I SPENT TWO DAYS digging through the records, sleeping on the floor when I absolutely had to. But I got what I needed, namely that Lucielle’s vault was a pocket dimension floating deep in the Void, and that there was a slew of guardians and gates waiting for anyone wanting to enter.
Nine gates, on top of that. She really didn’t want anyone snooping around her vault. Normally, one guarded things with one trial – a door that required a key since having that key was a trial of sorts. Similarly, any passcodes were effectively trials of knowing the code.
But in the supernatural world, things weren’t so simple to secure, because some mages could create any fake key when standing in front of a door, and other mages could guess any passcode on the first try by manipulating probabilities or looking into all possible futures.
So, Lucielle’s trials were designed to be impossible to overcome for anyone other than her. And since she was literally the most powerful being in the world, that was not going to be as simple as having a key or knowing a passcode.
And from what I read about the gates, I needed someone from the Church to get past some of the gates. So, I had to make a deal with Azrael. I looked forward to that about as much as to bathing in acid.
Putting on a professional smile, I took the escape tunnel, and walked into the cellar of St. Pellegrino Church. Undisturbed by anyone, I walked up the stairs and entered the church’s nave. Within the other empty hall, Azrael sat on a bench, gazing at the ceiling.
I sat by his side and handed him back the key he had loaned me. “I suppose this is the point where we bargain.”
“Indeed.” He took the key with a faint smile, eyes not leaving the ceiling. “Allowing you to use my archives is a favor I will need to ask you to repay. But I suppose that is not all that you desire from me.”
“One of the gates leading to Lucielle’s vault is protected by something called a Gate of the Holy. I’m pretty sure that I will need an angel for that.”
He whistled. “Not asking for little. Surely, you understand I cannot quite command an angel to go with you to rob the Devil.”
“All I need is an allowance for that angel to go with me if I manage to convince him or her.”
“That can be arranged.” He put on a broad smile. “What else do you require?”
Yeah, there was more. And he must have really wanted something from Lucielle’s vault because he was awfully agreeable even for being an old friend of mine. Azrael was easier to tempt than I had expected. “An untraceable Void Gate, both for going there and for coming back.”
“I have one in New York, but the best it can do is to throw you and your team into the Void. You will need to navigate to the Vault yourself.”
That put an extra complication into the plan. “I can handle that. And that’s it. So, what will this cost me?”
Azrael’s smile turned into a grin. “Four things. First, Paladin O’Connor will be the first and permanent member of your team. Nothing will be done without her approval. Also, any conditions she gives you will be met to the finest detail.”
No. “I don’t want to involve Katherine in this. Not to mention she wouldn’t go anywhere with me even if you order her to do so.”
“Oh, you misunderstand.” Azrael’s smile turned into a vicious grin. “I will merely allow you to attempt to convince her to join you of her own will. Should you fail at that, you will receive no cooperation from the Church.”
Ha, so he was going to wash his hands by putting Katherine in charge of the operation. Great. Too bad I lacked the bargaining power to fight this. And, in the end, Katherine would solve one of the gates for me. “Okay, what else?”
“Second, from Lucielle’s vault, I want two specific objects. The two objects are a cross on a leather string and a rosary, both made from Noric steel. You will recognize them the moment you see them.”
“And third, you will owe me a large favor. I will tell you what that will be upon your return.”
Brilliant. A blank check atop of all the other conditions. “Deal.”
The trip back to the US was the same as the one to Italy. I planned the flight to arrive at dawn, and so I did. At least I fixed my sleep deficit on the plane.
After I arrived, I started by checking my car for planted explosives. Predictably, two were present at the car’s bottom, wired to the brakes. I found another one snuck onto the left-front wheel, and after opening the hood, I spotted a fourth bomb connected to the engine. I removed that one as well, and finally got into my car.
I paid the parking fee and drove to the Bronx. I pulled in on the sidewalk by the wall of the Corpus Christi Monastery.
I got out, locked the Mustang, and walked to the gate. The air surrounding the monastery felt more peaceful than elsewhere, as if the constant rush of New York avoided this place. The sidewalk was uncharacteristically clean too, the wall free of graffiti, tall oaks towering beyond. I always liked this place.
A nun dressed in the traditional habit with a cornette atop her head sat in a guard post behind the gate. A security camera peered at me from the guard post’s roof. She rose the moment I approached the gate, stepped out of the guard post, and donned a well-trained smile. “I am sorry, but the monastery is closed to the public.”
“I am here to see Paladin Katherine O’Connor. Tell her it’s Lucas. She will know.”
“I am sorry, Sir, but we do not accept visitors.”
They sure increased the security. “Then how about you call her and I wait for her here?”
“I am sorry, Sir, but I cannot do that.”
Okay. I stepped back and hid my hand behind my coat so she wouldn’t see it. Into the palm, I gathered aether and made the power spin. I condensed the energy just enough not to cause an explosion, and then released the spell. A slight blast of power quaked through the air, knocking the cornette off the nun’s head.
