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woerld in the sabbatical year 5873

Night shadows deepened when Lucian extinguished the candle beside his bed. The cry from beyond his chamber ended too soon for him to determine its source. He sat on the edge of his mattress and listened for the noise to repeat itself. The hearth fire crackled. The blaze saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade open windows. His twin sister was always cold.

Sweat crawled through his hair. He dared not move; he had no desire to draw attention to himself. The seconds ticked into minutes, but Lucian remained still.


Sounds drifted upward from the room beneath his chamber. A man laughed too loudly with a thin note of hysteria edging his mirth. The sound gave Lucian goose bumps.

Something—perhaps a vase or a mirror—shattered. Another peal of laughter clipped the air before indistinct voices murmured in approval.

Reaching for his cane in the half-light, Lucian stood and limped across the room. His knee was stiff with the premature arthritis afflicting his old wound, and when he first rose, he moved more like a man of eighty than one of forty. He despised his crippling infirmity, and in his agitation, he turned the key with more violence than was necessary. It was a futile gesture; if his twin and her company wanted access to him, nothing so flimsy as a lock would stop them.

As he went to his chamber’s sole window, he kept to the carpeted areas so the rugs would muffle the sound of his cane against the floor. Elaborate tapestries covered the marble walls with his sister’s favorite hunt scene. Firelight distorted the images woven into the cloth, elongating the faces of the hunters and hounds into freakish mutations. The stag’s eyes were almost human with their pleading, but there would be no mercy. The hunt was over. All that remained was death.

Lucian averted his gaze from the wall hangings as he passed his desk, piled with papers full of endless calculations. Books littered every flat surface, including the ottoman that squatted between two cushioned chairs by the hearth. He had only to ask and his every request was filled, but all the gifts in Woerld couldn’t replace the life Catarina had stolen from him.

A prison, no matter how finely furnished, was still a prison. He reviled her house and all she stood for, but he had not tried to escape again. He had learned to fear his sister after his first failed attempt to leave her.

In spite of her edict, he went to the casement and pushed aside the heavy drapes to open the window over her sprawling gardens. The wide window-seat accommodated him comfortably, but his humor didn’t improve with the cold breeze. Years of helpless rage slow-burned through his chest to rise like bile at the back of his throat.

On the opposite side of the city, the construction of the sprawling bastion for the Fallen Angel Mastema continued unabated. Dozens of fires illuminated the black stone turrets rising to meet the night. Girders stretched upward to the overcast sky, forming an open claw as if stone and steel could snatch the paradise the Celestial Court had denied the Fallen.

Lucian had no doubt Mastema would win a foothold in Woerld if Catarina’s plans succeeded. Instead of searching for a site of power to hold back the Fallen, she perverted the teachings of the Citadel to calculate the appropriate longitude and latitude to find a weak Hell Gate in the city of Hadra.

The harsh northern provinces of Golan were isolated from the lower lands. Lucian was certain that Woerld’s other religious fortresses were unaware of Mastema’s temple; otherwise, they would have sent emissaries to assess the situation. Once they were assured of Catarina’s goals, the various bastions would send their armies to stop her. Yet no word came from any of the three closest bastions: the Citadel, the Rabbinate, or the Mosque. The Hindu bastion of the Mandir, at the heart of Woerld, remained silent as well.

Of course, they had no way to know. Catarina was careful to mask her bastion’s true intent from the general populace, and the city of Hadra, nestled deep within the Aldilan Mountains, was especially secluded from the rest of Woerld. His twin sat in the center of her intrigues like a great dark spider, spinning her web of deceit and growing her army.

Downstairs someone shrieked; one voice rose above the others in pleasure and pain. Catarina no longer hid her perversions but reveled in them and dared him to admonish her. She ignored his efforts to guide her from her chosen path. He had failed to keep her safe. He had failed them all.

Lucian swallowed his misery as the sky lightened with dawn. Doors slammed below him; Catarina’s guests were taking their leave to sleep through the morning. He wished he could flee with them. He had to get out of the house, even for an hour, to some place undefiled by her corruption.

