01. the genesis flood.

The old language is a curled thing; thin, sharp, curvaceous. When he lifts his tongue to the roof of his mouth to speak it, he feels the trill of ancient syllables hanging down, melting in the heat of his saliva. There’s the fear that he will never be able to speak normally again after this, but he is quite accustomed to that concern. He’s still trying to get the phrasing right, to contort his tongue in a knot that won’t come untied by morning – but he is afraid, of course, that it will not be untied in the morning.

Below the cross of his legs, the building is sleeping, put to darkness. At night, before Emeritus ascends to the highest stairs in the cathedral, seeking the quiet nest of his room which flares upwards to form the tip of the structure’s roof, he makes his way through the body of the basilica to grant the others rest. Their sharp jaws, which he runs the back of his hand against, open in mouthing yawns as they reach to kiss his knuckles. And how many faces has he cupped, pulled to his legs, fed and encouraged? How many eyes has he closed at night, pinching out the candles for them, who now snore or move quietly between their sheets as he stands above them all.

His bedchamber is nothing more than the small attic room at the uppermost point of the cathedral, wooden and lit by thinly churning oil flares, with just enough room to allow him to spread his thoughts across the vacant floor. If he could grab at the fire from between the ligneous boards, he’d heat them until they expanded to grant him more room to move around.

Yes, humans are limited in their manipulation of the external world, but what, he wonders, would be any better about using his fingers to lift molecules from the air? What if he possessed the pliability of the elements?

Aren’t these limitations exactly what make his body beautiful? The things he can change in the air around him, without actually being able to touch the construction of it. And how it feels to have a body that is belonging to something larger than his own will.

Swallowing his words so he can rise to his feet, Emeritus sheds the elongated fabrics of his body, extra limbs in the form of robe and tapestry slipping down from his shoulders. Perhaps he forgets sometimes, how small he is beneath all of it. The tips of his knees ache from being pressed to the floor; a softened humming has begun to rumble on the base of his brain stem. Tucked away in the velvet-ermine kiln, the sensations of his body swim, congeal, and melt. But removed from the ceremonial dress, he can feel himself with a piercing precision- in just these thin stretches of cloth, with his arms bare and his legs uncovered, he is aware of every slight change that occurs in the air around him.

Papa rolls his eyes up and allows the chant to spill back up his throat, naked feet stepping out of the puddle of vestments. The air up here is cold, but heavy from the stale wood. A slanted window that nearly brushes the ceiling has been propped open, and he moves in its direction, towards his own bed. He is very aware of the temperature shifting around him; the meager act of moving through this enclosed space changes the direction of the drafts.

A breeze nibbles at his ankles; particles of dust pass beside his skin. Then the sensation of warm breath hits the small of his back. A root word turns to coal in his mouth.

He stutters abruptly as a knock meets his door.

Cocking his head, he offers the noise a tentative, quizzical regard. Ever-so-slightly, he leans into it. “Hallo?” he questions.

Four raps follow, the sound of an individual knuckle tapping upward in a diagonal motion. Emeritus’ body settles; it’s the code for Aether. He advances and pulls the latch of the door inward, revealing the masked ghoul who’s standing at the top of his stairwell.

“What brings you to me, small one?” he queries distractedly, letting his eyes lick the unlit descent behind the ghoul. There is nobody accompanying Aether, just his still body and the iron mask carved around the shape of his face. It’s not usual for him to receive visitors here. Most bodies would tremble if they made it as far as the bottom of the stairs, any driving impulses draining like abscesses around their feet. Establishing this void of solitude wasn’t intentional, but Papa has done well to frame himself in untouchable godship, as though the tip of his scalp came closer to brushing the toes of a deity than the touches of his followers did his skin.

The male clears his throat to speak, but Emeritus cuts him short with a palm in the air, stepping back. “First- let me see you, Aether,” he demands softly.

The ghoul shifts uncertainly, but hooks his fingers beneath the chin of his mask and tilts it back so that the high priest can appraise his features beneath. It is more than taboo to share one’s face here: it is disallowed. It is the reason why even on the lower levels of the building, they do not flit from bedroom to bedroom after dark, for seeing the topography of another follower’s features would be high debauchery.

