The Most Holy Pope by Henrik Johnsson

Faith is a trust in God ... but which god?

His holiness the Pope Desarace sat in his wooden chair, examining the view of the Vatican from his window. His shadow jumped fitfully to and fro on the walls of his office in the light of the single waxen candle on the desk, and the sombre glow of the fading sun cast a menacing glare on his sullen features. It had been an unusual day in the life of the leader of all Christianity, and the pope brooded at the disturbing news he had been unfortunate enough to hear. He had been born a long time ago in France, and was descended from ancient Celtic stock, and should not be as upset as he was over what he had discovered during the day; but he knew that if only one of his secrets were divulged to anyone, his Lord would take revenge on Desarace in person. The pope's eyes glowed with a fire that was a fearsome blend of hate and anger, yet did not erupt, but rather smouldered and bubbled in the dark depths of his heart.

Looking out over the roof-tops of the Vatican, and surrounding it, the ancient city of Rome, Desarace felt his mood slightly alleviated as he watched the poor men and women on the streets, begging for money in a futile effort to buy food enough to fill their starving bellies, sweating in the humid heat of the afternoon sun, crying out to the rich merchants passing them for an alm or two, but receiving only spit and disdain in return. He watched the city within the city in which he resided, and smiled as he remembered how completely he owned it. Miniature castles, the fashionable homes of the nobility, were visible some distance away, past the dilapidated buildings where the plethora of beggars, whores, petty criminals and other human garbage spent their distasteful lives. The large pavilions of the rich families' homes caught the sun's last rays and made the rich, just like the poor, sweat with the oppressive heat of summer. No wind served to cool the inhabitants of the city, and the stench of human waste rotting in the sun almost made the pope believe that Dante's poetry had somehow come to life, and that Inferno was right here and now. The general mood in the city was one of suppressed anger and discomfort, the people toiling and sweating from the fierce sun beating down on their backs. On a day like this, thought Desarace, anything could happen.

Suddenly, a barely audible knock was heard on the stout wooden door. A moment later, the knock was followed by a timid voice.

"Your holiness sent for me?"

"I did?" asked the pope, tired, weary, and not in the mood for visitors.

"Yes, you did."

"And who might you be then?"

"Pardon me, I forget my manners. I am Munofrio, a priest."

"Well then, you'd better come in, seeing as how I apparently sent for you."

The door was opened slowly, as if the man on the other side was afraid of what awaited beyond the door. A small man dressed in the white cloth of a priest stepped through the opening.

"Munofrio, yes, now I remember. Indeed, I did send for you. Come in, and take a seat."

"Yes, your holiness," the priest murmured. He sat down on a plain wooden chair opposite the pope's, which was so large and covered in precious silks and golden threads that it resembled a throne more than a chair.

"Munofrio, I called for you because I have heard things whispered about a certain book you're currently researching."

"Ah yes, the book I'm translating. What about it?"

"Well, you see, I've heard vague rumours concerning the contents of the book, and those rumours have left me both worried and annoyed."

"Oh dear, that's most unpleasant. If you wish me to desist in my studies, I'd be more than happy to do so."

"Thank you for your offer, but the problem runs a bit deeper than that. You have already translated a large part of the book, have you not?"

"Yes, I am almost done with it."

"How much remains to be translated and transcribed?"

"Oh, only a page or two. I can most certainly finish it by this evening."

"That's what I feared."

The pope was quiet for a moment. His gaze was locked firmly upon that of the priest, and the diminutive Munofrio felt a small hint of fear in his stomach because of the pope's stare. There was something sinister in those eyes, but he would of course never admit to harbouring such sinful thoughts. To speak ill of the pope, or even to think ill of him, was to invite the damnation of Hell. He would surely be cursed for all eternity if he were to speak aloud his doubts concerning the piety of Pope Desarace. And besides, the pope was rumoured to be nhealthily friendly with high inquisitor Torquemada.

"What is the name of the book?" the pope asked.

"I'm not sure how I should translate the title, but I think that the book itself might actually be a missing piece of the Bible."

"Oh? That's interesting. And what piece would that be?"

"Why, if my translations are correct, your holiness, it would be the final chapter of the Revelation of St. John."

"Ah." The pope's short utterance had in it all the ghastly portents of doom that Munofrio could imagine.

"The final chapter. I bet there are quite a lot of angels blowing their mighty trumpets, lakes of fire, mountains splitting asunder and that sort of thing?"

