deed!’
‘So it is said, Your Holiness.’
‘May I see the key, then?’ The Pontifex eagerly leant closer. ‘Fashioned from a bone of the arm that once wielded his hallowed blade, no?’
Laurense busied himself with the ornate iron loop on his cincture and drew forth a large key of aged ivory.
‘Beautiful,’ His Holiness breathed, admiring the exquisite engravings in the Later D’Autrice style. ‘Merely to be in its presence… inspiring, is it not?’
He paused for a moment. The gilded augmetics bracing his fleshy bulk purred.
‘We understand, of course, the reluctance of past High Sacristans to let this holiest of relics see the light of day. Something so profoundly sacred should not be trotted out wantonly, to be gawked at like some fairground spectacle.’
Laurense thought back to his predecessor’s final summons mere weeks before. With his dying breath, the old man had made him vow to keep Saint Inoritas’s relic shut away. The man’s predecessor had extracted that same vow from him many decades before, apparently; thus had it been for generations beyond count.
‘Yet we appreciate your initiative. The time is right, we deem. Our flock deserve this lightening of their spirits. Let them gaze upon the saint’s countenance and praise his blessed sacrifice!’
Praise that you will gladly bask in as well, Laurense thought.
‘Of course, Your Holiness,’ he said.
Inside the reliquary chamber, beneath a single, ancient glow-globe, stood a pedestal bearing a stasis casket.
They looked at the skull suspended in it.
The Pontifex gulped. His exultant smile faded. The plump arm he had begun to raise fell to his side again.
Laurense felt himself blanch. He uttered a quick Miserere Mei, Imperator.
The relic was not, in any meaningful sense, a human skull. It was malformed, bulbous. From one temple, sprouted ossified tentacles or stalks of some sort. Yet the scars it evinced matched perfectly the wounds Saint Inoritas was known to have suffered; any child would have recognised them straight away.
‘The saint,’ His Holiness stammered. ‘He was… Saint Inoritas was…’
‘A mutant. An abomination,’ Laurense said. He sounded calmer than he felt.
‘This must be a hoax. A… a base deceit! It cannot be, it…’
Laurense stepped closer and examined the glyphs at the casket’s base. Conceived in a more enlightened age, the device was easy to make sense of yet too arcane to tamper with.
‘The field has been active, uninterrupted, since the days of the saint.’ His stare met the skull’s eyeless gaze. ‘Authentic or fake, this thing has been in place from the very beginning.’
‘Even so,’ the Pontifex said, working to regain his composure. ‘This… won’t do at all.’
‘Indeed not, Your Holiness.’
An accusing finger was pointed at Laurense.
‘You have brought us to a most pernicious turn, Niemund. We will be celebrating the High Mass of Saint Inoritas’s Feast in less than one week! This so-called relic was to be the centrepiece of our congregation’s worship and reverence!’
‘Are you suggesting, Your Holiness, that I should have known about this?’
‘Did you not?’
‘I have never even set foot inside this chamber before.’
‘Like every High Sacristan before me, I made a vow to keep the relic under lock and key. Now I know the reason why.’
‘Ah, a vow.’ The Pontifex slowly nodded. ‘Well, vows usually are not broken just once.’ A slow smile crept over the flabby folds of his face. ‘In my experience.’
Laurense waved his hand impatiently.
‘What matters is the High Mass. We cannot possibly postpone it, but…’
‘The relic must be presented to our adoring congregation, but it need not be the relic, need it?’
His Holiness looked at Laurense. An understanding seemed to pass between them.
‘The scarring can be recreated. Apart from that, what really marks any given skull as the saint’s? Would not most any one do?’
‘We concur, High Sacristan,’ the Pontifex said, smiling again. ‘Any skull will do.’
It took several minutes for the last echoes of the hymn to die away in the vast vaulted space. Per fidem, libera nos a dubio. Through faith, deliver us from doubt. One of the Pontifex’s favourites.
His sermon, as always, captivated his congregation. He spoke of the purity of the human spirit, of the noble life and valorous death of Saint Inoritas, the Saviour of Purvikan Hive. Of the importance of sacrifice. More than once during his homily, he gestured towards the object set in pride of place atop the high altar. It rested on a cushion of Aurensian silk inside a nalwood reliquary case specially commissioned for this blessed occasion. The light in the eyes of his flock, the joyous clamour of their singing, made plain the heights of exaltation they obtained by coming face to face with the ancient, venerated saint.
High Sacristan Niemund Laurense had been quite right, of course. Any skull would do.
About the Author
Michael is an unremarkable, pretty-much-middle-aged resident of what will be known as Ancient Europa some thirty to forty millennia hence. His love of writing began to manifest when he was a small child, and would draw little picture stories of the adventures his cuddly toys embarked on. The tales he likes to read and write nowadays are often set in the fantasy or sci-fi genres but, for better or worse, no longer involve any fuzzy, talking green dinosaurs named Gregor.