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Before

Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

-Survivors journal
Name unknown

Chapter 19

“Jim, get up!” Konstantin tugged on the American’s shoulder insistently, ignoring the gravel cutting into his kneecaps. Hot tears blurred his vision. His friend wasn’t getting up. His friend couldn’t get up. Everything was going wrong.

Where was Brita?

Choking, Konstantin lurched to his feet and sprinted up the trail, leaving the crooked, gooey mess that had until recently been a person, that had until recently been James German the American, where it lay.

What started out as a pleasant walk through the steamy greenhouses behind Merlin’s compound to sneak a few fresh fruits and vegetables had become sinister. Jim and Snorri had both been beaten to death. Jim’s head had been stove in, and Snorri’s spine was cracked and broken. Judging from the marks in the gravel path, Snorri hadn’t died immediately, and had used his last strength to drag himself beside his lover. They lay now holding hands. Konstantin didn’t need his inquisitorial powers of deduction to know who was responsible for their deaths. He needed to find Brita!

Konstantin lowered his head, his rhythmically slapping feet scoring deep grooves in the fine gravel of the pathway. I should have been more vigilant! He cursed himself. I should have known better! The Church would never give us up. It was only a matter of time until they sent a hunter to track us down.

Konstantin was a better than good Inquisitor, but in the eyes of his superiors, he had never been the best. That accolade belonged to another. He had met the man with the hammer once in passing. He knew who had come to the island. He knew what had come to the island. And he most certainly knew why.

Brita, where are you!? Konstantin growled with the effort of running. His legs burned and his breath came hard and fast. He was feeling his age.

Ever since he and his sister stepped off the ramp leading from the sloped hull of the Sea Wraith and onto the frigid dock in an unnamed Icelandic village, their lives frantic pace had slowed dramatically.

***

The old man stood alone on the dock, the collar of his fur-lined coat pulled up to shield his ears from the biting wind. Neither his disheveled white hair nor the deep wrinkles around his piercing grey eyes could diminish the man’s obvious vitality.

“You’re late boy.” He scowled, his gaze burning into Naoise with shrewd intelligence.

Konstantin was amazed to see the giant Northman visibly flinch from the diminutive old-timer’s accusation.

“Sorry, sir,” the one-eyed warrior brushed a hand through his bristly mohawk, “We’ve been busy.”

“Papa!” Deirdre had just emerged from the stale belly of the submarine and, ignoring the ladder beside her, leapt gracefully from the curved hull of the ship onto the sea damp dock.

The old man’s scowl was as short-lived as he was long. As soon as he had the beautiful young woman secure in his tight embrace, his icy demeanor dropped away, and he favored the travelers gathered on the warped wood of the dock with a broad smile.

“That’s much better. Welcome home my angel.” He gestured with one hand, the other still wrapped tight across Deirdre’s waist, “Let’s get inside, before your friends freeze where they stand.”

Konstantin followed the departing pair, using one hand to help steady Brita. The dock was dangerously slick.

He nudged James. “Was that?”

“Yep, that’s our Raven’s daddy. The mighty Merlin himself.”

Konstantin lifted an eyebrow. “Huh. I thought he’d be taller.”

***

The panicked former Inquisitor forced leaden legs to keep moving. He had to. Keep. Going. The pathway was narrower here. Low hanging branches scratched at his face. God! The greenhouses in Iceland were enormous! They had entire orchards inside.

He could only guess about the others, but the one he now travelled through had definitely been built to last. Understandable, considering that it contained a treasure more valuable than diamonds. It was like a gothic cathedral and a fortress combined. The ratio of plate glass to thick steel and heavy stone was definitely non-traditional for a greenhouse, and it encompassed acres.

Konstantin had been deeply impressed by the Icelandic people. Determination, organization and no small amount of luck had gotten the island nation through the horrors of the Judgment surprisingly unscathed. Consequently, they had at their disposal a wealth of technologies most of mainland Europe had long forgotten.