But of course, rules have been broken before- still, nobody has seen Papa Emeritus unveiled. He is the only one who does not sleep or bathe unmasked.

When Papa gives the other an acknowledging nod, Aether closes the guise back down, clamping himself away. Through the holes in the metal, the brightness of his eyes pass embarrassedly over the unimposing silk that the older’s been stripped down to. “I would never dare to bother you at this time,” he begins, “but…”

Papa lifts his chin, waiting. He forgets how gentle this ghouls’ voice is despite his tallness. They all surprise him in small ways, the way they have been shrouded in replicated imageries of each other, and nonetheless, how the nuances of their personalities persist. Perhaps how their personalities become even stronger when their physical appearances have been reaped and they must define themselves in more enduring ways. He loves each of them fiercely, separately.

“You are beautiful as you always are,” he assures the other, exposing the praise that he’s incapable of coveting for himself alone. “And bold, to ascend this high platform. Please, what has dared you?” His hiss is a conspiratorial undertone, as though teasing a child.

Reassured, Aether breathes out. “Before sleep, I went to make an offering to the pyre,” he answers, rubbing the bottom of his chin with fingers beneath the mask. “It was out. I thought you would need to know immediately.”

Papa stares at the male, an unexpected ripple of alertness expanding his pupils. His vision darts from the ghoul to the swell of darkness behind him, disbelievingly envisioning the extinguished embers that wait for him in the chapel below. Thinking of that ceremonial space, where the residents of this home gather to appeal to their higher powers, an electric anxiety runs through his wrists and spreads to the cuticle of each nail. “Show me,” he implores, grabbing a simple robe to drape around his shoulders and conceal his bed clothing.

The priest follows his disciple down the stairwell, bare feet brushing along the concrete floor. It makes him feel like a child again, to be sneaking through the inner structures of the building with a sense of wonder. His self as a young boy, with doubts arrested by the spaciousness of his frontal lobe, never had to seek out the horned god in mounds of fire- the deity was simply everywhere, in the cold arch of his foot and the solitude in his study room. But it is as though reading each volume on supplicating rituals and religious principles has lessened his connection with the angel a little bit more.

In truth, most of this building is structural rather than mystical.

Through the wooden arch at the bottom of the attic stairs, an empty corridor stretches out, filled with dry air and decrepit plaster flaking onto the ground. A lengthy carpet has been rolled out, edges flayed but fibers still useful. Aether knows this building as well as he does- all his ghouls know it. Their pathways of motion through it vary, but they are all competent with the blueprints. They have been in these walls since they were children.

There are more stairwells; the one they step onto is a curving turret. If the other were retreating to sleep, he would exit now, onto the floor with five bedchambers, faithfully returning to the door that has his elemental symbol scratched into it. Instead, they hasten past another flight, spilling out into the open foyer of the main building.

Decelerating, Papa points a look in Aether’s direction, stoicism dissolving into the slightest betrayal of relief. “It was kind of you to escort me here,” he thanks, turning his head away as he presses his elbows to the swinging doors that lead to the ceremonial chamber. He offers his youngers the same level of respect that they express in his direction. And for that reason, he isn’t sure why skepticism clung to him all the way down here. Even as the freezing air of the central room assaults him, his eyes refuse to absorb what they find: the blackened pit at the altar, burned all the way down.

Tentatively, he makes a few steps towards it, chin high but eyes straining to see the pot below.

Something gleams silver in the ashes.

Papa Emeritus turns breathlessly to the ghoul holding the chamber door ajar. Backtracking, he grabs the male by the shoulders. “Aether,” he speaks, “my Omega. Wake the others. Pull your masks off. Really- really look at each other.” He can feel the other’s confusion transforming into reluctance, but the ghoul does not shrink from the command. “Something has changed tonight. We are being granted freedom.”

When Aether tugs out of his grasp and leaves the older empty-handed, Emeritus steps away slowly, making his way back to the alter. There is a circular iron pot centered in the room, five triangular points dancing across the floor beneath it. At the top-most angle of the pentacle, the etched markings have been stained by Aether’s blood, circular enclosure filled in with oxidized red. Each of the five ghouls have been educated in one of the elements; like Aether, their specialties denote the names they respond to. They have all spilled blood for the pentagram, and some of them still offer personal trinkets in the form of locks of hair or written pages to the flame itself.