Lucian closed the window, careful to secure the latch. He had to calm himself before he went downstairs. If she sensed even the slightest resentment in his attitude, she would slam the doors shut on him. Today he feared he would go insane if he couldn’t leave.

Rather than call his servant, who would no doubt bring the usual array of light indoor clothing, Lucian dressed himself. Although it was only autumn, Golan’s northern winds had started to blow cold, so he chose his heaviest clothing and his boots. The merchants and priests knew him too well. Should he step inside a teahouse or church for too long, the proprietors would ask him to leave rather than risk Catarina’s rage.

At his bedside table, he opened the drawer and removed his Psalter, wrapped in a silk scarf with faded crimson flowers. Other than his father’s signet ring, the scarf and book were the only possessions he maintained from his life before Hadra. He placed the scarf and Psalter in his breast pocket close to his heart.

With any luck, his sister would be in bed, exhausted from her night of debauchery, and he might slip out unnoticed. He opened the door to find a frightened manservant, who had been prepared to knock. The servant lowered his hand.

Lucian tightened his grip on his cane. “What does she want?”

Relieved, the man bowed twice before blurting, “She wants to see you. She’s in the dining room.” He hesitated, glancing up and down the hall. “If you please, sir,” he whispered.

No, it doesn’t please me. Not at all. He wouldn’t send the trembling servant back to her with that message. She would have the old man beaten to death. Lucian gestured brusquely, and the man scurried ahead of him.

It took him several painful minutes to navigate the wide, marble staircase, and he made no attempt to hurry. As he reached the main floor, one of the maids stepped into the corridor beside the dining room door. Tears streaked the livid bruise forming on her cheek, and she wiped her nose with her apron. In spite of her distress, she lifted her long skirts and curtsied as he passed.

He entered the room to find his sister seated at the head of the table wearing nothing but a loosely tied dressing gown. The deep frown that pulled her full lips downward marred her beauty. A gold filigree pendant that depicted two ravens, their beaks locked in an obscene kiss, hung between her breasts, which were partially exposed by her open robe. Without acknowledging him, she pushed aside the report she had been reading and violently rang a small golden bell.

Three of her guards were in the room, each wearing a pendant with her raven seal, each guarding a different door. They didn’t acknowledge Lucian and he ignored them.

Catarina’s obsidian eyes locked on him. The bruised circles beneath her dark lashes deepened her gaze. She looked like a cadaver. “What took you so long?”

Her sharp tone reignited his anger. “I was delayed.” He twirled his cane and thumped it on the floor, indicating his leg. “Darling.” A cobra couldn’t have spat more venom into his endearment.

“Don’t mock me today, Lucian. I’m not in the mood.”

When are you ever? He clamped his teeth against the words. Antagonizing her was pointless. He wanted out, and he knew the game he had to play.

A shadow slid by on his left as his sister’s demon familiar, Cerberus, entered the room. The creature disguised itself as a large hound but fooled no one. His pallid flesh sported no fur; the large bat-like ears carried no canine resemblance. His talons clicked on the tiles as he moved to Catarina’s side. He appraised Lucian with cold, silver eyes and rolled his thick tongue over multiple rows of teeth to grin lewdly. Mercifully, he did not speak.

Now our little ménage à troìs is complete, Lucian thought desperately.

His sister slammed the bell down and shrieked for her coffee. Lucian was gratified to see Cerberus and one of the guards recoil at her outburst. The door leading to the kitchens slammed open, and a young woman almost tripped over her skirts to get the tray to her mistress. There was only one cup alongside the urn. Lucian said nothing.

Catarina waved the girl away and served herself. Appeased, she sipped her drink with imperious calm, then said, “Close the door, Lucian. We need to talk.”

He pushed the door shut with his cane and took a seat at the foot of the table directly opposite her. She was beginning her assault early this morning. He had no doubt she intended to dole out his pain in slow increments today.

Cerberus went to his mistress and tugged the sash of her robe. She pushed him away and tightened her belt. At least Lucian wouldn’t be treated to one of their displays of affection this morning.

