So we've reached the third chapter of Radiance, in which we meet our second main character - Virgo.
Do you like the first three chapters? Have they grabbed your attention? Do they do a good job of introducing the characters? What could I have done instead/as well to improve them?
All comments gratefully received!
9th Av 5775
It was a fitting night to be in Jerusalem.
Five thousand, seven hundred and five years ago to the day, Roman soldiers had been standing on this very spot, while the blood of Jewish zealots had stained the ground red. The sky turned a shade of crimson as the holy temple, God’s seat on earth, was consumed by flame.
Still we mourn, thought Virgo, as she hurried through the winding streets of the Old City. But for how much longer?
It was heavy, hot and dry in Jerusalem, though that was nothing strange in the heart of the summer. Still, there was something unusual in the air, an electricity, a strange sort of energy. In New York, Virgo might have said that a storm was coming - but this was Jerusalem, and the rainy season, if you could really call it that, was still two months away. No, this was something else. This was the reason why Virgo had come, why she had persuaded the Seven to leave Asher where he was and deal with a more imminent situation.
And so Virgo was in Jerusalem on the ninth of Av, observing the strictures of the fast day, and hunting a creature of the Other Side.
Her hand was sweating where she held her wooden staff but far more irritating was her lack of information. For over a hundred years, Virgo had been arranging the dominoes, with studied care and precision. Now they were beginning to fall, one by one. Some too soon, some too fast, but all in order.
But then this strange energy, some force of the Other Side making itself felt in the Old City. Virgo had to find it quickly, and ensure that it could play no part in what was to come.
Virgo ran through the Jewish Quarter, picking up speed and ignoring the strange looks she was receiving. Her appearance itself was unusual, and to be in this place, on this day, at this time of night. Virgo stood out.
She hurried past closed shops and synagogues, the wailing of Lamentations drifted through the night: “How doth the city sit solitary, that once was so full of people?”
It was close now.
Virgo let the Hebrew words drift into her head, forming and re-forming the letters in her mind. She let them flow into one another, shifting values and meaning, letting them settle into a final form.
As she ducked towards the Western Wall excavations, words began to glow in her mind. “Your eyes saw my unformed body”, the words said. And immediately Virgo relaxed. Now she knew her foe.
Vaulting over the barrier, Virgo landed silently amid the ruins of Jerusalem’s glory. Pausing only to whisper a prayer, she darted down the tunnels that ran beneath the temple mount, words of power arranged in her mind.
The flickering of torches sputtered through the catacombs, drawing Virgo onwards. She moved carefully now, slowly, stalking her prey. Now it came down to timing. Had they finished the seventy-two letter name? If they had not, she would find nothing but a lifeless hunk of clay and some shoddy artists, but if they had finished the name, if they had already rolled the parchment and placed it under the tongue...
Virgo rounded the corner, staff held close, and saw them. It looked like she was in luck - a man in grey robes seemed to still hold a quill in his right hand, thick black ink dripping from the nib. Perhaps there was still time.
But then a strange sound echoed through the halls, the sound of stone scraping against stone, of clay vessels cutting and breaking. A fist the size of a watermelon raised itself out of the gloom and thundered to the ground. Everything shook.
Oh well, thought Virgo, there goes the subtle approach.
Casting aside the darkness, Virgo spun her sceptre before her, beginning to incant a holy name. Three hooded figures turned in her direction, looks of panic gripping their pale faces. She put them from her mind and finished the great and awesome name. A wave of force was unleashed from her staff, pouring down the tunnel and into the small crowd, knocking them down, ripping their robes. In its wake, a smell of blood and dust. But this was insignificant. The golem was awake.
The name had had no visible effect on the great creature before her, slowly rising before her, a parody of the human form, shaped from clay and earth from the temple mount.
The golem seemed to stretch its muscles, ripping the parchments that had bound it and helped to give it this semblance of life. The creature stood over seven feet tall and seemed almost as broad, its great presence filling the cavern and looming over the fallen carcasses of its creators. It opened its mouth, but made no sound. Lacking a soul, the golem was unable to speak, but Virgo caught a glimpse of the scroll that sustained this strange form.
It took a huge step towards her, tottering somewhat, like a newborn foal in its first encounter with the earth. It took a second step, stronger and more confident, each stride carrying it many feet nearer Virgo, straining her brain for a plan.
As the golem swung its enormous fist towards her head, the solution presented itself. But first she had to get outside. Ducking and weaving faster than the eye could follow, Virgo was easily able to avoid the golem’s clumsy swings, but the creature was learning all the time, its blows becoming faster, more accurate and with even greater force. Virgo wove around the attacks, dodging blows that threatened to shatter her skull, leaping over kicks and lunges. As the golem swung with both arms at once, Virgo lifted her staff and vaulted backwards, spinning around and running for the exit.
The clay beast wasn’t far behind. It pounded the Jerusalem stone in an effort to obey the instructions imprinted upon it.
A thundering crash, a shower of dust and stone shards told Virgo that she had come very close to destruction. She had to remain focussed, stay one step ahead.
And then Virgo was in the open air, the dry heat of Jerusalem enveloping her. Whispering the name of the Lord of all power, Virgo lifted her staff and jumped, spinning and turning, flying straight to the top of the nearest wall, just out of reach of the golem’s outstretched arms, flailing below her.
It wouldn’t take the creature very long to realise he could demolish the wall, or before it set out in search of easier prey, but for now Virgo had gained a few precious moments. Concentrating on the explicit four-letter name of God, Virgo began to pray “You are eternally mighty, O Lord, resurrecting the dead, you are great in your power to save - you cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall”.
A breath of air washed over Virgo’s exposed arms, kissing her face with a coolness unprecedented on the ninth of Av in the holy city.
“Whatever the Lord pleases, that he does, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” Virgo quoted, raising the power of the words, channelling that energy through her arms and through the staff that she now held aloft.
“He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.” She intoned, watching as storm clouds began to swirl above her head.
“He sends lightning with the rain, and brings the wind from His storehouses.” She finished her recitation, watching with no small amount of pride as the clouds darkened over the old city.
Lightning arced across the sky. Thunder roared over Mount Zion. The people of Jerusalem trembled and were afraid - a storm on the ninth of Av seemed a portent of bad things to come - but Virgo lifted her head and laughed, watching the golem floundering below her, scrabbling at the stone wall.
The first drops of rain touched the dusty ground, stirring the air to life as they passed. The water fell on the arms of the golem, who looked at the strange patterns forming on its skin with something like curiosity. Then the rain increased. A drop became a shower, the shower became a torrent, pouring forth from the heavens onto the city of Jerusalem.
The water soaked into the golem, absorbed into its unfired clay. For a moment, the rain seemed to have no effect. Then the golem cracked. Its feet stuck to the ground as pools of rainwater began to form all around it. And slowly, painfully slowly, the golem simply washed away.
And just as quickly as it had started, the wind ceased to blow, the clouds dissipated, the rain stopped. Within half an hour, not a trace of the water would be found on the streets.
Virgo climbed off her perch. There were still many unanswered questions. Who would dare to raise a golem in the heart of Jerusalem, above the very centre of the world? And why would anyone do such a thing, knowing, as they must have done, that such an action would be sure to attract the Seven?
She searched among the debris until she found the only remaining clue - the scroll that had given the creature life. With only the light of the moon, Virgo could not learn much from it but the scribe had surely left some evidence behind. After the fast she would learn what. But tonight her work was done.
It was time to rest - the fast was going to be difficult.