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Rated: E · Chapter · Sci-fi · #2258960
An Alter Concept of Religion with less interest in conquest and murder & kinder members
The Alstous Libre - The V.A.P - The Brotherhood

The air swept through the sun glazed streets scattering dust and debris in a childlike dance until finally depositing the dancers into every open nook and cranny. Sari shut her eyes to the gusts as she walked the black cobblestone passage. She drew her cloak tight against the cold and wished she had brought a warmer set of clothes. The wind took hold of the hem of her skirt and she tugged it tight before it became a jumbled mess. It wouldn’t do to arrive unkempt but she thought such a thing would be impossible under the circumstances.

The Libre Alstous loomed ahead, shading the street with its high tilted roof and bell towers. A gothic design like many of the older buildings, as foreboding as the time it stood watch over. It lay still many blocks away but its massive size made it a landmark in Nothre Thims and no matter the time of day people tended to throng around it as a meeting place. Tourists milled the open thoroughfare taking photos and buying trinkets. Their bustle was infectious and Sari paused long enough to consider a purchase for later before moving on.

The doors alone were three times the height of a man and heavy enough to force one of the Brotherhood to endure the wind and open them for visitors. The poor fellow rushed to draw the door before she touched it, and forcefully dragged it open.

“Thank you.” She mumbled as he held the door and felt the sting of embarrassment touch her cheeks. The ‘doorman’ merely gave her a slight nod before she went in. Behind her the door slammed and she jumped.

From blinding sunlight into the interior hall was a sudden trip from noon to midnight and her eyes troubled her to make the adjustment. The décor did little to improve the problem with its dark columns and swatches of red velvet. The Brotherhood were, well.. she’d only known one and that hadn’t gone off too well. They were dogmatic when they wanted something and completely aloof when something was required of them.

A snapping of heels on marble alerted her that her entrance had not gone unnoticed. Slowly those feet came her way and she oriented on their direction, not fooled by the echo. It was from the second level gallery the owner of these footsteps emerged and he gave her a moment of appraisal before journeying down the wide stairs. Relieved, he was not the one she dreaded to see.

“Ponta Sari, how nice it is to make your acquaintance.” He reached out to shake her hand and she returned the gesture with gloved fingers.

“Please, I would prefer it if you might call me Sari.” She insisted mainly because it was annoying and mostly undeserved.

“I, of course, and you may call me Brother Teiro.” He smiled at her.

Such slights were nothing to her, perhaps another reason why she had been sent on a small mission. The Church had no specific issue with the Brotherhood, but in the past the jurisdictional challenges of working together made the relationship a strained one. At least in this matter they had contacted the correct offices to handle it.

“Brother Teiro,” she gave his title without any resentment. “I was hoping you might tell me how it was this deadly book was found as we walk.”

Teiro remained fixed as he fidgeted with his collar. “I, you see, we have run into another problem.”

“Another death?” she asked.

“No Pon--, I mean Sari, we no longer have the book you came to retrieve.” He blurted it out.

“The book is gone?” she tried to follow his agitated speech.

“You see, the book was stolen.” He admitted.

“Stolen?” the surprise alone brought every thought in her mind to a gripping standstill. “Who would want such a thing? Possession of it alone is quite dangerous, let alone the ramifications of reading its pages…”

“Absurd that anyone would risk stealing it, yes, I know.”

The whole purpose of her trip was to collect a suspect book, now that book was gone. Still, her mission did not change it was merely prolonged. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning. I would like to see where the book was found, how it was stored and speak with anyone who may have come into contact with it. These things might be of some aid in reclamation.”

“You, you’re still going to go after it?” he looked at her.

“I was sent to collect the book,” she nodded. “and I think it would be best if I do just that.”

A wry smile touched the Brother’s lips as he nodded. “I had heard that the V. A. P. are as relentless as the Brothers but I did not believe it.”

“Relentless is not a bad assessment of either Order.” Sari agreed. “Can we speak as we continue?”

The Brother realized she would not be put off and afforded her to accompany him as they took a side passage into the lower levels of the Libre Alstous. The narrow walkway drifted down stairways and still the Brother had not said anything.

“I hope I have not put you off?” she suddenly asked.

“No.” he admitted. “I would warn you that when constructed the Libre was the height of modern architecture, but it has some unusual resonation issues.”

“I had already picked up on that.” The echoes seemed to move like refracted laser light through the halls. If she concentrated in the quiet she could make out the muffled mumbles of words spoken elsewhere. One of the VAP had teased her before she left on mission with a phrase she only understood now “There are no secrets in the Libre.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that expression.” He agreed. “It is true for if one applies a keen ear you can quite literally hear what is being spoken in the farthest halls.”

