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Tarpeian Rock

An Annual Literary Magazine

"Hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit
aurea nunc, olim siluestribus horrida dumis."

                    --Virgil's Aeneid, VIII, l. 347-8
Articles from
the 2008 issue...

The Pledge


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2008 Young Writer's Contest Winner


by Chloe Mariah Donaldson

     Father Xavier stepped cautiously off the battered starship. Before him lay a strange new planet inhabited by a hostile green people. He had arrived at Carmaya. It wasn’t a picture postcard; that was certain. Carmaya looked like one vast rock, broken only by great crevices that the native peoples called Death Doors. There was but one natural landmark: a stone mesa. On the top of this was a glass encased city that glowed in the afternoon sun.
     “There’s your parish, Father,” the ship’s captain, Coriander Fipps, said, pointing at the city. “The green ones are right mad about your taking it. I wouldn’t want to be you for a second!”
     Father Xavier shuddered. In the good old days, new priests usually worried about their first parishes being drafty, lazy or possessing a choir with a passion for 1960s music. Father Xavier felt as if he had been dropped in the middle of a minefield without a metal detector. “I’m under-qualified,” he whispered.
     “What’s that, Father?”
     “Nothing. Why exactly are the green-people so upset?”
     Captain Fipps laughed. “They’re called the Radins, and the mesa was their sacrifice site. To make it a Catholic city, that makes their blood boil. But, that’s not all. There’s another people on this planet: the Ja’azi. To the Radins, the Ja’azi is lower than scum. And the Ja’azi is your parish. No, I wouldn’t be you for nothing!”
     “Thanks,” Father Xavier muttered.
     From the baggage compartment of the ship, two officers wheeled out Father Xavier’s motor bike.
     “Looks like I’m going now.”
     Captain Fipps sighed and cast the priest a hopeless glance that Father Xavier chose to ignore. He shouldered his duffle bag of supplies and stepped onto the bike. Then he was off over the barren land that lay before the mesa town of San Maria.
     “He’s dead,” Captain Fipps said, loud enough for the priest to hear.
     Father Xavier shrugged, speeding down the road-less terrain. The bike whirred smoothly, easily maneuvering around the Death Doors. Once, the priest ventured close to the crags and looked down into their deadly glory. They were smooth cracks that led straight down to oblivion like gates the underworld.
     He reached the mesa and, stating his password to the operator, rode a lift up to his new parish.
     San Maria rippled in light. The sun washed over the glass dome that covered the city, sending down a myriad of rainbows. All around were quaint houses, gardens and a small chapel hewn from the mesa itself.
     “Hard to believe this used to be the sacrificing site for the Radins, huh?” someone said.
     Father Xavier turned. Beside him stood a young man the priest knew well.  “Leon! You didn’t tell me you’d be here!”
     Leon and Father Xavier met at a camp when they were boys, and continued a friendship ever since. They made an unusual pair: Father Xavier tall, athletic and resembling Sidney Poitier; Leon elfin and pale.
     “I came with the lay mission center. So, like the parish?”
     The priest tried to think of something confident to say and failed miserably.
     “You don’t have to pretend. Things have been pretty bad around here. The Radins are getting more aggressive. They… Well, I’m not the one to tell you.”
     Father Xavier eyed his friend closely. There was a glint in his eye, one that the priest had never seen before: terror. He noticed now the stiffness in Leon’s gait, the trembling of his hands, the prattling of his voice. He also observed the emptiness of the streets around him, save for a few guards.
     “I’ve come here on the brink of a war, haven’t I?”
     “I’ll take you to see Mother Superior. She can explain.”

