The sun was high in the sky, but the wind was cool as it blew over the verdant fields outside of Rogue Village.
Hope and I walked between rows of barley, which grew straight and tall, without the slightest trace of blight. In front of us walked a group of dragoons, who swapped stories and laughter as though they were on a holiday.
Behind us was a small group of inquisitors led by Miss Taris, who still wore her red robes. Hope kept his eyes fixed ahead of him as we went, his jaw clenched.
“Stop- the entrance to the tunnel is just ahead,” Miss Taris called. She ran forward, and Hope squeezed his eyes shut for just a moment as she passed.
“Are you alright?” I whispered to Hope.
“The sight of those robes makes me feel a bit ill.” Hope took a deep breath, and then smiled. “But it is nothing; it will pass.”
I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then we continued to the end of the field.
We caught up to Miss Taris who stood at the edge of a grassy mound, next to a low fence that shielded a boarded storm-cellar door. Two dragoons came forward to pry away the boards and open the doors, and then Miss Taris turned to address the party.
“With the help of Sir Beaumont, Wisdom has taken Reverence’s tunnels,” she said. “The lights, the mirrors- everything inside is under his control, now. Even the seals on the tunnels have been changed, so that no one will be able to follow us. There is a door inside here that leads to the next section of tunnel to del Sol, and I must go first to open the seal.”
Miss Taris turned to Sir Beaumont and lowered her voice. “Keep watch as I descend.”
Sir Beaumont returned a salute, and with a gesture, his dragoons were back in formation, weapons at the ready.
“We’ve found the culprit behind the light issues,” I muttered. “Sir Beaumont must have undone the seals, and then the glitches began as Wisdom accessed the tunnel’s functions.”
“Then your fight with Sir Beaumont was fair, after all,” Hope muttered in reply. “His defeat was all his own fault.”
The dragoons remained in their stations while the inquisitors filed though the storm cellar and into the tunnel. Brother Fortune turned and gestured for Hope and I to follow.
There was a small hatch-door on the cellar’s dirt floor, on the other side of which was a section of tunnel much like the one we’d already left. The walls were the same shade of unadorned gray, and the same electric lights hung with regularity overhead. However, the current section of tunnel was much wider than the first, and a long metal rod, embedded in the floor, ran through the center of the tunnel as far as the eye could see.
When the rest of the inquisitors and the dragoons had climbed down into the tunnel, Miss Taris instructed everyone to stand against the walls. Once the center of the tunnel was clear, she pressed her hand against a bare section of wall, which lit up momentarily as though in response.
“We must hurry to Cathedral Lux, and luckily, the pilgrim train was completed in this part of the tunnel. It was originally meant to carry pilgrims who were too ill or infirm to walk these tunnels unaided. Unfortunately, the track was never finished, but it will be able to bear us most of the way to Cathedral Lux.”
There was a loud screeching sound, and the section of wall behind the tunnel entrance split down the middle and opened. A series of carts emerged from the opening and rolled along the metal track without a horse or mule to pull them. The sides of each cart opened, and small ramps extended to the ground, as though the carts were welcoming us to climb inside.
“Get in- don’t be afraid,” Brother Fortune urged the others. “The carts are quite safe. Oh!” he stopped me abruptly and turned to Miss Taris. “The Ancient can’t disable the carts, can she?”
“Apparently not,” Miss Taris said.
Brother Fortune nodded as though to himself, and then gestured for me to enter the train.
I stepped up the ramp and sat down on a wide, cushioned bench with Hope just beside me. When everyone was seated, the carts jerked forward, and then we were sailing through the tunnel, far faster than I’d ever traveled by horse.
I heard gasps in the carts behind me, and in the cart just in front, Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont laughed with delight. I gripped the side of the cart, almost giddy enough to laugh myself, but Hope swallowed heavily, his face green in the pale electric light.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
Hope clenched his jaw, but he nodded in response.
Though the train did not slow, the sensation of motion in my stomach, and the giddiness that had accompanied it, soon faded away. If not for the blur of the lights overhead, I might have thought I was sitting still. Hope, however, leaned forward slightly, clutching his stomach.
