Felix and Naoise were fighting again. Not because they were angry or upset, but because they were brothers, and that is what brothers do.
“Naoise, stop!” Felix screamed, trying ineffectually to escape from underneath his older brother’s heavier body. Laughing mercilessly, Naoise raised his hand into the air, so his smaller opponent could clearly see the clawed shape he had made with his fingers and thumb. Ignoring Felix’s protests, he lowered his hand slowly and clamped it home just above Felix’s kneecap, his rigid fingers digging painfully into the tender flesh on each side of the boy’s thigh.
“Whale bite!” he howled in triumph, as his brother bucked in agony beneath him. Desperate to escape the dreaded whale bite, Felix flailed wildly, his thrashing almost upsetting the kitchen table they were playing under.
“Alright, that is enough!” their mother complained, as she rescued her coffee mug from the quaking table. Grabbing her trusty wooden spoon, she delivered a few desultory swats to her rambunctious young, causing them to scamper giggling out from under the far side of their table fortress.
“It is too early for Momma to be dealing with naughty little boys,” she cautioned, still brandishing her spoon threateningly. “It’s a beautiful day today, why don’t you both go play outside and leave me in peace?”
“Outside, outside?” Naoise asked mischievously, while he helped Felix with the laces on his boots.
“Oh, you think that’s funny do you? You just try to go up top Mister, see how funny it is when your body freezes solid and your lungs fill up with poison gas. Just take your brother to the greenhouse, and try to stay out of trouble for once.”
“Yes Mom!” Naoise promised, as he and Felix scampered out through the kitchen door and into the bustling public tunnel beyond.
Dodging the heavy morning foot traffic, the two boys ran through the wide tunnels of their home city, their way warmed and well lit thanks to Iceland’s lifesaving abundance of easily tapped geothermal energy. Escaping the familiar residential tunnels, the boys kept on until they reached the underground city’s closest agricultural district. Emerging from the tunnel mouth, the boys ran whooping into the vast greenhouse they had chosen for their games. Their favored greenhouse, like all of the food-libraries in the city, was enormous. This one contained an apple orchard, with rows and rows of fruit-bearing trees spreading into the distance. The greenhouse was so tall that, unlike most of the rest of the city, it wasn’t fully buried. Its reinforced glass peak actually broke through the ice sheet high enough to allow natural light in to nourish the leafy crowns of the trees planted below.
“Tag!” Felix yelled, punching his brother on the arm before darting into the shadows between the closest trees. “You’re it!”
Nine years old to Naoise’s twelve and a half, Felix couldn’t over-power his taller, huskier brother, but he could out run him. Laughing with the boundless enthusiasm of youth, Felix led Naoise on a reckless chase through the early morning shadows of the orchard, ducking low hanging limbs and swerving in a random arc through the orderly rows of trees.
Risking a glance back over his shoulder, Felix saw Naoise burst into the same aisle he was running down, his brother’s head down and legs churning like a miniature bipedal rhino. As Felix watched, a small object sailed down from a nearby tree and struck Naoise between the shoulder blades. Grunting at the discomfort, Naoise skidded to a halt and turned back to see what had hit him.
“Look,” Felix said, jogging back to point at the source of the attack, “it was an apple. That tree threw it at you.”
As Naoise looked skeptically at the tree his younger brother pointed to, the tree giggled.
“Ahh! Talking tree!” Felix yelled, excited to learn about this hitherto unknown ability.
“No, it wasn’t the tree,” Naoise said, “look, there’s somebody up there. Hey! What are you doing up there?”
Squinting through the leaves of the tree, his gaze drawn by another tinkling peel of laughter, Felix was a little disappointed to see that his brother was right. There was someone hidden up in the topmost canopy.
“Come down here!” Felix complained, “and stop throwing apples at us!”