"No, not exactly," the little priest said, beginning to feel uneasy by the pope's choice of words. To mock a potential piece of the Bible was not a wise thing to do.

"Then what's in it, if I may ask?"

"Actually, I'm quite confused by the book's contents. It could, of course, be written by some Hebrew mystic, or Western sorceror, but my guess is that it was written by someone who practised our holy faith. This makes the contents all the more puzzling."

The thrill of knowledge had almost, but not wholly, overcome his fear of the pope. Then again, he consoled himself, it was only natural that the priests and bishops should fear Pope Desarace. He was, after all, in direct contact with God Almighty.

"Please, tell me more of the contents."

"Apparenly the book starts off where the Revelation of St. John ends, and is thus the next chapter. The text fits nicely in context with the earlier chapters, which makes this a very plausible theory. It details, in short, the coming of God to the world and the establishment of His kingdom."

"That doesn't sound too dangerous."

"No, your holiness, it doesn't." Munofrio hesitated. Something in the back of his mind told him that he should proceed no further.

"Well? What more does it relate?"

The priest sat silent for another moment, then decided to trust the pope. The feeling of fear was just a silly little insecurity, he thought. And if he couldn't trust the pope, he said to himself, who could he trust?

"It details very precisely how God establishes His kingdom in this world."

"Ah. And are these details the reason why you're sweating?"

Munofrio hadn't noticed it, but his anxiety had made him start to sweat, and a drop of cold liquid rolling down his back almost made him shiver.

"Oh no, it's only the heat."

The warmth was indeed oppressive. The absence of any wind and the menace floating in the air made it hard for the priest to breathe. But he persisted. What he had found in the translation of the book was of the utmost importance to all of Christianity.

"You see, your highness, the manner in which His kingdom will be established is, should I say, not very concordant with the impression most men have of God."

"Now we come to the heart of the matter. The manner is, I gather, quite different from a peaceful enlightenment of the world's peoples."

"Exactly!" Munofrio cried, his tense body almost jumping at the exclamation.

"Can you tell me exactly what God is supposed to do, according to the book?"

"Let me see if I can remember. He is to come down in a mighty raiment of all His glory, build a celestial city in the deserts of Aegypt, and from 'where God has his throne' preside over the affairs of man and beast alike."

"That doesn't sound too terrible."

"No, but it's the way the book describes His reign. It says that He shall dominate the very waters and the flow of the air, and tell the sun how it shall act. He shall tell the clouds how they shall fly, and the flowers how they shall grow. He shall dictate the lives of men from their cradles to their graves, and control even their unborn thoughts."

The pope rested his chin on one hand. He turned his chair around and once again contemplated the view of the Vatican. This was his empire, he thought, and the little imbecile sitting behind him was on the verge of taking it away from him. He turned round and faced the priest.

"That's the heart of the matter. This book goes against the very essence of the Church's teachings. If you say to all the priests, bishops and scholars that it is a missing part of the Holy Bible, and they read what is described therein, the Church will be very much disgraced. Do you see what I mean?"

The little priest was stunned. For a moment he refused to believe what the pope had said. But then again, he realised that the grim message conveyed in the book would indeed put the Church in an uncomfortable position.

"I understand. But surely the contents of the book should be made public, even though they are a bit compromising? The clergy deserves to partake of the information in the book. Surely --"

"Silence!" the pope roared suddenly. Munofrio blanched at the unwarranted outburst.

"What that book describes is blasphemy. It must not be made clear to the public how St. John thought God's Kingdom would be. The book must be destroyed and all mention of it be discouraged."

Munofrio kept his silence. He did not wish to face the Inquisition on the grounds of insubordinance, and possibly even heresy.

"Now, my dear little priest," the pope said, his voice laden with such a tone of sardonic despise that Munofrio almost winced, "you shall return to your quarters at once, and work on the rest of the translation."

"But wouldn't that be contrary to your wishes?" the priest asked, a look of puzzlement on his face.

"Do not argue with me, you damned novice!" the pope roared. Munofrio shrank back into his chair, wishing he could sink through it and through the floor in order to escape the pope's rage.

"You shall translate the book and you shall find the contents to be to my liking. You will not find anything that goes against the official dogma of the Church. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, I think I do. You want me to rewrite the book and alter my findings in order to please you."

"Exactly! Say, you're not as stupid as you look!"

"Why thank you, your holiness," said Munofrio, the insult in his voice matching the pope's.

