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CHAPTER 32

Gabriel paced back and forth before the cliff face. Just as the High Patriarch had said, the granite wall appeared smooth, unbroken except for small cracks and crevices, solid, unyielding stone. "You must use your power to see what cannot be seen."

With a shrug, Gabriel prepared to try. He must concentrate his will to this one purpose, to see the portal. Never had he presumed upon the gods' favor for such a thing; he had been trained only to heal. But who could know what power the gods would deign to grant their beloved? Perhaps, he thought, to see what was unseeable. He rubbed his chin as he stared at the cliff face.

How did one go about it? He felt awkward, unsure. How? When he healed, he would touch. He raised his arms, spread wide his hands, and stepped forward to place them flat upon the stone.

Cold. There was no warmth, no matter how elusive, no rhythm, no matter how feeble, no spark of life, no matter how small. He pressed harder and shut his eyes and whispered a prayer. "As the gods will..."

Like a bolt, pain shot through his head. He gasped, stumbled backwards, and fell to his knees. His back bent; he could not straighten. He pressed his fists tightly to his eyes and gritted his teeth as if to bite off the pain.

And, suddenly, it was gone.

A sweet voice spoke his name. But he was enveloped in softness, a cocoon of peace, floating, floating with a freedom he had never known, never imagined, and he didn't want to leave.

"Gabriel," called the voice again.

He opened his eyes. Elienne knelt beside him, her slender arms wrapped around him, her face buried in his neck. His big hand reached up; he watched it in fascination. It moved surely, confidently, to stroke her hair. So soft! He nearly snatched the hand back, but the scent of elden flowers filled his head, her breath was warm on his neck. He whispered, "I am well," as he bent to kiss her hair.

She turned her face up to his then, and he saw her eyes. Gabriel felt his chest tighten; his hand fell away. Such utter, absolute love shone in her eyes that he staggered under their gaze, but they were the eyes of an innocent, a saint, the Chosen. He shuddered and shut his eyes tightly. Gods, what had he almost done? Would he debase an innocent, profane a saint, defile the Chosen?

He heard a sigh. She withdrew her arms, and he wanted, so badly, so madly, to pull them back, to feel her body against him, the warmth of her breath, only that, just for a moment more.

But he opened his eyes and lumbered to his feet. Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. Their task lay before them; they were Chosen. As Elienne rose to her feet, Gabriel looked to the cliff face, and there, vaguely outlined, was a door in the mountain. He rubbed his eyes and blinked.

Beside him, he heard Elienne whisper, "It is there, just as the High Patriarch said it would be." Gabriel turned to her and saw her smiling softly. His eyes widened. The concentration that had cost him searing pain had been seemingly effortless for her. Her slight figure, dwarfed by the massive cliff, belied a strength, a power, unlike any he had ever seen, ever imagined.

She lowered her eyes and gently slipped her hand into his. "Shall we enter now, Gabriel?"

Yes, they must enter now, he thought. The assassin must complete his work. He had put it from his mind, tied it up in a neat little bundle, tucked it away. Now, standing before the portal, his killing hand held in her innocent grasp, he felt sick with revulsion, weak with repugnance.

He snatched his hand from hers. What kind of a man was he? He would kill because he was told to; he had not questioned, not protested, not refused. He would kill like a machine, efficient and cold, devoid even of the motivation of hate, of righteous justice. He looked to his hands; they would do their work. Big and scarred and lethal, they would do it well. And never again would they dare to touch such softness as they had, just once.

Yes, he would fulfill this task and then he would return to his cell and wait for the next one. What did it matter that he could heal? His talent, his true talent, lay in this. Was he a man at all?

A man made choices. He, Gabriel of Morevale, was like the mythical golem, created and set on an unerring path, without mind, without heart, without choice. His killing hands trembled.

He didn't want to enter; he didn't want to go on. No, he wanted to walk away from this mountain, from this task. He wanted to go home to Morevale, to his father, to his people, to his legacy. He wanted to see his father laugh, his blue eyes merry and clear, his hands steady.

He wanted to sit in a tavern with a mug of ale in his hand and his legs sprawled out and offer a toast. He wanted to walk into a room and be ignored.

He wanted to fight with honor, with his purpose clear and his head held high.

He wanted to take this lovely young woman in his arms and taste her lips and touch her softness and hear his name whispered in that sweet, sweet voice. Not just once. No, again and again.

He wanted to be a man.

Elienne took his hand and squeezed it gently. He looked into her eyes. There, no doubt existed. There, the will of the gods was clear. There, he was a man. Her warmth washed over him, surged through him like a tonic. "As the gods will."

"It shall be done," she replied.

Gabriel strode to the door and pushed. With a rumble, the stone was parted.