Confused, she picked up the cornette, hastily fixing it back atop her head.
The Monastery’s defenses triggered. A barrier shimmered around the monastery’s perimeter before becoming invisible, the entire place sealed. I remained in place, waiting, and fuelled aether into my eyes. Katherine was bound to notice this, and as the monastery’s paladin, she was bound to show up any moment.
To shorten my wait, I studied the barrier that perfectly traced the gate and the wall while the confused nun returned to the guard post. The defensive mechanism wasn’t bad but didn’t quite match up to those at the Holy City.
Katherine appeared soon, fallen leaves crunching beneath her boots. She wore her usually outfit of a dark green trench coat, matching shirt and pants, her wavy, ginger hair flowed unarranged around her freckled face. The second she spotted me her mouth tightened into a thin line as she glared at me. She also stopped running and walked slowly to the gate.
After spotting her, the nun left the guard post and quickly vanished in the depths of the courtyard.
Katherine stopped by the gate, still glaring. “What do you think you’re doing, Lucas?”
I walked all the way to the gate, looking at her through the bars. Her green eyes were really pretty when she was angry. “Needed to talk with you and the nun wouldn’t call you.”
“Ever heard of cell phones?”
“This talk can’t happen over a phone.” I put on a broad grin. “And you wouldn’t pick up, anyway. Just like the other twenty or so times I tried to call you in the past year.”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t have picked up.” She raised her chin. “And since the monastery is sealed with the protection barrier, I’m going to spend at least a day locked in here. And afterward, I’ll be sorting this mess for a week, so I’m not going to start picking up any time soon. Just like every previous time, you showing up turns my life into a mess. So, what is the occasion, this time?”
I glanced at the security camera. “We need to talk, in private.”
She rolled her eyes. “Did you listen to a single word I just said?”
“Yeah.” I put my palm on the barrier, focused aether into my hand, and forced my power into the defensive mechanism. The first layer overfilled within a second and shattered like a broken mirror. The barrier’s auto-defense mechanism triggered, and its second layer converged on me, trying to surround me into a cube of force to trap me.
I used the energy I had just released that lingered in the air and blended it into the defensive mechanism. And then I reversed the flow, absorbing the mixture of my aether and the second layer into me. Feeling an upsurge of power, I focused my thoughts on the third, final layer, and released a massive quake of aether to overload it just like I did with the first one. The entire area shook with a light tremor as the barrier collapsed.
I grabbed the gate and flung the wings open, tearing apart the lock. I stepped to Katherine, towering right in front of her. “You aren’t sealed inside anymore, so how about we go grab a beer?”
With wide eyes, she stared at me. “That barrier has been here for over a hundred years and costs twenty thousand dollars a year to maintain.”
“I’ll write you a check.”
She kept my gaze for a moment, but then sighed. “Come in. My chambers are private enough.” She spun on her heel, heading toward the monastery.
I stepped into the courtyard and walked next to her. “And you sure you’re alright?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because I just showed off and you didn’t even tell me you weren’t impressed. Are you sure you aren’t sick or something?”
She rolled her eyes but said nothing. Her chambers were in the basement, though I never could quite enter before. Come to think of it, she didn’t even try to slap me after the barrier stunt. How uncharacteristic of her. Something was horribly wrong with her, but I couldn’t quite tell what.
I mean, the last time we met, she kissed me. But ten seconds into that, she changed her mind, detached, slapped me, stormed off, and hasn’t picked up any phone call since then. I still didn’t know what to think about that.
We walked straight to her room. The chamber was about thirty feet long with a wide ceiling and its own toilet. For a monastery, her room wasn’t bad. Though the place was disorderly, at best. The four wardrobes standing by the walls overflowed with clothes and books. What didn’t fit inside lay in surrounding piles.
And so did bottles of beer, many bottles of Guinness. She grabbed a bottle, popped the bottle cap open with her thumb, and motioned to a table I didn’t notice at first since it was covered with files, books, and clothes.
With her hand, she swiped everything off the table, did the same to her chairs, and sat down. I took a seat across the table, glancing at the books and files she threw off it: ‘Orbis Arcanus’, ‘Resignation form 90257-Z’, ‘Curse Breaking for Professionals’, ‘Dating for Dummies’, ‘Thousand and One Method of Incineration.’
“So, what is it?” she asked after she chugged down more than half of the beer.
“First, this.” I fished a checkbook from my inner pocket, wrote a check for thirty thousand dollars to be paid from my account, and put it on the table in front of Katherine. “Should cover the gate too. Keep the change.”
She took the paper, looking at the text. “I should refuse this.”
“But you also need the defenses repaired.”
“I do.” She pocketed the check. “So?”
“I’m planning to rob Lucielle’s vault and I want you to come with me.”
She gaped for a good second before she realized she should close her mouth. “Have you gone insane?”
“Why have you come to me then?”
“To get into the vault, we’ll need to pass a few gates. One of them is called the Gate of Kings. By what I’ve dug up, only a member of a royal bloodline can pass that. And as far as I remember, you’re a direct descendant of the high kings of Ireland.”
