Gabriel entered a chamber bright with the light of a hundred torches. For a moment, the vision of the Holy Shrine, blazing with light, filled his mind. But this was no holy place. The gray walls held shadows. The torches gave off no warmth. No sacred chant echoed in the vastness of the chamber, only silence, and the persistent, far-away drip of something wet onto stone.
Somewhere in this place was Elienne. Somewhere in this place was the heretic. Gabriel's eyes, calm, serene, swept across the chamber, seeking the one he must find, the one he must kill. He felt no anger, no fear, only purpose; he had closed his mind to pain and guilt. Taking a deep breath, he drew his sword from the scabbard and held it before him like a torch lighting his way through a dark place. He did not ask the gods to bless him; he knew they would not.
His gaze fell on a massive stone block far across the chamber. Without hesitation, he strode toward it. As he approached, as he saw what lay there, his legs, his breaths, grew heavier. He had to force himself to put one foot in front of the other to cross the distance, too far away, too close. A chill, like the thrust of an icy sword, cleaved his back. At last he reached the tomb.
His sword nearly fell from his hand. He dropped to his knees, chest heaving, and laid it upon the floor. Elienne's body, so small, so white, lay still and cold on the harsh stone. So white. Except for the blood. Red, rust-red, was everywhere. How could one small body have contained all that blood? Except for the blotches, purple and black and green, that marred the perfect whiteness of her skin. So white.
Her lips were curved in a beautiful smile. He had seen that smile, been graced by it, had nearly kissed those lips. Even now he could feel the peace, the goodness, in her smile; it threatened to soften the hardness of his heart, threatened to dull the sharp edge of his resolve. Forcing himself to look away, he clenched his jaw and clenched his fist and fought back a scream.
Slowly, he raised his eyes. With a shaking hand, he reached out to touch her face. It was as cold and hard as the stone on which she lay. Her lovely brown eyes stared, huge and unseeing. Those eyes, so warm, had once looked upon him with love. He shuddered as he tenderly closed the paper thin lids.
His eyes traveled down her body. Exposed again was the small white breast branded with the holy symbol of the gods. A rage beyond red, white hot, like cold fire, flamed in him. He shook with the force of it; his hands ached to kill. No! Not yet.
Trembling, his hands seeming too big, too awkward, for the task, he drew the tattered remains of her robes over her body: a girl's body, an innocent's, not yet a woman's, never to be a woman's, the body of the Chosen of the gods.
He took her hand. So small it was within his own, so white against his dark skin. He laid it gently upon her breast, crossed it with the other. With a gasp, he buried his face in his hands.
He would take her from this place! She would be bathed with scented water; her tangled hair would be combed. Elden flowers would grace her bier, and all of Brennor, everyone, would kneel to her. Garbed in the finest white silk robes, the circlet of the Chosen on her brow, she would be carried into the High Temple of Avacar to be honored and elevated as a martyr of the Holy Church.
He sniffled and wiped his eyes with the back of his arm. First, there was something he must do. He and Elienne had been sent here for a purpose. She could not fulfill the task. He must.
Yes, he must. He could. He would. Grasping his sword, he struggled to his feet. His legs were weak: his body felt broken. But looking to his sword, to its shining blade, he drew a deep breath and slowly lifted it, held it before him. He glanced from it to Elienne's broken body, then back again.
The blessed sword shone in the torchlight with a glow he would have once attributed to the power of the gods: the sword of justice, of goodness, the sword of the Defender of the Faithful.
"Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies," he whispered in the holy tongue. And though he had broken his vow, betrayed his solemn duty, though he was Defender of the Faithful no longer, he believed in this sword. He would wield it. If not as Defender, then as a man. This sword was steel, and steel cut, steel killed. Blessed or not, it killed. He could. He would. He turned from the sepulcher, his eyes as hard and polished and lethal as the blade.
Standing across the chamber was a man, smiling serenely, his hands clasped loosely at his waist. Only his green eyes, burning with a fierce light, betrayed his posture.
