14. The Keep

June 13, 2007

Faithful Book One Chapter 14
Michael Constantine raced along the banks of the River Vitae.

He cut through the traffic of speeding aircycles and aero-crafts, swept under and over extension bridges, sailed between hydro-transports, and strafed the spiraled natural rock formations that speared Columbia’s rivers and lagoons and which generations of peoples sculpted into commercial and residential wonders. He ripped along the mega-metropolis’ high ridges and deep canyons, carved into, gardened, terraced and tiered with human urban development both ancient and contemporary.

The young Templar Faithful could barely move.

He strained against an invisible force to even turn his head, to take in the sights rushing around him or spy his vector ahead and see where he was being taken. He thundered helplessly through the air, high above Court-at-Columbia’s sprawl, the wind bombarding his back, while suspended and invisibly tethered beneath The Archangel.

They slowed and descended. Michael Constantine welcomed solid ground, as he had never thought possible. The flight left him both exhilarated and ill. He forced down the conflict and re-oriented his senses to his new surroundings. Ruined fortifications chiseled out the limestone walls deep within the lip of a cave rose from the river’s banks and greeted the soldier-priest and alien Divinity.

Constantine did not know where he was, but he knew what it was. The Archangel brought him to one of the many centuries-old fortress keeps that littered Court-at-Columbia. The keep was likely a stronghold against the marauding clans. Rival Houses once fought to claim the prized real estate that eventually grew to be the world-capital.

Over time, keeps transformed into urban centers. This one fell to the river contamination and heavy industrial pollution that ravaged many of the more poorly modernized fortifications at mid-millennium. Apparently, the city never reclaimed it. Faith’s environmental warning buoy still waded the surf, which meant the locale remained a biohazard and uninhabitable, as well as forbidden.

The Archangel’s reason for whisking them to the abandoned settlement eluded Constantine. He turned to ask, but the winged companion had already begun marching toward a crumbling path toward the keep’s darkened interior. The Templar Faithful chased after.

The keep recessed deep into the limestone cave. Ruined vacated structures gave way to narrow winding catacombs. With his pai beeping insistent warnings, Constantine worried his riot armor’s bio-filters might not protect him from contaminates.

“Why are we here?” he questioned The Archangel. “What does this place have to do with the eta boy?”

“It is what we saw,” the alien answered, using His customary royal “we”.

“You read his thoughts? You really can do that?

“We accessed the electrical discharges simulating the synapses storing memories.”

“This conclave’s unsafe and shut down for centuries. What possibly connection could that boy or etaSade have?”

The Archangel paused his gate just long enough to render, “That we desire to know. The images in the human cub’s mind mean nothing to us. They perplex us, as do the emotions that bind them. You, my Faithful, you will explain them.”

Then, Constantine saw it.

A light faintly glowed ahead. He and the Divinity advanced only a few meters further, emerged through a collapsed rampart and onto a nest of compartments surrounding a man-made hallow in the cave. What once might have been the keep’s central multi-tiered residence ring, now revealed a wrecked scattering of lantern- and torch-lit shelters.

Constantine steeled himself against nausea. The space reeked of human waste and stagnant water. The foul air’s toxicity burned tauValez’ eyes. In disbelief, he spied movement against the flickering light. Terrified, amazed stares peered out the dilapidated recesses. Wrenched and filth-riden, women, men and children spilled tentatively and malevolently into the stained luminance.

Constantine recognized many ceremonial markers and ritual fetishes displayed. “By Creation, they are House eta,” he choked out the observation. “There must be dozens of people living here.”

“Hundreds,” corrected The Archangel.

Michael Constantine never witnessed a more depraved sight. Even the social outcasts Juda-Hon in the city’s Ghetto Capricus lived better.

Far more astonishing and nightmarish to the young Faithful was the apparent lack of interest which the surroundings inspired in his winged companion. The Archangel betrayed not a flicker of empathy on his hard impassive face and in those grey glowing eyes. Rather, He turned away dismissively and His attention fixed upon an opening in the hollow where the invading river banked.

Constantine felt a hand catch his arm. He swiveled unbalanced into the tortured gaze of a slight woman.

“My Faithful, my Faithful,” she pleaded. “They’ve taken our lady. It’s not too late to bring her back.”

“Who’s taken her?”

