Sunesis

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Chapter 7

What good was a dagger when he couldn’t see? Andre felt along with his hands, blind in the pitch blackness of the cave after inching into an open shaft just inside the entrance. He could see a beam of light overhead from where he had come, but there was nothing but emptiness ahead. The floor continued to descend at a gradual pace, and there was stone wall close on either side. Pushing out with his arms, he walked with his fingers grazing the damp enclosure and kept his head down so as not to hit it on the low ceiling.

He could tell he was in a tunnel, a thin tube which only led in one direction. It had been cool when he had first entered the cave; cool compared to the sun-touched earth in the open air. But now, the further he advanced, the warmer it became. It was not a dry heat, but damp, humid warmth like the inside of a stagnant mouth of some massive beast. Andre’s body dripped with the saltiness of it; his hair was soaked and fell in his eyes. The fumes were asphyxiating, the cave smelled of death.

Andre’s initial worry was that the tunnel would narrow and tighten to claustrophobic dimensions, but when it began to do the opposite and widen, he had a new fear. No longer able to touch both sides of the tube, he had to slow to a crawl, squatting down and moving at a snail’s pace in case he should come upon an open chasm and not see it.

After what seemed like hours, he ran headlong into a wall covered in thick, sickly slime. Andre dropped his dagger in fright and sprang back, touching the place where his forehead had met with stone. His fingers came away grimed with the slippery goo, and he got a whiff of the mess. It smelled like iron, like warm blood.

Gritting his teeth, Andre looked up and noticed he could see. Either his eyes had adjusted to the dark, or it was getting lighter. It was a cool light, contradictory to the stifling feeling in the cave. After a moment, he began to realize that it was coming from the other side of the wall. He was kneeling near a corner section and had only to go around to where the tunnel continued to descend in a different direction. Feeling for Lavi’s dagger, he picked it up and moved on.

The light grew brighter, and Andre began to make out shapes in the dark. Corners of sharp stone, rock shelves and archways, he sped up his gait with a renewed sense of urgency and definite direction. Below him, at the bottom of an uneven stair, the tunnel opened onto a room. It was here where the light came from. It was here where the stench of death was strongest.

Please, he prayed, let him be alive.

Abaddon did not have the right to kill outright, did he? There were so many things Andre had yet to learn about his enemy, and this was one of them. He dreaded the answer, and this fear propelled him forward in the hopes that he wasn’t about to find out.

At the bottom of the stair he stopped, pressing himself against the wall and giving his eyes time to adjust to the increased amount of light. It was blue, like reflective water, but solid and born from a single source, like an orb. The light came from somewhere near the ceiling of the underground room and covered the vast space with strange shadows. From Andre’s vantage point peering around the side of the open doorway it looked as though the room was broken up like a maze. Large portions of rock blocked certain paths while other areas of the damp floor were open and passable. There was a constant dripping sound of water running in rivulets and pooling in steaming puddles.

Andre’s heart was beating hard against his chest. He was finding it hard to breathe in the cave, and he felt sick and dizzy from the lack of fresh oxygen. Now it appeared he would have to work his way through the maze to the other side of the room before moving on. Or was the maze the destination? He could not see where it ended or even the center of what might have been a great orb itself. If he could climb on top of one of the nearest boulders, he might be able to get a clearer view of what he was dealing with. Would Costa be in the middle?

Wiping the dripping sweat from his face, Andre spit the gritty saliva from his mouth and adjusted his hold on the dagger. There was an easier way to find out. If Abaddon already knew he was there, then what was the point in hiding?

“Costa!” he called out from his place by the door. Watching the shadows for movement, he listened to his parched voice echo against the walls. “Abaddon!”

A chilling cackle rose like a rippling tide. It filled Andre’s head and pounded against his skull, reverberating with madness.

Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow…

Evil’s voice chimed in his subconscious and took hold. It played with him like a toy until Andre found himself gritting his teeth against the irritation.