“Captain Speight tells me he has had some difficulty with you.” She shifted the pages and read from the report. “According to Speight, you’ve been warning priests, rabbis, and imams to move their congregations out of the city by mid-winter. You’ve also advised a bhikkhu and a brahmin to do the same.” She met his gaze evenly and tapped the report with a manicured nail. “Is this true?”

He presented no defense; he was guilty. The cities’ religious houses usually stood immune to Woerld’s political instabilities, but Catarina’s intercourse with the Fallen brought the churches and temples into the direct line of battle. Once Mastema’s temple was complete, she would force the people of Hadra to worship the Fallen Angel and sacrifice those who refused on his altar.

“What are you trying to do?” Catarina asked. “Commit suicide by proxy?”

Better than dying by inches. To his left, a log popped against the hearth and sent a blaze of light up the chimney. The hissing fires were the only sound as they played their demented game to see who would break first.

“Answer me!” Her spittle flew across the captain’s report.

“Yes,” he said.

Whether she was shocked at his honesty or that he wanted to die, he had no idea, but she made no retort. Instead she sipped her coffee, and her hand shook slightly as she rattled the cup back to its saucer. Shunning Golan’s nasal dialect, she spoke to him in their native Walachian so the guards wouldn’t understand her next words. “Good God, Lucian. Are you serious?

She must have seen the answer in his face, because she held her hand out to him, and he could have sworn the tears glittering in her eyes were heartfelt. “Why do you wound me like this? You know I don’t want you hurt. If you were dead, I would be cut in half. You tear out my heart when you talk like this.

The cadence of her speech resurrected his nostalgia for the days when they had loved one another and lived in harmony. In the past she had coddled him back to her graces with promises of familial love spoken in words remembered from their youth.

This morning was different. Whether it was his bad night or his worse morning, he felt nothing for her platitudes, not even regret for the love they had lost. Sometime in the night he had died, and he wasn’t sure he would ever live again. His misery complete, he was numb to her pleas.

I love you,” she crooned, oblivious to his disregard for her manipulation. “I don’t want to see you hurt again. You misunderstand—

“There’s been no misunderstanding, Cate. You’ve made your position clear,” he replied, speaking in Golanian. “You expect obedience from me. Absolute obedience.”

Her head rocked as if he had slapped her, and her eyes grew cold again. She leaned back in her chair. “Mastema has named me Seraph of his fortress.”

Now Lucian felt the blow of her words settle in his stomach as icy fear. If the Fallen Angel had claimed her as the high priestess of their warrior-prophets, her political influence in Hadra was assured. The ever-present fire roared, and a rivulet of sweat tickled his collar. “When?”

“Last night. And what is my first order of business as Seraph?” She clenched the pages of Speight’s report and threw them in Lucian’s direction. “My recalcitrant brother.” The paper wafted to the center of the table as ineffectual against him as her rage. “Let me be clear, Lucian. The only reason you’re still alive is because of me. If you continue your flagrant disobedience, even I won’t be able to plead your usefulness to our cause.”

“Are we finished, Cate?”

Cerberus pushed his head under Catarina’s hand, and she shoved him away. “Have I dismissed you?”

Lucian didn’t answer, but neither did he leave.

Another servant brought a tray laden with breakfast for his sister. The odor of the food nauseated Lucian.

“I’ve appointed Malachi Grusow as my Inquisitor. He assures me that our Katharoi will be prepared to march on the Citadel in the spring.”

Lucian looked down and picked an imaginary piece of lint from his pants so she would not see his scowl. Katharoi. She and Grusow demeaned the honorable title of the bastions’ warrior-priests by bestowing it on their ragtag army of mercenaries and cut-throats. A true Katharoi spent years training in martial and spiritual arts while the men in Catarina’s army were little more than ruffians who owned armor and sword.

“Grusow believes our spies within the Citadel are close to creating a schism within their ranks.” Catarina raked the tines of her fork across the slab of meat, and when blood rose to the surface, she smiled. “And Rachael is dying.”

