For the previous installment of this story, click here.
There is also a link under “Categories” in my sidebar for Cleansed By Fire, to more easily access all the installments of this novel; alternately, you can click on the “cleansed by fire novel” link under the Tags heading for this post (or click here) for a complete listing of installments.
Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 3, Narrow Paths and Wide Gates (continued)
With Paulo safely delivered to Templar’s Tower and her own uncertain path filled with anything but safety, Maree felt an odd sense of relief. She realized that perhaps for the first time in her adult life, she had peace of mind. she doubted it would last, but she marveled at the sensation all the same.
She had always assumed that solace would arrive by only three paths: She would see the mortal wounding of the Vatican in her lifetime, she would be captured by the Vatican and no longer have to live her double life, or she would die.
Instead, she was alive, if still sore from Stavin’s ministrations; free, though unsure for how long; and now an official enemy of Secular Genesis and, soon, the Vatican.
No longer did she have to feel the guilt of hunting down and helping to condemn people for a government she didn’t agree with, feebly assuaging her pain by reminding herself that if she weren’t there as a plant in the upper echelons of the templars, someone else would be doing her job anyway.
No longer did she have to wonder whether she was a freedom fighter allied with people unfairly labeled as terrorists or instead a terrorist with delusions of a higher purpose.
With a single decision, she had shed two skins and felt all the more alive for having done so.
And now she was dressed in a literal new skin, mostly covered by her street clothes—a skintight wraithskein that had been worn until recently under the uniform of the livery driver she had slain. No doubt he had been intended to shadow her any time she might have left the tower today. It had a small hole in the back now ringed with singed blood, so she experimentally placed her hand on a nearby faux stone column and activated the suit, watching as it went from transparent to mimicking the stone texture perfectly—at least for her exposed hand. Presumably, the rest of the suit was working as well despite the slight damage, but no reason to strip in the open and test it fully right now.
But even as she reveled in the image of shedding old skins and donning a new one, and indulged in gratuitous images of herself as a serpent in the Vatican’s garden, she realized that perhaps more accurately, she was a hydra that had simply lost its two most contrary heads.
So, despite her feelings of peace, she was still conflicted. She felt vulnerable. She felt liberated. She felt dangerous. She didn’t know which she should embrace. She didn’t know what to do with her life now that she was Maree Deschaine again and not Maree sup-Juris.
But she was relieved at least to be rid of the twisted and corrupted remains of the rebel movement her grandfather had helped found. And at least one thing was clear: She had no reason to lash out at the Vatican. Not anymore. As much as she hated the institution, she had done her part now. Secular Genesis had something terrible in store; of that she was certain, and it was meant to happen soon. She was happy to let the Vatican reap what it had sown for centuries. She felt only the tiniest twinge of regret that the reaping would almost certainly carry away any number of innocents as well. At this point, she cared little who lived or died except for Paulo and his family and those of her own relatives that she had just put in harm’s way.
Whether to find Stavin and repay his visit last night was entirely less clear. Part of her wanted revenge, but the idea of living was rather attractive, too. For nearly an hour, she hardly moved or breathed as she considered all her options, pondered what her suffering was worth and wondered whether her dignity was something she could even retrieve by balancing accounts with Stavin. No. She was prepared to walk away. She had no idea what her father might have done, but Grandfather wouldn’t have pursued such a personal brand of vengeance.
Almost in sync with her silent resolution, her vox cued up the Astoria news feed she had hot-tagged, as a report came in of two children abducted en route to school that morning and three adults taken from their homes or en route to their places of employment. Every one of them was named Deschaine and so the media was in a frenzy about a family abduction; how much more so would they be when they found out it was the former name of a missing templar admin officer? Which shouldn’t take long, Maree realized, as another report noted that authorities had just put out a fast-moving inferno that had engulfed a historic cottage and the acre of land on which it sat.
She had been prepared for the news, but it hammered her regardless. Maree’s vision began to dim at the edges and constrict until all she could see was a finger-wide gray tunnel narrowing to utter blackness. Her chest tightened and her breathing became ragged. Her head swam. She closed her eyes—she could hardly see shit anyway—and that help her vertigo, but then it was simply replaced with a crescendo of deep, dull, throbbing pain that she hadn’t noticed before when her major concern was not passing out.