And everywhere the lamb did walk, his puppets all did go…

Evil rang like a headache sending shards of pain to the core of Andre’s teeth within his jaw. He sank to his knees and closed his eyes with his back flat against the slimy wall.

They followed him to death one day, and broke all of the rules…now everywhere the saints all went, they stumble like blind fools…

Andre yelled in desperate frustration, screaming a command for Abaddon to stop playing around. “Tell me where he is!”

Evil only laughed, but released his painful hold and left Andre gasping and blinking with watery eyes. “Welcome home, little prophet. So glad you could make it. I hope you enjoy your stay as much as the holy man.”

Andre leaned against the wall, shaken and weak on his feet. Abaddon still had not shown his face, and he didn’t bother looking for him. He knew now where he was, where the voice was coming from and where Costa was being held. He must go to the center of the maze, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Pulling himself up with the help of the wall, he attempted to dry his hands on the hem of his un-tucked shirt, too wet to be of much help. Pushing his unruly curls out of his eyes, he searched for the best way to enter the maze.

The obvious route lay just ahead of him, an open passageway veering to the left just beyond the opening. Down the line on the right was another, tighter alley, but Andre disregarded this as well. Both were easy traps. He could waste more endless hours getting lost down numerous twists and turns which were likely to lead nowhere. He had no patience for Abaddon’s games. He would take the higher ground.

Clambering up the nearest boulder, Andre pulled himself to his feet at an advantaging height above the layout of the maze.

That’s cheating…

“That’s too bad,” Andre responded. Your game, Abaddon, your methods apply. He found his next move and took it, leaping across a gap in the maze wall to an adjoining stone shelf. He wobbled a bit unsteadily after landing, but managed to stay upright and ran along the ledge in the direction of the center of the maze. Everything was slick with the same, iron smelling sludge and, more than once, Andre had to stop himself from slipping. Halfway to the middle he felt his foot slide out from under him. Turning at the last second, he caught the edge of sharp stone hard under the arms and held tight to the side of a ten-foot-high wall.

The air was knocked from his lungs, but he had a firm grip by which to hang for a moment and catch his breath. Abaddon’s low chuckle filled the cave once more and shook shards of loose stone from the ceiling like a hail storm. “Taking the easy way could very well get you killed.”

Andre ignored him and pulled himself back to the top of the wall with some difficulty. His fingers were stiff and swollen making it harder to grab hold of the slippery rock face. With each slam against a new section of wall, his body ached and grew weaker. The pathways between the walls had grown wider, his jumps forced to be longer in order to make it across. Andre felt as though he wasn’t making any progress. The boulder he had started from was far behind him, but he was no closer to the center than when he began.

“Tired?” Abaddon asked. “Go ahead, take a rest. Catch your breath.”

Andre gritted his teeth without response. There had to be a way in, he just had to get ahead of Evil’s game. Edging his way down a length of wall, he made a sharp turn around a dead-end and advanced himself a few feet further without having to make another jump. Glancing quickly at the ground below, Andre judged the distance of the next chasm and prepared to launch himself across.

“You’re wasting time,” Abaddon assured him just as he pushed off and landed with a yell of agony. As his bruised chest and upper arms connected with the jagged stone it cut into him like shards of glass, ripping through the fabric of his shirt and leaving crimson stains with oozing blood. “What do you think you will accomplish by tearing yourself to shreds?”

“Shut up!” Andre yelled to the ceiling as he stood on shaking legs. “Stop hiding! Give him back! Costa’s already been won from you. You’re not allowed to do this!”

Evil found this amusing, and Andre turned at the sound of him where he stood draped in his robes of white, filling the center of the room with a new kind of light horrible to look at. “What happened to your powers of sight? Has your Father hidden his grownup plans from you? I have no authority on your precious island, yet here your holy man lays prisoner.” With a definitive gesture of his commanding hand, the walls of the maze surrounding the center circle crumbled away and revealed a mound of fractured bones piled high. Protruding from the uppermost point was an iron post with a solid ring hanging from its side. Through the ring hung a heavy chain, a chain wound tight around a broken and unconscious Abramo Costa, bloodied and bruised with his clothes in singed rags.