Branches rustled and bent as the figure climbed swiftly down toward the two boys. When the figure finally revealed itself, the brothers were surprised to see that it was a girl, her bare feet streaked with mud, her shorts and t-shirt rumpled and stained from climbing. With the deft grace of a dancer, the girl walked out along a low hanging branch toward the two boys. Once she got close enough, she sat down on the limb and flopped backwards, keeping her place in the tree by hooking her legs around the branch at the knees. Dangling upside down like that, her face was now level with Naoise’s. Being a little shorter, Felix’s face was more even with the girl’s long dark hair, which he could see was snarled, knotted, and full of twigs.
The girl’s skin, where it was exposed on her bare legs and arms, and in a band across her belly where her shirt had drifted downwards as she hung upside down, was dark, very different from the boy’s pale white complexion. She looked to be about Naoise’s age, maybe twelve or thirteen, and even with the awkward spindly body of adolescence, she was very pretty, with wide green eyes and full lips.
“I didn’t throw apples at you.” She said to Felix, “Just at him.” She stared at Naoise for what, to Felix, seemed like an overly long time. Equally exasperating to the younger boy, who at nine years old, was still completely ignorant about the birds and the bees and girls hanging from trees, Naoise seemed content just to stare right back.
“Why were you up in that tree anyway?” Felix asked.
“I was trying to look outside. I thought if I climbed high enough, I could see the surface.”
“Why would you want to see the surface?” Felix asked, perplexed. “There’s nothing up there.”
“There’s nothing up there now.” She said, “but there used to be. We used to all live up on the surface. People, animals, even the trees.” The girl grinned conspiratorially. “You guys want to know a secret? My dad is a scientist, and he says that its getting warmer up there. He says in a few more years, we’ll probably be able to go back up there, for good!”
“Wow,” Felix said, impressed, “do you really think so? You think we’ll really be able to leave the city someday?”
“I know it,” the girl promised, “that’s why I was trying to see what it was like! So that I’ll be ready when it’s time. The trees here are too short though. I couldn’t see anything from them except the sky.”
Releasing her grip on the branch with her legs, the girl flipped backwards, but instead of dropping immediately down to the ground, she drifted there slowly, like her body only grudgingly accepted the law of gravity.
“It was nice to meet you both, but I’ve got to go now.” She waved to the two boys before turning and scampering off.
“Where are you going?” Felix called after her.
“To find a greenhouse with taller trees!” came her laughing reply.
“Wait!” Naoise yelled, finally finding his voice, “What’s your name!?”
“It’s Deirdre!” her answer drifted back through the orchard to the ears of the two boys, both of whom were excited to have met her, albeit for very different reasons.
The man was hungry. He had been hungry for a while. Odds were likely that he would continue to be hungry for a while longer. Praying for patience, he pulled back the thick sleeve of his robe, shielding the illuminated face of his wristwatch with his right hand. This partially counteracted the glare from the fluorescent panels in the chamber ceiling above. Their harsh artificial light created an unnaturally bright environment, and ironically made it hard to see anything clearly without squinting. 11:42.
Frowning in concentration, he did the math, and was frustrated to discover that he had been standing silently for nearly nine hours. No wonder his organs had begun digesting each other.
“Is there a problem Brother Konstantin?” asked an inflectionless voice, its inhuman tone a perfect partner to the unnatural lighting.
“No Father,” Frederick Konstantin turned toward the figures seated behind him upon high-backed seats of black oak while wincing inwardly, “please forgive my weakness.”
Although they shared the same well-lit chamber with him, somehow their faces remained hidden in shadow under the deep cowls of their heavy black robes.
“God forgives, Inquisitor-brother,” the figure seated closest to Konstantin spoke again; “I do not.”
Then, turning to the front of the chamber, he said “bring in the final accused of the day.”
“Praise the Lord.” Konstantin murmured, as he also redirected his attention to the far wall. Truthfully, the never ending ceremonies and rituals bored him. He was much happier in the field, doing what he did best, away from the fanatics who dwelt in the City.
