Although there is much disagreement regarding the great cataclysm, as far as we can tell it began with the hyper-industrialization and inevitable ecological destruction of the Corporate Empire of China, and the economic collapse of the former United States of America which quickly followed. The Chinese gasped their last smog filled breathes with typical stoicism, but the implosion of the last great superpower was devastating for their American subjects. The resulting hyper-inflation and martial law led to a continent-wide revolution, whose brutality and scope made that nation’s previous wars pale in comparison.
It is unknown who fired the first missiles but retaliatory strikes engulfed their nation in a nuclear inferno. Ultimately the entire western hemisphere was lost.
Though the old world survived the American Armageddon relatively unscathed, radioactive dust, and soot from the fires burning across half the planet blanketed the earth in an impenetrable cloud cover for months, heralding a generation long period of nuclear winter.
Waves of people fled to the equator, the fools. For the first time, we could no longer ignore the third world, but when we needed them the most they turned their back on us. Their borders were closed. It didn’t matter. The winter found them too. In the end, humanity was forced underground. These came to be known as the Dark Times.
It was a desperate era. The oldest among us remember the hunger and fear clearly, though we were just children then. The hastily constructed government bunkers had never been meant as permanent residences, nor had they been designed for so many refugees. When we finally ran out of rations midway through our second decade, we ate the mushrooms that grew out of the corpses of our dead. Then we ate the corpses. The scientists said there was no telling how long the winter might last, that it could possibly go on forever. We hoped they were wrong. We certainly couldn’t go on forever.
The choice was clear for those of us remaining underground. Risk returning to the possibly toxic surface, or stay in our bunkers and starve. On what became day one of the new calendar, for the first time in many long years, we walked above ground. I still recall the gentle kiss of cleansing rain on my upturned face as I left the elevator shaft, their drops mingling with my tears of relief and joy. The rain was warm. It was Spring.
No treachery is worse than betrayal by one you love. Bathed in an indigo glow that could not exist, buffeted by winds that were not there, Frederick Konstantin knew betrayal.
“How dare you…” He hissed through clenched teeth. “This is heresy!”
Under the weight of his glare the woman faltered, her summoned lightning flickering and then fading.
“Freddy I didn’t ask for this. You must know that,” She pleaded.
“Do not call me that!” He thundered, “Don’t you dare call me that, witch!”
With a wail she collapsed into the corner burying her face in her knees. She still clutched her rosary. “Freddy how can you say that? How can you? You know me, I’m your sister!”
Swiftly he strode across the room, and standing over her he yanked the cross from her grasp, scattering beads onto the floor.
“You are a witch, and an abomination. I don’t know what has become of my sister, but you are not her.”
At his declaration, she began sobbing uncontrollably, hugging her legs and rocking back and forth. Konstantin watched her for a moment before he pulled a walkie-talkie radio out from underneath his robes. Using the radio, he summoned a contingent of Swiss Guard. If Sister Brita noticed, she gave no sign; she just continued staining the rug with her tears.
How dare she blaspheme this way? Konstantin fumed. Magic was a tainted gift from the devil; his teachers were very clear in this regard. How could little Brita, the only family he had left, the girl he had helped raise, be a witch? Could that precocious child really be a servant of the Fallen? Konstantin cursed her then for forcing this duty upon him. For duty it was. He was Domini Cane, a hound of God, warrior-monk of the Holy Inquisition. He was charged with routing out the scourge of magic, regardless of where that magic was found. He had condemned politicians, and physicians, women of every imaginable position. Now he must condemn his own sister.
The guard arrived shortly, and Brita did not resist as she was shackled and dragged out the door. So she went, a figure in white, to places dark and painful. Left behind, a figure in black stood alone, his slumped shoulders bearing the weight of the world.
Slowly, Konstantin let out a breath he had not realized he had been holding. Reaching upwards, he gently twisted the naked bulb in its socket, plunging his sister’s room into darkness. Without a backwards glance he strode down the hall. No matter how quickly he walked he was pursued by memories.