Andre moved convulsively toward his mentor and nearly fell. There was nowhere to go but down. Straight down more than fifteen feet to the cave floor below. Abaddon seemed to grow to greater heights before his eyes, expanding with power and a beauty more terrible than the prophet had ever seen.

“I have no authority within the confines of your spiritual bubble,” Evil admitted easily. “No authority…but what I am given.”

Andre met his eye and searched for understanding.

“Your knowledge of Theos does not run as deep as you thought,” Abaddon mocked his shortcomings. “It seems you have missed something during playtime with the Panoplia marionettes.”

“You’re lying.” Andre did not trust him.

“Generally yes,” Evil writhed like the serpent he was, flashing every one of his glimmering fangs. “But what good would a lie do me here?” His laughter shook the cave and sent several more layers of the maze crashing to the ground.

There was movement near the pile of bones, and Andre glanced over in alarm. “Costa!” he yelled as the komer attempted to raise his head. His eyes were swollen shut, and his dry and cracked lips moved in a silent call for help. Andre balanced precariously on the edge of the wall as it quaked beneath him. The cave was crumbling around them; they would be crushed.

Abaddon made a motion of command and suddenly the solid stone beneath Andre’s feet fell away, morphing into a wall of frigid water. Plunging into the deep, Andre hit the stone floor beneath the compressing wave. The shock of the icy fall hit his nerves like electricity and numbed him to the core. As the surge drained away, he lay limp where he landed and coughed for want of air. Andre turned his head and vomited back what water had filled his lungs and felt a burning within his chest.

A shadow of radiating heat fell over him, and the prophet’s eyes opened beneath the weight of Evil’s smoldering gaze. Abaddon knelt from his great heights and tightened his burning grip on the front of Andre’s shirt. Raising him off his feet, the Evil One ensured he had the prophet’s full attention. “I warned you. I am not to blame for your arrogance. Where are your mighty Panoplia now? What weapon have they left you with this time?” He glanced down and found the dagger protruding from Andre’s back pocket before snatching it away and tossing it aside like a measly insult. “You should find yourself some more powerful allies before you try to take me on in my own house.”

“What do you want?” Andre pushed the question through gritted teeth. His aching and feverish body shook uncontrollably, sick with cold from the freezing drench and nauseated by the radiating heat cascading from Evil’s lips. “I took the bait, I’m here. Now let him go.”

“Bait?” Abaddon leered. “Who said I wanted you at all? Who made you more valuable than the rest of your mindless race? Did it ever cross your mind that I wanted the holy man alone? Your time of usefulness has ended. Fifty years is long enough. There is no such thing as paradise on earth, prophet. You do not know what you have fallen into.”

“Enlighten me,” Andre challenged.

Abaddon laughed mirthlessly and grabbed hold of the back of the boy’s neck with his free hand, pressing his talons into Andre’s flesh and sending pain searing to the core of his conscience. Andre’s own screams filled his ears and his eyes slid back in his skull as everything plunged into darkness.

Abaddon threw the prophet’s limp body to the ground and raised himself to his full height. Looking down on the Andre as if he were little more than a speck of dirt beneath his foot, he crushed his windpipe with his heel. The ground shook beneath his step. Pebbles and a layer of dust settled on the damp, stone floor as Evil took his leave of the underground lair.

A healing light filled Andre’s mind and pushed away the darkness. Diving headlong into the depths of the vision, he drank the light like a medicinal fluid. Forcing himself to open his eyes and take in his surroundings, he blinked and turned to see a vast open realm filled with specks of light. They may have been stars on a clear night, but they were far more alive and larger than any in the prophet’s memory. It was difficult to get a good look at this new environment. Everything was bathed in piercing light from a commanding source above and to the right of where he stood. Andre peered into the bright white and blinked from the pain, averting his gaze instantly and dropping it to the dusty, desert-like ground at his feet. The place was barren, the sand the color of lifeless flesh. Following the line of his own shadow with his eyes, the prophet noticed he was not alone.