That would be problematic in some situations.

“I must admit that we do not often allow outsiders within the inner Libre.”

This too, she had heard. “I am honored you would permit me.”

“But as I was told you had previously had some interaction with the Brotherhood, I felt more at ease about this.” Brother Teiro smiled at her.

More to her own unease. “You mean, Brother Samuel?”

“Yes!” Teiro nodded. “And a Master no less.”

A horrible thought crossed her mind and she twitched. “He isn’t here is he?”

“Why no, not at present.” The Brother frowned. “Field Research.”

What a relief! It wasn’t like she could pop in on the Master for tea and talk about old times. The very idea made the hairs on her arm stand up. Teiro was enchanted about a forty minute slippery interrogation followed by a very strongly worded threat of death from Athre. Master Samuel, that had an entitled ring she didn’t care for even if the whole situation had been a misunderstanding.

“Oh to be young again and in the field, you would not believe what he is researching.” Teiro smiled.

“He said before he was researching a sighting of the Saint Anna Toth.” She finished for him.

“Why yes!” the Brother seemed even more pleased that she did know. “Her ghost, more precisely.”

This particular Anna was a small saint in the church, Saint Anna Toth the saint of honorable death or something like that. Athre was much better with the saints than she. She knew the story. She also knew Master Samuel was not looking for a ghost at all.

“Do the Brotherhood normally investigate ghosts?” she suddenly asked.

“Apparitions, sometimes.” He directed her to a doorway. “It must be a viable sighting if Master Samuel is working on it.”

With a swift hand he passed an access ID over a scanner and the door unlocked. The only mechanized part of the entry, Brother Teiro held the door for her as she entered. The embarrassment she had felt before did not strike her, all she felt at this moment would be awe.

“It is overwhelming.” Teiro admitted. “There are forty-seven thousand in this area alone.”

A blink brought her out of stupefaction. “There are more?”

“Yes, this is the smallest of our shelving rooms. I take it you are a fan of reading then?”

“Yes.” Her reply more breath than words. A note of discord spun through her heart and she chided herself for being so taken with a bunch of dusty old books. “Is this where the book was found?”

“Actually it was discovered in the back room in a pile of books we had not shelved. It has been a headache to catalogue some of the older works. Not every Brother reads the old languages.”

“Can you show me that room?” she asked.

“Yes, of course.” He led her around the walkway to the stairway down to the shelving area. A wide balcony offered a view or place to read allowing the bulk of storage shelves to remain on the lower level. Wall to wall books, the concept would bring her to joyful tears at any other time. Sari would dream of this place in some happy sleep. This time a questioning tone strummed her soul and she quieted herself.

To the farthest corner Brother Teiro led her to a large storage room full of dust and books in various states of repair. The smell was strong and pungent with the scent of burning flesh and she wrinkled her nose.

“My apologies.” Teiro must have noticed. “We’ve tried to air this room out, but..”

“Then I will guess that the incident of discovery occurred here.” She brushed the wooden desk with a gloved finger trying to lift any residue. Her glove remained white. “Was this area scrubbed after…”

“After our Brother was incinerated? No.”

“No scorch marks.” She touched everything and found no soot or residue of the consumed. Tentatively she pulled off her glove and touched the desk and frowned. She sensed only the slightest trembling, barely able to tell it from the wind. It didn’t strengthen to any chord she might follow or trace, in fact it had a sense to it that it merely appeared.

“Where was the book stored before processing for catalogue?”

Brother Teiro looked around at the jumbled mess of boxes. “Here.” He pointed to a large wooden crate full of decaying books.

Passing her bare hand over the books and pages she frowned. Once again she could not sense the passage of the book she sought, as if it simply appeared. The other books were in such poor shape, but even in that condition some part of the evil that poured from such a cursed item should have leeched in somewhere. “This crate, are you certain?”

Brother Teiro did not change his story.

Neither the crate nor its contents shared the vibrations she sought with her hand as she touched it. Devoid of the signs that should be there. It was a puzzle and she wanted to solve it.

“How long was the book in this crate?” she asked.

Brother Teiro checked the shipping tag on the carton. “It was delivered one month ago from Libre Neverse.”

Sari checked the manifest ticket. “Storage for three years from the Keresta Estates.” The puzzle didn’t offer her many options. “So it was boxed three years ago and stored until the Brotherhood found time to get to it when it was shipped here and subsequently left?”

“Yes.” Teiro nodded. “Most of the items we have in the Libre have come from donations from private libraries.”

