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CHAPTER 40

Elienne stumbled into another wall and threw her hands out to break her fall. They were bruised and scraped; her feet were torn and blistered. Shivering, she slid to the stone and hugged herself. The cold here in these black, endless passageways was insidious; with every step it penetrated deeper into her flesh, into her bones.

Her stomach growled. She had thought herself beyond hunger, but now she listlessly scraped at the wall of the shaft for the sparse moss that grew there, then brought her trembling hand to her mouth and sucked each finger, one by one. It no longer tasted bitter. It had no taste at all.

Suddenly thirsty, maddeningly so, she felt about her for a puddle. She bent over it and lapped up the stale water like a dog. Exhausted, she fell back to rest against the wall.

For hours she had wandered, or was it days? Only by moving could she fend off the fear of the cloying darkness, the overpowering shroud of despair. Only by moving could she keep at bay the thoughts of Gabriel. If she stopped too long, she would be lost; her grief would overwhelm her.

She tried to get to her feet. The effort seemed too great. All that lay ahead was overwhelming blackness. Always, blackness. Eyes closed or eyes open, always blackness. And yet the image of Gabriel burned brightly in her mind; it would consume her if she wasn't careful.

She lay down with her cheek pressed to the stone. It was an unwelcoming bed, but strangely comforting. She could close her eyes against the blackness, she could rest, she could dream. Sighing, she curled herself up: she wished never to leave her repose.

But her brown eyes filled with tears. Gabriel's image was so clear in her mind, she could almost believe that his tall, straight form led the way, that his strong arm would be there to catch her if she fell, that if she only looked hard enough, she would see his calm gray eyes smiling upon her.

She grasped her holy symbol tightly and struggled to her feet. The gods had given her this vision, this gift of Gabriel's presence. She straightened her back, took a halting step forward, then another. Neither the blackness would not stop her, nor the stone. The gods would guide her.

She blinked. Far away, very dim, there was light. Slowly, breathlessly, she brought her hands up to rub her eyes. When she opened them, she gasped. It was light! She ran toward it, panting, tripping, stumbling in the narrow passageway. It was strange how the faint light seemed so bright, ever-brighter; it burned her eyes. But it was a blessed pain: the light spilling into the tunnel illuminated the dark places, the damp walls, the despair in her heart. Now her steps were so swift, so light, she felt as if her feet barely touched the stone.

The shaft curved. As she rounded the bend, she was nearly blinded. She shut her eyes tightly against the light, took a deep breath, then slowly opened them.

She stood at the entrance to a vast chamber, lit by dozens of blazing torches set in niches in the walls. Heaps of glittering, shiny things were strewn all about the floor. Her eyes widened at the piles of treasure sparkling in the dancing torchlight: jewels, and gold, and velvets, and silks. Never had she seen such riches.

At the center of the room stood a massive stone block. Still awed by the richness of the chamber, still dazzled by the brightness, she approached it with halting steps. It was inscribed with ancient writing; she could make out some words in the holy tongue. Straining her tortured eyes, she began to read.

Suddenly, a figure appeared before her. Elienne raised her eyes and squinted and blinked at the apparition. He seemed surrounded by a halo of light, the light of the torches flashing and dancing off the silvery robe, the jewels he wore, the hair that spilled like liquid fire down his shoulders. But all these paled in the brilliance of his eyes, sparkling like precious emeralds within his still face.

She gasped and clutched the holy symbol at her breast. Was this a god? With his smooth skin, whiter than the purest marble, his perfect elegance of proportion, his magnificent raiment, his jewel-like eyes, surely this must be a god! She fell to her knees and locked her eyes on the strange red sigil on his forehead.

He glided toward her and gracefully reached out a long, slender hand, glittering with gems, and lay it upon her head. The god had touched her! Daring to look again into his eyes, Elienne felt tears of joy bursting from her own. She stared open-mouthed at the beautiful god; she thought she might swoon.

The god was very tall, very slender. On a mere man such leanness might have seemed almost delicate, but his carriage, his movements, held such graceful strength that they testified to and affirmed the power he radiated. The red hair framed a narrow face, too white to be human, yet it was his pallor that set off the hair, the red lips, the mark of the gods on his forehead, the glittering green eyes.

His eyes reflected the light in the chamber like precious, faceted gems. They were hard.

She knew now why the god had appeared to her. Her head fell and her shoulders slumped as she brought her hands together in prayer. "Forgive me," she whispered. Her tears spilled to the stone.

She felt the god lift his hand from her head. Trembling with shame, biting her lip to keep from crying out, she held her breath.

At last the god spoke. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." His voice, melodic, silky, rising and falling with a cadence, an accent, she had never heard, swept over her like velvet. "Tell me of your sin, my Chosen, that I may grant you forgiveness."

Oh, yes, thought Elienne, I must confess to the god, and he, in his infinite wisdom, will reveal to me how to undo what I have done. Gabriel's image, his strong, dear face, his serene gray eyes, his gentle smile, flared in her mind, and she sobbed aloud. With her head still bent, she haltingly choked out her confession.

There was a long silence. Elienne's face burned with shame; her soul ached with remorse; her heart wept with loss. She could hold back the wracking sobs no longer. It was only right that she should be required to confess her sin openly; it was a form of penance in itself, though the gods knew of it already.

"Indeed, my Chosen, this is a most grievous sin." The god's voice still held a tender caress. It held no righteous wrath; neither did it hold pity. His voice, flowing over Elienne like honey, had grown higher. It held a note of joy.

But she dare not raise her eyes to him.

"Did you, my Chosen, commit this sin with full knowledge of what you were about to do?"

"I only wanted to heal him, to take away his pain," sobbed Elienne. "But I should not have presumed upon your power!" She bent lower before him. "Forgive me."

The god lifted her chin. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it," he murmured again in the holy tongue. He took her hand and pulled her gently to her feet. "Now, tell me, my Chosen, how you were able to penetrate the mind of the Defender."

She trembled with awe, mesmerized by his emerald eyes, entranced by his silky voice, Elienne replied in the holy tongue, "I am the tool of thy bidding."

The god raised his brows. "Indeed." A glow lit his face and his lips began to turn up at the corners. "Indeed." His eyes burned more brightly.

The god was smiling at her! Gabriel would be saved!

His smile grew wider. The blood-red lips drew back from perfect white teeth that sparkled in the torchlight.

Elienne raised her eyes to his and shivered. She looked back to his smile. In that moment, she knew. This was no god. The smile was that of a wild animal, feral, hungry. This was the heretic.