Gabriel took a step forward, then stopped. He drew in a long breath and voided his mind of all thought, all feeling. He was hard, and blank, his eyes calm, his muscles poised. He would kill this man. It was so very simple. He had only to strike. He could. He would.
Lucian regarded the tall man with suppressed delight. So this was the beloved Defender of the Faithful of Brennor, this hollow-eyed, ill-clad giant. His boots were scuffed and worn; his simple linen tunic was stained and incompetently patched. His shock of black hair was dull; his beard was ragged. The rough, weathered face was deeply lined, gray beneath the tan. Only the sword he held was untarnished; its perfect blade flashed in the torchlight.
Lucian smiled. Dear Mirin, the whore, had done her work well after all. Defender of the Faithful, indeed. Lucian felt a small twinge of disappointment. He had been so looking forward to facing a knight in shining armor. This man was positively shabby.
Yet there was an undeniable strength in the straight back, the unbowed shoulders. There was an eerie serenity in the gray eyes, a quiet resolve in the set of the mouth. There was a white-knuckled firmness in the grip of the huge hand that held the sword.
No matter. This man, this Defender, would fall. Lucian had sparred with a Chosen more powerful than this man would ever be. He had crushed the power of a mind. He would not be defeated by a blade. He'd bent the shield, shattered it; now he would break the sword. Rubbing his hands together in anticipation, he stared into the gray eyes.
Almost casually, he sent a thought toward the man, certain it would have the desired effect. She'd shown him it was possible; he'd practiced on her. He knew how easy these Chosen were to deceive, how innocent they were.
The image of her crying out in pain and horror as he ravaged her, her slight body beaten and battered, her brown eyes wide with terror, was almost too good to let go. But let it go he did, and embellished it: her naked body writhed upon the cold stone as he pinned her down, took her like an animal.
He giggled, nearly laughed out loud, at the prospect of what it would do to the Defender's already broken spirit.
Gabriel's head pounded in agony. Every breath, every step, intensified the pain. But his will was impregnable, his mind a fortress. There was no breach. Setting one foot before the other, he continued to advance.
The red-haired man's face screwed up as if in frustration, then contorted with fury. Gabriel recalled other faces: the face of the High Patriarch, old with responsibility; the face of the village priest, ravaged by despair; and then, unbidden, the face of Elienne, aglow with goodness; the face of his beloved, alight with joy. The face he'd touched, kissed, a thousand times. The face he knew with the most intricate, most intimate detail. The face he loved. The face he must never again see.
He stopped. As he slowly drew the amulet from his tunic, the man's green eyes widened. Gabriel threw the thing aside like it was nothing. It was nothing. The man knew it. But as it struck the cavern wall across the room and fell to the stone floor, the smoldering hate in the man's eyes flared; he looked as if he were being consumed from within.
Gabriel took a step forward, another. It was as if he walked in a tunnel, a path clear and straight. Nothing could stop him. Nothing would.
His amulet! The last, only, precious gift of his mother. With the speed and agility of a cat, Lucian streaked across the chamber and made a diving slide. It was at his fingertips; he would have it in his hand.
A booted foot slammed down. As the blade of the Defender's sword descended, Lucian was already on his feet, running, his eyes wild, his red hair flying out behind him. The ringing sound of steel against stone, the relentless sound of heavy footsteps, pursued him.
He ran to the tomb and almost slipped in the curdled blood. Crouching behind it, shaking, terrified now, he listened to the footfalls and hugged himself.
He dared to peek around the sepulcher. With every step, the man seemed taller, his sword longer, his eyes harder; with every step, his tread seemed heavier, his heartbeats louder, his breaths quicker.
This was impossible, intolerable!
Again, Lucian let loose the arrow of his thoughts, taking care to ready the barb, to draw the bow back deep, to aim well. It did no good. The Defender's mind deflected it; what armor he wore Lucian could not know.