The room was large; easily fifty strides across, and was nearly devoid of furnishings. The walls and floor were steel, polished to reflect the light from the fluorescent ceiling. Bisecting the middle of the room was a pane of shatterproof glass thick enough to withstand the detonation of a medium-sized bomb. Konstantin’s half contained only himself and his three menacing companions upon their thrones, and a doorway behind them so artfully fitted that when closed it became nearly invisible within the otherwise unmarred surface of the wall.
On the far side of the room, across the glass partition, the doorway’s twin opened, allowing two of the enormous Swiss Guard in their fearsome black riot gear to drag the prisoner in. The prisoner was quickly shackled by the wrists to a thick metal chain hanging from the ceiling. This task completed, the two identical giants left without a word, pausing only to genuflect as they passed underneath the heavy metal crucifix mounted above the door. With their exit, all that remained to bear witness to the emaciated figure hanging in the center of the room were Konstantin and his masters behind their glass divider.
Exposed under the too-bright lights, the prisoner’s every flaw and imperfection were in view, a fact which was not lost upon the just-chastised Brother Konstantin. He knew the room had been designed this way to show man’s imperfection in the face of God, and he silently praised the Lord for granting his ancestors such wisdom.
In the glare of the electric lights, it was clear that the prisoner’s incarceration had not been kind. Her once stylish dress, now ragged and soiled, hung slack on a wasted frame. Konstantin could tell that she lacked the strength to stand. Though her toes were touching the floor, all of her weight rested upon her already scarred and bloody wrists. By the way her head hung low against her chest, he was fairly certain that she was unconscious.
Even if she had been awake, he knew she would be incapable of recognizing what was occurring. The prisoners that came to this room were highly dangerous, and as a result were kept heavily drugged to minimize their grasp on reality.
Glimpses of the woman’s ruined face showed what could have once been an attractive visage. It was completely ravaged now, with most of her teeth and one eye completely gone. The scarring exposed on her filthy face and arms was still pink and new, while some of the deeper lacerations even now bled freely. Konstantin was genuinely surprised she was still breathing. The interrogators of his order were known for their enthusiasm.
“Prisoner UB7853,” Konstantin’s three superiors began eerily in unison. All prisoners who found their way here lost the right to their given name, and instead were assigned a number based on some unfathomable Theo-bureaucratic system. “You are accused of witchcraft, a grave offense.”
“Under questioning, you have confessed to crimes against humanity and our Lord God in your dark pursuits,” the three robed in black continued. Konstantin nodded. That was all the closure he needed. All use of magic had been declared forbidden by the Church. That she had loudly professed her innocence when Konstantin captured her meant nothing. Eventually all brought to questioning admitted to the most heinous of crimes. Some, like this prisoner, took longer than others to crack, but they always did. Those interrogated by the Holy Inquisition always confessed. Ergo, the Holy Inquisition was never wrong.
“Prisoner UB7853, you are found guilty of the use of magic and sentenced to purification by burning,” The Tribunal finished in their dusty knell. “His will be done.”
Before the flat echoes of their final declaration had subsided, grates in the floor underneath the prisoner opened, unleashing a maelstrom of fire into the room. Even protected on their side of the glass wall, the onlookers could feel the temperature spike as the inferno consumed the pitiful figure in chains.
Konstantin was unmoved. Inquisitors were always invited to witness the sentencing of their captives. Though the fires burned hot enough to ignite the very air in the chamber, he knew that they could not come close to competing with the torment the witch now faced as she received her eternal punishment in hell. Witnessing the wrath of God unleashed was an intimidating experience, but one he had experienced hundreds of times previously. Although he was young, that was already more than most of the other members of his order. Konstantin was an efficient Inquisitor.
“You have done well in bringing this newest sinner to justice, Inquisitor-Brother, as we have come to expect.” The figure seated closest to Konstantin croaked. “We are finished for the day, and we leave you to your meditations. Tomorrow you will receive your new assignment, and a new opportunity to bring the Lord’s light against the dark perversions of magic.”