"Don't use that tone of voice on me, you vermin. Now get out of my sight and translate the rest of the book as I want you to. Come back as soon as you have completed this task."

"Very well, your holiness. I shall do as you ask." Munofrio's heart sank as he contemplated the work ahead of him, but he understood the futility of opposing the will of the most influential man in all of Christianity.

An hour later, Pope Desarace sat in his great chair, thinking of his God, and the mission He had given him. One of the few men he chose to call "friend" sat in a chair in a dimly lit corner of the room. His friend's face was drawn, haggard and covered with scars, the shadows of evening making his appearance one of macabre grotesqueness.

"He knows too much," the man said, his voice sounding like a sword grating against stone.

"Yes, that he does. His knowledge must be dealt with."

"I thought we had destroyed all the copies of the book."

"A copy must have survived. I think I heard he found it in some deep, dark place of the holy libraries. I never ventured down into the lowest vaults, but apparently he did."

"If only that sheep-lover hadn't got so damned inspired out there on the island, we wouldn't have had this problem."

"True. But it's too late now to worry about that. We must see to it that young Munofrio's research never sees the light of day."


Suddenly, the doors burst open, and Munofrio, panting with exertion, ran into the room. He waited a moment to catch his breath, and then addressed the pope.

"Your holiness! I have found something terrible in the book! It is most certainly the final chapter of the Revelation of St. John, but it tells of such horrible deeds, such abominable terrors, that I dare not mention them!"

"Ah, I see. But first, Munofrio, I'd like for you to meet someone. Munofrio, meet Señor Tomas de Torquemada, friar preacher of the order of the Dominicans, and also Grand Inquisitor of the Inquisition. Señor Torquemada, meet Munofrio."

These words froze the panting priest as if a warlock had cast a spell on him. With a dread anticipation filling his very soul, he turned around, ever so slowly, and set eyes upon the shaded figure seated in the corner.

"Hello, Munofrio." The man's voice was colder than ice, and deadlier than a lurking serpent.

"Hello, Grand Inquisitor." The priest's voice shook with fear. He had heard what Torquemada did in his torture chambers to wrestle confessions from alleged witches and sorcerors, and the knowledge sent a cold chill down his spine.

"I understand you've translated the book."

"Yes," the priest said, unsure if he should venture any more words to the man who was reputed to be the cruelest and most brutal inquisitor ever to have graced the Church with his services.

"Then please, tell us what you found in it."

Munofrio turned to look at the pope, and saw that the latter had risen from his great chair and was currently searching for something in a cupboard.

"I'm not sure I should," he said.

"Why not?" asked the pope, who had found what he was searching for; a large, dark, leather-bound tome. Munofrio didn't care to look at the book too closely, for he felt the cold, penetrating gaze of Torquemada digging into his neck.

"Please, tell me what you've found," the inquisitor said, his voice resembling the hiss of a serpent preparing to strike its victim.

"Well, I suppose I should," the priest said, mentally adding, "or else I'd burn at the stake like the rest of your victims".

"The book is only some forty or so pages, and is a rewriting or transcription of a manuscript apparently written in the first century of our Lord. The title page says the manuscript was written by St. John himself, but was not included in the Bible because of its menacing contents."

"Actually, the book's not a transcription," the pope said.

"How do you know that?" Munofrio asked, clearly surprised.

"I know quite a lot about it. As, for instance, who actually wrote it."

"Then who wrote it?" the priest asked, surprised.

"St. John did, that's quite clear. None other than old John."

"But how is that possible? This is not a book that a disciple of our Saviour could have written! It is nigh blasphemous!"

"Oh no. John wrote the old thing, to be sure. I really wish he hadn't, though. His, shall we say, peculiar senses made his conception of the lumberjack somewhat different from what Paul and the others thought of him."

"To say the least," said Torquemada, and laughed, causing Munofrio's skin to crawl.

"No! This is a lie. John would not have written this. He was the disciple that the Saviour loved!"

"That's correct, he did love him. I'm sure the founding fathers of the Church would have been quite consternated if they had known just how much he loved him!"

"How do you know all this?"

"Let's just say that I know quite a lot."

The pope leafed through the yellowed pages of the tome he'd placed on the table.