A terrible pain filled Lucian’s chest, and his numbness fled before the familiar guilt that destroyed his nights. He’d betrayed Rachael with an act that could never be undone, but surely she wasn’t dying. The Citadel had other exorcists just as skilled as Lucian, and Rachael would have submitted herself to an exorcism; she had no choice. As the Seraph’s last heir, Rachael was all that stood between anarchy and unity within the Christian bastion’s ranks.

Catarina’s smile broadened. “When she’s gone, there will be none to stand against you, and the Citadel will be defenseless against Mastema’s legions.”

She lies, he warned himself. Half-truths and lies.

Catarina buttered her bread. “Rachael never allowed anyone to cast out the Wyrm, and the demon has started to take her mind. She is lost in her prophecies. They say she dreams awake.” Her glare held him until he lowered his eyes in shame. 

“You’re lying.” He called her bluff, surprised at his even tone. “The Wyrm should have been adjured years ago.”

“She allows no one to heal her, no one to touch her.” Catarina picked through her food. “Someone she loved must have abused her trust.”

Horror settled over his body, stealing his breath. Rachael could be stubborn and she would believe herself able to handle such a minor demon, but she was not an exorcist. If she had fought the creature for this long, it was entirely possible she had grown weary, and the Wyrm was most dangerous to those who dreamed. Lucian bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb to stop his tears. Not now, not here.

“Oh, please, Lucian, don’t tell me you’re still pining for your little whore. Your benevolent God left her in Hell to become a one-eyed, drooling monster lost in her dreams. The least you could do for yourself is bed someone who will recognize you in the morning.”

“I left her there, not God.”

“And you were right to do so.” She slipped a bloody piece of meat to Cerberus. “She was in the way, an obstacle.”

You were jealous of her. “I left her there in exchange for your freedom.”

She shrugged, dismissing his sacrifices for her with that one banal movement.

“I left her there because of your lies!” The strength of his baritone rattled one of the guards. The man stepped forward.

Startled, Catarina almost dropped the sliver of flesh in her hand. “Never raise your voice to me.”

Lucian rose so fast that he unbalanced his chair. The air around him darkened and crackled. He was rewarded by the fear in his sister’s eyes.

Cerberus’ muzzle snapped as he jerked his head in Lucian’s direction. “Have a care, Lucian,” the demon said, his silver eyes narrowing.

“Don’t make us subdue you, brother.” His twin reached over to rest her hand on Cerberus’ broad forehead.

Her guards waited on Catarina’s word. Everyone knew the eventual outcome of the tableau; it had been enacted enough times in this house. Lucian might be more powerful, but she held the tactical advantage with the demon and her guards. When he had fought them in the past, she’d called on her followers to restrain him. She wouldn’t hesitate to do so again.

They both knew it.

Lucian simply didn’t care anymore.

“You’re strong, Lucian, but you’re not invincible. Now stop your tantrum and sit down. We have more to discuss.”

In his agitation, he gripped his cane until his hand ached. He examined the woman before him and felt nothing but revulsion.

“Damn it, Lucian, I said sit down.”

For this callous bitch, he had sacrificed Rachael, only to remain locked in battle against his twin until there was nothing left inside him but ice and apathy. His heart lay quiet now, cold as sorrow, dry as hate. Lucian turned and walked away from her.

“Where are you going?”

He heard her chair scrape the floor as she stood. He jerked the door open. The maid he had passed earlier fled down the corridor.

“Lucian?  Answer me!”

Cerberus spoke in the background. Lucian neither heard nor cared what the demon directed. He slammed the heavy dining room door hard enough to shake the frame.

She was still calling his name as he grabbed his mantle from the hook in the foyer. He emerged into a day as gray as his mood. Another of her guards attempted to impede his way. Lucian shoved past him and reached the wide avenue before the soldier recovered himself. A note of panic edged his twin’s voice as she called after him. Lucian didn’t stop. If she wanted to make him pay later then let her; he would lie down and take it because he had purchased his pain.

And the price had been dear.