Huddling behind the sepulcher, he seethed. There must be a way. Another way. There must. He chewed his lip. He could not breach the Defender's mind, but what if... Yes, of course, why hadn't he thought of this before? A small smile began to form on his lips. He would simply have to assault the man's body. Cautiously, he raised his head above the still form lying on the sepulcher.
The Defender still strode forward. His expression had not changed. Not once. Lucian licked his lips. "We shall see to that," he said.
Gabriel could hear the man speak as he advanced on the sepulcher. Meaningless words. Words! What use was there for words? Gabriel had spoken words, solemn words, the words of his vow. And they had meant nothing. He glanced to his sword; it would speak for him now.
Before his eyes, the tip of his sword began to glow, grow red. Slowly, the glow moved up the blade, toward the hilt. His hand felt warm; he began to sweat. The red glow engulfed the hilt, the pommel. The flesh on his hand began to blister, to sizzle, to smoke.
He would not surrender his sword. Nothing could make him. Nothing would. Gripping the hilt more tightly, he continued toward the man.
Lucian's smile slipped away. He rolled his eyes. It had worked. But would nothing stop the man? Didn't he feel pain? He dared to peek again at the advancing Defender. He grinned. Oh yes, he did indeed feel pain.
Lucian slid once again to the floor and rubbed his hands together. He must be quick about it, needless to say, but he also must be ready. He chuckled. So, the Defender of the Faithful was only a man after all. He was made of flesh and blood and bone and tissue. Well, flesh could bleed and blood could spill and bone could break and tissue could burst. He laughed. Truly, there was more to a man than a mind.
Lucian took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He slowed his breathing, stilled his body's movements, and collected all the power of his formidable mind, focused it sharply. Gracefully, he stood, stepped out from behind the sepulcher, and faced the Defender.
Gabriel's expression did not change as he watched the man. His sword no longer burned, but his palm was blackened and charred; his hand felt fused to the hilt. He gripped it more tightly. He must embrace the pain, smother it.
He took another step forward. Sharp pain shot up his leg. He stumbled. He put his weight on the leg. It snapped, like dry tinder. He fell.
Sharp edges of bone stuck out from his shin. He pulled himself up and bent toward the leg. A bolt of pain slammed into his back, as swift and sure as the strike of a sword. With a jerk, he grabbed at his back and fell flat on his face.
Closing his eyes tightly, his tears spilling to the stone, he tried to capture the pain, to vanquish it. His teeth chattered, and his breath came hard and fast as sweat soaked his tunic, as it poured down his face. He raised himself up on an elbow.
He heard a grating sound; his arm collapsed. He bit back a scream as it was wrenched from the socket. Punish the body. Discipline the mind. Steel the heart. Free the soul. He could. He would.
Panting, he raised his good arm and tried to pull himself up. He felt a tingle; it seemed every nerve in his body had come to life. Then, a pressure, building, building, all over him, in every part of him. And suddenly, he bled. Blood poured from his ears, his eyes, his nose, from every orifice. He tasted it; he breathed it. He would drown in it.
Suddenly, the pressure stopped. He choked, his breaths now merely ragged, wet gasps, his broken body writhing on the stones, and he felt his consciousness slipping away, beyond his reach.
Far away, he heard laughter, robust, raucous laughter. It washed over him in waves, rolling and booming in his mind, and he clung to it like a drowning man. As he wallowed on the floor in a pool of his own blood and sweat and tears, his mouth twisted into a smile.
Lucian clapped his hands. It had worked. And this time, even the Defender of the Faithful could not ignore it. Grinning from ear to ear, he laughed so hard he thought his heart would break.
"Ah yes, the heart," he giggled. "Some say it is the center of a man's being, that therein lies his soul." He winked at the now still Defender. "But that, of course, is nonsense! Sheer nonsense."
His laughter overtaking him, he had to pause for breath. The man's bloody mouth had curved up in a blissful grin; it only heightened Lucian's mirth. "Now, we both know, being educated men, that the heart is the pump that keeps the old blood flowing, don't we?" He laughed so hard the tears poured from his eyes; his jaw hurt. Choking back his laughter, he said, "And we both know what happens when it stops, don't we?"