I turned to face forward and saw that Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont were just as animated with delight as they had been when we started off. I could not hear what they said over the sound of the carts on the tracks, but I could tell from their smiles that the conversation was pleasing. They laughed a great deal, and they would stop periodically to point at something outside the tracks as though they were admiring the scenery on a summer’s ride through the country, instead of traveling through a bleak, grey tunnel.
The first portion of our ride was not long. There was a loud squeak as the carts ground to a halt, and then we found ourselves near a section of wall painted with the black letters C2.
The doors opened, the ramps extended, and we climbed down from the train on wobbly legs. Hope stood for a moment on firm ground, and then he took a deep breath.
“That is almost as bad as being on board ship,” he muttered.
“Brother Virgil, please lead the party to the nearby barracks,” Brother Fortune said to one of his fellow inquisitors. “Miss Taris and I must visit the Cathedral before we join you.”
“Will you need a guard?” Sir Beaumont asked Miss Taris.
“Oh, I will be fine- I will have an Ancient warrior with me, after all,” Miss Taris said. She turned to Hope, “and you too, Lord Frey. There is someone who wishes to speak with you.”
Hope stood a little straighter, his expression lightening, and he bowed his acquiescence.
“I will await you just outside the door,” Sir Beaumont insisted. Miss Taris did not contradict him, but blushed and curtsied in thanks.
Miss Taris, Brother Fortune, Hope, and I walked slowly through the empty Cathedral. Then Miss Taris stepped away from the small party, her heels clicking with quick importance, and she knelt down to touch the slick, black floor with one hand.
For a few moments nothing happened, and then there was a flash of light on the grey wall on the far side of the room, followed by three flashes above like lightning. Then random squares of colored light flashed and faded on the floor beneath us, the walls around us, the ceiling above us, more and more until the room was filled with squares of light that flashed and faded away again. The lights coalesced, focused, and we were in a sunlit field of wildflowers. A heatless sun hung far above our heads, and small, white clouds drifted through a windless sky.
I turned slowly, and behind us, I saw a white-robed figure approaching.
“Brother,” Hope breathed.
Brother Lux stopped and stood before us, face to face with his brother. The two men were as different now as night and day. Hope’s shorn hair had begun to grow back in brown sprigs that covered his head like a cap- shorter than even a soldier’s hair. His features were angular and hard, and his black-rimmed eyes were so wide they seemed almost all-seeing.
On the other hand, Brother Lux’s features were only prominent enough to add elegance to softness. His hair was long and thick and luxuriant, and his dark eyes seemed to contain depths untold. The two men who stared at each other, one with hate and the other with concern and pity, seemed no longer to be brothers at all, let alone twins.
Hope moved first, clenching his hand into a fist and striking out at his brother. His fist, however, merely passed through Lux’s visage as though he were a ghost.
“You may strike me later, though I doubt it will give you much satisfaction,” Lux said. He moved his hands, gesturing at his own body. “I am not present, now. This is only an illusion.”
Hope dropped his fist, but did not reply. Brother Lux sighed and turned toward Miss Taris.
“Sir Beaumont’s false reports have proved to be most helpful. I’ve received word that Sancti has moved its main forces away from the northern passage, and instead are focusing their troops on the western straights, where we are already well-fortified. The longer we can keep Sancti away from the eastern shores, the better.”
“Would they really go to the eastern shore- so near a sanctuary like del Sol?” I asked aloud.
Brother Lux shook his head sadly. “There is no real sanctuary in war, Lady Frey. Churches, hospitals, schools… none of these things are sacred in a game where the stakes are survival- especially in the eyes of a hardened general.”
“If Sancti is really allied with the cult of Reverence, I’m sure they will try to take del Sol eventually,” Miss Taris added.
I remembered all of the tricks Mercy had played on me when we trained, and how she laughed at me for complaining. I felt foolish for not realizing the same rules would apply on a larger game board.
“There is still danger at the Cathedral Lux, but not nearly so much as there might have been otherwise. We have, thankfully, enough healers at Rouge Village to assist if that battle gets out of hand, but your healing ability will be needed at Cathedral lux, Brother Fortune. Please hurry; I will meet you there.”
Brother Fortune bowed. “With Wisdom’s help, may the war be bloodless. May peace reign,” he said.
“Do you know where Pride is, now?” Miss Taris asked. “Did he hurt you before you got rid of him?”
Lux laughed. “Oh no- he did not hurt me. When it became apparent that he could not harm me, he vanished. I expect he is gathering the scattered remains of his troops in Rouge Forest.”
