Brother Zhakh sat alone on a bench in the great hall of Overwatch Cathedral. The sun shone dimly through the stained glass windows above, doing little to chase away the winter chill. Holy Doctors milled about in their ceremonial white robes, preparing for the day's rites. D-Castes tended the fire and minded the candles that lit the biggest building left in the known world in the year 586 A.B., the seat of the Holy Foundation.
Near the altar, a deacon led a group of initiates in chanting from the Holy Procedures. "SCP-087 is located on the campus of Redacted," he sang.
"SCP-087 is located on the campus of Redacted," the initiates repeated.
"The doorway leading to SCP-087 is constructed of reinforced steel with an electro-release lock mechanism," he sang.
"The doorway leading to SCP-087 is constructed of reinforced steel with an electro-release lock mechanism," they repeated.
Brother Zhakh shivered and pulled his robes tighter around himself for warmth as he listened to the chanting. The campus of Redacted was impossibly distant; a thousand kilometers or more, if it even still stood so many centuries after the Great Breach, and whether the doorway to that staircase even existed any longer was known only by the Expunged and the other heathens that dwelled in that land. Eight days had he sat in the great hall waiting to be seen; he began to wonder if the audience he had walked all the way from the Nineteenth Monastery for would ever happen at all.
"Brother Zhakh, Deacon Assistant?" Zhakh looked up to see a man in the black robes of the Omega Guard, short sword on his belt, a scroll in his hands.
"Yes, sir guardsman?" he meekly replied.
"The Holy Father will see you now. Please follow me."
Zhakh followed the guardsman from the great hall, down a labyrinth of corridors that descended into the earth. The brick and mortar of the great cathedral, which had taken the D-Castes nearly half a century to build, soon gave way to ancient concrete and steel, remnants of the Old Temple that once had stood on this spot before the world was consumed by demonic wrath. The guardsman approached one of many doors branching off from the long hallway. Reaching into his robes, he produced a piece of ancient technology, the making of which had been lost to mankind with so much else - a small plastic card with a black stripe along one side, which he placed into a lock on the door. A light on the device changed from red to green, and the guardsman gestured for Zhakh to enter.
Lord Jack, Zhakh prayed silently to his namesake as he reached for the knob, speak for me in my hour of need. Secure for me the blessings of Your glory, as You secured the secrets of the ancient world. Contain all those who would do me harm, as You contained the chaos of the Great Breach when You died and rose again. Protect me with Your love and grace, as even now You protect Your Church from the devils that walk the world. For Yours is the Foundation on which we shall rebuild. Amen.
The office was small and windowless, its walls covered with shelves upon which stood hundreds of books, some new, some old, some older than old. Neither candle nor fire lit the room, but a flickering electric lamp, one of the last in the world and worth its weight in telekill, shone brightly from the ceiling. A wooden desk stood in the center of the room, covered with reams of paper and vellum. Open in the center sat a great book, written and illuminated by hand - one of the few complete copies in existence of the Holy Containment Procedures, open to an illustration of the tale of St. Alto and the Dragon. Sitting on the edge of the desk, encased in glass, was an amulet on a chain - whether it was the real one, or one of the twelve replicae, only the man who occupied the office knew, but real or not it marked him as a vicar of the Lord Bright.
Zhakh fell to his knees as the amulet's owner rose to his feet - an old man, his gray beard stretching down his chest, his ornate crimson robe embroidered all over in gold with the symbols of the Church - the trefoil that the Ancient Temple had used as its coat of arms, the Holy Amulet, the names and numbers of the Mobile Legions that had protected Lord Jack and the saints during the Great Breach, the emblems of the Heathen Temples who had repented and joined the Foundation after the Great Breach. Here stood Cardinal Doctor Zhakib Samesh III, Holy Father of the Foundation, Custodian of the Fifth Order of Secrets, Member of the Council of Thirteen - and Zhakh's father.
"Good morning, my lord," Zhakh said.