****

“It’s because of our volcanoes,” the old man, Merlin, explained as he rocketed past another slow moving truck. The narrow two-lane highway was crowded with traffic. It seemed to Konstantin that everyone on the island must own a car.

“We’ve been tapping into renewable sources of power for ages. Geothermal, hydroelectric, some wind in the interior.

After nuclear plants were banned at the Kinshasha convention, and petroleum nearly depleted, electric power for most nations became nearly impossible to maintain. While the rest of the world was freezing, we had heat to spare.” He pointed at the roadway below them, almost rear-ending a busload of colorfully dressed school children. “You can’t tell now, since it’s not snowing today, but even the roads are heated.” He cut to the shoulder, giving the irate looking bus driver a jaunty wave as he screamed past. “And when the weather is too bad, we have even more tunnel systems than we do surface streets. Being able to drive all year is convenient, to say the least.”

Konstantin clung to the plastic handle mounted above the window of the sedan, trying not to think evil thoughts. He didn’t like cars. Especially not ones driven by old men as aggressive as Deirdre’s father.
Not that he hadn’t had a choice. He could have went in the bus with James, Snorri and the twins, instead of being squished into the back of Merlin’s hydrogen fueled deathtrap next to Brita, Felix and Naoise, but he had insisted. His roiling stomach told him that he had made a mistake.

****

There had been many mistakes made over the past few months, Konstantin reflected, the least being his choice of transport upon arrival. Those mistakes had lead up to his present predicament, aimlessly running through an acres-wide greenhouse, looking for proof of his sister’s continued existence.

Alarm klaxons began sounding. He supposed that was a good sign. At least someone somewhere still lived to set off the alarms.

Konstantin cursed the dense produce growing on either side of him. Visibility was almost nothing, and the moisture-rich air seemed to deaden sound.

There was a flash of light ahead and to his left, swiftly followed by a wail of rage and frustration that somehow didn’t seem quite human. The light had to mean Deirdre was involved already. As to the continued roaring, Konstantin couldn’t fathom its significance. Konstantin knew that Deirdre and Naoise had been walking through the gardens. He had shared a ride with them from Merlin’s house. He was glad Deirdre was in the fight. They had come to a tacit understanding considering her thaumaturgic abilities. It hadn’t been easy for him.

****

“I know what you want Frederick,” Merlin had the habit of addressing everyone on a first name basis. “And my short answer is no.”

Konstantin didn’t explode. Brita thought his customary half-rage was two parts show nowadays anyway. He used his quiet voice when he responded however, the one that still definitely presaged actual violence. Brita buried her face in her hands.

“Look here wizard; I came halfway across the world so that you could cure my sister. I killed men. I rode a horse! If you think I’m just going to accept failure now and walk away, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Merlin either didn’t recognize the threat in Konstantin’s voice, or more likely chose to ignore it. He was like that. Instead he laughed, clapping liver-spotted hands.

“Wizard!? What do you think this place is, Camelot? If you haven’t noticed, my dinner table is of a rectangular nature. Frederick my friend, I have no more magical abilities than the fork you’re using to eat your dinner with, which is delicious by the way, isn’t it? I caught the fish myself.”

The Inquisitor directed his ire to the dark-skinned woman sitting across from him. She shook her head until dyed hair and feathers were swinging everywhere.

“No, I did not lie to you. I never said he was a witch, warlock, wizard or anything like that. I said he could help Brita, if that was in her best interest.”

“Explain.”

“I’m a scientist dear boy!” The old man seemed crestfallen when his dark-eyed guest appeared less than awed by his declaration. “It’s true; I don’t have a shred of magical ability. My talents lie elsewhere. Like cooking! Don’t you like the fish?”

Konstantin stood up. He had heard enough.

“If you don’t have any magic, you are of no use to me. I don’t care about your cooking skills you senile old fool.”
Merlin finally lost his customary grin.

“You should Mr. Konstantin. I’ve cooked up an antidote to magic after all.”

Konstantin sat back down.

Merlin wiped his mouth on a sleeve, gathering his thoughts.

