Callan and I didn’t stay in for very long in Bianca’s Tuscan style home, before taking our leave for Vatican City. Bianca had inherited a small fortune from her late husband’s unfortunate demise, a fact she didn’t regret in the slightest. As soon as she told Callan we could take the motorcycles, he jumped at the opportunity and practically pushed me out the door.
“Here’s your helmet,” Callan said, throwing it to me. I caught it while eying the sleek bikes in the courtyard by the fountain.
“I’ll take the black one,” I replied, swinging my leg over the mechanical beast, stroking the handlebars.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you,” he stated with a smile before placing his own helmet over his head while mounting his bike.
Callan revved his engine while walking the bike forward before shifting into gear, taking off. I followed his lead out of the cobblestone courtyard and drove behind him down Rome’s streets towards Vatican City. While cruising along the busy streets, I noticed several demons walking hidden among humans. Maisie hadn’t been kidding when she said many of us residing in the Eternal City. I took comfort in the fact that our helmets and visors made it hard for any of them to recognize us.
I wondered if Callan knew about all the demons that plagued his city. Surely the Paladins would want to rid their fair city of our kind before traveling across the world? Unless, their missions extended beyond lesser demons hoping to eliminate the sources such as the Archdemons, a feat that I would see few succeeding in, if ever.
Braking, I pulled up next to Callan at a red light, his red bike glistening in the evening sun. He lifted his gloved hand and pointed straight ahead, indicating where we needed to go. I nodded my understanding as I turned my head the other way, looking out towards the sidewalks. Several people were waiting to cross the street, but a man with soft caramel-colored waves cascading down his shoulders and dark blue eyes stared intensely at me.
As he passed, I smelled a sudden sweet scent that I had trouble identifying but felt familiar with all the same. He locked eyes with mine as if being able to see through my visor’s darkness as if he knew who I was. Before my thoughts could completely form, cars honked from behind me as the light had turned.
Shifting gears, I returned my focus towards the journey ahead. As we crossed the threshold into Vatican City, I felt a sudden rush of air that had nothing to do with my bike speed. It was a cold burst of energy that enveloped me, that judged me before allowing me passage through the Holy Gates. Callan glanced over his shoulder at me to make sure I had made it through alright. He knew as well as I that barriers could be a tricky thing and that hopefully, my celestial half was strong enough to allow me passage.
As we drove deeper into the city, I could feel my body tingling with its magnificent energy, a flurry of emotions bubbling to the surface. It was overwhelming enough to make me weep, an outpouring of my other half’s spiritual recognition that I didn’t even know I had. We stopped in front of the Palazzo Apostolico, the residence of the Pope, the man closest to God.
Taking my helmet off, I dismounted the bike and set it on the handlebar as I gazed over the Holy Church’s beauty and all its wonders. Wiping my eyes quickly as Callan approached me, he smirked at me.
“Did you ever think you’d set eyes upon something so beautiful?” he asked.
The buildings of the palace were massive surrounding the Courtyard of Sixtus V. It not only contained papal apartments but also housed private and public chapels, the most famous being the Sistine Chapel. I had never been to Heaven and would never be allowed to enter, but if I were to describe what I thought it looked like, this would’ve been it. Each building was several stories tall, the stonework gleaming underneath the setting sun—statues, and carvings of ancient pastimes scattered throughout the city.
“Are you going to sit out here and stare at it all day, or are you going to go in?” Callan asked, giving my arm a nudge.
“Uh, right,” I said as I started up the stairs without him towards the grand entrance into one of the buildings.
“Not that one,” he said, pulling my arm.
“But it said that was where the Pope lives,” I protested.
Callan shook his head. “He doesn’t have time to entertain tourists. The Pope is usually in his offices above my department.”
“You mean the Order of St. Anthony? He knows about it?” I knew it was a dumb question before it even left my mouth.
“Of course, he does,” Callan replied. “It was facilitated by the Chief Exorcist under the direction of a previous Pope.”
“So, where are we going?” I inquired as I followed him between and around several buildings.
“To the Vatican Library to see an old friend. He’ll take us to him,” he simply replied.
We walked through a heavy wooden door into the Belvedere Courtyard. Many of the visitors were filing out as the hours of operation were closing to the public. Callan grabbed my hand, leading me through the crowd into the building to behold high arched ceilings with pillars leading trough the library from all around. Frescoes were painted along the entire ceiling depicting all sorts of tales passed down from the heavens.
A grand staircase led up to the other floors within the library, a Hippolytus statue resting at the bottom in the La Galea entrance hall. I balked at all the color and splendor as Callan pushed me deeper into the galleries, our footsteps echoing throughout the grandiose corridors. Forgotten manuscripts and educational texts lined the bookshelves upon each floor to the point of overflowing.
“Callan? How were we able to bypass all the personnel here without being stopped for clearance?” I asked as we passed yet another guard. “They’re not even asking you.”
“They know me,” he replied.
“There must be thousands of workers, priests, and whoever else here. How could they all possibly know you?” I questioned skeptically.