"What is your name, my child?" asked Cardinal Samesh. The cardinal knew full well the name of the man who kneeled before him, of course, but the manner by which a junior cenobite greets a father of the Church was an ancient tradition, and there were few left in the world who honored and respected tradition so greatly as the Holy Foundation.
"Zhakh Samesh, my lord," Zhakh responded, "Deacon Assistant and Aspirant of the Order of St. Everett, of the cloister of the Nineteenth Monastery."
"Does the black moon howl?"
"Only when waning."
"We accept your greeting." Cardinal Samesh extended his right hand, and Zhakh kissed the golden ring on his middle finger. "Rise and be seated."
Zhakh rose from his knees and seated himself in the plain chair at one end of the desk as the cardinal seated himself in the elaborately carved throne at the other end. "For what purpose does an aspirant of St. Everett seek our attention this day?"
"I have come," Zhakh said meekly, "to request that I be released from my holy orders."
Cardinal Samesh raised an eyebrow quizzically. "This is indeed a great boon that you ask. Have you not been your entire life in the cloister?"
"Yes," Zhakh answered as the cardinal knew he would. "I was born into the holy caste, as was my father, and his father, and his father, and so on unto St. Samesh the Liberator, who defended the survivors of the Seventy-Third chapel when it came under attack by heathen forces during the Great Breach."
"And are you not at the cusp of completing your studies, and being ordained a Holy Doctor of the Church this next year?"
"Yes, Holy Father. I submitted my doctoral thesis on the Holy Containment Procedures to the Council of Ethicists two months ago."
"Then why do you now come before us, saying that you wish to abandon the Holy Foundation and live among the civilians?"
Zhakh was silent a moment while he formulated his answer. "The Council of Ethicists rejected my findings entirely," he said, "and I believe that the Holy Foundation has lost its way if it believes that my findings are wrong."
"What is the purpose of requiring aspirants to present a thesis?" Cardinal Samesh asked.
"That the aspirant may learn to understand the words of the Lord Bright as revealed in the Holy Containment Procedures, that he may learn how they are meant to be applied, how to perform those rites which have been lost to us, to understand that which time and calamity have made unclear, and to refine the practices of the Holy Foundation to ensure that the rites are not performed erroneously."
Cardinal Samesh nodded. "And what was the topic of your thesis, aspirant?"
"The Rite of Montauk," Zhakh said.
Cardinal Samesh sighed knowingly. "We see," he said. "We might have suspected as much - you have been obsessed with that rite since I… since your father took you to see it performed when you were a child, have you not?"
Zhakh nodded. "He said it was important for me to understand the things we must do to keep at bay the forces that caused the Great Breach. I have spent much of the last five years in study and prayer over the subject. I have read all there is to read on the subject, from the Holy Scripture itself, to what ancient documents survived the Great Breach, to the musings and studies composed on the Rite by those Holy Doctors before me."
"And what was the finding of your thesis?"
"That the Rite of Montauk should be abolished."
The cardinal raised his eyebrow. "Do you know what would happen if the Rite of Montauk were not performed as the Holy Containment Procedures instruct, aspirant?"
"No," Zhakh said. "None know but the Lord Bright, for those pages have been expunged - and He speaks only when He wishes to do so. St. Agatha said that it was not performed during the Great Breach, and that much calamity ensued because of it."
"Then why would you insist that such a thing be allowed to happen again?"
"I have learned," Zhakh said, "that the Mother of Demons, she upon whom the Rite must be performed, is not she who today lies in chains beneath the Nineteenth Monastery. St. Alto on his deathbed confessed that he had killed her during the Great Breach, and the Lord Bright Himself confirmed it when He spoke, through a D-Caste bearing the Holy Amulet, to the Synod of New Denver in 237."
"Then who is it upon which the Rite is performed?"
"There have been eighteen," Zhakh said. "This I learned from the old records of those civilians taken by the Monastery and placed among the D-Caste for their crimes. Whenever one dies, they find a young woman who has not known a man and she becomes the subject of the Rite. I believe that whatever act was committed centuries ago that created the Mother of Demons, they perform also on this woman - so that the Rite can be enacted upon her."