“I loved Deirde’s mother. When she died giving birth, I was lost. Here I was, woefully unqualified, suddenly alone with this fragile little miracle, and my heart had been broken into a million little pieces. I don’t know what you would have done in my place, but I know what I did. I put Deirdre into the care of a gaggle of nursemaids, and I hid. I hid in my labs. I hid in my work. I buried myself in research to escape the pain. When it became apparent that Deirdre was one of those lucky few blessed with special abilities I thought Aha! Here is a way I can help my baby, while still taking the coward’s way out. I dedicated myself to the study of Magic. Where does it come from? Why didn’t it always exist? Why do only some people manifest symptoms? Deirde was lucky. For her, mastery of her gift came easily, naturally even. Like Brita. This is not always the case. For some people the power grows too quickly, corrupts. They are consumed by it. It is for these poor souls that I’ve tried to create a neutralizing counteractant.”

Konstantin could contain himself no longer, “You mean there’s a cure, and you’ve been sitting here doing nothing when you could have been eliminating this curse once and for all!? Your own daughter is a victim!”

Merlin’s face grew dark. “Careful Inquisitor Konstantin. While there are some who distrust magic, yours is the only nation that has taken an official stance against it. Elsewhere in the world, it carries less negative connotations. My treatments are only meant to be a last chance solution, something drastic, like severing the connection between the left and right side of the brain to help a dangerous epileptic find relief. Think before you decide that this is the right course of action for Brita. The treatment is…imperfect. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it is fatal. It is always painful. Is that something you really wish upon your sister?”

The former inquisitor fidgeted in his seat.

“Yes. Of course. I think so.”

****

Konstantin slowed his pace. He was getting close, but only fools rush into battle. He departed the path, took the road less travelled. That made all the difference. Konstantin was able to sneak up on the combatants without exposing himself.

He could make no sense of what he found.

****

“I’m glad you agreed to speak with me young Frederick.” Merlin had traded his habitual tropical themed button-down for a gray t-shirt and tweed blazer today. He was in a serious mood.

Konstantin toed the worn rug with an equally worn boot. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for us since we arrived here sir, but my mind is made. Nothing you might say can change that.”

Merlin tapped a large book on his desk. “I’m not here to convince you of anything Fred. I just wanted to show you this. You’re a smart kid. You figure it out.”

He pushed the book forward, and his piece being said, let himself out through the door Konstantin had just entered.
Konstantin pulled the book off the desk, carrying it to an armchair by the window. Even from across the room he could tell it was a Bible. One that had seen better days.

Settling the book on his lap, he opened it with care. The binding was loose, and the pages were brittle. He checked the publication information. Konstantin’s hands shook slightly. The book was over a century old.

Konstantin had never seen a pre-Judgment Bible. Rarer than diamonds, they were heavily protected. The Church had an entire sect of brothers dedicated to seeking out these ancient manuscripts. Whenever a book was found and authenticated, it was brought to the Vatican and hidden away in secret archives. For protection supposedly. Only the highest ranking clergy were granted access to the library-catacombs. Their specific location was a well-kept secret that even the Inquisitors weren’t privy to.

Konstantin tugged on his ear. He read and re-read. He was troubled. He now knew why the old books were so heavily guarded, so inaccessible. He carried a bible in his coat pocket at all times. He had it memorized.

This one was different. Radically so.

He could make no sense of what he found.

****

The bald-headed Inquisitor, Solomon Rex, had changed since Konstantin saw him last. He had always been a large man, but he now bulged grotesquely, his body a quivering mass of overgrown muscle. More disturbingly, he hovered half a body length above the battlefield, held aloft by the beating of leathery wings. Sprouting from his shoulder blades, they were featherless, bat-like, bone and skin distorted where his tattoos had stretched into meaningless blotches.
Deirdre did something. A jagged bolt of lightning screamed out of the cloudless sky, shattering part of the greenhouse roof before blasting into the top of the mutated Inquisitor’s skull. Astonishingly, the madman shrugged off the strike like it was a punch from a toddler. No wonder the fight continued. Deirdre’s sorceries had almost no effect.
Konstantin blinked, his eyes scarred by the afterimage of the lightning. The flying Inquisitor bled from a dozen tiny cuts, where he had been kissed by glass from the falling ceiling. He wasn’t invincible.