The sound of the rustling of the pages was almost hypnotic, and Munofrio felt his gaze locking on the shifting of the pages. Like some forgotten memory tugging to reemerge from the depths of his mind, he seemed to recall where he had heard that exact same sound before, but failed. As he looked at it, the sun must surely have played tricks with his eyes, for he imagined that he saw a mighty desert stretched out before him, and vast, giant, invisible creatures that strode through it on titan legs, and felt the smooth, silken beating of leathery wings that seemed to fly through both matter and time accompanied by an eldritch chant resounding through the spheres. He saw the ruins of an ancient city, all splendid marble that shone brightly in the sun's fierce rays, the secret incredible wonders that had perished in the foundering of that many-pillared haven, and he saw the horrors buried beneath the sands, and the fierce demon-guarded abominations contained therein.

He shrugged the illusion from his mind, but the book still made his flesh crawl, and he averted his gaze from it.

"What is the name of that tome? I don't recognize it."

"Of course you don't. It's called the Image of the Law of the Dead, and it contains many secrets and truths that are hidden from mortal men. The book you have translated is also reproduced in here. That is why we can't let it be circulated among the public."

"It would, so to speak, compromise our situation," said the evil voice of Torquemada.

"That it would. Take, for example, the passage in the cypress glade. That would, to say the least, show the Saviour in another light altogether!"

"I think our young friend here has read the very same passage."

"You mean, the one where Christ instructs Paul on the wonders of God Almighty?"

"Yes, that one. Please read it to us."

The sligthly trembling priest turned the pages of the slim volume he had translated. He found the passage Torquemada had referred to, and started reading.

"'Know thou, my dear Paul, that I love thee as any man can love another, and as a father loves his child, and most certainly as a man loves his friend. Come with me, and go with me unto this silent glade, where I --'"

"'Shall show thee the wonders of God,'" the pope finished, reading aloud from the large, black book on his table. A single bead of sweat ran down Munofrio's back.

"Then you also know how John says God will establish His kingdom?"

"Yes. God shall come down to the world clad in a mantle of madness and fire, and raise His first-born brethren from their sleep since the beginning of time. He shall reawaken the great Leviathan from his slumber in the city sunken in the sea, and He shall summon forth the great Belial who shall carry the mighty God's message to all the corners of the earth, and He shall once again call for the Goddess of all Nature and let her birth His legions, and they shall burst asunder all walls and resistance of the peoples that rebel, and smite the very world itself. And He shall call forth the Gateway which is the Key so all their crafty angels and baleful cacodaemons can enter this world in their thousands."

Munofrio stopped as it suddenly dawned on him that this was much more than a simple prophecy. He looked at the pope, who was smiling wickedly at him.

"And then God shall, with his first-born children by His side --"

"End the existence of all animals and beasts, and thus clear the earth to prepare for the arrival of the one great Father and Lord of Lords, whose name I must not reveal," the pope said, and laughed.

Munofrio's knees refused to support him. They buckled under his weight, and he fell to the floor. The two men approached him, and bent over his body, now shaking violently with terror.

"Curiosity killed the priest," Torquemada said. The trembling Munofrio saw a fire in the man's eyes, a yellow, sickly fire, that shone with all the funereal, insane lustre of death and the vilest corruption.

"Yes, it did. But I think our Lord should have his spirit."

An aura of madness and putrid decay issued from the voice of the pope, and his eyes shone with an insanity beyond mortal description.

"I don't think our Lord would appreciate the intrusion," the hideous thing that had gone under the guise of Torquemada said. Its mouth reeked with all the miasmal vapours of the Pit.

"Neither do I. But I don't think He'll even notice this little vermin. But the vermin will most certainly notice Him."

"I agree. Shall we perform the ritual for sending the priest to our God?"

"Yes, let us begin at once. We can say that the book drove the unstable, young priest to madness, made him run out into the wilderness and most likely kill himself, and then have the remaining copies of the book burned. A most cunning plan, if I may say so myself."

The two things rose and the pope-beast fetched the large tome that lay on the desk. It opened the book on a certain page, and started reciting words in a language that had long since been forgotten by mankind. The still shaking priest had regained his wits somewhat, and tried to protest, tried to resist the evil forces in front of him.

"Oh dear, I think he wants to keep his soul," the former Torquemada said, mocking the weakened Munofrio. It placed a booted foot on the priest's chest, and the demonic strength of the beast pinned Munofrio to the floor. The ritual went on unabated, the pitch rising gradually until the pope-creature's invocations more resembled shrieks than anything else. He couldn't understand what the words said, but the priest's very soul shivered at the meaning conveyed by them, a meaning so profound and basic to his mind that there was no need for a translation. It was pure evil that the beast chanted; the unhallowed rhymes and rhythms of Satan Himself. Munofrio tried to scream, to voice some protest, but the firm weight of the booted foot on his chest prevented him. The chanting rose in strength, and the room seemed to fade from view. What had once been the pope's office was now a great hall filled with the fumes of something spicier and more pungent than incense. A weird light flowed through the hall, bathing the priest's body in a strange, gray sheen. The beast-things had stopped their noises and disappeared, but Munofrio had been too confused to notice where to.