     Mother Mary Tanaura was a small, Japanese woman with a face so full of wrinkles that she reminded Father Xavier of the mesa cliff itself.
     “Welcome, Father.”
     The priest nodded. “I knew this parish was having difficulties from hostile natives, but… Mother, what’s happening? We’re on high ground; we’re surrounded by a protecting dome. What’s wrong?”
     The nun turned away from him and for a moment appeared to be a child, hiding in her Benedictine habit. “I am afraid that you shouldn’t have come. I didn’t send for you. By the time I found out it was already too late.” She gestured to him to sit down at a small table. “The Ja’azi  people tried to warn us, but we were too sophisticated for the superstitions of natives. That is the trouble with our race. We think that we know everything. Oh, dear Lord, teach us how stupid we really are!”
     Fr. Xavier shifted in the chair, feeling like a small boy back in Catholic elementary school. “Please, don’t try to spare me. I‘ve been sent here, and I‘ll stay no matter how crazy it gets. I just want to know what kind of crazy I should prep for.”
     Mother Superior sat across from him and gripped the edge of the table. “The Radins are not the native people of Carmaya, as so many believe. The Ja’azi lived here first, a peaceful race. But, then… I am not quite clear in the details. There was an earthquake, they say, and the ground opened up creating the Death Doors. The Radins came out of these cracks.”
     “They lived inside the planet?”
     “Apparently so. But… the Ja’azi have another explanation.”
     “Which is?”
     “They say,” and she lowered her voice to a whisper, “that the mesa was left unguarded, and someone moved it. I don’t quite understand the entire story but… Father Xavier, the Ja’azi say that the mesa is a key, and this planet is a door that the mesa was to hold closed. Father, they say it’s the portal to… hell.”
     The priest stood up quickly, tipping over his chair. He reset it without taking his eyes from the nun. He tried to detect a sign of jest, a sparkle in her eyes. Nothing. The old nun was serious. And that alone sent chills up his spine. “You believe this?”
     “Yes. I‘ve been here overnight,” she said simply. “Let me finish. The Ja’azi say that their race was given the sacred duty by the angel Michael to guard the key, and keep the doors closed. But, sometime years ago, they grew lazy and the key was turned. Just slightly, but enough to open the doors a crack. The Radins were let out. But these are just little Radins. Now, they want us off of the key. They want to open the doors and release… whoever is inside. The Ja‘azi call it The Beast.”
     The next thing he knew, Father Xavier found himself standing outside of the building unsure of how he came to be there, the nun’s words chilling his soul. His eyes glanced over the empty streets and gardens of the glass city.
     “Well, Father, what we gonna to do? The Radins will come out again tonight. Who knows how soon they will break in.”
“And turn the key.”
     “Yep. The key turns in the center circle in the middle of the mesa,” Leon explained, “They say blood opened it, but no one knows how to close it.”
     “So what do we do?”

     Dinner in the glass city was held in a common hall. Once, the citizens ate in their own homes. That seemed too lonely now, too cut off from everyone else. The entire city sat at a long, spiral table. The priest looked over the faces of his congregation. The Ja’azi, small and blue with frog-like hands and manes of hair, huddled together. Various volunteers and religious tried to put on a brave front and comfort those nearest to them. Father Xavier took up his place next to Leon. Leon chattered, sweat bespangling his forehead.
     “We’re trying to evacuate them,” Leon said, “But few ships will stop here with the Radins about.”
     “What about the key? We have to find a way to close it!”
     “Father, be serious. Everyone has tried, and failed. And do you know why? Do you know where the center circle is?”
     “Tell me, then!”
     The center circle, as it turned out, was literally in the center of the mesa itself. Somewhere in a labyrinth was a device that could close the porthole. However, though many of the bravest Ja’azi, as well as religious volunteers, had tried to find it, none returned.
     “Why does this sound like the adventure comics I used to read?” Father Xavier muttered. “Well, my grandma always used to tell me, ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’”
     “Father, we seriously have tried again, and again,” Leon said, “People have died down there!”
     “And we are going to die here if we wait. Look, I’ll go.”
     Every eye in the room was fixed on the priest.
     “I said I’d go. Mother Tanaura, lead the people in prayers. In my experience, the Rosary is more powerful than guards in these matters. Leon, show me this labyrinth.”
     Father Xavier walked out of the dining hall with Leon following behind.
    “You can’t be serious!”
    “Yeah, I’m off my nut. But Bishop Dominic said that I was to sort out matters here. So, vows of obedience.”
     “You’re crazy! And all this from the guy who used to be scared of Santa!”
     “Hey, a big, white guy spying on you to make sure you toe the line is pretty scary.”
     “So Santa’s scarier than a haunted labyrinth?”