“Why did it sit here for a month?”

Teiro thought about that for a moment. “Oh, I suppose because acquisitions has been short staffed. It isn’t a highly sought after position in the Brotherhood, it tends to be tedious. We normally have four cataloguers working this room alone but as you can see…”

The room was obviously vacant. “The Brother who died, his name was?”

“Keirne, Brother Keirne.” Teiro shook his head. “He was one of the few who enjoyed this sort of work. We will be hard pressed to replace him.”

“What happened?”

Teiro rubbed his hands and frowned. “Brother Keirne opened the crate two days ago and started cataloguing the contents.” He pointed to a listing of items.

“Was he alone?” lifting the echoes from the air she couldn’t guess. The stirring of resonance had been so disrupted she could detect nothing.

“No, one of the acolytes was processing receipts at the smaller desk. They often work in tandem, trading off when one action becomes too boring. The younger one was processing the stripping codes and Brother Keirne was installing the transmitters. After the transmitter is installed it is recorded and then the book is inspected.” Brother Teiro walked her through the process.

As he spoke she lifted one of the transmitters and looked at it. After the installation of a small almost useless anti-theft device the book would have to be sorted by content, relevance, and language. It could take decades for a rare book to complete the process.

“How was the book stolen?” she suddenly asked.

Teiro paused in his speech and shook his head. “No one wanted to touch it, we left it and everything as it was and locked the door. This morning, upon opening the room to air we discovered the book to be missing.”

Touch revealed so little to her, but that small nagging sensation drifted far beyond her reach. The harmonic memory had been so disturbed she could not grasp the image. “Who was in the Shelving area between the time this door was locked with the book inside and when it was opened?”

Teiro gaped. “It surely could not have been one of the Brothers.”

“I am here.” She replied. “I am not one of the Brothers. Maybe someone slipped through.”

The shock on his face gave way to acceptance. The Brothers were devout but not fools. The book was here then it was not, there had to be an explanation.

“Master Ky keeps a list of visitors.” He frowned. “I, we do not normally allow…”

“I understand that speaking to any of the others directly is forbidden, but could you ask him for the list?” she suddenly smiled. Patience seemed to be the most important tool to use when dealing with the Brothers. One that regrettably, V A P members were not known to possess abundantly.

“I..” Brother Teiro sputtered. “It is a convention of a closed society. It isn’t that you may not speak with Master Ky it is more so that he may not appreciate speaking with you even if Master Samuel were to request it personally.”

Suddenly, she liked the sound of this Ky. “I’m not afraid to try.”

Teiro’s forehead crinkled in thought. “That only proves you have never met him.”

They left the lower Shelving area and took the stairs to the outside halls. Master Ky took personal time in the morning and Teiro was more than reluctant to interrupt him. They ascended out of the low caverns into the upper tiers of the Libre Austere and better lit hallways. Outside of a double door Teiro knocked.

They waited without a response before knocking again. A bumping noise came from within followed by swearing. As the quick steps came to the other side of the door she could read anger in their percussions.

The door flung open and a man glared out at them, stark naked. Somehow Sari managed to avert her eyes but could easily sense that Teiro was entirely embarrassed. “Damn you Teiro, if you hadn’t brought me a woman I would beat the crap out of you.”

Brother Teiro gave her an exasperated look.

“You are wearing too many clothes.” He gave her a once over. “That I can help you with.”

“I’m more interested in the list of visitors in the lower shelving area you keep.” She spoke to the point and kept her eyes above his jaw.

“You’re not screaming and running away?” He frowned. “You’re not like the other nuns.”

“Nuns?” she hadn’t heard the term before.

His eyes lingered on her gloved hands and he seemed thoughtful. “You’re the one that doesn’t like touching.”

It was half true but not common knowledge even among her order. “I believe Master Samuel has put his own slant on that story.”

“He liked you.” This Ky blatantly leered at her.

“Perhaps he did.” She wasn’t sure if that was still true.

For a few moments it seemed they would stand there daring eyes at each other. Regardless of any personal feelings she needed that list and furthermore Master Ky did not strike any harmonies within her.

“I think he’s wrong about you.” Master Ky snorted.

The statement made her unsure, unsettled her. It was her hope that Samuel had put a close on his ghost chasing and moved on to other phenomenon. Was Ky looking for her to fight with him? Sari could sense that he expected something of her and she didn’t know what that was.

“I have a book to recover, a particularly dangerous book that could be out there right now claiming its next victim. You can help me or not, but I’m not leaving without that list.” She sighed.