“Because it’s required of them. They don’t know what we do, only that we hold a high clearance level. There aren’t very many Paladins to remember,” he sighed.
“How many are there?” I gasped.
“Not enough,” he answered vaguely. I didn’t press him any further, not wanting to upset him. It was hard enough for him as it was knowing our reason behind this visit was to prevent a slaughter.
He stopped abruptly and looked at me. “What’s wrong, Kas?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but I started to feel like I was a lamb being led into a lion’s den. While my powers were tremendous and beyond any mortal’s capabilities, a part of me still feared what I didn’t know…and that happened to be God.
“I’m…not sure I’m ready for this,” I let out, not realizing I was holding my breath.
Callan took a step closer to me, still holding my hand. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
I snatched my hand away. “I’m not worried about any mortals, Callan. I couldn’t care less about the Paladins, either.”
His confused expression made me feel guilty about my sudden outburst. What was I even trying to say, and why was I saying it to him? Clenching my fists, I stared down at the colorful marble tile beneath my feet. Surrounded by so much beauty, I felt entirely out of place, like stealing from all that was good. I didn’t feel worthy of such a wonderful gift as setting foot upon this sacred ground.
“Kas…” Callan whispered, placing a firm hand on my bicep. “If you weren’t meant to be, you wouldn’t be. There’s a reason you can pass through that barrier and be here, surrounded by all that you see. You may not have faith in God, but I know there’s a reason behind everything.”
Glancing up at him, his compassionate eyes made me feel more at ease. While my anxiety flared at wanting to fully trust him, I knew that if he could get me out of here intact, he would have proven himself my complete ally. It would be a bond forged by our adventure together into an unfamiliar world for me and a home for him.
He turned to the side, nodded his head towards the end of the hall, and guided me along with his touch. We stopped at a doorway that led into one of the classrooms. Callan opened the door and entered with me at his heels. The room had a double row of small pillars with several rows of old wooden desks. It appeared as it did hundreds of years ago.
Tall windows lined the other side of the room overlooking the buildings. The light was slanted with the setting sun across the darkening room. Lanterns hung from the walls giving off a small glow while candles in metal floor holders were set up in each corner of the room.
A man was shuffling papers at his large desk, only looking up at the sound of the door softly shutting behind us. His gaze fell upon me, sea-green eyes piercing through with an inquisitive look. Callan stepped forward to the balding man dressed in a Catholic priest’s uniform, a rosary hanging from around his neck.
“Callan,” he said, recognizing my friend immediately. Opening his arms, he took hold of him in a deep embrace as if a father would a child.
Callan pulled away from him and held his hand out towards me. “This is Kasdeya Angelov, and she needs our help.”
“Kasdeya…” the man said. “I am Father Alexi, Callan’s mentor. To what do we owe this visit?”
“We need to speak with His Holiness,” Callan spoke over me. “It is of an urgent matter that can only be resolved through him.”
Father Alexi shifted his gaze to Callan as if the sight of me disgusted him. Obviously, Callan’s mentor possessed the same ability of telepathic communication and, thus, already knew who I was.
“It is forbidden,” he spoke harshly. “His Holiness will never agree to meet with the devil.”
“If he doesn’t, then he will condemn us all to Hell,” Callan warned. I had to give him some credit. Callan wasn’t backing down without pulling all the punches.
Father Alexi thought for a moment before saying, “I will convene with the Cardinals assisting the Pope, but I cannot guarantee he will choose to entertain an audience with that which is most foul.”
He strode towards me only to stop short when he realized I wasn’t moving aside. Glowering at me, I met his eyes, a small smirk tugging at the corners of my lips. Flustered, Father Alexi turned to face Callan, who gave him no sign of reprieve before facing me once again. Tilting my chin up, I stepped aside to allow him passage through the door as he stormed off.
“Well,” I began, “not my biggest fan, I presume.”
Callan chuckled as he came to rest by my side. “He’ll get over it.”
“He seems very fond of you,” I remarked. “Is there a story there?”
“Not a very interesting one. When I was taken in to stay here with the Vatican, Father Alexi took a special interest in knowing my lineage. He vowed to train me above all others, hoping that one day I would take his place over the Order,” he explained.
“That’s a lot of pressure for a kid,” I commented.
“It was. You would know out of anyone,” he teased. “I’m pretty sure this knocks me out of the running, though.”
“Are you kidding? If anything, this makes you stronger than the rest. You’re willing to lay aside differences for the greater good!” I exclaimed. “That makes you nobler and more selfless than anyone.”
A slight blush crossed over Callan’s cheeks. “We’ll see once everything goes back to normal, and I’m not running around with the devil.”
I elbowed him in the ribs a little too hard as he grunted from the blow.
“So, where to now?” I asked as we exited the classroom.
“Everyone will want to congregate in the Pope’s private chapel. There’s no way they’ll want to be enclosed in an office with us—”
“Me. You mean me,” I interrupted. “It’s okay. You can say it. My reputation precedes me.”
“Just let me do the talking,” he replied.
“That’ll be easy since they don’t even want to look me in the eye, let alone address me,” I answered with a laugh. “You think the Pope will actually show?”