Other news reports came and went as her anxiety spiraled out of control, an emotional storm ripping around her and through her. For another half hour, she sat there and wondered if she might be dying. The voices in her ear meant nothing to her, until one of them spoke about five bodies found in the smoking remains of the cottage.
Almost a third of her family in Astoria. The only relatives she had been in contact with since taking her templar’s vows, save her late grandfather and, every so often, her father. As if a switch had been shut off, her anxiety sharply receded and an icy clarity took its place. Maree turned off her vox, though, fearing that any more news right now would put her back in the mental shackles she had just sloughed off.
Stavin killed them. But I consigned them to their fates.
Maree imagined five twisted and charred figures standing up inside her head and regarding her with with an abyssal intensity through black eyes that were moist and alert. Maree saw in those eyes a mixture of rebuke, pity and pleading. She sincerely doubted they would be leaving her thoughts any time soon. She knew what they wanted. And what she needed.
So much for walking away.
When Ather walked into the command center of Templar’s Tower, entering a sea of madness in a place that had already been a scene of barely controlled chaos for the past few days, he didn’t ask what the fuss was about.
He had known about Maree since moments just after Paulo had ordered security to lock down her slipchair and bare minutes before Paulo or anyone else had reached Lyseena. So he didn’t ask. And as he approached Lyseena, the eye of this particular hurricane, it was to her credit that she didn’t tell him; she clearly trusted his skills enough to assume he already knew. And Ather had already called and awakened every source he had already kept up all night to fulfill his original task so that they could work on this problem as well. All hail caff, strongtea and good old-fashioned coffee. They would be needed for the next several days in abundance by all.
“What do you have for me, Ather?”
He tapped the oblong grey device surgically attached to the base of his skull. “I assume what you really want is insight about Maree, but I’m still collating that. I really hate using the hindbrain but there’s too much data to go through in too short a time. I still guarantee I’ll outrun anyone else to good hypotheses and real answers about Maree, but you’ll have to wait until the midday meal break at least.”
“Angling for an extra lunch, Ather?” Lyseena was trying to be light, but the strain in her voice was evident.
“I would rather eat with you and the remains of your admin team in the suite than go up top. After all, Maree has left an open seat. With her absence, even my prodigious mass shouldn’t rob you of too much maneuvering room in there.”
Ather handed her the datastrip. “All of the criticals and some extra bonus materials about Adam Devan and Elisya Sutco are on there,” he continued, “and it’ll be easier for you to read them than have me play storyteller. But I’ll tell you the worst right now.”
“Never, sweet Lyseena. In any case, your logistical experts were duped. Someone wanted them to be caught, both to rob you of talent and to strain morale. I had both Adam’s and Elisya’s personal accounts gridhacked…”
Lyseena raised an eyebrow.
“…the backdated warrants for that should be on your desk within minutes after I finish my story. Just make sure you use the sig-pen that will be on top of the docs so that the timestamps will mesh. In any case, they’ve been fornicating with use of multiple contraceptives for at least the past three months. Most of it here in the tower on breaks and after hours, since they were still in gender-segregated housing. Someone nicknamed Enn has been helping them steer clear of security. But from all indications, after establishing how trustworthy and helpful he or she was and how adept at manipulating security systems, Enn finally reversed the agenda and sent a drone into where they were going at it when we caught them.”
“Could Enn have been Maree?”
“Possible. But my intuition says not. Indications so far point to Enn being someone outside your circle but with proximate access.”
“So, we have someone who knows how to move through our shadows and not trip real or virtual alarms. Someone who probably has connections to the death of the Red Pope and maybe the defection of Maree as well. Someone who cannot penetrate our security deeply but who can do so just deeply enough to hurt us.”
Lyseena sighed and regretted, not for the first time, that vows to the Vatican didn’t allow for a person to resign from their job.
(To read part 13 of this story, click here.)