     The sun was setting; already shadows spread sheets over the ground. A quiet but unnerving sound, like nails on a chalkboard, seemed to be coming from outside of the city. The priest looked at the glass dome; the sun dipped behind the horizon line. Then, thwap! Something smacked against the wall and bounded off, eyes glowing like headlights.
     “Oh, God save us!” Leon whispered.
     A wave of wriggling bodies collided with the wall, shrieking voices piercing the night.
     “Hurry!” Leon grabbed Father Xavier by the sleeve and dragged him through the empty streets. All around the city creatures clawed and scrapped at the glass, moaning and grinding their teeth.
     They came to the little church. Leon ushered the priest inside and closed the door. He led Father Xavier to the altar and placed his hands on a stone beneath it. The rock slid away, revealing a staircase that melted into shadow. Father Xavier clicked on a flashlight and prepared to climb down. Leon stopped him. He met his friend’s eyes but didn’t say anything. Father Xavier traced a cross in the air, and plunged into the tunnel.
     The path was low and the priest had to crawl down the stone incline. Despite his brave front before, he was trembling and forgetting the words to his prayers. The tunnel opened up, and with a jumbled Hail Mary that turned into an Our Father, he rushed down one of the paths. Then another and another. All the while the tunnels were becoming lighter, though the source of the glow was unknown. He switched off his flashlight. He tried to say another Hail Mary and found that he could not recall it.
“Hail Mary… Hail Mary… What is happening to me?”
     The walls began to whisper, soft, ominous. He whipped out his crucifix and pressed it to his chest, hurrying pell-mell down paths picked at random, running into dead ends.
     The whispering grew louder: “Father Xavier! Father Xavier! How fast you run! How clever you are! You won’t be like the others, trapped and screaming when the light leaves. You won’t travel down the wrong path. So clever you are, Father Xavier.”
     The voices ran together like screeching static. He covered his hears to block them out; rather than comforting, the praise was terrifying, the voices evil. He felt himself grow ill. Which way could he go? He had to think, he had to… he had… He stopped. That was it. That was what the voices wanted from him. They wanted him to rely on his own power. And that was exactly what he had been doing.
     He knelt on the stones and covered his face in his hands. “Dear God,” he whispered, “I can’t do this on my own. I don’t know how. You have to show me the way. Mother Mary, pray for me. Pray…” There was a tugging at his hand. He paused and looked down. The crucifix, clasped in white-knuckled fingers, began to glow. Moved by an unseen force, it tugged Father Xavier forward. He, stood, gripping the cross, and shot ahead as if holding on to the back of a driving car. The cross’s light cut through the orange glow of the walls and comforted him. In his head, prayers moved in rhythm with his footsteps.
     The cross pulled him around a corner and stilled. Father Xavier drew in his breath. Before him stood a stone circle, blazing like fire.
     “Hello,” a voice said from beneath it.
     Father Xavier held out his crucifix. “Who are you?”
     “I think we both know the answer to that. Tell me, how do you like my little followers? They are going to kill everyone in the town. So much for praying.”
     “No. They won’t. I am going to close the gate and make sure it remains locked. Forever.”
     “Oh, not forever on this chain, no. So says your God. But I am powerful! No decree will chain me! I shall be released! I already persuaded some fool to open the gate a little. Now, my followers will open it completely and you shall fall and worship me as king of heaven and the worlds.”
     Father Xavier clenched the crucifix. How was he to close the gate? There was no knob or leaver on the stone. He touched it and pulled back his hands. It burnt.
     “Your mission is completely wasted. Naturally, you just want to die now. Why bother?”
     He looked back over the rock, trying to find some sort of clue as to how it worked. The voice of the creature echoed in his head. He closed his eyes, ready to hurl himself at the stone despite its heat. But he paused. Again, he was relying on his own strength. He looked back at the crucifix. “Dear God,” he whispered, “show me what to do.”
     The crucifix vibrated, pulling his arm until he held it over the stone. Then, from the wooden hands, two beads of blood appeared. Like rose petals, they fell onto the circle, scarlet spreading over the stone.
     Below was a shriek. Above him, the sound of the Radins howling in pain echoed through the labyrinth. The stone rotated like a screw, and all around he felt the planet shift, the doors closing. The fire on the rock began to fade.
     “What did you do?” the beast screamed. But its voice sounded further and further away until it disappeared, sucking the fire with it.
     “Nothing,” Father Xavier said softly. He looked at the crucifix, tears in his eyes. “He already did it all.”

Chloe Mariah Donaldson is 18 years old and resides in Steubenville, Ohio.

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