Ky stared at her and then frowned. “Fine. Like I need that sort of advertisement outside my door.” He walked away and she stepped to follow but Teiro paused her with his hand.

Master Ky returned shortly with a print lens which he handed over to her. Then he abruptly slammed the door and returned to whatever it was Masters did in their personal time.

“I’m sorry, Master Ky is a bearish man. If not for his abilities in the Brotherhood I would think his other job prospect would be ‘hired thug’.”

All the tension poured from her and she laughed uncontrollably. Master Ky had a measure of understandability, and that in the least was something she didn’t mind. No subterfuge, no lies, no trappings that left her feeling exposed and confused. Her one meeting with Samuel had merely been a game he played to see if he could get any clues about her that might play into his silly ghost hunt.

“I like that Brother Teiro, I like that very much.” She admitted.

“He was very rude to you Ponta Sari, even for him.”

“He likely knew I was coming.” She viewed the lens and smiled. “No secrets and such. I think Master Ky enjoys being difficult, especially to those of the church. And please, I really do prefer Sari.”

“I will try to remember.” And this time he did smile.

“Are there any unusual names on this list?” she handed the lens to him.

“This is the off hours list.” He looked it over and paused. “You need only concern yourself with one name. Heiran Cole, he is a frequent visitor to the Libre. The others on the list are members of the Brotherhood and above suspicion.”

“So you would suspect this person?”

“No, Mr. Cole is a guest assigned the small privilege of using our knowledge to further his research. He works for the Brotherhood.” Teiro told her.

“What is he researching?” she suddenly asked.

“That would be one of the things I cannot discuss with you.” And the comment had a severe finality to it. “Come this way I may know someone to help you further.”

The Brotherhood had its secrets as did the V A P. If they could find a way to work together when it was most important they might actually get things done a lot faster. The turns revolved until they emerged outside once again but this time in a small courtyard. Barren and beat down the earth here was hard and dry. Overhead a glass canopy kept the rain from interfering with whatever it was the Brotherhood did here. The trembling vibrations overlaid each other to madness and the only clear signal came from a figure struggling against the wall.

Bloodied and half stripped, a youth struggled to hold up an immense beam leaning into the wall. Streaks of bright colors in his hair belied his dreadful condition. The strength of his muscles leached away under the weight he grappled to overcome. It reminded her of a pictorial she’d seen somewhere of a muscled man struggling to hold up the world.

“Hello Acolyte Axis, how goes it today?” Teiro greeted the youth cheerfully.

“Just…” Axis wriggled under the beam for a better hold. “Fine, Brother Teiro.”

“You’re getting tired, yesterday you called me by a much more offensive title.” Teiro remarked.

Axis let out a deep breath and hefted with all of his strength, seemingly avoiding making a similar mistake. The punishment was terrible, she lacked the heart to watch this.

“I have a deal for you.”

“I’m not tired, I could do this a bit longer.” He swept all the words out in one breath.

“This is Ponta Sari, from the Vatican.” He made the introductions.

Axis merely nodded in her direction and once again sought a hold on the massive beam of wood.

“She needs to pay a visit to Mister Cole’s residence. You have been there on occasion so if you’re not too busy at the moment…” Teiro drifted off.

“All I have to do is take her?” he grunted.

“And behave like the gentleman I know you can be, and make sure she is safely escorted afterward to wherever she needs to go.” Teiro smiled winningly.

Axis took a long time to think about that. “Fine, isn’t like you can ask anyone else is there?”

With a shift of his weight Axis shrugged off the beam and it landed with a ground shaking thump. Obviously the whole point of this area was such harsh punishment. “Right now or do I get to put on a shirt?” he asked.

“It is on her schedule, not mine.” Teiro told him. “Ponta, I leave you in the care of one of our most troublesome members, but don’t let that dissuade you. Axis is a terrible acolyte but if you have any trouble he isn’t one to turn tail and run.”

“You suspect trouble then?” she didn’t like the idea even though she’d already begun to think much of the same.

“I believe that you got quite a bit more than you bargained for today and I think Axis will be a help to you if indications continue along those lines.” Teiro smiled and gave her a slight bow. “Until we are reunited..”

“Good met, Brother Teiro.” She returned the bow and he left.

Axis of course remained standing there. “Oh.” She blinked. “Please get cleaned up and those wounds tended to, I have a report to file anyway.”

“Thank you Ponta.” He bowed deeply and started off.

“And please, do not use Ponta when addressing me. Sari will do just fine.”