Had the man nodded? No, his head had merely jerked upon the stone. Lucian curled his hand into a ball and smiled gently at the Defender. "It's such a fragile little thing, just a fist-sized bundle of muscle, why, if you could hold it in your hand, I'd wager you could - simply - crush it!" He shook his fist, and seeing the smile on the bloody mouth broaden, he doubled over with laughter.
Gabriel could not hear words, only laughter. In the place where he dwelled now, the realm of pain, it was oddly soothing, familiar. He was well acquainted with laughter now. Especially a silvery laugh that tinkled like bells. He slid his broken body forward an inch.
Though he could not raise his head, he knew the laughing man stood over him. And although his body was nearly numb, he still felt the vicious kick in his ribs, then another. They splintered and cracked. He choked on the blood that was filling his lungs, setting fire to his chest.
"My, my, you are a strong fellow, aren't you?" The laughter had stopped. The voice was silky, elegant. "Indeed, very strong. It's going to take quite a lot of effort, a great deal of time, to do this right, eh?"
The man knelt down. He jerked Gabriel's head up by the hair and he thrust his face close. Through his swollen lids, Gabriel could see the green eyes sparkling.
"As to effort, well, no one could ever accuse me of lying around!" The man cackled. "And, oh, yes, as I pointed out to a mutual acquaintance of ours, I have a great deal of time, all the time in the world!"
He shook his head wildly, and his red hair lashed Gabriel's face. The green eyes grew almost soft, the voice almost kind. "Besides, quite frankly, it doesn't look like you'll be going anywhere soon." Gabriel's head was dropped to the floor with a thud.
On the cold stone, Gabriel lay still, no longer smiling, and from what seemed like a great distance he could see his sword, the blackened hand that held it. It was so far away. With agonizing patience, he willed the fingers of the hand to move, to curve around the hilt, to tighten. Slowly, reluctantly, they struggled to obey.
Lucian rose gracefully and glided over to where the amulet lay. He picked it up with reverence, gazed at it with love. His mouth trembled as he kissed it. Turning to look down on the Defender, he smiled sweetly.
"I bet you didn't know my mother gave this to me, did you?" The man didn't answer. "Oh, yes, it is very ancient," he said as he held it out before him. "My mother paid a fortune for it! She spoiled me, you know." Sighing, he snatched it back and pressed it to his breast. "But, I'm afraid, except for its sentimental and somewhat arguable decorative value," he stole a glance at it, cocking his head, "completely useless." He giggled. "Well, not entirely, don't you agree? It deceived the whore." Tucking the amulet in his robes, he looked again to the man.
The Defender wasn't moving; it was obvious he wasn't listening. The man really was a disgrace. So untidy. Lucian's eyes flicked toward the thing on the sepulcher. He'd have quite a lot of housekeeping to do, it seemed. He grinned slyly. Well, someone would.
He glided back to where the Defender lay and squatted on his haunches with his hands clasped loosely between his knees. "I'd really like to chat, but you are being quite rude, and I must find my dear queen-to-be, although I'm not quite sure that she's worthy now." He spoke slowly, enunciating every word. "She's been very bad, you must admit. Ungrateful. Unfaithful. Very bad." Shaking his head, he pursed his lips. "She'll have to be punished, of course."
Gabriel tried to block his mind to the man's words, tried to make the muscles in his arm respond, tried to see through the fog, tried to live. Every second that passed was a welcome friend, every moment a world of possibility. Then, like a knife, the man's words cut through his concentration, cut through to his heart. Mirin!
Her beautiful face obliterated all thought. Her beautiful face, sparkling with laughter, glowing with ecstasy, shining with love. He must be dreaming! Yes, it was the dream again, of the goddess, of her touch, of her softness, of her warmth. He drew in a deep breath. There was no pain here, only joy. He'd lie here in her embrace, in the arms of the goddess. Smiling, he looked up to her; the face of his beloved was suffused with sorrow.
