Prolouge

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The Votive Offering, it’s called: an aspect so prestigious, it’s saved only for the more resolute members, and stronger stomached, during smaller, more intimate congregations. An offering that comes with a vow, it means.

Usually held in otherwise inaccessible cells underground, this room itself was in no good condition; but luxury wasn’t an entitlement. When it came to the sacrificial ceremony, followed by the proffering, subtlety was necessary from the public’s eyes. Only trusted members, or the more enthusiastic ones,were invited.

This particular night was no different. The mood was eager, but relatively gloomy, as usual, on account of having no sunlight; just small candles held out on occasional spots of the wall gave the small room light, to some extent anyway. 

Shadows ran along the cracked walls, which were visible, despite the (what was supposed to be, but had faded from age) colourful hangings draped across the cell. Most of the room’s furniture was basic, made from different rough woods (and by equally rough hands) and with little or no decoration. Little thought had been put into this bit.

But the front of the room, the only spacious part, had been decorated with utmost precision and care. Gold and red, the two majestic colours, covered everything; the mall statues, rich tapestries, and even the altar, with the golden candles situated wildly around it. Compared to the rest of the room, it was like looking at the sun, dazzling and somewhat blinding. 

There was a reason for drawing one’s eyes to this part of the room, for it held one of the most important events in the ceremony, a part that was now being revealed. It began once everyone had settled down; a good twenty people had come tonight, and were sat, watching expectantly towards the front.

Feeling nervous, Marco began to fidget in his chair, noticing that its legs were uneven. Despite having attended every meeting for the last year faithfully, he was unsure, and certainly unaware, of what came next in tonight’s service. Having completed the usual vows: ‘I shall remain aware of my environment, my companions, and my livelihood, in a way that I can pay tribute to the existence of Remus, who will waken, ‘I will not disillusion myself with the lies of my surroundings and my history’, and ‘I will dedicate my life, unwaveringly always, to fund this movement, and to enlighten the rest of Italy’.

Then there were the protocols: passing the weave basket around and offering real gold ducats into it, mentioning new recruits and experiences of converting, and general chats. But after all of it, now a good few hours into the session, it was time for what was known as the ritual. To protect people’s identities, cloaks were worn with long hoods pulled over everyone’s faces; as a Pagan group living under the Vatican’s nose, it was important to protect the lives of those involved from heresy claims. At this point, however, everyone, including Marco, had taken theirs down.

Marco stared enviously as a group dressed in dark, red silk cloaks made their way to the front, holding something that took four people to drag forwards; his own cloak was made from a rough, callous wool and was irritating his skin, and the fact that he was a poor farmer, was what caused his jealously. 

So much so that he didn’t notice the wriggling form, not until they reached the altar, and had pulled off the cover. When concentrating again, Marco found himself taken aback when his eyes met that of a young, sobbing woman, who wore a tight gag around her mouth, and had her wrists tied behind her. All the confidence that he had previously felt drained.

One of the red cloaks stepped forwards, gesturing to the crowds. His voice sounded muffled, but was just coherent enough to ask the crowds, “Have we any new members?” Realizing that, that meant him, Marco waited until two others lifted their arms, before placing his own one in the air.

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