Axis only paused a moment then he disappeared out the same doorway the Brother had taken. With a long sigh she took a seat on the beam and pulled out her palm viewer. The harmonics of the Libre did not flow in this place, in fact it seemed sealed against all noise. “As good a place as any.” She opened the viewer and gave it a few taps.

“Sari, have you collected the book?” Melina asked with her ever slim smile and laughing eyes.

“There are complications.” She began the story as she had investigated and as the details were relayed, Melina began to lose her small smile.

“This is not good.” A fact they both already knew. “If The Ankus Im Morte has fallen into the wrong hands it could be very bad for the V A P.”

“I’m not certain this book is the Ankus.” She had her suspicions. “But even so it has already killed one person and it has the potential to increase.”

Melina nodded. “This isn’t the sort of mission you are trained for, Sari.”

“There isn’t anyone else to take it over either.”

They both remained silent. “I’m not concerned yet. For all we know the book could be mistaken for some antiquity of value and is sitting in some shop collecting dust. I will continue my investigation and report in at my next stop. In the mean time I have a project for you.”

Melina tilted her head. “Go on.”

Holding up the transmitter strip Sari continued. “This is a low-level transmitter, barely detectable by useful standards. The book was installed with one and coded. Since the code strip wasn’t found at the scene I assume it may still be in the book.”

“I know where you are going with this, you want me to arrange a sweep of the whole city for one infinitesimal signal.”

“It will be difficult, like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Sari began.

“More like looking for a singular grain of wheat in ten acres.” Melina groaned.

“Well I think if we exclude the Libre Alstous and narrow the scope to the specific code range for this strip we could boost the odds of finding it.”

“Do we know the coding range?” The ‘project’ would be overwhelming even with the code range.

“I’m transmitting it now.” She tapped the small circular pad. “If you could appropriate some of the local data receptacles it might move the search on a little faster.”

Melina thought about it. “You know, that might work. If I rerouted the collectors to emit the security signal we could actually find your grain of wheat.”

It was exactly the thought she’d had earlier. As the head of the V A P technical department, Melina was a lot easier to work with if you let her think all the brilliant tech ideas were hers. “You’re the best Melina. I better get moving.”

“If things get dangerous…”

“Oh, I forgot.” She stumbled in her thoughts. “The Brotherhood has supplied me with my own bodyguard of sorts. He’s very young but I have their assurances he will be more than adequate if any unruly business should come up.” she stretched the truth, but only a little.

“Well that’s something but I would feel better if one of the V A P were on hand.”

“It can’t wait, Melina. If we wait and it is the Ankus by the time we act here it could be anywhere. This would be the only chance we’d have at securing it for decades.” She insisted. It didn’t matter what she was trained for, the book was a threat especially if it found its way into the hands of revolutionaries.

“Proceed and keep me aware, Sari. I will forward your report to Cardinal Awery.” Melina’s voice was grave.

“And could you..”

“I’ll avoid Athre if I can.” Melina sighed. “You know he will like this even less than the Cardinal.”

“Thank you, Melina.” She was glad most of the V A P understood and at the same time embarrassed that they should have to smooth over the rough edges for her.

“Just be careful.” Melina growled before signing out.

Quite suddenly she thought of all the V A P who went about every day on important missions. Athre was sometimes gone for weeks at a time and other Zethars for even longer. The thought of doing this every day was exhausting. How did the others maintain such a strenuous schedule?

The warmth of the square was a little stifling and she decided to move on before she became overheated. Through the doorway she found shade and sighed. Finding her way back to the entrance wouldn’t be too difficult regardless of the twists and turns. She removed a glove and held up her hand searching for her own resonances.

“What are you doing?” Axis popped out of the darkness.

Sari jumped and gave a squeak of surprise. Clutching her glove, she yanked it back on and tried to calm her breath. “You scared the life out of me. Why were you hiding in here?”

“I wasn’t.”

“You didn’t just spring up out of the floor, I would have heard your footsteps if you had only just gotten here.” She tried to keep her temper.

“No, I was here for a little while but I didn’t think it would be a good idea to eavesdrop on your talking earlier.” He shrugged. “So I just stayed here out of the way.”

Sari let out a long breath.

Axis repeated his question.

“I was looking for my way back.” She answered.

“So you were going to throw a spell?”

“Throw a…?” she paused, spells and witchcraft were considered the domain of the Brotherhood. “No, nothing like that.”

By his expression she could tell he didn’t believe her. “It’s just that tossing around spells inside the Libre would not make the Brotherhood very nice to you.”

“It isn’t a spell.” Sari realized Axis reminded her of Arturo in a way, very literal and very linear. “It’s just a method of listening.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t use your hand for listening.”