Bent on one knee in his robes of white, Abaddon faced the upper chasm in the celestial sky with a narrow gaze fighting the pain of the striking light. Beneath the exposing rays, Abaddon’s beauty looked faded and gray like a stain on pure, white robes. There was nothing frightening about Evil in that place.

“It is not fair,” Abaddon spoke to the Light like a child. “The earth is mine, all of it! Not even a percentage should be withheld!”

He waited for a response with a whining growl caught in his throat, and Andre raised his eyes to chance a look at what lay beyond the opening. His chest tightened and moisture swam before his wavering vision. There was something there, looking down. A face he only caught a glance of before he had to look away again. It was like seeing Power in its physical form. Andre shook and fell to the ground, a dead weight brought down by the force of His revealing gaze.

From where he lay, Andre could only stare amazed at the feeble form of Abaddon at his weakest. The fallen spirit pleaded with Theos for access to the Koinonians, claiming the Father was being unfair to keep them set apart and out of his reach. “You favor them,” he tossed out frail accusations. “How can you truly know they need you if you give them everything they want? They have no fear. They are arrogant. They close themselves off and set themselves apart from everyone else like an elite cult as if they deserve such sanctuary. Give them to me and let them prove their allegiance.”

“You dare to barter?” The voice of Theos was like the charge of a thousand horses, and it sent a tremor through Andre like a reviving song of hope. “Now? After I have already crushed you?”

The voice appeared to have an effect on Abaddon also, resulting in a deep contortion of pain visible on his shallow features. “I wish to break them,” he growled with his gaze darting across the barren landscape away from the Light. It looked as though he sought out Andre’s attention and met it with a vindictive sneer as the commanding voice fell from the upper heavens like a clanging gong with Theos’s response.

“And so you will.”


Blood splattered the floor when Andre awoke coughing and choking against the pain searing his throat. His vision swam before his eyes, and he wasn’t sure how long he lay immobile dipping in and out of consciousness with traces of his vision lingering behind his eyelids. “Costa?” he croaked and lifted his sore and screaming muscles until he could find the komer in the frail light. “Costa!”

The chains rattled as Costa moved with a groan. Andre rolled to his knees and crawled to the pile of bones, reaching for his spiritual leader and clasping his battered hand. “We’ve got to go,” he told him in a harsh whisper. Andre’s vocal cords were bruised, and it was difficult to speak without breaking into broken fits of coughing.

Looking around, he located Lavi’s dagger and used it to break open the lock holding the chains. Costa dropped from the dais of bones and collapsed with a shudder on the stone floor below. He was a broken man, torn apart from physical limb to mental sanity. Two days in the company of Evil had left him clinging to life and unable to stand on his own accord.

Andre’s own muscles screamed, but he found the strength to pull Costa’s arm over his shoulders and hoist him to unsteady feet. The holy man was twice his age but similar in height and little more in weight. With the prophet’s support, he managed to move slowly across the underground room to the waiting stair.

Andre dreaded the climb. It appeared so much longer and steeper going up than it had coming down. Step by step they rose, pausing to catch their breath and gather their strength. “Not much farther,” the boy encouraged his spiritual mentor with each new start. “Just keep going.”

Around the bend at the top of the stair, Andre could make out the frail light of day. It was gray and shadowed, but a clear, direct beacon which appeared like a point of hope they fought to reach. “Look,” he instructed Costa, “that’s the sky.”

Costa could no longer raise his lolling head, his eyes mere slits of white beneath swollen lids. His breathing was even more ragged in his liquid compressed chest. The heels of his shoes scrapped stone with each labored step, and he stumbled with groans of pain.

