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Chapter 1

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 intonations 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 uniform 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 of hardwood, 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, who they 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 now completely ravaged, 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 Holy 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. That was 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 the 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.”

“Who?”

“You sir.”

Konstantin felt a flash of irritation. He was never going to get to the kitchens at this rate.

“By whom?”

“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.

“Boy?”

“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 upon the faded rug, and a small shelf on the near wall. The shelf contained a tidy medical kit, a dog eared Post-Judgment Bible, and various medical books, one of which the sister was in the process of returning. Sister Brita was a tall, slender young woman, with a well-toned 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, so as to be out of the way while she tended to her patients. With her lightly freckled nose and high cheek bones, in another life 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 appeared washed out, like old photographs he had seen in his travels amongst the ruins of a dead world. At the moment, they held more red than blue however, and had the telltale puffiness of someone who has been recently crying.

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 queried. “Are you ill?”

She did not answer immediately. Instead she removed her hands from his and began telling her rosary, avoiding his gaze the while. After a time, she turned to 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 felt 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.

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