Konstantin awoke to wrenching pain in his shoulders and wrists. He had been shackled, his arms strung up above him to a chain dangling from the ceiling. His vest and robes had been removed, leaving him naked from the waist up. He swung slightly, like a pendulum, his boot-tips brushing against the metal grating set in the floor below him. Directly before him was a glass wall, on the far side of which sat three figures on three identical black thrones. Father Clement stood beside them.
He was experiencing a familiar room from a new perspective. It was bright. Too bright. Konstantin imagined that he would still be able to see the four across the glass clear as day through closed eyelids.
The three old men spoke.
“Prisoner UB8484, you have been accused of the sin of apostasy by one of your own. You have been found guilty and are hereby sentenced to purification by burning. His will be done.”
Konstantin stretched, planting his feet firmly on the grating of the floor, arresting his swinging. He could hear pumps cycling below him, bringing in the gas that when lit would turn his half of the chamber into a raging inferno.
Konstantin raised his chin proudly, meeting his executioners’ gazes with a dark glower of his own.
“You made a mistake.”
Clement smiled sadly at the dangling prisoner. The gas had already been released. The process was irreversible. In a matter of seconds, his former student would be nothing but a bad memory for the Inquisition to shut away in a closet full of bad memories.
“What would that be, boy?”
The hiss of gas became a roar, igniters tumbled, and the floor belched forth its flame deluge. As the maelstrom engulfed
Konstantin he calmly replied, “You let me wake up.”
The fires burned hot. Konstantin’s rage burned hotter. The conflagration bathed his body, but he refused to let it find purchase. Searing heat tried to scorch the air from his lungs, but he refused to let his breathe be taken away.
The chamber filled with flame. He let it.
The tribunal leaned forward on their wretched thrones, drunk off the power they had unleashed. He let them.
The Hatred inside him, that dark and clammy thing with its claws in his soul and its roots in the abyss yammered for release. Konstantin agreed. Now was the time.
Focusing his iron will, he pushed.
Out. Out flowed the fires of the Inquisition, through the suddenly feeble barrier of glass.
Out. Out flowed the fires, cascading down upon the ancient tribunal and Konstantin’s accuser.
Out. Out flowed Konstantin’s hate, his anger, his pain. The fires raged on and on, unchecked and unabated, blasting through the chamber with a vengeance.
When it was over, and the flames had burnt themselves out, Konstantin alone remained. The fires had burnt so hot that nothing was left, not the chains that had bound Konstantin, not the glass wall or the three dark thrones. Of their occupants, there was not a trace. The very metal of the walls and floor had warped and bulged, witness to the impossible temperatures.
The room was empty. So was Konstantin.
He felt old. Old and tired. He made himself place one foot in front of the other, to start the long walk back to the surface. He had a job to finish. Then he could rest.
Konstantin left the chamber, letting himself out the same door he had been brought in through. The door locked automatically whenever it closed. It should have been impossible to pass back through. When the naked prisoner approached it however, its latches clicked, and it groaned open with the unhappy complaint of warped metal. There used to be an iron crucifix above the entrance. It was gone now.
On the other side of the door was a corridor, wide and featureless, which led straight back to the dungeon. There was no one to stop Konstantin from entering this way, no guards to force him back, no locked doors to slow him down. The journey from the dungeon to the Judgment chamber was a one way trip. It was inconceivable that someone might return as more than just a wisp of ash.
At the end of the corridor, separating it from the dungeon proper was the guard’s antechamber. Here Konstantin paused to collect his vest and some spare pants and boots, his having been burnt off in the fire. The boots were too large.
He next stopped at Deirdre’s cell. He still had Clement’s keycard in his vest pocket. He opened the cell.
“Deirdre, wake up.”
She was awake, and by the expression on her face, angry. Someone had finally gotten around to removing her restraints, and when Konstantin entered the room she flew at him with fists up and teeth bared. Konstantin stood his ground. He received a violent left hook for his trouble, one that twisted his head around, but didn’t cause him to step aside.
“If I wasn’t doped to fucking shit, I’d roast you where you stand,” she snarled.
“They already tried that,” he said quietly, “I might surprise you.”
“So why are you here now you fucking traitor? To gloat? To apologize? What do you want!?”