He gasped as the man's words echoed in his mind. "...punished." No! Not his beloved. Punish the body. No! Not his beloved. Drawing in another ragged breath, he focused his battered eyes on his sword. He tried to force his lips to move. "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies." The gods would hear him, they must.
He felt his fingers tighten. He felt it! His arm grew taut, ready. As his unbroken leg began to tingle, he willed the muscles in it to come alive, to tense. He knew what he must do; he had the strength to do it. He could. He would.
Lucian played with a lock of his hair, twirled it around his finger, stuck it in his mouth, chewed on it. As he stared down at the Defender, he arched his brows. What a piece of work! With a sigh, he rose to his feet. "Well, I'd best finish it, eh? I've things to do." He clasped his hands together, turned them inside out, cracked his knuckles, then flexed his long fingers.
He took a quick breath and lifted his shoulders. He extended his hand and held it out, palm up. He closed his eyes, composed his face and assumed an expression of mock severity. Abruptly, he let his hand fall, and his eyes flew open. "You know, I must tell you, though I probably don't need to," he winked, "I just can't wait to get my hands on her again."
The Defender threw himself onto his back. His arm shot out. The sword flashed in the torchlight. Lucian watched, fascinated, as it connected with his body. It cut right through his robe; he felt a quick bite as it sliced into his leg. He watched with horror as his lovely robe became stained with red.
Lucian gulped. "Now look what you've done, you terrible man! You've ruined my best robe." A tear ran down his cheek. Sniffling, he wiped it away and looked to the Defender.
The man had fallen back after striking the blow. Except for the blood and dirt, his face seemed so pale against his matted black hair. Except for the feeble rising and falling of his chest, he looked dead.
But Lucian was not fooled. Oh, no.
He narrowed his eyes and drew back his lips in a snarl. Shaking his finger, he said, "You shouldn't have done that."
He limped nimbly to the sepulcher, pushed the thing aside and sat. Gingerly, he raised the hem of his robe and gasped when he saw the wound. With a shudder, he raised his eyes to the Defender.
He crossed his arms on his chest and regarded the man with cold eyes. A playful grin lit Lucian's face; he burst into laughter. Now that he was at a safe distance, he simply couldn't resist.
He bent forward, spit the words. "Yes, I'm very much anticipating the return of my Chosen one. She and I have so much time to make up for."
Impossibly, the Defender slowly turned his body. He cried out when he fell on his face, but there was so little breath left in him, so little life, that it was but a small sound to Lucian's ears.
"Eh, what's that? Could you speak up, please?" He giggled, kicking his feet crazily against the side of the tomb, oblivious to the pain of his wound.
Unbelievably, the Defender slid his body forward, the point of the sword advancing an inch. He stopped, panted furiously, pushed forward again.
Lucian pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. "You are a stubborn one, aren't you?" he said pleasantly, then closed his eyes and again extended his hand, palm up.
Gabriel was beyond pain, beyond feeling. Now there was only will. Over and over, again and again, in his mind, he spoke the words in the holy tongue, "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies." With every inch, with every second, he chanted the words. He would reach the man. He would kill him. Nothing would stop him. Nothing could.
Suddenly, pain seized upon his heart like a fist. So intense, so pure, so intimate it was that he was unable to move, to think; he could only feel. In its cloying embrace he could not draw breath. His eyes bulged. His lips turned blue. His fingers and toes and limbs began to grow cold. Far away he heard a voice chanting, "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies," and he knew it was his, but his mouth no longer formed words, his brain could no longer remember them.
His consciousness was fleeing, trying to escape. He flailed out, caught hold of it, beat it back. Still, the chant droned on, but faintly, ever more faintly. It was soothing, like a lullaby. But this sleep would bring no dreams. He felt an overpowering urge: to fly, to soar, to seek the gods. He could barely hear the words now. They were there, somewhere, but he could not find them. He would have to seek them. He would follow them now. Yes.
