Author: Ian Hill
Marble mulch crunched underfoot as the priest struggled to remain upright. There was such a weight on his shoulders, on his head, on his heart. The velvet folds of his robe pressed painfully into his body like cutting belts, and the brass icons that dangled from his throat and cuffs hung as leaden weights, their tiny chains taut. Bent-backed and eyes fluttering, the priest stared down at his right hand where a white glove was slowly sliding off, seemingly of its own accord. It finally fell as if it were made of thick canvas instead of satin.
With a hardening of resolve, the priest forced himself to take in a deep, sucking breath and swing his head back up. This done, he stared across the white wastes, the endless desolation of marble, ivory, and alabaster gravel. Jagged shards of stained glass glinted in the sourceless light that pervaded the bright sprawl, and he descried a few distant scarps and juts that couldn’t yet be identified. The priest pointed himself toward one such outcropping and set off.
It felt as if he were wading through thick, black oil. Every step was a war; the raising of the leg took such tremendous effort, and to let it fall (as one would normally do) meant a crunch and surge of pain, like a gush of steel needles. It got to the point where the priest had to use both hands to ease each step down, and even then the contact of soft-soled foot to compacted pebbles felt like stomping against barbs. It wasn’t long before his old, wrinkly face was lined with tears—tears which flowed freely, since his lids were tugged low.
At length, the bewildered priest made it to the first thing in the landscape that wasn’t just more flat, broken-up aggregate. He couldn’t raise his head at the moment, so he settled with merely lifting his eyes and glaring across his hanging brow. He had reached a spire—a half-sunken, tilted tower of splendid marble, doubtless a holy construct. Most of its exposed height was intact, but the two extremes were bizarrely warped: the tip of the spire loomed dull and smashed, and the base was all distorted and shot through with fractures. Its lowest bricks were being ground into more of that sparkling mulch.
The priest laboriously stumbled around the spire, and he found a man lying on the other side. He was a poor sight, stretched over a block like a discarded cloak. He had been there long, and his whole body was somewhat flattened and squashed. His chest was shallow, his head—forced back onto the top of the block—was deformed and fused there. The man was a part of the environment, now.
“What is this place, wretch?” the priest murmured not unkindly.
The man’s right eyelid twitched and peeled open to reveal a flat, unseeing disc. “Ah, father; it’s you.”
The priest was disturbed. “We’ve not met, I think.”
“I’ve met many like you,” the man coughed with some trouble. “You’ve been nabbed by the Cultivator.”
“The thief who swallows cathedrals and monasteries and churches and spits them here.”
The priest sagged, wanting to protest but not equal to the task. “To what end?” he eventually managed.
The man smiled an abhorrent, disfigured smile. “Heaven’s expanding, father. You’ve done well; many saved, oh so many.” He chuckled with a croaking rattle. “Watch now.”
There was a sound like a thousand worlds splitting, and a distant cloud opened. Another cathedral vomited forth and descended in a glittering shower, bound to be crushed and shaped into something new.