He was eleven and she was five and their father had brought them to the park. Smell of fresh cut grass and his father’s pipe. Laughing they chased each other through the playground while their father sat with the old men who played chess and talked about troubling grown-up things. Later he bought them sweet ice from the cart on the corner but Fred spilled his on the walk home. When he cried, she gave him hers. She said she didn’t want any more, though he knew it was her favorite…
She found the sparrow outside her window. Father said it must have fallen by accident, during the storm. Its wing was broken. Father told her to leave it alone, but she cried until he let her bring it inside. She cared for it into the spring when it was strong again. She didn’t want to let it go, but father said it was a wild animal and it wasn’t right to take away any creature’s freedom. She cried again when it flew away…
Their mother had died giving birth to Brita. Now their father lay dying of the cancer. Konstantin hated the sickroom, hated the smells of disinfectant, and the adults who always spoke in whispers. His father had pulled him close, amid all the scary tubes and machines and made him swear that he would always protect her. That he was the man of the family now. Konstantin swore…
Konstantin had just been ordained. She had come to the ceremony. They had seen little of each other over the past few years, he with his training and she with her studies. It had been a harsh life growing up under the Order, but he had kept his promise to his father. She had been safe. She kissed him on the cheek then, told him she was proud of him. He had never been so happy. Now he could finally begin fighting back against the evils the Church had taught him about, the magic that he now knew had taken his parents away from him. That year Konstantin killed for the first time…
Konstantin remembered. When he finally reached his quarters he shut the door and sat down in the darkness upon his cot. Frederick Konstantin, the immovable veteran of a thousand successful inquisitions held his sister’s cross and cried.
Demons are a funny thing. Konstantin found himself battling his, and he was having a devil of a time of it too. Immobile upon the cot, his white knuckled grip on the cross was the only evidence of his internal struggle. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran to the tip of his nose, to fall to the stone floor below. Hours passed. Finally he let out a deep breath, straightening out of his slumped position. A decision had been made.
Committed to his course, any appearance of indecision melted away as he strode purposefully around his quarters. First he shed his robes, revealing black military style fatigue pants tucked into solid black boots, knotted to mid-calf. To this he added a wide belt with two holsters which contained matching silver semiautomatic handguns. The holsters hung low on his thighs, gunfighter style. After carefully folding his robes and placing them on his cot, he turned to the simple armoire which filled a corner of his room, selecting a long sleeved cotton shirt of silver and a hardened black leather vest. A quick search through his chest of drawers produced three blades, which went into his left boot and up his sleeves respectively. Although he preferred his pistols, there was a war on and usable bullets were a precious commodity. There was no guarantee he would be able to find them where he was going. A full length black leather jacket with silver cross shaped buttons completed the ensemble.
Suitably attired, Konstantin knelt before his writing desk, opening the top drawer. His hands paused only momentarily before removing the drawer’s contents. Inside were two books, one a simply bound Pope Innocent’s Bible and the other an enormous edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, guidebook of his order. The Bible went into a pocket of his coat, his sister’s cross into another. The Maleficarum he returned to its resting place. Removing a pair of leather gloves from his coat, he swept out of the room.
Anyone unlucky enough to be in the halls on his journey jumped to get out of the way. Few would dare approach a warrior-monk of the Inquisition on a mission, let alone one so angry that his grinding teeth were audible from three strides away. Konstantin threaded his way through traffic with the grace of an adder, his wrath held simmering just below the surface. Overhead, powerful speakers perpetually hissed with the rhetoric of his faith.
Shortly, he was in less inhabited areas, and his speed increased until his coat billowed behind him. Down in the deepest tunnels, Konstantin stopped in front of the steel portal leading to the dungeons, his way barred by two of the omnipresent Swiss Guard.
“Where is she?” he growled.
The guards looked at each other, their expressions unreadable beneath their facemasks.
“Where is who, sir?” One asked hesitantly. Not even the Swiss Guard wanted to court the ire of an Inquisitor dressed for war.