Naoise roared a challenge, charging with his enormous axe raised. Rex grinned, spinning his gruesome hammer deftly. Its head was still stained with Jim’s blood. He dropped to the ground to meet the Northman’s wild rush.
With a grunt of effort, the two men swung their weapons. Axe head met hammer haft. Both shattered. The winged Inquisitor stared at his ruined weapon. For the first time, he seemed worried.

Naoise laughed, taunting. Leaping forward he grappled with the distracted Inquisitor, tackling him to the ground.
Naoise was strong. Even as a boy he could out wrestle men twice his age. He had never been beaten.

He lasted almost forty seconds.

Slowly but inexorably, Solomon Rex got his arms into position. Naoise grunted and strained, but even he was no match for the swollen Inquisitor. With a bestial roar Rex lifted and separated. Naoise’s thick neck snapped like a twig.

“No!” Deirdre’s howl shook the building. As her shriek built, so did the psychic turbulence. Lightning weakened glass couldn’t withstand the witch’s fury. Door-sized sheets began dropping into the orchard.

Solomon Rex screamed in triumph. Dodging a falling pane he swept around the inside of the greenhouse.

“Konstantin! I know you’re in here! I can smell your blasphemy!” Darting forward he speared one of the central steel support pillars of the building, ripping it from its foundation. The entire building sagged noticeably.

“I’m going to bury you Konstantin! Then I’m going to take your whore sister back for Judgment. The next time you see her, it will be in the fires of hell!”

Banking sharply, Rex shot upward like a rocket, blasting yet another hole in the roof of the greenhouse. The building was several stories tall, built of heavy steel beams and inches-thick glass, designed to repel Iceland’s frigid winters. It was not designed to survive a concentrated attack. This last puncture was too much. Metal groaned, rivets popped, and spider webs of cracks spread. Like a house of cards, the building collapsed below the rising Inquisitor.

Knocked from his feet, Konstantin crawled for the relative safety beneath a gnarled fig tree. He didn’t make it. Loosed from its bracket, the heavy metal bowl of a hanging light fixture plummeted toward earth, clipping the scrambling Inquisitor at the base of his skull, driving his face into the moist soil of the greenhouse floor. As the world caved in his senses fled.

Darkness came.

***

Rex circled around, enjoying his handiwork. The collapse had been complete. Where once a truly colossal greenhouse had stood there was now just a mound of rubble. Tons of twisted metal and shattered glass winked merrily in the morning sunshine for acres in all directions. Konstantin had been well and truly buried.

Rex chuckled, his chuckles quickly progressing to gut-wrenching laughter. It was not even noon, and he had already killed the traitor and two of his friends. Flapping further into the air, he set course for the beautiful house on the top of the hill. It was time to finish the job. Solomon Rex was having a wonderful day.

***

Wake up.

Konstantin was becoming annoyed with the voices inside his head. He was definitely tired of getting knocked out. Even so, he didn’t want to wake up. Why wouldn’t they leave him alone?

Please wake up! We need your help!

Icy realization flooded through the fallen man’s veins. The voices in his mind sounded like people he knew. The twins!

Konstantin rolled out of his bed of dirt and leaves, an impressive lump already forming where the roof had landed on the back of his head. He looked around. Luck had been with him. Falling beams had lodged against the thick trunk of the tree he had been trying to reach, creating a small clear space in the razor sharp wasteland of broken glass. At the far edge of this fortuitous pocket of safety Deirdre slumped, holding Naoise’s ragdoll form. In death, the brave warrior seemed somehow diminished.

The young woman was oblivious to Konstantin’s activities within their newly developed cave. Rocking back and forth she keened quietly, tears streaming. Konstantin gently squeezed her shoulder. He was ignored.

He grunted. He was on his own then.

The battered young man began searching for a way out of their crystalline prison that wouldn’t tear him to ribbons. Hopefully he wouldn’t be too late.

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