“I am grateful for the opportunity to do the Lord’s work, Father,” Konstantin replied as the fires raged before him.
He bowed deferentially as the three arose, the door opening seemingly of its own accord as they approached. Following at a respectful distance, Konstantin strode out of the room, the lights in the chamber darkening as they exited. Had he spared a glance over his shoulder, he would have seen the fires extinguish, leaving nothing of the prisoner but a small pile of white ash upon the otherwise empty floor.
In the now abandoned chamber, the titanic cross on the far wall glowed balefully, its metal having absorbed the heat of the fires. It took a long time to cool.
He was still hungry. His duties for the day finally finished, he looked forward to breaking his fast in the Basilica’s main kitchens, knowing that even at this late hour they would be bustling with staff devoted to the nutritional needs of his order. Not even thoughts of the flavorless gruel that waited could slow his ground-covering strides; such were the arguments coming from his belly. Konstantin could vaguely remember when meals were a delight, when he was a child and his father was able to perform what to him seemed like culinary miracles. Of course, he could also remember after his father died, when hunger ruled and he was more often than not kept awake at night from the gnawing pain in his empty gut. To a man who has starved, even gruel has its merits. Anything extra was sinful extravagance.
Konstantin absently rubbed his stomach to pacify the ache, a habit formed in his childhood that now, like then, brought only the smallest measure of comfort. As he turned a corner in the echoing corridor, Konstantin nearly bowled over a boy hurrying in the opposite direction.
“Brother Konstantin,” the young man stammered, “please, forgive me.”
As the young man looked up at the silent Konstantin, his undernourished body shivered. Konstantin sighed. He was used to people being uncomfortable in his presence. He was a killer. A monster. Konstantin had no doubt about his fate, when he died he would be joining all the witches and rebels he had sent before him to hell. He considered his own soul a fair price to pay for rooting out the evils of the world. He did not think he had ever met this young acolyte, but the child’s familiarity with his identity was not surprising. Konstantin was hard to miss.
It was his eyes. Konstantin was a relatively unremarkable looking man otherwise. At an even six feet, he was tall, but many were taller. He was also wiry, though not as cadaverously skinny as he had been before he was adopted by his order. His features were regular, and handsome in a way, with an angular jaw framed by unruly ink-black hair. His eyes though, were peculiar, their irises so dark that it was hard to tell where his pupils began. They were eyes that weighed and measured, and nearly always found lacking. Even the bravest souls faltered when subjected to their scrutiny. They made him seem much older than he really was.
At the moment, those eyes were peering down upon the frail young man, who was doing his unsuccessful best to sink through the solid stone floor of the corridor.
“What are you doing here child?” Konstantin asked, “You know these levels are restricted until you finish your initiation rites.”
“Yes sir, I know sir.” The boy replied, “I was sent sir, to find someone.”
Konstantin felt a flash of irritation. He was never going to get to the kitchens at this rate.
“Sister Brita sent me.”
Now he was confused. Sister Brita was a third order Franciscan regular, she worked in the infirmary. She very rarely sought out anyone from another order, let alone one of the warrior-monks of the Inquisition.
“She said it was urgent, sir.”
Konstantin prayed silently. Lord, deliver me from the histrionics of nurses.
“Very well boy, I am on my way. His will be done.”
“His will be done.” The young man parroted, and eyes downcast he scurried back down the passageway he had come, happy to be out from under the monk’s gaze.
“Yes sir?” The child squawked, nearly tripping himself as he spun back towards Konstantin. Konstantin stifled a smile, he knew it would only terrify the youth further.
“Where did Sister Brita say I should meet her? Is she in the infirmary?”
“Why no, sir.” The youth blinked feverishly. “She is in her chamber.”
“I see. Thank you.”
Most peculiar. As the child ran off toward the safety of the dormitories, Konstantin resumed his lengthy stride, determined to find answers as quickly as possible.