This freedom that he is on the cusp of, is it… forgiveness, a reward? Or are these their final moments of worship on earth?

In the beginning, it had seemed as though Emeritus was incompetent. He did not take to any of the natural phenomena.

At least a decade and a half ago, when there had been many others operating the chapel, (regarded at the time as a boarding home and school under the umbrella of absolute worship), he frequently found his knuckles bloodied by reprimands at failed attempts to change the state of water or coax an ember into a flame. To be fair, it had been a tense time. The five wielders were growing old, their influences over nature extinguishing, and the high priest was desperate to replace them with fresh skill.

Even at that age, Papa had suspected the truth: the priest had lost his connection to Lucifer and instead of admitting his loss, scrambled urgently for a stronger clergy. But regardless of who stood behind him, his line of communication had faltered. The alter burned more dimly than it ever had.

But to be out, smothered- that was another message entirely.

The first time Lucifer spoke to Papa was a bloody day.

There was a cold glory to it, when he first heard that voice scratching on the softness of his mind. He was fifteen and had continued to fail to harness any of the elements. Even after ingesting tomes on the topic and cultivating his mind until it had become a fully-circulating space for knowledge, he was still a poor student.

He was in his dormitory bed, still half-asleep against the cold light of the autumn dawn when the scratching started to form words. Perhaps it was the open state of his mind, his capacity expanded as it often is during the subconscious hours, or the heightened need around him that improved his susceptibility, but the raspy sensation he’d been observing started to speak his own language to him- or maybe he finally grasped the meaning of the other, finally ready to cognitively translate the archaic syllables.

The voice didn’t tell him anything he hadn’t learned himself: the currently clergy was old, decaying. Their passions had vacated them so fully that there was little left they could offer. They were the children unneeded; as such, he offered their bodies back to the spirit world.

He doesn’t remember every death in detail. Just that when he was in trouble, the voice would come to him, urging him to press himself into the crook of a door or behind a pantry wall until it was safe to pursue the next mark. It kept him safe and taught him how to cut each one down.

As he walks forward through the present, Papa is imagining his children. Aether would never shy from an instruction- the five of them are likely gathered in a room now, removing their masks one by one to truly see each other for the first time. He wishes he could witness this. Earth, small and pert, will love the curve of Air’s jaw, Papa knows. Aether has always been drawn to Fire’s side; perhaps it will be his hands that hook around the alpha’s jawline to tilt his mask away, and then he will squeeze the other’s golden-swarthy hands to assure him that they have not been struck down by a mythical anger. Water will be quiet, keeping his voice to himself if he cannot conceal his appearance.

Papa Emeritus loves them dearly. He was the one who took them.

He selected each one of them, children who he barely outranked in age, wanting for what he could see inside them. This voice, even after departing, had given him the ability to almost see the color of potential, and with it, he robbed his clergy of five from their homes and took them to these walls, where he could own them. Over time they grew obedient to him, becoming merged with one another. And they did what was demanded of them: offered up their personhoods, shut themselves away behind layers of cloth and iron, obeyed the rituals, and now, after all these decades of thoughtless submission, the pyre has gone out.

Somebody was finally speaking to him again.

Papa leans over the rim of the cauldron, sinking his elbow into an ashy cask that’s still tinged by warmth. His fingers close around the hilt of a knife, dredging it up from inside the basin. Thick, curved, it is nothing like the flimsy culinary edge that he used to turned on his elders when he was small. This one is built to his body. He rotates his arm, exposing the vulnerable flesh of his wrist angled downward, and tears the blade through his anconeus muscle.

He permits himself a moment to grit his teeth as the wound collects color. With the cold silver still pressed against his flesh, stinging his nerves, blood begins to roll down his forearm, and as it splashes into the sacrificial pit, the words he’s been aiming to master gurgle through his throat and onto his tongue. He does not clasp the cut with his palm and hold back the pain- Emeritus employs it in order to lend power to the words. It’s true that he has never been able to use the elements. However, the beautiful loophole of it all is the way his body can act as one. When he is truly connected to it, he can do unspeakable things. Better things with his flesh than his Ghouls can do with a basin of water or a pitcher of earth.