Lucian's hand was curled in a tight fist. His face was a rigid mask. Behind the closed lids, his eyes were rolled up in the sockets. His breath, his blood, his organs, were slowed, slowed to the minimum required to sustain his life force. All his thoughts, all his will, all his power, was focused on his closed fist; he held the heart of the Defender in its crushing grip.
He had felt the heart beating feebly, had savored its warmth, its strength. Then he had tightened his grip, tightened it until the heart no longer beat, tightened it until it began to grow cold. His knuckles were white with effort; sweat bathed his face.
Just a moment more, just a moment. His cramped fingers began to twitch. Just a moment longer! His hand began to shake; the fingers spasmed. His whole arm began to convulse. The hand opened.
The heart of the Defender convulsed.
In that moment, a thought entered Lucian's mind. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." He blinked it away, wiped the sweat off his brow with his free hand, clenched his fist, stilled the heart.
"The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." Lucian froze and cocked his head. It was not a thought. It was a voice. The voice of she who lay upon the sepulcher. High and sweet, it repeated the words.
Behind the closed lids, Lucian's eyes widened. The voice had a face. Her face. The brown eyes looked upon him with utter compassion; her lips smiled upon him with unqualified love.
"The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it." He stared blindly at the beatific smile. Tears trickled from the corners of his eyes as he rose to his feet and stretched out his hands to her.
Gabriel's body jerked on the cold stones. His heart convulsed; his chest heaved. Again. Again. Blood rushed through his veins, madly, giving sustenance to the starving body, feeding every organ, every nerve, every muscle. With a shuddering gasp, his lungs drank in a great gulp of air.
"Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies." The words were clearer now, closer. So close. His mouth twisted itself around them. Feebly, his voice spoke them.
He forced his swollen eyes to open. There lay his sword, the tips of his fingers almost touching it. He stretched out his arm, ignoring the agony the movement brought, and forced the stiffened fingers to uncurl, to close upon the sword. Slowly, he dragged it back, back, till he cradled it against his face. "Let thy blessed sword smite thine enemies," he whispered again through bleeding lips.
He raised his eyes. The red-haired man stood before the sepulcher but a few steps away with his head thrown back, his arms outstretched. Gabriel could not see his face. But he knew what he must do. What he would do. He must strike. First, he must stand.
To stand, he must heal. To heal, he must focus all his thoughts, his will, his remaining strength. To heal, he must believe that the gods would stay the hand of their enemy. He must look to his faith like a shield against the strike. The gods had set him this task; only through their will would it be completed.
Reluctantly, he released his grip on the sword and heaved himself onto his back. The cracked ribs shrieked; he held his breath. Let it out. Stretching, cringing at the pain it brought, biting back a scream, he reached down to the broken leg.
He touched it, felt it, probed it, defying the pain, denying it, then rolled onto his side, throwing his weight onto the leg, grinding it into the stone. He drew a deep breath and closed his eyes tightly, and shoved his hand, hard, against the bone. Grunting, moaning, sweat pouring down his face, his teeth locked together, he pushed. With a grating sound, the bone snapped back.
He gripped the leg. His breath coming hard and fast, he prayed. He prayed that the gods would stop the pain. He prayed that the gods would knit the ragged edges of the bone. He prayed that the gods would deign to give him, the fallen Defender of the Faithful, the strength to destroy their enemy. He prayed that he could stand.
Lucian was in ecstasy. Behind his closed lids, he beheld a vision of such beauty, such warmth, such peace. But he could not embrace it yet, could not let it carry him away, could not be one with it.
He opened his eyes to the face of the Defender. The blood, the dirt, the lines of pain, could not obscure the serenity, the justice, the goodness, in the gray eyes. "The gods grant forgiveness to all who seek it," echoed the words of she who lay upon the sepulcher.
He saw the flash of steel, felt the bite. He looked down at the blood pouring from his breast, felt his strength draining from him, smiled at the step closer it brought him to peace. Yet one more thing must he do.
With great joy, he fell to his knees before the Defender of the Faithful. With his last breath, his voice rang out strong and true. "Forgive me, Chosen."