The priest sat up, the fear clinging to his mind. The two demons had disappeared, but something still made his spirit scream with terror. He stood up on trembling legs, and surveyed his surroundings. The hall seemed unfocused, as if it was somehow not altogether there, causing him to lose his balance and fall down. Bracing himself, he stood up once again, and began examining his surroundings. The hall was vast; he could not see the walls, or the ceiling, only the floor beneath him. As he examined the floor, which was fashioned of grey stone tiles arranged in a seemingly haphazard manner, he heard a faint sound from afar. It was soft, and strangely enchanting, and he recognized it to be the sound of flutes. The odd music came nearer, and he stood up, awaiting whatever caused the sound. He saw no sign of habitation in the vast hall, and could only guess what kind of creature inhabited it, but he suddenly felt that whatever this place was, it could not be a place where goodness resided. Fear gripped his mind; he remembered all too clearly the conversation of the two demons he had heard only a few moments ago. Something about the eldritch notes made him want to scream; it made him pray to God to deliver his soul from whatever was making the music, but God would not listen.

The music came ever nearer, gaining steadily in strength, the thin, monotonous whine of the flutes becoming more high pitched as they approached. A warm wind blew through the hall, caressing him, taunting him, whispering to him of the untold delights that awaited him in the bosom of the lord of this hall. He heard something else than the shrill piping of flutes; a soft, rustling sound, as if many people were dancing together, silently. A sound of drums grew forth, taking form from nothingness, accompanying the wicked music of the manifold flutes, and the dancers danced to the tune of the flutes, and stamped to the beat of the drums. And then the priest, his very soul shivering with terror, heard a voice above all the other sounds, and the voice laughed, a horrible laugh that was both melodic and chaotic, harmonious and dissonant, blaring and silent; and the laugh made the priest cry out to God and Christ for help, but they only spat at his weakness, and mocked his trembling spirit. The cacophony of sound seared through his mind, carving holes into his sanity, warping his brain, corrupting his flesh. Finally, the sounds of the wicked music, dancing and above all else the hideous laughter were too much for him to bear, and he turned around to face whatever could produce such unhallowed rhythms and blasphemous noises; he slowly turned around, and cried out when he saw the pipers, the dancers -- and the thing that sat on a throne a thousand planets wide, laughing.

He wept as he saw the things that played the flutes, their fingers handling them expertly as they had done for countless millenia, and he saw the ones that danced so very softly, gracefully, never missing a beat of the music. And he saw the thing on the throne, its head the only solid part of its body, the rest of it a swirling mass of iridescent colours and blasphemous confusion, and it was laughing and screaming madly, perhaps at the priest, perhaps not. The insanity of a million madmen swept over him, and he began screaming with joy, and shouting with pain. His mind rotted, his sanity died, his body collapsed into nothingness; and the awful epiphany of the thing on the throne blasted the very foundations of his soul, tore through the last shreds of his mind and destroyed what was left of his flesh. His being was shattered into a thousand pieces that were swept up into the shimmering madness seated on the throne; his annihilated remains were absorbed into the swirling robes of the half-formed mockery of all that was sane and ordered; were infused into the awful, magnificent music of the flutists, who played their vile instruments so very expertly, as they had done since before Time was made, and the slow, wicked movements of the shambling dancers, who danced without ever missing a step. The last fragments of his shattered and broken being were gathered into the terrible, hideous rhythm of the music which had played so beautifully for countless millenia, never missing a beat, never mishandling a tune; and which would continue to play for uncounted millenia still to come, unabated, to please the musicians' laughing master; and the music shall play on until the universe fades, and Life itself is forgotten; and then all that remains shall be the echoes of vanished planets, the whispers of dying suns, and the thin, shrill, monotonous piping of the flutes, playing for ever more.

Send your comments to Henrik Johnsson


© 1997 Edward P. Berglund
"The Most Holy Pope": © 1997 Henrik Johnsson. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: October 21, 1997; Current Update: August 9, 2004