And now, as his grip on the knife loosens and clatters back into the pyre, those things begin to stir at his ankles, swarming around him, the hot breath that landed on him earlier becoming a soupy layer above the flooring. The pigmentation with which it hits his eyes causes the same sensation as the ancient words do when they roll like pebbles beneath his tongue.

He is sure- certain, even, that the building sensation is on the cusp of tapering off into a focus that will submerge him back in the voice he’s been waiting to hear again. The sound of Satan scorches each neuron so delicately that by the time the words cross his hemispheres, they are singing with pleasurable ache. He’s been waiting almost twenty years to hear it again.

The thickness increases, swallowing him into it. He closes his eyes and submits his body, ready to fall into the arms of a sounder structure-

and stumbles to his knees when the air clears and a force exists, pushing against his back.

Barely, Papa catches himself on the edge of the basin, shoulders dipped inward. He scrambles to get back up, but there’s a heaviness on him that’s comparable to the robes he makes himself wear. It presses into the small of his back, throwing off his center, sacral and lumbar fingers gradually trailing up his spine. And then it’s gone; his body is his own again.

Emeritus stiffly uncoils his body, rising to his feet. His eyes remain steady, a stoic body holding them in place. Whatever is playing with him will not fulfill its boredom with his body. He turns from the alter, gaze sweeping the room.

He finally makes out the dark haze on the floor, a slight distortion of light that makes the details blur. The being seems to detect him, swelling, and moves towards his ankles. Holding in his breath, Papa hears it speak.

“So accustomed to being above everybody else,” it intones, a gentle grating sound, as it spreads out and swims around his feet, moving like a knoll of gelatin constantly folding in on itself. The priest looks down at the entity without lowering his chin, his head raised impartially. He does not know what this is. It is not like when Aether pulls at molecular strings in the air to shape new compounds. It does not seem to descend from the voice he heard as a child. This is a sentient being; this does not follow the rules he’s been forced to obey. It… does not feel Satan-formed.

As it emanates forward, Emeritus trains his eyes on the being, keeping them pointed sharply. Just past the first layer of swirling darkness, where the reedy mist gives way to a body dense in substance, he can see a pair of eyes on the creature, white and glistening.

“Father,” it purrs, snaking along the floor to his bare soles, “You take care of everybody around you, so I wonder…?” Before he can step out of it, its form begins wrapping around his ankles, binding him to floor as its limbs, that wetness-between-air, slips up his calves in slick tendrils. He goes rigid, ready to be suffocated by darkness. The vines climb up his torso, winding around his chest and ribcage, making their way toward his neck. He feels them curling around his shoulders, but when Papa looks up, the mist is gone; a dark figure is standing in front of him, holding his shoulders with rough hands. “Who takes care of you?”

Their eyes meet, the spirit’s wet in laughter, his cautious in wonder. Then it lets go again, leaping back.

Emeritus is aware, suddenly, of the bulk that is his body. How recently has it been that he’s started feeling stuffed inside of himself? The animated energy that lurches at him from the demon’s mass fills him and lifts him, so contrary to the weight of the Old One’s tomes. He feels a prickling of anger, come from a very personal place. Devotion is not meant to be fickle and euphoric. It’s supposed to put you in your place.

The figure is now entirely almost-human, its construction more anatomical than ambiguous. Its edges are still sharp, however, a tone off, and instead of skin it sustains a rolling vapor, constantly sucking itself back in again. It stares at him curiously, mulling. A dark energy that somehow can consider its own thoughts. Papa has no idea where it came from.

“Stoic, stiff,” it seems to think aloud, studying him, “Restrained.” It blinks. “Old.”

The priest doesn’t allow his composure to break. It is though somebody is toying with him, putting him through a test. He will not cease being what he is just because somebody has named it. He’s spent years fortifying himself. There is no reason to grow weak now, no reason to allow his emotions to scratch at the surface.

The spirit glides, approaching. “Weak?” it asks, voice cloying with interest. A hot sensation rolls through Emeritus’ core- the fact that this, too, can hear his thoughts. “Why did Satan give you a body, then?” it wonders to him, “If not to allow you pleasure? If not for you to take advantage of it?”

“Who made you?” Emeritus asks back, voice biting. The anger cuts through the words even when his affect remains insipid.