Lucian stepped off the residential avenue catering to Hadra’s elite and followed a shortcut the servants used. Smoke from the construction fires hazed the skyline and curled around the battlements of the city’s walls. Ash coated the streets and the populace, shrouding their prosaic lives in gray. Mastema’s fortress sucked the life from Hadra and its inhabitants, turning the city into an open crypt.

At the next street, he hurried across during a gap in the traffic and stepped into a narrow alley. From the shadows, he watched a line of draft horses pull wagons filled with slabs of marble in a cumbersome procession, their hooves pounding the cobblestones in a solemn dirge.

Two of his sister’s soldiers emerged on the other side of the street. They looked over the crowds and temple traffic then apparently decided to search their side of the road first. One man jogged off to the left and the other went right. Lucian turned and waded through the alley’s muck; he’d evaded them. For now.

He soon reached the commercial district where vendors hawked their wares and customers haggled over prices beneath ragged awnings. The walkways were congested to avoid wagons. The market crowd raised a cloud of dust and noise rivaled only by the clamor of the temple construction.

A cold wind gusted into his face as he left the alley and shouldered his way into the mass of bodies. Far ahead, he glimpsed a woman with hair the hue of sunlit autumn fields, and he almost cried out Rachael’s name. The woman turned; she wasn’t Rachael, but a pale replica. A sparrow imitating a phoenix. He passed her without a second look, chiding himself for a fool.

He stepped into another alley to lose himself in the winding paths between the stone buildings. Entrapped by the city’s walls, he had explored every garret and undercroft of Hadra in hopes of finding an escape route. The days had dragged into years; his dreams of leaving faded to nightmares of captivity. His only recompense was learning to evade his twin’s guards by disappearing into the labyrinth of alleys leading deep into Hadra’s decaying heart.

The buildings became more dilapidated, the streets dirtier, and the people more furtive as he moved east toward the slums. His fine, ermine-lined mantle and sturdy clothes marked him as an outsider, but none dared to impede his journey. Lepers were greeted with more enthusiasm than Lucian Negru, because where he walked, his sister’s soldiers were soon to follow.

Lucian stopped in front of a small church nestled between two leaning tenements. He’d walked this route many times, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing the simple crosses on the doors. Now that she was Seraph, Catarina would waste no time in shutting down the various houses of worship to force them into her cult for Mastema. This lonely church would burn with the rest.

His leg was on fire from his walk, and he needed to sit. Perhaps he could warn the priest to take his congregation from the city. If he could save one of them, he might be able to justify the pain of the last sixteen years.

The street was strangely empty. Only a dirty yellow dog rooted amongst the trash three buildings down. Even the animal didn’t mark Lucian’s presence. It was as if he had died and become a ghost in his sister’s city.

He was a corpse in need of a grave.

The chapel door was unlocked and he entered the sanctuary where only eight rows of pews stood between the entrance and the pulpit. After he genuflected to the humble wooden cross at the altar, he took a seat on the back row. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, resting in the silence.

His thoughts drifted and for one mad moment, he half-expected to feel Rachael’s hair touch his cheek. If he was very still, he was sure he could summon her memory and breathe life into her shadow, making her real and whole again. She had always known where to find him when he was troubled. It was her habit to lean over his shoulder and press her lips against his ear. Come away, she would whisper. Come away with me.

Lucian was so lost in his reverie he didn’t hear anyone enter the room, so he was startled when a hand clasped his shoulder. Terrified one of Catarina’s guards had found him, he jerked upright only to see knuckles gnarled with arthritis.

The old priest’s smile faltered momentarily. “I’ve seen a dead man’s eyes that looked like yours. What makes you so weary, son?”

Lucian dropped his gaze; there weren’t enough days before them to spin his tale.

“Aren’t you Lucian Negru?”

The old man’s voice exhibited no condemnation, but Lucian didn’t want to hear the contempt that would follow his answer. “I’m sorry. I just needed to rest. I’ll leave.”

Genuine alarm passed across the man’s features. “No, no, you shall not. All are welcome in God’s house, especially those who are called prophet. You are Katharos, are you not?” The old man imbued the title of Woerld’s warrior-prophets with a reverence Lucian hadn’t heard in years. 