It felt like hours since they had left Abaddon’s torture chamber. Andre had not ceased wondering where Evil had gone after he had passed out. Not up, surely? The Panoplia would have stopped him at the door. What deeper recesses existed in the cave, Andre could only imagine. Gates to more horrific chambers, entrances to the outside world and Evil’s free range kingdom outside of Koinonia. Fifty years is long enough… Abaddon’s words rang like a death knell in Andre’s head. He could not have escaped out onto the island; surely Theos had not allowed that…

“We have to hurry,” he shifted his hold on Costa and practically dragged him up the incline. “Lavi!” Andre called toward the opening. “Malachi!” he needed to see them, even if they couldn’t enter the cave itself and help them. They had to be there. “Malachi!”

Keep moving, the reply resounded in Andre’s mind, and he knew that he was close enough to receive the thought of the spirits. They were still there. Abaddon had not come that way.

“Come on, Costa.” With one last surge of effort, Andre propelled them forward and forced the komer to move ahead of him. The entrance stood above them, and he pushed Costa up on his shoulders, lifting him over the ledge to where the Panoplia were able to grab him by the arms and drag him free of the shadows. Andre pulled himself out after and scrambled to his feet before the amazed spirits.

“He is broken.” Chesed kneeled over the unconscious komer. She touched his forehead with her palm. Costa stirred slightly but did not wake.

“What did you see?” Malachi beseeched Andre.

“What time is it?” Andre ignored the question with a glance at the sky which was shrouded in mist. It was beginning to rain. “How long was I down there?”

“Hours,” Lavi told him. “The ground shook.”

Andre absentmindedly handed him the borrowed dagger before kneeling beside Chesed with a look of earnest desperation. “Take him for me, please. Get him to the healers. Make sure they find him right away.”

“What is it?” Malachi insisted. “We have been given no insight. Our instructions are to take your command.”

Andre stood once again and passed through the converging spirits toward the mountain path. “Come on,” he said.

Lavi didn’t need to be told twice. He took to the air and caught Andre under the arms, speeding him above the path back to his car and dropped him lightly on his feet beside the driver’s side door. Andre pulled it open and glanced back once to make sure Chesed was on her way to deliver Costa to the healing house. She rose above the trees and sped off to the east around the mountain side, and the rest of the Panoplia hovered in wait for his next move. “Let’s go,” he commanded and got behind the wheel.

The return trip was short compared to the coming. Andre sped along Highway 1 with his windshield wipers working furiously. The rain was light, but fell like a weighty blanket of fog and mist, obscuring the road and significantly decreasing visibility.

“The transport ferry,” he spoke to Lavi flying on his left outside the window. “Is it docked yet?”

Yes, he received the reply. It stands alone.

“Alone?” This was not the news Andre was hoping for. “Where is everybody?”

They are not at the harbor.

Andre hit the brakes hard and fishtailed slightly on the pavement. Changing directions, he abandoned his plan to drive to the pier and sped down a side street, east into Metoche. The market appeared deserted also, but the lamps were lit, and Andre could make out lines of cars parked along the alleys and branching roadways. Speeding up, he turned sharply along the edge of the circle around the Alleluia House garden and stopped abruptly before the Community Center.

Abandoning his vehicle, he sprinted toward the building and forced open the doors. The majority of Koinonian citizens stood within, congregating around a small group of smiling and chattering young missionaries fresh from their return. Every head turned at the sound of the door banging open against the wall and ceased their rumble of conversation at the sight of Andre bursting into the room. Eyes widened in both alarm and discomfort at his presence. One of the missionaries got to his feet and took a step forward with a look of concern.

“Andre?” Demi also looked horrified at the state of his ripped and blood-spattered appearance, his dripping hair and rain-soaked clothing.

“Who did it?” he called out, ignoring his aunt and gazing fiercely at his countrymen. “Who let them in?” he pointed toward the missionaries and demanded an explanation.

“Andre—”

“Quiet, Demi!” he snapped. “Mathis!” He found the Head Elder in the crowd. “Who did it?”

Mathis moved forward, “I did,” he admitted. “I made the decision to allow them off the boat.”

“Why?” Andre asked shortly.

Mathis appeared to be working hard to keep his own building frustration out of his response. “Because I felt they’d waited long enough.”