She smiled for a moment, but her face swiftly returned to neutrality. “There’s no way I can go with you.”
“Why not? Take a couple of weeks of vacation, and come back with a backpack full of ancient, Irish relics that Lucielle has stolen over the years. Not to mention that coming with me would lead to you saving dozens of lives, a deed worthy of a paladin.”
She arched an eyebrow. “How exactly would I be saving those lives by participating in a heist?”
“I need to obtain a few people and a few things to do the whole heist thing. If I go unsupervised, this obtaining process will end up being an absolute bloodbath, since that’s the quickest method of getting things done. But you can stop that from happening by coming with me and guiding me along the correct path, by making sure I don’t do what I normally would.”
She scoffed. “You never listen to anything I tell you, anyway.”
“What if I promise that I will? You know I always keep my promises.”
“Really?” She arched an eyebrow, clearly not believing a word of what I said. “So, would you promise you would follow the ten commandments from today until the day when we return with the loot?”
“There’s no way this can be done without lying and stealing. I will most likely end up having to work on Sunday and I will keep committing adultery, so the absolute best I can do is six out of ten.”
She paused for a moment, measuring me with narrowed eyes. “Wait, you’re actually serious now.”
“I have never lied to you.”
“Maybe. But I still remember you knocking me out with laughing gas.” She smiled faintly. “But anyway, we can’t do this with just the two of us.”
She was going to accept even if I promised nothing, wasn’t she? I gave her a long, analytical look. While she kept herself young-looking with magic, Katherine was approaching forty. She had long since reached the pinnacle of her strength, and sooner rather than later, her power was going to start waning.
And while she had thousands of successful missions and arrests on her record, she had nothing big. No massive achievement or event that would be the cornerstone of her legend, of her legacy. But a six-cross paladin like her, a descendant of a regal bloodline, needed that.
Robbing the Devil would be exactly that, so the opportunity to come with me was more than tempting enough by itself. “I’m making a team of five. Aside from a two of us, we need a cipher mage, a void mage, and an angel.”
Her eyes lit up. “If you can convince Amaranta to be that angel, I’m in.”
I frowned. I thought I had her figured out, but I did not see this coming. She said that way too quickly and readily, so it was a trap she prepared in her mind the moment I said what I was planning to do. And I planned to fill that position with Cassiel since he owed me. “Do you really want me to drag your best friend into this?”
“She’s not the same ever since she became an angel.” Katherine finished the beer and took another one. “”But you will see that when you meet her. With her, you following at least six commandments, and swearing on your cross you won’t betray me, I will do this. You are wearing the cross I gave you, right?”
I pulled the silver cross from under my shirt. I got so used to it that I didn’t even remember having it. And Katherine smiled when she saw the silver glinting in the morning light. Theatrically, I crossed myself with it, and said, “I swear.”
“Good. She’s training in Massachusetts. It’s about a three hour drive.” She rose, walked to one of the piles of mess, picked up her sheathed longsword, and hid the weapon under her trench coat.
I watched her slender curves. She fell to temptation far easier than I had expected. I thought I would have to spend a week working on her to get a reluctant agreement. And, instead, I got a conditional yes within ten minutes.
Suddenly, I got an eerie feeling that Azrael had some serious ulterior motive for forcing Katherine onto my team. But I knew better than to waste energy by trying to figure out Azrael’s schemes.
“You coming?” Katherine asked, already standing by the door with a six-pack of beer in her hand.
Yes, I was. I rose and led her to my car.
The road trip to Massachusetts was strange, at best. The chit-chat was normal, us catching up on what we were up to in the past year. But she kept drinking. An hour after we left New York, we stopped at a gas station so she could go for the fifth bathroom trip, and Katherine happened to buy herself another six-pack of beer.
Usually, Katherine didn’t drink at all and used a beer-smelling perfume to create an illusion that she did. But this wasn’t a trick, and as we rode deep into the Massachusetts woods, she was singing Poker Face with the radio, until she suddenly rolled down the window, threw her head outside, and started vomiting.
I stopped to let her finish and to clean the vomit off my car. And I knew better than to ask questions. Something happened to her, and while I was dying to find out what, this was neither the time nor the place. Plus, I needed her to keep telling me the directions and the longer I took to reach the destination, the higher odds of her passing out.
“Stop over there,” she shouted, pointing out of the window at an SUV parked on the grass by the forest.
I did, eyeing an Alfa Romeo SUV. “Is that Amaranta’s car?”
How did Katherine know to find it? Through Massachusetts’ forests led hundreds of roads just like this one and yet she somehow managed to navigate me straight to Amaranta’s car. “You having visions again?”
She chuckled. “No. I’m just being lucky lately.” Demonstratively, she popped open another beer, and took a sip.
Horseshit. But I left things at that and pulled over next to Amaranta’s car.
“She’s in the woods. I’ll wait here,” Katherine said, looking into the beer bottle as if something was wrong with the black booze.
Strange. I left the car and walked into the woods.