“Calm down. This was the only way I could get us both into the basilica alive. It worked, didn’t it? The girls are right down the hall,” he passed her the keycard, “I’m not sure what condition they’re in, but you three need to get out of here.”
“Us three? You’re not coming?”
Konstantin was slow in responding, “Tell the girls I can’t leave just yet…there’s one more thing I have to do.”
Deirdre gave him a long look. He had aged horribly in the past two days. His skin looked paler than ever, and she noticed a good amount of grey in his unruly black hair that hadn’t been there before. Something had changed inside him as well; the insane rage that had sustained him during their flight south was gone, leaving him empty with its passing.
His dark eyes held no spark.
Deirdre clenched her jaw, and nodded. She knew it would be up to her alone to get Hrist and Mist out of the fortress safely. “Okay.” She gave him a quick hug. “Take care of yourself Fred.”
Giving him one more squeeze, she jogged down to the last pair of locked cell doors. Konstantin trudged off in the opposite directing, continuing his journey back up through the Basilica. Behind him he could hear the sounds of a joyful reunion taking place. He didn’t look back.
“You too Deirdre.”
What are you going to do now Deirdre?
“First, I’m getting you girls to safety. We’re going home.”
Deirdre thought about the uncounted masses of humanity bent under the merciless weight of the Church. She thought about her raider army, and the weapon caches her people had been stocking for years. It was said that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Ha. Hell couldn’t hold a candle to an angry witch. “And then? And then, this entire fucked up empire is going to burn.”
Konstantin walked for a long while. The fortress was humming with the hustle and bustle of thousands going about their daily routines, but Konstantin was ignored. He rubbed elbows with nuns, priests, a bishop, and countless soldiers, and he was spared not a glance. The man who was once one of the most recognizable weapons of the Holy Inquisition was being ignored because the person he had been was already dead. The body just hadn’t caught up yet.
Too soon, he reached his destination. He stood before a familiar door. Konstantin brushed the smooth wood with his knuckles, hoping nobody was inside. It was quiet in this hallway, the majority of its occupants out tending to their duties for the day.
He stepped into the room, avoiding the low hanging light bulb, and let out a breath that he hadn’t noticed he was holding. When he wiggled the loose bulb in its socket the room was suddenly bathed in light. It was unchanged. The cot and footlocker still rested on their faded square of rug, and the single shelf still bore its bounty of books and medical paraphernalia. In fact, judging from the light coating of dust over everything, nobody had been in Sister Brita’s room for some time. Konstantin figured it was due to be assigned to a new Franciscan nurse any day now.
That was okay, Brita certainly didn’t need it anymore, and he only needed its seclusion for another few moments. Locking the door behind him, Konstantin did a lap of the room, running callused fingers lovingly over his sister’s meager worldly possessions. None of it looked particularly meaningful to him. The memories they had shared as children had not made it into this room. Konstantin was saddened. He had failed. He had failed his father when he couldn’t keep his promise to protect Brita. He had failed Brita when he had told her everything was going to be okay. And he had failed himself; long ago he had failed himself. Stopping at the medical kit he poked around for a moment, grabbing a few items, which he took over to the cot.
Balancing on the metal edge of his sister’s bed, Konstantin made his preparations. Lying back he got as comfortable as his bruised body would allow. When he was ready he took one more look around his sister’s room, and pressed the needle into his vein. As the sharp prick in his arm gave way to the cool burn of the drugs, Frederick William Konstantin was already gone.
Brita, I’m coming.
Felix sat slumped in the cheap chair, his elbow resting on the padded armrest and his fist supporting his drooping chin. The magazine that he was reading earlier had fallen to the ground, but that was not what had awoken him.
Lying amidst her tangle of blankets on the hospital bed, the lamps making her blonde hair glow like a halo, Brita had made a sound.
“Merlin!” Felix thumped the old man resting on the bed behind him, “She’s waking up!”
“Well good,” he fake grumbled, “it’s about damn time. She’s been in that coma for weeks.”
Brita made another soft moaning sound, and as Felix leaned forward, her eyelids fluttered open. She seemed confused, taking in her unfamiliar surroundings. It was a moment before she noticed the young man leaning anxiously over her. Recognizing him she smiled sleepily.
Felix grinned his barbarian grin.