“The newest witch, you fools! The Sister!” Konstantin shrieked. Frightened, they leapt into action, one punching in that day’s code on the keypad beside the door, while the other beckoned Konstantin to follow down the now open corridor.
The guard brought Konstantin through a sterile, well lit hall of solid steel. The dungeons of the Inquisition were legendary. From snatches of whispered conversations that he had heard Konstantin knew that people believed them to be a primitive place, barely more than dirty stone caves with dripping water and flickering torches. Konstantin had always wondered how people came to believe baseless rumors with such certainty. Of course, no one who had entered these cells ever came out again to disprove them. These dungeons were where the church held those with magic.
They soon arrived at their destination and Konstantin looked around. It was an unmarked door in a hallway full of unmarked doors. Some were open. Some were closed. He couldn’t tell how the Swiss Guard kept track of where their prisoner’s were. He did not bother to ask.
“I will speak with her,” he told his imposing companion.
“Sir, it is standard procedure that no one interact alone with those suspected of the use of magic,” the guard began, “Additionally she has yet to receive her dose, and may prove dangerous.” He was referring to the hallucino-tranq serum used liberally on prisoners of the Inquisition to lower their resistance and nullify their unnatural abilities.
Konstantin sneered, fixing the man in his unsettling gaze. “Do you think I have something to fear from one such as her then?”
The man stood for another heartbeat, and then lowered his head. “No sir, of course not. Forgive me.”
“Just open the door.”
Turning, the guard pulled a key card from his gear, reaching towards the slot in the wall next to the door. When his back was turned Konstantin struck viciously, punching the giant at the base of the skull, underneath his helmet. His fall reminded Konstantin of a small avalanche he had once witnessed in the Italian Alps.
“The bigger they are…” Konstantin muttered, plucking the key card from the twitching hulk’s hand, kicking him in the head again for good measure.
Stepping to the wall he slid the key into the slot, causing the cell door to whoosh upwards in its hydraulic track. Konstantin stood silhouetted, the light in the hallway filtering past him into the inky black chamber. Sister Brita lay against the far wall, her manacled hands held up to shield her unadjusted eyes from the sudden illumination.
Konstantin turned, and grabbing the feet of the guard, dragged his limp form into the suddenly crowded cell. Sister Brita’s expression flew from frightened, to confused, to desperately hopeful as she realized who her visitor was. Drawing herself into a crouch she blinked rapidly up at Konstantin, seeming uncertain whether she should hug him or run from him. Deciding against fleeing, she stood and approached her brother, who was busy digging through the guard’s pockets. Finding the keys that fit her chains he unlocked them quickly, still avoiding looking her in the eye. Finally she grabbed his chin, forcing him to meet her gaze. Her brief incarceration had not diminished her beauty, if anything her slightly disheveled appearance somehow made her seem even more delicate and feminine. Konstantin thanked God that she had neither been drugged, nor had the interrogators gotten to her yet. He wondered if God was listening to him anymore.
“Fred, what is this?” She asked quietly. “What have you done?”
Konstantin glared at her, swatting her hand away. Poking a finger toward her face he growled, “how did this happen? What did you do?”
Brita stood quietly, swaying from side to side uncertainly, until slowly, haltingly, the words began to flow out of her.
“I…don’t really know.” Brita said, “No, that’s not exactly true. There was an accident two days ago. A crash in the city. One of our troop transport trucks hit a little girl. She was brought here to the infirmary, where our priest-practitioners did everything they could, but the damage was too severe. The accident had broken her neck, leaving her paralyzed, and in a coma. We weren’t going to be able to save her. Even with all our technology, all our medical knowledge, all we were doing was prolonging the inevitable. This small, innocent child was hooked up to our most powerful machines, but I could see her weakening with every artificially induced breath. There was no way she was going to survive through the night. We were ordered to focus our attention on other patients, ones who had a chance of survival. I decided then that at the very least, I wouldn’t let this poor girl die alone. After my shift, I came back to her room, and sat with her. I promised myself I would be with her, and hold her hand and pray until the end came. At first I was sad, but as time passed, I began feeling angry. I was watching this poor broken little girl, who had already lost so much, quietly die in the night, and I was doing nothing. I was doing nothing, but I knew I could help her. I still don’t know how I knew it Freddy, I swear, or what I did exactly, but as I held that girl’s hand, I could feel the hurt inside her, the wrongness of her injuries, and I knew how to make her right again. When I looked into myself, I suddenly felt this whole new awareness, and this new reserve of power that I had never felt before. I didn’t really know how to access or direct it, but I knew I had to try. I instinctively tapped this resource I felt inside myself, and I somehow transferred it into her. The effort exhausted me, but I kept doing it until I was totally spent. I felt so weak, like I had just gotten over a grave illness, but it was worth it Freddy, because I saved that girl. Right before I passed out, I felt her little fingers squeeze my hand, as if to say thank you.”