Sari suddenly laughed and agreed. “No, but I do use it for a point of reference, a focal position so to speak. I can show you if you like, without spells.”

Axis seemed to think about it for a moment then nodded.

This time she pulled off her glove and listened for her own earlier resonances. Finding herself was always much easier than reading the vibrations of strangers and she stepped forward along the path that Brother Teiro had brought her. Axis followed behind likely looking for whatever magic she used. It took a while but soon enough she crossed her own path and recognized her way back to the entry hall.

“See.” She turned. “No spells, just listening.”

“That was the long way.” Axis acted unimpressed. “You ever think you could just ask for directions?”

“Hmmm,” she sighed. “I seem to recall this mandate I received that I was not to speak with any member without the express permission of the Brothers.”

“Yeah.” Axis realized if she’d broken the mandate she might have been swiftly ushered out and not welcomed back. “Some of these relics can be strict about outsiders.”

Sari didn’t say anything, she just tugged on her cloak and tied it up tight. Nothre Thims was cold at every hour of the day. As if things could not go slow enough she felt her stomach constrict and it growled loudly. Axis looked at her strangely.

A blush worked its way up her face and she looked away. Breakfast had been a long time ago and she hadn’t expected to be delayed this long.

“Wait here.” He told her and took off.

That would be another thing to discuss later, expenses. As this was originally only a short mission she hadn’t received very much in funds. A pittance to eat with and her travel provided. Sari realized that if this took much longer she didn’t have a place to sleep or change of clothing...

“Here.” Axis bounded back with a bag of hot sweet rolls. “These are very good."

“Thank you, Axis, you’ve saved my life.” She reached into the bag and pulled out a warm crusty roll.

“We better hurry though.” He tugged her arm and pulled her out the door. “I took them from Brother Teiro’s lunch.”

“You what?” the cold air stole her words.

Dragged through the windy street, Axis pulled her along. The warm roll quickly cooled and she struggled with the idea of eating ill gotten gains. Axis finally located their small transport and held the door for her. The Brotherhood had some strange notions but she daintily sat down.

“Aren’t you going to eat that? I thought you were hungry.” Axis noticed her cold sweet roll, unmolested.

“I-, I’m not sure it’s right to eat Brother Teiro’s food.” She said the words but her stomach protested, loudly.

“Honestly, you’ll be doing Teiro a favor. He’s getting a little rotund around the middle if you ask me.” Axis grinned at her. “I’m going to get punished for it anyway so you may as well eat it.”

A hoodlum, a hired thug and the interrogator, Brother Teiro seemed to be the exception to the Brotherhood rule. Still, she wouldn’t feel right about it unless she paid for the rolls. Later she’d explain everything in a way that wouldn’t put Axis under the beam, and decidedly she shoved half a roll in her mouth.

“Good, yes?” he asked and Sari only nodded.

“Axis can I ask you a personal question?” she hesitated afraid to wolf down all the rolls and make herself sick. Axis only nodded as he powered the transport and fed in the address. “Were you suffering that punishment for stealing food?”

“Huh?” he looked at her. “Oh, the beaming! No, it wasn’t for stealing food. For once I didn’t do anything to earn that punishment.”

“You didn’t do anything?” she gaped.

“Not a thing.” Axis had a scowl on his face. “There was an issue at the Libre with some vandalism. Someone scrawled some very choice words in bright orange paint on the facing wall about Teiro. It was actually a pretty good slur.”

“So why would you be punished?”

“I don’t know if you noticed but I’m a little different than most of the others. They plod about in their work and never have any fun. That isn’t for me. So when something like that happens, well I’m usually the first suspect.” He flicked a hand through his wildly streaked hair and sighed. “Well the Brothers searched everywhere and you can imagine how surprised I was when the used cans of orange paint ended up under my bed. There wasn’t anything I could say, they already believed I had done it.”

“But that’s unfair!”

“That’s the Brotherhood.” He admitted. “It could have been smoothed over if I wasn’t already on probation for something I actually did do.”

“They just stuck you under that beam and didn’t even think for a moment you had been framed? How horrible.” She tightened her fingers.

“Not right away, they took the time to formally strip me of my title as Brother.” He groaned. “Again.”

Sari’s eyes bugged out. “Do you ever consider that maybe you aren’t pursuing the right vocation?”

Axis laughed. “No, never. My family have been members before the Brotherhood existed. My great-great-great-great billion great-grandmother was one of the first selected to fight in the Blood Wars.”

There were several lengthy and obscure books on that short age in time, she avoided them. Bloodshed and battles were less of an interest to her than saints. “Axis, you must be the most determined person in the world.”