Lux turned back to Hope. “You have been uncharacteristically silent, brother. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them honestly.”
“You will ‘do your best’ to be honest?” Hope said, quirking an eyebrow. “This is an interesting turn of phrase, considering how honest you’ve been in the recent past.”
Lux hesitated, and then quietly said, “you would not have listened to the truth if I had shared it with you. You did not understand what was at stake.”
“I knew very well that all of Aeterna- the lives and souls of all her inhabitants- was at stake. If you had but asked, I would have willingly endured the pain, the humiliation, and the torture, just for the chance to build a better world. Instead, you denied me that choice and forced your will on me. You kept me in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, and left me in a place without any hope for the future.”
“Would you really have done it for Aeterna’s sake?” Brother Lux said. “I was watching you at court. I watched as you fell in love with an Ancient girl and forgot the woman you’d sworn to love forever. I watched, again and again, as you attended to the feelings of a soulless creature before you attended to the simple plan we’d crafted to get the Prince on our side. I watched you lose sight of everything that is important because you cannot see beyond the people closest to you.”
“And you, apparently, cannot see suffering when it’s under your very nose,” Hope shot back.
Brother Lux clenched his fists as though in frustration and turned away from his brother to pace. As he walked, the grasses rustled against his calves, as though only the incorporeal could affect the incorporeal in this place.
“I know suffering, brother. My mind is filled with the voices of the suffering every day, echoing endlessly. I have joined my mind to that of a God, and as a result I hear the desperate prayers of thousands. Each voice belongs to a person as unique, as loved, as real as the cherished few you would die for.”
“I know that-” Hope began.
“You know that there is suffering in the world,” Brother Lux interrupted. “You have felt the pinnacle of suffering, yourself. But you can’t understand the scale of the problem. Your mind possesses enough empathy to feel the suffering of a few; if you felt the suffering of thousands of your own beloved, it would kill you.”
Hope’s eyes narrowed and he watched his brother pace. “How dare you claim to understand suffering, when I watched you turn a blind eye to the suffering of the prisoners under the hands of your inquisitors.”
“If I had tried to liberate the prisoners too soon, they would have all been hanged without trial. You and the rest of the prisoners are free because I arranged the dungeon’s liberation- or did Lady Frey forget to mention that fact?”
Hope scoffed. “A cryptic gesture in a disordered courtroom is hardly an ironclad plan. We happened to escape, and you are happy to take credit.”
“An army of my men stormed the dungeons to liberate them. The men did this because I told them to be ready for the event. I also, through my cryptic gesture on top of weeks of preparation, made sure that Lady Frey could be with you.”
“How kind of you, after you stole Prudence away!”
“I am keeping Prudence safe, in fulfillment of my oath,” Brother Lux stopped pacing and spun to face his brother once more.
“And why I should trust that you are keeping her safe, after everything she suffered because of your plots? Damn you- when I think of what I suffered in the dungeons, and know that she suffered the same…” Hope’s voice cracked, and he seemed lost for words.
“That was a mistake,” Brother Lux said in a lower voice. “I got her out as soon as I could- healed her wounds…”
“There are some wounds you cannot heal,” Hope said.
The two men had been staring at each other in anger, their breaths coming in short gasps as the Miss Taris, Brother Fortune and I watched the argument in stunned silence. Now Brother Lux seemed to relent, took a step back, and lowered his head a little as though in penitence.
“Fine- I will grant you this. I cannot heal the worst wound- cannot undo the most atrocious of my sins. The question now is- what you will do? Will you attempt to undo my wicked deeds, and build a better world? Will you try to understand what is at stake, and bring peace to Aeterna as her king?”
“You mean as your puppet?”
“No- as my sovereign,” Lux said.
Hope stepped forward, closing the gap Lux had made when he’d stepped back.
“Tell me the truth, for once. What is your goal?”
“My goal hasn’t changed. I seek peace, freedom for people to love as they choose, the liberation of the slaves-“
“Not all of the slaves,” I whispered.
Brother Lux continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “I seek the end of sickness and poverty. I wish to undo the damage that Order has done to this world.”
Hope and Lux stood together, as still as two statues. Then Hope turned away.
“I will see you at the Cathedral Lux,” he said.