“So what happened the next morning?” Konstantin asked, “how did your superiors react?”
Brita suppressed a sob with a long, shuddery breath. “Badly. While I slept, that little girl woke up. I can’t imagine the terror she felt, waking up in an unfamiliar place, hooked to all those machines. She must have started crying, and fighting against her restraints, because by the time I woke up there was already a commotion of priests and sisters in the room. One of the priest-practitioners who was familiar with her file walked in, took one look at her, and ordered her executed. They killed her Freddy! Because they thought she was a witch! They knew she should have died that night, and that she could not possibly have healed without help, but they got it wrong. She wasn’t the witch. I am.”
Brita slumped against one of the cell walls, hugging her arms across her middle as she stared dejectedly at the floor.
“I should have never tried to help her. I doomed two people to death with my actions. Her, and me.”
Konstantin shook his head. “No. You don’t need to die this day. I made an oath to protect you Brita. I do not know what evil you are involved in, and I cannot approve, but I will do my best to see you cured of this curse. If however you ever use magic in my presence again, your reprieve will be over, because I will kill you myself. Do you understand?”
Brita raised her eyes. “Yes Frederick. But what do we do?”
“I have a few ideas. First we need to get out of here. Now.” Shoving the manacles back into Brita’s hands he said, “Put these back on, but do not lock them. They need only look secure.”
When that thing was done, Konstantin grabbed Brita’s elbow, pulling her from the cell. Removing the key card closed the door again, which left the prostrate Swiss Guard to slumber on in the dark. Pulling Sister Brita along Konstantin retraced his route, whisking past the guard at the entrance to the dungeons. His glare silenced any questions the guard thought to ask, and he remained standing at his post staring blindly at the far wall. Around the next corner Konstantin paused, pulling the grate off of a heating duct as quietly as possible. With equal stealth, he removed Brita’s restraints and set them as far back into the duct as he could reach. While he replaced the grate, Sister Brita busied herself smoothing her hair and clothes.
Once a semblance of normalcy was restored, they set off again, moving ever upwards through the complex. For all outward appearances they were just two more members of the Church, going about their business. Whenever it looked like they might be stopped, Konstantin’s fingers moved towards his pistols, hidden underneath his heavy coat. Every time however, they were passed by with little more than a word of greeting for Sister Brita, and an openly fearful glance toward Konstantin. The work of the Inquisitors was shrouded in secrecy, so none but another member of his order would have any idea that Sister Brita had been placed into custody. Luckily, Konstantin failed to cross paths with any of his brothers, and no alarm was raised.
Now that the most immediate danger seemed past, Konstantin felt the annoying beginnings of regret and indecision. What was he doing protecting a proven user of magic? How could he come to terms with his actions since leaving his chamber? If he were to turn back now, he would be chastised, but probably forgiven in the end. If he continued on this path however, his future contained only damnation.
As if sensing his mood Brita remained quiet, trailing him by a half step. They made it through the new Vatican unchallenged, passing under the thick walls of the basilica and out the great bronze doors. Once in St. Peter’s square they disappeared into the crowds of somber pilgrims gathering to receive the blessing of the Church.
On they walked down the busy roadway into New Rome, away from their home. On they walked, toward eternal damnation. On they walked, and their passage did not go unnoticed.