Konstantin’s journey took him through ways long and dark, his steps echoing off of unembellished stone and metal. Such was the new Vatican. Little of the original city had survived the Judgment. The conglomeration of Paleo-Christian, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque influences which had made up the ancient complex had been deemed needless excess, and was never rebuilt. No longer was God’s influence shown with fluted columns and gilded spires raised triumphant to the heavens. St. Peter’s Basilica was now an indomitable fortress, designed to repel both foreign invaders and any potential uprisings among the native populace. There had been uprisings, at the beginning, as the Church solidified its position by taking away more and more of its citizen’s freedoms. The rebels never succeeded. From this bastion of Faith, the Church exercised its divine might, bringing salvation to the masses of humanity with an iron fist. Its walls stood thick and strong, and its roots reached miles underground, housing the many orders and sects that comprised the Army of God.
Currently, the majority of that army was absent, fighting a holy crusade for oil against the Moors in the South. Recently, a great battle had been won in the trenches of that place, and His Holiness the Pope himself had travelled into the heathen lands to accept the surrender of the false prophet. The fortress-cathedral was far from empty however, even with the bulk of the Church’s men-at-arms engaged elsewhere.
With unerring accuracy, Konstantin threaded his way through the labyrinth of corridors and chambers until he finally reached his destination. The medical personnel maintained their own wing near the infirmary, so that they might be reached easily in an emergency.
He waited until the hallway cleared before approaching Sister Brita’s door. While private meetings between male and female members of the Church were not forbidden, the circumstances of this parlay were odd by anyone’s standards. Once the hall stilled, Konstantin knocked quietly on the door. It was a solid affair of hardwood bound in iron, yet it swung wide with a touch when unlatched from the inside.
“Frederick. Please come in.”
Konstantin acquiesced, stopping a stride away from the room’s only occupant. He had to duck to pass under the uncovered bulb hanging from the ceiling, the windowless room’s only light fixture. The cell was simple, with a military style cot and foot locker cushioned by a faded rug, and a small shelf on the near wall. The shelf contained a tidy medical kit, a dog eared Post-Judgment Bible, a collection of candles to provide light during the City’s frequent blackouts, and various medical books, one of which the sister was in the process of returning. Sister Brita was a tall, slender young woman, with an athletic figure that could only be partially hidden by her sterile white habit. Her hair was fair and, like most sisters of her order, kept short. With her lightly freckled nose and high cheek bones, in another age she could have been a model. Konstantin’s attention as always was drawn to her eyes when she turned to face him. Where his eyes were dark, hers were so light a blue that they seemed washed out, like old photographs he had seen in his travels amongst the ruins outside the city. At the moment, they held more red than blue however, and had the telltale puffiness of recent tears.
Her obvious distress stilled his tongue before he could remark about the late hour and his hunger. Instead he took her hands and gently sat them both on the edge of her cot.
“What troubles you Sister Brita,” Konstantin asked, “are you ill?”
She did not answer immediately. Instead she removed her hands from his and began telling her rosary, avoiding his gaze. After a time, she turned toward him and he was startled by how terrible she actually looked. Her normally smooth skin hung slack and pale, except for the circles under her eyes, which were so dark they almost looked like bruises. She stared into his eyes for a few heartbeats as if searching for some sort of sign before she took a deep breath and began.
“I’m sorry to trouble you like this Frederick. I know it is late and this is rather unusual, but I need to show you something.”
Konstantin gestured for her to continue. Slowly, hesitantly, she stood and backed into the far corner, raising her free hand before her, as the other clutched her beads to her chest.
The temperature of the room dropped perceptibly. Konstantin’s skin began to crawl and it seemed to him as if a multitude of voices whispered, their incomprehensible mutterings tickling the base of his skull. Konstantin’s hackles rose. Sister Brita’s raised hand glowed with an inner light, small cracklings of blue lightning passing between her outstretched fingers and periodically spinning off to dissipate into the rarefied air.
The Inquisitor’s mouth dropped open. Sister Brita Konstantin had magic.