Quite brightly he laughed again and agreed. “And my name isn’t Axis of course, it’s Julian Saithe. Axis is the name I received as an acolyte. I considered keeping it when I became a Brother, but I changed my mind.”

It was a nice name, Axis was a position not a name.

“Now can I ask you something?” he ventured.

“Of course, but I warn you that I’m an awfully good liar.”

With that he gave her a sideways glance. “Isn’t lying a sin?”

“Um?” she thought about it. “Is that your question?”

“No.” he shook his head. “Well something like that in a way. Isn’t hard to devote your life to the church?”

Surprised she didn’t understand the question at first. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t…?” he looked at her. “All the vows and mass and devotionals and a list of sins as long as my leg and you don’t know if it is hard keeping to all of that?”

“Oh!” she nodded. “Probably for those who adhere to all of that. Why are you asking me though?”

“Because you are a nun. You do all of that!” he began to get frustrated and then paused. “Don’t you?”

Sari shook her head. “I am only Vatican Appointed Personnel.”

“The V A P is an elite group of Vatican special forces, but you are still…” he realized by her face that she was waiting for him to explain. “Devotional members of the church?”

Sari nodded thinking about the question. “No. Well some of them are part of the holy church but most are not. I don’t think the VAP could do the work it does and live by the holy codes. The VAP are more like employees of the church than full members. For example, I am an atheist. Or that one of the Zethar’s is married and has a child. The VAP exists within the church but it is merely one of the spearheads the Vatican can call upon when needed.”

“So you can drink, swear, run naked through the streets and have as many lovers as you like?” he scratched his head in thought.

“Well I would not, but I’m sure there is someone in the VAP that would do just that.” Suddenly the pristine image of Ponta Ella flashed before her eyes and she cringed. It never did any good to think ill of the dead.

Axis/Julian gave her a glance of interest. “You, would not?”

“I am bound to Zethar Athre, another VAP member. We share a flat on the grounds. At least when he isn’t on mission.” She sighed.

“You… cohabitate with a priest?” he gaped. “Maybe I am in the wrong vocation.”

She laughed this time. “Maybe you are.”

The residence wasn’t too far after that and she managed to get down another sweet roll. Taking the time to straighten herself up, she stepped out of the transport into the chill air and shivered. If she wasn’t careful she’d end up with a terrible cold before long.

The residence was a stand alone, well placed on a very nice lot. It seemed very homey with small rose bushes along the walkway right up to the front door. Sari took various mental notes even of information that most investigators might consider useless.

Julian stayed in step with her and even knocked on the door. Nothing. He knocked louder and resorted to calling loudly. They waited and nothing happened.

Sari let out a breath and pulled out her viewer, a necessity for any VAP investigator. She turned it over and opened a catch in the bottom. She plucked two small metal picks from the slot and knelt at the door. With a deft hand she worked at the lock, trying to get the tumblers to turn. She’d been trained for it but hadn’t had the opportunity to put it to use yet. It took longer than she liked, but finally she had the door unlocked.

Julian started to go right in and she caught his arm. “Not this time. I need the area to have as little disruption as possible. If you burst in and go to looking around I won’t be able to investigate. We’ll be dead in the water.”

“What does that have to do with talking to Mr. Cole?”

“I’m pretty sure if we wanted to talk to Heiran Cole we’re too late.” She kept her face stern and serious. “Heiran Cole is mostly likely dead.”

“What? Why would you think he’s dead?”

“Because he isn’t answering the door and he’s my only suspect in the theft of the book that killed Brother Keirne. You’re going to have to wait here while I go in.” Sari insisted.

“No way.” He shook his head. “That’s not going to happen.”

Worse if they called attention arguing about it. “If you come inside you must, absolutely must do three things without question. Ask all the questions you want later but not until I tell you it is okay to do so. There can be no mistake.”

Julian nodded in agreement.

“Do not under any circumstances make a sound. Not one sneeze, not one cough, not even a whisper can escape your lips while I am investigating.” He looked at her strangely. “Second, you do not move from the spot of entry. Not a step into the building beyond shutting the door. And you stay there unmoving while I am investigating.”

“And the third?”

“We move slowly. No sudden movements, we slip inside at a slow normal pace and quietly shut the door behind us.” She stared at him. “I’m serious.”

“It’s that thing with your hand being the focal point, right?” he suddenly asked.

“Right.” She admitted. Once upon a time and place before there were Zethars and Brothers that admission was one she refused to make. Being a member of the VAP she took her differences in stride instead of hiding and denying them. What a world away that seemed from the woman she was now!