“I’m counting on it,” Callan said as we neared a long corridor, descending a spiral staircase. He guided me outside and past several other buildings before entering the papal apartments.
Passing along corridors and anterior chambers, we finally stopped in front of a pair of arched wooden doors. They opened into a smaller chapel area surrounded by stained glass windows. Candles lined the walls, the area clear of any pews except for a small velvet cushioned area right in front of the altar with a giant statue with the Virgin Mary holding her dead son in her arms.
I scrunched my nose at the image wondering why humans felt the need to constantly depict the death of Jesus through art. From what I understood, it wasn’t his best moment.
With a brief scan of the room, my gaze landed upon a figure enshrouded in white priestly robes kneeling upon the pillow. In their signature red Cardinal attire, other priests surrounded the holy figure as he slowly rose to his feet with their aid. Father Alexi stood halfway between the Pope and us, bowing towards His Holiness.
The Pope turned and walked forward, Father Alexi taking his hand in his, kissing each ring. The old man stared past his friend towards Callan and myself, his light eyes reflecting pity upon me. I could feel my anger boiling until Callan placed a tender touch on my forearm, begging me to calm myself.
Callan approached the Pope and kneeled before him, bowing his head. The man waved the sign of the cross over him as Callan rose from his position, stepping aside as a mediator between the Man of God and the Devil.
“May I introduce—”
The Pope raised his hand in front of Callan’s face. “There is no need for introductions. I am well aware of what it is.”
My skin prickled at the term he used to describe me as if I were something less than. Balling my hands into fists, the tips of my nails slicing into my palms. The pain was the only thing holding me back from ending his holier than thou attitude, something I had always despised. With Callan’s eyes pleading, I took a deep breath, my chest rising and falling with a silent sigh.
“Your Holiness,” Callan began, stepping in front of my view of the old codger. “We have made a perilous journey here to visit with you on urgent matters. Kasdeya must ascend the throne as the new ruler of Hell to restore the balance between the realms. If she is unsuccessful, Hell will be destroyed—”
“And why, pray tell, would that be so terrible? Hell is for the wicked and the damned,” a Cardinal interrupted.
“With Lucifer destroyed by his own prodigy, we may finally be free of the demons that roam our streets—”
“That’s what I’m trying to explain,” Callan hissed at the Cardinals. “With Hell destroyed, Earth will be overrun with the souls and demons that you’re so worried about!”
Another Cardinal scoffed. “That’s absurd. God would not allow the retched and profane to run rampant over His great creation!”
“Yet God allows for demons to stroll our streets and innocent people to be possessed to the point we’ve had to open our doors to everyone to teach classes on exorcism,” Callan pointed out. “God gives us the opportunity to make our own choices and, God Willing, they’re the right ones.”
Whispers echoed around the high chamber at Callan’s words. As they spoke among themselves, I could hear the familiar whispers of the dark prayers filtering into me. The onslaught’s suddenness distorted my face into one of pain as I tried to steady my legs from giving way. It never occurred to me that I would still hear voices damning themselves to my realm in a place such as this.
Gritting my teeth, I straightened myself trying not to show any weakness among the wolves. Callan tensed, the only person aware of my discomfort.
“Call off the Paladins at Hell’s Gate so that we may pass,” Callan demanded.
“And leave the city below to harm—”
The Pope raised his hand once again to cut off one of his Cardinals’ words, his rings glinting in the candlelight.
“Can you assure the destruction of Hell is not God’s Will?” the Pope inquired.
Callan opened his mouth as if to say something but closed it. It appeared the Pope had posed a question that no one could answer except for God himself.
“I see…” the Pope continued, turning away from us.
“Have you seen Hell?”
He turned, his eyes settling upon me as if I had spoken the most blasphemous words his ears would glean to hear.
I took a step forward, the others backing away as they watched me intensely without uttering a word. Fear had gripped their hearts, a stench I knew all too well.
“Let me answer that for you,” I soldiered on. “No, you haven’t, but you fear that one day you will.”
“Hold your serpent tongue—”
My eyes darkened as I silenced the Cardinal, who had spoken out with a cold glare. His retreat pleased me, the voices inside my head fading with my surge of power.
“Call me what you will, but I am the bridge between all realms. Their power flows through me, and yet, I stand here in the Holiest place on Earth, asking God to help me restore peace. If that is not a sign from your God, then tell me, O Devout One, are you ready to see Hell?” I threatened.
“I do not make deals with the Devil,” the Pope began. An audible sigh of relief circled around the chamber. “But…I do ally myself with God. Therefore, if you can prove your loyalty, then I will allow you passage.”
“Her loyalty?” Callan questioned. “She’s trying to ascend to the throne, not sabotage her efforts.”
“That is the only way,” the Pope commanded. “What say you?”
My heart raced within my chest as I tried to control my breathing. Callan knew the predicament aiding the Pope in whatever endeavor he had in store would get back to Hell’s demons. While tempting me with a taste of redemption, my show of mercy could turn out to be my downfall.
“What do you want me to do?”