“Was. I was once a Katharos.”

The priest patted him on the shoulder. “Did God rescind His calling and send you home to Earth?” The old man’s lively green eyes shined with compassion. “You are Katharos; that power can never be taken from you.”

“I was banned from the Citadel many years ago. I’ve lost my power.”

The priest shook his head. “Your power comes from God, not the Citadel. So long as God’s throne stands, then so does your power. You’ve just lost your way. We all get a little lost from time to time.” The priest sat sideways on the pew in front of Lucian, turning so they could talk face to face. “What troubles you that you wear your misery for Woerld to see?”

Tears burned Lucian’s eyes and he forced them down; why should he weep for a woman already lost to him? When he felt he could trust his voice, he said, “What if I told you about… an evil man who betrayed the woman he loved to save his sister’s soul?”

“Is this man truly evil or does he just think himself so?”

“Once upon a time, he was selfish and wicked.”

“And now?”

“He’s sorry for the suffering he brought to her.”

Minutes passed with the priest considering Lucian’s sincerity as if it was a jewel to be bartered. Not since he had lived at the Citadel had he watched someone so thoroughly study his words for their truth.

The priest asked, “What if this selfish, wicked man, who is now sorry, was presented with an opportunity to amend his grievous act? Would this man take such an opportunity?”

“Please don’t mock me.”

“I’m not mocking you, son. I’m asking you a question. Would you take the opportunity?”

Lucian searched the old man’s face and found only kindness. He had not been the recipient of benevolence in so long he wasn’t sure how to respond. “An opportunity?”

“Nothing more. Nothing more can be promised, just the chance to see if she’ll forgive you. Would you take that opportunity?”

He didn’t hesitate. “With both hands.” He waited for the priest to render a proverb about good intentions being the first step toward redemption.

Instead, the chapel door opened and one of the slum’s dirty waifs slid inside to scurry to the priest. “The soldiers have come, Father Matt.”

“Good boy, Jamie.” He reached inside the folds of his cassock to find a coin and tossed it to the child. “Go out the back way. Be careful not to be seen.”

The boy vanished with the same ease with which he had appeared. The priest pulled himself to his feet and patted Lucian’s hand absently.

The sound of horses in the street choked Lucian with terror. He had been a fool, and now he’d endangered everyone who had seen him here, including the kind priest. “Do you have a side entrance?” He couldn’t be sure, but he thought the old man winked at him.

“I thought you wanted an opportunity.” Without another word, the priest turned and walked toward the altar.

“I don’t think you understand.” Lucian rose and followed him as quickly as he could, trying desperately to keep the telltale thump of his cane quiet against the rough wood floor. “I only need for them to find me on the street so they don’t connect me to this church.”

“They’re going to burn it anyway, son. You have no control over them.” He went behind the altar and opened a low door, which was all but invisible against the dark paneling. “I dream, you know.”

And those that dream, prophesy. Lucian had once desired those dreams simply because they denoted power, but that talent had been denied to him. He did not dream; he did not prophesy; he could not see the truth in another’s words. Those were Rachael’s talents.

Stunned, Lucian stared at the old man. “You were Katharos?”

“Am, son. I am Katharos, just as you are Katharos. It’s not a coat you can take on and off at will. God remains on His throne so we are Katharoi. Mastema might win the battle, but that dark angel has yet to win the war.” Father Matt stooped to pass through the low doorway and disappear into the darkness. The priest’s face reappeared suddenly. “Don’t dawdle, Lucian.”

Lucian followed and found himself on a wooden stairwell where he could almost stand straight. Father Matt was waiting three steps below.

“Pull it closed and latch it.”  The priest mimed pulling the door shut. When Lucian obeyed, they were plunged into suffocating blackness.

Father Matt grunted softly. “Well, isn’t that the wickedness of it? It’s the first trick they teach us and it’s the first one we forget.” The priest stopped talking abruptly as a small yellow globe formed in the palm of his hand. The ball of light strengthened until it acquired the soft luminosity of several candles revealing Father Matt’s delighted features. “There we are!” He held his soul-light before him. “You’ve thrown the bolt on the door? Good. Come on, we haven’t much time.

