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Knights of the Black and White Excerpt

At the conclusion of the opening chant, matters began to move more quickly, and Hugh was able to recognize, with more and more frequency, elements of what he had been learning for months. Throughout, he was conducted and led about by a succession of robed and hooded figures, to be positioned in various spots and then catechized by people whose differing, highly stylized modes of dress—defined in the darkness by shape and by bulk rather than detail—led him to believe they must be officers of the brotherhood. And still, continuously but infinitely slowly, the light in the Chamber continued to grow brighter. The single light source remained unaltered, a sole speck of brightness high above the assembly, but Hugh soon came to believe that it was being lowered, in infinitesimal increments, as the rites progressed, for he could increasingly see the outlines and shapes of individual people in the rows of seats surrounding the open floor of the Chamber, and although it was still far too dark to discern any of their features, he could clearly see the shadowy outlines of the alternating black and white squares in the floor.

Then, at the conclusion of a response that was one of the longest he had had to learn, he was forced to his knees by two men who held his wrists and pressed down on his shoulders. Kneeling thus, uncomfortably aware that he could not have resisted had he wished to, he was required to swear the most horrifying and baleful oath he could ever have imagined, calling down torture, dismemberment, death, and disgrace on himself and his loved ones should he ever recant and betray the secrets he was about to learn. He swore the oath, as required, and was allowed to rise to his feet again, surrounded by a number of men who laid hands on him and steered him gently towards what he could only believe to be a far corner of the Chamber. There he was turned again, and positioned with his chin raised towards the single source of light above, noticing that it was now framed between two high pillars that appeared to form a doorway or portal, and a new voice, stronger and more sonorous than any other he had heard, spoke in a language unknown to him.

He was aware of bodies pressing closer to him, and then there was a sudden scurry of movement in the surrounding darkness and several things happened at once, the worst and most unexpected of them bringing his heart leaping into his throat in terror. Some unknown man standing ahead of him suddenly broke away from the group and bent quickly, as though to snatch something up from the ground, then came rushing directly towards Hugh, raising a heavy club over his head and swinging it at Hugh’s. As that happened the light went out, and Hugh felt himself being grasped from behind, hard and tightly, by many hands that held him rigid as they jerked him back and away from the murderous blow, pulling him down and lowering him helplessly, hard, towards the floor as the blow landed obliquely on his temple, hitting with a muffled thump rather than a bone-splintering crash. Stunned and disoriented, unable to move against the iron clutch of so many unseen hands, his heart pounding with breath-stopping fear, Hugh felt himself being lowered farther than he would have thought possible without meeting the floor, and then being pulled and tugged, turned one way and then another with no possibility of resisting, and for a disbelieving moment, he felt as though they were wrapping him in something.

So quickly that the speed of it unnerved him more than ever, all the gripping hands left him, all sounds and movement stopped, and the silence became absolute again. Terrified beyond anything he had ever known, Hugh lay motionless, holding his breath, his eyes clenched tightly shut as he tried to gauge what had happened to him. He knew he ought to be dead, for he had seen the size of the club his assailant had swung at him, and he had felt the impact of the blow, but no pain. And now there was nothing: no pain, no feeling at all, no sound, no light, nothing except the pounding of his own heart, reverberating in his chest and thudding in his ears. Could a dead man yet hear such things, or were they merely memories of life? Where was he now, if not in some anteroom of Heaven or Hell, awaiting the arrival of a judge?

Slowly, fearfully, he opened his eyes to see nothing but utter, stygian blackness, as deep and dark as the lack of light had been behind his tightly clenched eyelids. The dark, the silence, the profound stillness surrounding him, and the lack of pain or feelings combined to convince him that he really was dead, and as he allowed his mind to begin exploring that possibility, there came a tiny, metallic sound and light exploded into the darkness as someone opened the closed door of a burning lamp.

Hugh went rigid with fear again, his heart leaping in his chest as he saw the person holding the lamp insert a taper through its open door, and then other tapers were extended towards the flame of the first, so that the room filled rapidly with light. Hugh moved to roll over and sit up, but found that he could not move, and then a hand was pressed gently over his mouth from above, bidding him to lie still. Moments later, he found himself staring directly up at a ring of faces that were looking down at him from high above. He was flat on his back. Then the robed and hooded man standing at his feet gave a signal, and the others knelt quickly and reached down towards him, and once again Hugh felt their hands grasp him and lift him, exerting rigid control over him, so that his heels remained on the ground while the rest of him was swung upright, as stiff as a wooden board on a hinged end, until he was standing erect. The hands left him then, withdrawn in pairs, he thought, until he was standing free, staring at the hooded man now facing him, and knowing, from the man’s immense height and size, exactly who he was.

Sir Stephen St. Clair reached up and pulled off his black hood, his face crinkled in a wide smile. “What are you wearing?” he asked Hugh. Surprised by the mundane question, Hugh looked down, then blinked in confusion, never having seen this garment before. “I don’t know, my lord,” he answered, shrugging his shoulders and discovering that he was tightly bound in the strange, white robe, unable to move his arms.

“It is the cerement.” St. Clair’s face was grave again. “You know what that is?”
Hugh glanced down again. “Aye, my lord. It is the shroud worn to the grave by a dead man.”

“It is. And do you know why you are wearing it?”
“No, my lord.”

“Turn around, then, and see where you have been.”

Hands seized Hugh’s arms and turned him slowly, bracing him as he reared back. Directly at his feet lay an open shallow grave containing a bleached human skull with a pair of thigh bones crossed beneath it. Hugh stood there stunned, gazing down into the pit. It was real, and he had lain in it. No wonder, he thought, that it seemed he had been lowered a long way.

“You died and were laid down,” St. Clair said, “and then the light returned and you were raised up again to life. You are reborn, newborn, a different person, one of our ancient brotherhood. Your previous life now lies behind you, forsaken, finished, and abandoned, and you have been reborn into Enlightenment to serve the search for truth and restitution of that which was in our beginnings. Welcome therefore, Brother Hugh, to our fraternity, the Order of Rebirth in Sion. Now that you have been Raised to be one of us, you will have the opportunity to learn all that there is to know about our ancient and sacred trust, and the first step in that progression is to enrobe you in the vestments of the initiate.”
“So mote it be!” Every man present spoke the words, their voices blending into a muffled thunder, and Hugh experienced, for the first time, the ancient blessing and ritual approval of the Brotherhood of the Order of Rebirth.

St. Clair motioned with his hand, and four white-clad men came forward to surround Hugh. They stripped him quickly of the shroud in which he had been wrapped, and of the coarse, jute tunic he had worn beneath it, and then they dressed him in a girdle made from the fleece of a lamb, over which they draped rich vestments of snowy white, and when they stepped away from him again, he saw that everyone else present had set aside the black cloaks they had worn earlier and were dressed in the same kind of brilliantly white garment that he wore. Some among them yet wore black, but only as adornments to their white garb, and Hugh quickly guessed that the black ornamentation signified rank of some kind, for all of them were different. The entire Chamber was now revealed in all its magnificence, and every element of it, ceiling, walls, furnishings, and floor, was either black or white or a combination of both.
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