“Those of our clan who brought us here to work, with their promises and lies,” came another voice. A one-legged man limped out of the dark toward them. His stump looked recently injured and unprofessionally attended. “They hold and beat my matron-wife to keep us in line. They take our elder daughters to force my wife from exposing this fraud and turning to her sisters back home. We dared not risked a word, not to anyone, not even to the Faithful here.”

“She needs a doctor!” the woman shrilled, overwhelmed by the disclosure she kept to herself so long. “They wouldn’t even give her that. They just came and got her, not even a Gaia-hour ago, and destroyed their watch-station.”

The woman shoved the soldier-priest with the weight of her body in the direction of the river, pointing insistently.

Ahead on the path, Constantine saw The Archangel’s silhouetted already rapidly descending toward the target and bolted after. Infected by the word he’d heard and growing rage smarting a fire within, Constantine barreled blindly and absorbed down uneven broken steps and overtook the Divinity. As he and the Archangel grew nearer, Constantine could see that the opening to the river anchored a pier, which docked a barge.

Further ahead, six dark cloaked figures speed toward the transport. Between them, they struggled to carry a long weighted bag.

“Stop! On command of Faith,” shouted Michael Constantine, rushing pass The Archangel and drawing his pulson.

The procession turned. Seeing the Templar and Divinity, the six dropped the bag and scrambled for the cover of the keep’s fallen vestige strewed about or dashed for the barge and its scurrying crew.

Suddenly, lights flared with familiar snaps of sound. Constantine broke his advance and braced as he found himself exposed to weapons’ fire. Charges strafed and exploded the ground in front of him. He took aim and fell one of the six who had attacked. Another of the assailants avenged a return salvo.

In his periphery, Constantine caught black wings stretch out. He felt a force, some invisible immense pressure, sweep from behind him and pass through his body and outward. In the same moment, the volley of weapons’ fire ruptured in an explosive dance against a transparent wall, coming within arms length of tauValez, close enough to startle him backward. The air perceivably warbled.

The Divinity brushed aside His human companion. He gestured, cupping His hands to His chest and pushing forward. Michael Constantine watched the air reverberate in a straight line, lift up the assailants and fling them with a force that thundered. The energized air continued to travel, careening into the barge, and up-siding the vessel while tossing overboard its crew and anyone in its wake.

Constantine stared, refusing to believe the scene before him. The assailants rolled feebly on the ground unable to right themselves and the crew swam for whatever would kept them from drowning.

Sirens suddenly erupted and roared, echoing alarm off the keep and the cave’s walls. Flashing red and yellow lights flooded around tauValez. Troops of armored Templar appeared up the path above, along with curious eta from the keep. Templar on aircycles blockaded any possible exit by river.

The sight of his fellow soldier-priests shook Constantine from momentary paralysis. He raced for the fallen black bag. Peeling it open, he uncovered a bloodied and battered woman slumbered in death’s embrace.

“Do we know her identity?” someone asked.

Constantine looked up. Sebastian xiDuang stared down at him, leading the troop of Templar now descending upon the battlefield. It occurred suddenly to tauValez that his pai enabled the Templar to track him and rally reinforcements.

“Check her bio-chip,” ordered the senior Templar, bothered at the necessity of reminding his partner of standard protocols.

“She is our lady,” said the woman from the keep, having pushed her way through the enclosing crowd. Her face cried, but she had no tears.

“She is my matron-wife,” anguished the one-legged man bracing himself on the keep woman’s shoulder. He knelt by the body and studied the corpse with pained reproach.

“Where are you, Nadsar? Where are you, son?” he said finally, not to Constantine, not anyone. “You should be here with your mother.”

Constantine felt a hand tap his shoulder. Sebastian signaled him to rise and tauValez came off his knees and stood. The younger soldier-priest’s face fixed a distant tortured mask. Any moment he might wrench.

“Creation isn’t suppose to let things like this happen,” Constantine insisted, struggling with the words.

Sebastian rendered a scolding stare as someone more accomplished at being dispassionate in his duties and leveled in a lecturing tone, “We don’t yet know what this is.”

Constantine slumped, wounded. Slowly he started for the path back up the keep. Sebastian stopped him. “Where’s Divinity?” he queried.

Startled,tauValez surveyed the surroundings. The Archangel was nowhere. He’d vanished.

TO BE CONTINUED

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