Lucian followed him down the stairs into the sepulcher beneath the church. “If you are Katharos, then why are you not at the Citadel?”

“Not all of God’s warriors in Woerld fight with magic and sword. Some of us have more traditional callings. Now hush or they’ll hear us.” He led Lucian past alcoves lined with bones, skulls staring wide-eyed into the shadows. Rats scattered before Father Matt’s soul-light and then closed over the men’s wake like a rippling brown pool.

They wound their way deep into the vault until Lucian was so lost he doubted he could find his way out alone. The priest slowed, examining the floor as he kicked aside the slower rats. The beasts squealed like old women vying for vegetable scraps at the city’s waste heap.

Father Matt grunted in victory. He went to the wall, unceremoniously shoving skulls, femurs, and finger bones aside. Opening a trunk that had been hidden by the bones, the priest removed an iron bar and leather sack with a thick strap. He handed the heavy pack to Lucian before he rammed the heel of the bar into a slot in the floor. His face reddened with effort as he slid a metal panel aside to reveal a ladder descending into darkness.

He gauged Lucian’s bad leg and shook his head. “I’m sorry for you, son. You’ll have to find it in yourself to get down there.”

Lucian took one look before he stepped back from the rank odor of rust and mold flowing out of the darkness. He had no chance of escaping his sister’s guards on foot, especially through damp caverns. This was a cruel joke. “Are you mad? You expect me to crawl into that hole and go where?”

“I thought you wanted an opportunity, or are you still looking for an easier way?” The priest’s voice turned as frigid as the air flowing out of the pit. “Perhaps you would rather crawl back to your sister and throw yourself to her mercy.”

A pit of ice opened in his stomach at the thought of Catarina’s rage. Suffering upon suffering would result from his walking out on her this morning.

“I thought so.” The priest held the little ball of light up before Lucian’s fearful eyes. “The light comes from our souls, Lucian, and you know by my light that I am Katharos, because the Fallen can’t make light—”

“They only steal it,” Lucian whispered.

“Yes! You’re remembering, son. I dream and the Lord has spoken to me. I have done everything that’s been commanded. You have enough food in your pack to get you through the caverns and deep into the Wasteland if you’re frugal. In the caverns, follow the right-hand path at all times. No matter how they twist and turn, never deviate from the right-hand tunnels. You’ll find your way out.”

Father Matt took Lucian’s free hand and passed his soul-light to hover over the younger man’s palm. “They might find you if you use your own magic. Go with as much speed as you can, because once my light dies, you’ll know they’ve wrung the truth from me.”

Chilled, Lucian looked into the old man’s steady gaze where there was no fear, only cold resolve. “I don’t have your courage.”

“You lost it when your heart turned to stone.” The priest leaned forward and tapped Lucian’s chest twice. “Find the heart of flesh that still beats within you. There lies your courage.”

Another draft of air blew out of the hole. All his life, Lucian had calculated his every decision, factored every coefficient, every possible outcome, but now there was no time. Did exchanging one black hole for another really matter? At least this way, his dying was in his own hands, and there was a slim chance that he could right a terrible wrong. Before he could change his mind, Lucian lowered himself to the edge of the hole and released Father Matt’s light down into the darkness. The rusting ladder ended about twenty feet down.

“Come with me.” He threw the pack over his shoulder.

“I’m eighty-six, boy. I’ll only slow you down, and you’ll be slow enough on your own.” He blessed the younger man quickly. “God goes with you. He’s a much stronger ally.”

Lucian took a long time descending the damp ladder, but eventually found his feet on solid ground. He looked up when the priest called his name one more time.

A long slender object fell toward him, and he thought perhaps it was another cane. Unprepared for the weight of it, he almost dropped it. It was a Citadel sword; the hilt bore the Greek letter Omega embracing the Alpha, and though he didn’t draw the blade, he was sure the inscription, Ut unum sint, was etched in the steel.