“Okay then, but if there is trouble on the other side of this door all promises are off.” As Brother Tiero assured her Axis was a reliable companion.

Though she couldn’t explain for certain, she knew for a fact nothing beyond the door breathed life. With a nod she slowly pressed the door inward feeling the tiny threads of sensation release seeking the passage of energies and resonance of activity. Unlike the Libre, here had not been disrupted. The images flashed like white lightning images behind her eyes recognizing a passage of two people. One hurried, the resonance of fear and anxiety she decidedly to consider as the possible Heiran Cole. The book clutched also gave off its own resonance and Sari fought against the shudder of her soul. Black, even to the core of its resonance it had a very nasty ilk under the surface.

Drawing further in, she took note of that secondary image making certain it could be deciphered as a previous Heiran or another. By intent alone she couldn’t imagine it to be Cole, for this second radiated a malevolence it tinged its resonance with red. Something she hadn’t seen since the Blood City, but she was well familiar with the violence a blood resonance is capable of being. Like flashes of pictures she read imprint of disruptions collecting each image backward from the final moment then replaying the images in order forward. The secondary departed before her as her movements over wrote his. Heiran Cole had gone in but she wasn’t sure if he had indeed left.

Stepping deeper into the small house she caught a strange odor and her nose twitched. Sulfur, it had that bad egg smell and indeed that seemed apropos to the situation. Replaying the images of Cole in her mind she watched his movements closely and followed. From one room to another, Cole hurriedly packed up his things preparing for an extended stay of some sort. All the while in his hand the book remained, with reluctance to even let the foul thing from his grasp even for a moment.

Finishing, she returned once again to the conjunction of all things and tried to piece the activities together. The flow was completely off, as if one was both here at the same time and yet not together. No answer to what had become of Heiran Cole nor how it was his malevolent cohort had appeared, the only solution could be they were the same. As she started to cross the floor she collected an odd tremble. It didn’t belong to anything she was visualizing so she had at first disregarded it. Now she paid closer attention and breath of surprise caught in her throat as she recognized it. Grabbing the edge of a finely wrought carpet she threw it back and all of the images scattered like startled birds taking to the air.

Axis drew in a deep breath but managed to regain his composure. Not that it mattered, all of the resonance patterns had departed. “Speaking now will do no harm Julian.”

“That’s a devil’s gate.” Axis voice was excitedly loud.

The sketchwork was worn but fresh, it hadn’t been used much. This sort of thing wasn’t her area of expertise. “How’d it get here?” Axis asked.

“Not the first clue.” She reached out her hand to read the resonance and Axis stopped her.

“Don’t touch that.” He grabbed her hand and the current between them blasted loudly through her brain as she tried to escape his thoughts. Pain and agony rolled through her nerve endings as she yanked her hand out of his grasp. Muddled with resonating emotions not her own she tried to shake Julian’s person from her being. Yanking on her gloves she struggled with the damming the flood of feelings she had no right to have in her mind.

“What was that?” he looked at her so oddly probably trying to reframe his own mind.

“Youth has many benefits.” She grumbled remembering how strong the young currents flowed. “And drawbacks. Your mind is quick and recovers easily.” Taking a second guess she assumed much about Julian. “You are easily not as old as you appear. I would guess you to be fifteen?”

He stared at her in shock. Yes, something like that. “How can you tell that from a touch?”

Wincing, she needed a bit more time to recover and the pit that was his emotional core was stronger than most. Relaxing she let the troubling emotions work their way from her mind like ripples fading a little each pass. “The body is loaded with electrical impulses dashing and dancing from nerve to nerve, some no more than marionettes of unaided action and others very purposeful in intent. The younger you are the stronger they race along the nerves and they are like lemmings ready to throw themselves off to anyone like me.”

Drawing back he gave her an unsure look she needed no resonance to translate. “Freak is what I was called when I was your age.” She swallowed the admission down bitterly and sighed. If not for Athre and the VAP she would likely still be trudging along her miserable lonely existence with nothing but the shadows and stones to keep her company.

“No, I wasn’t going to..” he began.

“It’s more than applicable in my case.” She shrugged. “You now know more about Ponta Sari than any other of the brotherhood, that and five coins will get you nothing from the wishing well.”

Julian suddenly barked out in laughter. “I won’t tell your secrets if you don’t tell anyone I’m really fifteen.”

“Deal.” Sari nodded and she put out her gloved hand to shake on it. This time Julian took hold warily, but once he knew they weren’t about to touch he gave the handshake a firm squeeze.

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