“We waited for you,” another member of the elder council spoke beside Mathis. “We didn’t know where you were.”

“Davi has not seen you since last night,” Laken added his support. “We did not—”

Andre did not wait for him to finish, but turned and quickly returned the way he had entered. Out on the street, he called for Lavi without caring that so many stood by the open door and watched him apparently yelling at the empty sky.

Lavi dropped before him with his command of Panoplia close behind and waited for his next orders.

“Go,” Andre told him, “search the entire island, everywhere. Look for shadows, for anything which might have snuck in.”

Without a word, the Panoplia disappeared, and Andre rushed back into the packed Community Center, pushing his way through several confused citizens until he stood directly before the missionaries. “Move back,” he demanded the others. He needed space and quiet until he knew for certain.

Eying each young missionary in turn, he looked deep into the darks of their eyes while they passed one another nervous and confused looks.

“Dietrich,” the missionary standing at the forefront chuckled awkwardly. “It’s not that big of deal. We’re all fine.”

Andre shut down Kylan Kirkeby’s amused disregard with a sharp look. “You have no idea the danger you’ve all put us in.” He turned on Elder Mathis again. “You weren’t supposed to let them in until I arrived.” He turned back to the missionaries and gave them one last searching look. There was nothing unsettling which he could see, but this did not ease his mind in the least.

“How long were we supposed to wait?” Mathis countered. “Families were standing out in the rain. They wanted their children back. What would you have had us do?”

“You should have waited!” Andre shot back. “Turned the ferry around and sent it back!”

“And keep them from coming home after being gone a year just because you were absent, again?” Mathis pointed at the uncomfortable group with emphasis. The tone in the room was strained. Several people nodded their heads in agreement with Mathis while others looked increasingly nervous of their decision to act without the Agabus.

“I was absent because I was busy!” Andre’s volume rose, and he made a strong gesture of his own at the state in which he stood before them. “Pulling your komer out of a torture chamber where he was about to die!”

A murmur of fear and surprise moved throughout the building. Mathis himself lost a little color in his heated face.

“Someone tell me, please,” Andre turned on the two lesser komers next. “Why no one bothered to mention that Costa had been missing for two days?” All eyes fell on them, and the two men looked stunned.

“I…I didn’t know,” Komer Turay stammered.

“How do you not know?” Mathis demanded.

“I don’t know!” he insisted, struggling to come up with an explanation. “I saw him Thursday, in the morning. He mentioned going to the altar to pray. He does this all the time. I thought it was normal. Sometimes he doesn’t return for a whole day! I thought he would meet us at the harbor this morning. I didn’t know!” he repeated desperately.

“He’s hurt, bad,” Andre told them. “He’s at Iasis now. Go,” he commanded the two defeated komers who jumped into action immediately and retreated to the door. “Any deacons here should go too,” Andre spoke over the increased level of anxiety growing among the people. “Go to the sanctuary and give prayer support. Everyone else stay right where you are. No one leaves until I say!” He turned back to Mathis one last time. “Lead them in prayer.”

Mathis nodded resolutely and did as he was told as Andre followed the leaving deacons and komers outside once again. He noticed Jora standing beside her family watching him with a pale and fearful expression. He tried to assure her that it would be okay in a glance, but he did not feel overly confident himself.

“Davi,” Andre called for his brother and motioned for him to join him. Demi looked helpless but nodded at her nephew and pushed him forward to follow. Andre put a hand on Davi’s shoulder and steered him out the door. The rain was falling with more persistency, and he feared that even the Panoplia would have trouble distinguishing shadows in the poor light.

“Clear the skies,” he prayed out loud, glancing to the heavens from the shelter of the building’s roof overhang. Davi studied his face with concern, but asked no questions. “Stay close,” Andre instructed him before he stepped away from the building and into the open street.

Grateful for the obscuring rain for one reason at least, Andre squatted and hung his head as furious tears dripped unchecked. His muscles screamed in objection to every movement, and his heart would not slow its rapid beat within his aching chest. So many pointless mistakes; Abaddon had them ensnared before they even realized it. Andre only hoped it wasn’t too late to stop him.