That they may be one.

“John Shea remains as the Citadel’s Seraph,” Matthew called down. “Take the blade to him, and you tell John Shea that Matthew Kellogg did what was right in the end.”

At the mention of John’s name, the sword felt heavier. Lucian tried to imagine facing John again after all these years. The only image he could summon was the look of John’s grief when he had discovered Lucian’s treason sixteen years ago.

Lucian shoved his anxiety aside; he would have to face them all eventually. He looked up. “I will, Matthew, I swear it.” Lucian couldn’t see the priest’s face, but the silhouette of Matthew’s head nodded before he disappeared. “I won’t forget you,” he whispered.

Lucian rubbed the rust from his palms onto his pants and took up his cane. Above him, the sound of metal screamed against stone, and then silence. His way back was sealed from him forever.

Judging by the growth of his new beard, he had been in the darkness for five, maybe six days when Father Matt’s light flickered. Lucian had known something was wrong with the old man hours ago when Matthew’s soul-light deepened to the color of urine. Now it went out briefly before glowing back to life only to darken again like a dying firefly.

“Oh, God, please take him quickly. Don’t let him suffer.” His whisper echoed down the branching tunnels as he stood mesmerized by the flickering soul-light before him. Automatically he touched his heart and drew comfort from the presence of his Psalter.

And please don’t let me be next, he prayed selfishly.

The priest’s light faded before it burst into a shower of sparks. When the last ember faded, Lucian was immersed in blackness.

In the eternal night of those caverns, the steady drip of water resumed, filling the quiet. From somewhere behind him, he heard the hesitant click of claws against the stone floor. The rats were returning with the darkness.

He held his palm up, but hesitated to say the prayer that would bring his own soul-light into existence. He had no idea how far he had come, and as he walked through the long hours in the dark, he often felt he was moving in a large circle. If he used a small magic, then his sister and her council might not sense his presence, but there were no guarantees.

More rats joined the first few, their squeaks multiplying as they sensed their prey’s vulnerability. Before his panic could overwhelm him, he prayed and was rewarded with a spark that burned brighter as he charged it with his life-fire.

He turned on the rats and they fell back, tumbling over one another in a black-brown sea of fur, teeth, and tails. He backed away from them; when they continued to retreat from his soul-light, Lucian turned and began walking again.

With the death of the priest behind him, he moved faster. If Matthew had talked, then Catarina’s guards would soon be on his heels, and he had no desire to be dragged back to his sister. She had already promised that if he tried to escape her again she would give him a chance to experience Christ’s Passion in excruciating detail.

Though his pace quickened and he rested only when he couldn’t walk another step, he guessed it was still three more days before pale sunlight began to push against the darkness. He found himself steadily moving uphill, and the rats fell back to the caverns behind him. Craving daylight more than food or water, Lucian didn’t sleep and rested little as his eyes gradually adjusted to the ever-increasing brightness. The air became fresher and dryer as he emerged from the depths of Woerld to find himself on a ledge where he could look out over the Wasteland.

The tunnels had spiraled and he had indeed followed a circular path. Approximately thirteen leagues away, Hadra lay to his left, belching smoke and death into the air. Stretching out before him were thousands of acres of blighted wood and sour magic left over from the War of the Great Schism.

The War between the Katharoi and the Fallen had lasted six years and involved every religious bastion on Woerld. The Zoroastrian bastion had been destroyed along with the country of Norbeh, and the reverberations had carried over into Earth’s time to create a devastating conflict there. John claimed the very Gates of Heaven had shuddered when the Katharoi’s forces summoned their magic to clash with the Fallen’s hoards.

Both sides left nothing but destruction in their wakes. Trees bleached of color reached for the sunlight with their bare limbs creaking against one another, dry as bones. Soil blackened with long burns of desolate ground flowed like stretch marks between the forests and abandoned towns.

But the sky was blue.

A clear crystalline blue.

The sun glowed, and he realized it was rising.

The sun was rising.

Lucian leaned on his cane and wept.

He had an opportunity.

Nothing more.

But for now, that was enough.

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