As though the question stuns him, the demon pauses for a second. “I made myself,” he answers plainly.

Papa Emeritus doesn’t believe it, and of course they both know that- until a visual memory begins bubbling up behind the priest’s eyes, pulling him into a recollection from the spirit’s own mind. He sees the creature start off as nothing, another particle seamlessly attached to the energy of the world, until it snags on something flitting through the atmosphere and the layers start to collect, darkness rolling over darkness, the mass suckling on itself.

“You like to have names for these things,” the being speaks, drawing attention to the dark strands enmeshed in the air around them. “God. Satan. You like to give them character traits and faces so that they seem like you. But they are not like you.”

The creature smiles, showing off the way he can make teeth form in the gap of a mouth; how he can brighten the specs of light hitting his upper form and reflect the image until they look like real eyes. It’s all to demonstrate that he’s acting human, but he could be anything.

His feet feel cold on the floor, its gray surface that expands out to widen the room. Without his ceremonial dress, he feels little more than a lost parishioner who forgot to leave after the service ended.

“There are no rules,” he hears the voice speak again, drawing nearer. “There is no father commanding you to do what he wishes. There is no human form in the sky. There’s only the energy on this earth, and how we manipulate it, and what we become as a result.” Papa looks definitively down to his feet, shielding his attention from these alluring statements. “Indeed, how many people have you been, Papa Emeritus?”

Two. he thinks suddenly, considering the poorly-developed boy he had been, and who he became with a book in one hand and a knife in the other.

There is a purr of agreement. “One boy with darkness all around him. One man holding the darkness in his body. How about…” He feels fingers wrap around his chin, one knuckle settling onto him at a time. “Letting the darkness hold you?”

Emeritus feels the shift in himself. He feels his body become pliant, willing the touch. And the moment he gives into it, the demon tilts his chin up, raising his eyes to the room.

He sees his ghouls standing in the doorway, watching, their faces unmasked.

Delicately, the creature of darkness pulls free the edges of Emeritus’ own guise, peeling it away. His mask drops to the ground, squelching onto the concrete floor as though it were flesh and not ribbed, contoured silicone. Behind the white-and-black of the painted cover, Papa’s face is much younger than the demon expected it to be. His true skin is far from the wrinkled, sharp angles of the mask and his eyes have a resistant boyish gleam instead of harsh, plastic eyelids. He feels terribly naked as he turns to face his Ghouls, sharing this mutual exposure between them.

It is amazing- the sensation of air on his bare face, the knowledge that his children are looking upon him for the first time. The cool thread of the fingers of a dark mass that trickle across his cheeks and along his jaw, trailing his bone structure. The first thing to touch him intentionally in a decade or more.

He looks back at the demon, its burning eyes, its hands holding both sides of his face, and allows it to lean into him, kissing him with a gentle urgency.

Papa feels its darkness pass through him, surrounding his body with a liquid dusk that wraps him as though it were bathwater contained in air. Then he finds them pulling at his robes from below- his Ghouls surrounding him, Aether, his Omega, holding the ceremonial dagger in both hands.

“You see, Papa,” the voice speaks to his mind, and all at once, it takes on the tone of the Satan he heard all those years ago, “The power of your body comes not in the form of restraining your pleasures.” His bed-clothes are stripped off. Aether raises the knife to his palm and drags it across his flesh, ripping himself open. Then he hands it to Fire, who performs the same act. Then to Air, and Water, and Earth. “It is in submitting to the pleasures of your flesh.”

As he speaks, the five elemental-wielders offer their palms, pressing into Emeritus’ skin. Their blood transfers to him and he absorbs their powers in one breath, taking each point of the holy star straight into his body. The darkness capsizes him, forcing him down into its suction of blindness, where he is only aware of the new power traveling through him and the thrumming of his outer body.

When it pulls away from him, he sees through new eyes.

His Ghouls kneel around him and he extends his arms to clutch the back of Aether and Air’s necks. One hand curves to make a scoop, and he caresses the follower’s jawline.

His body is his again.

Indeed, how many people have you been? he asks himself.

Three, he answers in a gasp: the boy, the man, and now this.

With his Ghouls gazing up at him through unsheathed eyes, Emeritus is a changed man.