He knew he should be back there, in that building praying with the others, but he couldn’t do it. His mind was reeling from his encounter with Evil. The last thing the feeble citizens needed was to be in vicinity of his electric-charged, shadow-scarred mind.

“I apologize,” Kylan Kirkeby spoke behind him, and Andre looked up but did not turn or stand. “I get the importance of this, really,” he continued with sincerity. “We just wanted to come home. We sat there on the ferry and waited. They talked about sending us back, but some of the girls broke down crying. It was a rough year, and the last few months...we just wanted to come home,” he repeated. “The elders argued a long time before it was decided to allow us in. It was going to happen sometime. I mean, what do you expect them to do next year when you’re gone? Not let anyone in at all?”

Andre moved slightly, struck by this question before he was distracted by the sight of the Panoplia returning through the mist. Jumping up, he left Kylan and met Lavi at the other side of the street. “Anything?” he asked anxiously.

“The island is secure,” Lavi told him with confidence. “There was nothing.”

“You’re sure?” Andre felt a small measure of relief, but also of confusion.

“Certain,” Lavi was always sure. “We will continue to patrol all corners without ceasing until Theos sends us new word.”

“Has Malachi spoken with him?”

“He has not been called,” he passed Andre a penetrating glance, as if he should have known this. “You’ve received all the messages you need.”

Nodding, he stepped back as Lavi lifted off from the ground once again, and he watched him go before turning back to the Community Center. Kylan was gone, but Davi remained where Andre had left him, waiting obediently for his brother’s return. Andre crossed the street and returned his hand to Davi’s shoulder to reassure him it would be alright before leading him toward the open Center door.

The people were still deep in prayer when they reentered. Elder Mathis looked up and stopped midsentence. Andre immediately received their renewed attention. He released Davi to return to their uncle and aunt across the room. It was so still and quiet in the building that he did not need to raise his voice when he spoke. “Our Protection stands,” he informed them. “It doesn’t look like there was a breach.”

A surge of relief rose among the people, and everyone relaxed. Elder Mathis met Andre’s eye and nodded with an appreciative smile. “Thank, Theos,” he spoke for the others. “And thank you, Agabus, for looking out for us as always. Forgive us our mistake.”

Andre returned the nod wearily. He wished very much to lie down, but wasn’t finished yet. “At the end of the Eleutheros, I want a meeting with the elders.”

“Then we will have one,” Mathis agreed.

“We’ll do it here and involve the komers,” Andre continued, before stopping and looking around. “What time is it?”

“Almost noon,” Laken answered.

The graduation ceremony was scheduled to take place at one pm. “Is there food for everyone?”

“Of course,” Demi took charge, motioning for volunteers to move to the kitchens.

“Then let’s eat.” Andre was losing his voice again. Each word was a shard of pain. “The deacons should be told—”

“I’ll do it,” Mathis spoke up. “And I will stop by Iasis and inform the komers all is as it should be.”

Andre wasn’t sure of the truth to that, but he let him go as Declan suddenly appeared at his side. “You look a mess, mate. Need me to drive you anywhere?”

“I have my car,” Andre responded in a strained whisper, staggering slightly as he turned to leave.

“And you’re in fine condition to drive, I’m sure,” Declan followed, “but give me something to do. I’ve felt a bit helpless all morning since you didn’t show at the pier, to be honest.”

“Take me to my mother’s?” Andre requested.

“I’ll get my car.” Declan rushed to retrieve it, and Andre turned to find Davi standing nearby.

“Do you want me to come too?” he asked.

Andre shook his head with a wan smile. “I’m just going to get cleaned up. Stay,” he insisted. “Eat something. Practice your piece for the assembly again.”

“We’re still doing that?” Davi asked.

“Of course,” he responded lightly. “Why wouldn’t we? Tradition, remember?”
Davi watched his brother walk out of the Center and climb gingerly into Declan’s car.

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