"You believe this?" the Cardinal asked.
"Those pages have been expunged," Zhakh replied.
"And what do you propose?"
"That the need for the Rite has passed if the Mother of Demons is dead; and there is no need to create a new Mother simply so that the Rite can be performed upon her."
The cardinal paused. "Is it not possible," he asked, "that there must always be a Mother of Demons, whether we wish it to be or not?"
"The Holy Containment Procedures speak of no such thing," Zhakh said. "It cannot be known unless…"
"…Unless we test it and see what happens?"
"Yes, my lord."
"It is written," the cardinal said, "that the last words spoken before the Great Breach were 'test it and see what happens'."
"Are we not protectors?" Zhakh asked. "Is it not our duty not only to protect the world from devilry, but to protect the devils from themselves? This is why I must ask to be dismissed - we cannot do our duty to protect these unfortunate women if we are so terrified by the unknown."
The cardinal opened his mouth, then paused in contemplation for a moment. The look on his face changed - gone was the academic, the cleric, the cold, detached visage of a man whom protocol demanded ignore that his own son was before him in the midst of a crisis of faith. "Did I ever tell you," he said, "about the time the Lord Bright spoke to me? In the flesh?"
"No," Zhakh said.
"When I was a child and my father occupied this office," the cardinal said nostalgically, "I was not as… deliberative in my studies as I could have been. I thought, much as you surely do now, that procedures written six hundred years ago by men now dead were of little importance, and that much of what they described must now be dead, or broken, or lost forever in the darkness. I hated spending my days learning to recite the procedures, memorizing ancient interviews, being yelled at by my father for giggling while he led the initiates in reciting Bright's Prayer. I thought I could find some way to prove that it was all hogwash - and then I thought of this." He gestured to the amulet encased in glass on his desk. "If I picked it up, and nothing happened, so I thought, it would prove that Jack Bright was gone forever and there was nothing to the Holy Containment Procedures but old superstitions.
"I convinced one of the D-Caste to let me in after my father had excused himself to perform his duties. I had him break the case and take the amulet out to hand it to me. As soon as he laid hands on it, he… changed."
Zhakh gasped. "So this is…"
"This is the real one," the cardinal responded. "I knew right away that the man before me was no longer a slave whose great-grandfather had been indentured for stealing chickens, but our Lord and Director Himself. He looked right at me, and He spoke."
"What did he say?"
The cardinal sighed deeply. " 'Dammit, not this again.' "
"And then what?"
"Then," the cardinal said, "He grabbed a quill off my father's desk and He stabbed Himself in the eye. By the time I could find anyone to help Him, He was already dead."
"What happened when your father found out?"
"I told him what I had done and asked him to dismiss me, much as you ask me for dismissal now. He refused. He ordered me to be confined alone in my cell and to contemplate and pray day and night until I could tell him what the Lord Bright had been trying to teach me when He took His own life so."
"And what was that?"
"That all actions have consequences," the cardinal said mournfully. "And that when those actions involve the Scripture, the consequences can cost lives. And that once in a great while, when a man acts without considering what may happen if his assumptions are wrong, then another heaven and another earth must pass before all is as it was before." The cardinal was silent a moment. "Do you understand why I have told you this, aspirant?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Your request to be dismissed is denied," he said. "You may remain here tonight and depart for your cloister in the morning. Begin your research anew and present a thesis that does not involve the Mother of Demons or the Rite of Montauk. Go in peace."
"Thank you, my lord." Zhakh rose and left the room. The guardsman had gone - Zhakh made his way alone down the hall back to the antechamber, and from there towards the sleeping quarters where a cell and a bed had been provided for him. The audience had not gone as he anticipated, but he nonetheless felt a strange satisfaction. It would be years before Zhakh would be ready to present a new thesis - but perhaps, if he kept the faith, someday he might find himself on the other side of that ancient desk, as his own son asked to be dismissed.