CW: themes of death, mild body horror.
It was far from the first time Hans Zweifler had been inside one of the Great Halls of the Creed Maane, let alone the Kirk Lundzang itself. The air was damp and cool, as chilled as the memories themselves. He’d been fifteen, maybe sixteen, the last time he’d stood among these towering columns, so tall that they disappeared into shadow. They were lit only at the base by torches glowing a sickly blue that gave off little warmth. Hans rested his back against one of the columns, waiting from inside one of those dim circles of light. He’d lost track of the minutes. He reached out and lit the end of a cigarette on one of the torches.
Halfway through his first drag, he heard the muffled tap of footsteps. Across from him, hewn into the foot of one of the columns, was a narrow arch, in which a heavy wooden door stood. All along the edge of the door were locks of various shapes and sizes, some with keyholes, others with dials. It was unlocked, slightly ajar. He’d only seen it like this once, an image from childhood that he remembered
(someone had left it unlatched, some careless novice, how could he and jutta resist)
all to well. The same blue light that ringed the columns began to spill out of the gap in the door, and then it opened fully. Out of the stairwell behind that door emerged a novice, a young woman clothed all in flowing white, her head shaven, a high collar fringed with gold tight around her neck. In her right hand she held a torch like the others all around Hans.
“You will come with me, Doctor Zweifler,” she said. There was a tightness in her voice, and Hans could see her eyes zero in on the cigarette.
He blew out a line of smoke and looked the novice up and down. Some poor kid left with a job no one else wanted. She hadn’t shared her name earlier, or offered much in the way of pleasantries at all, not that she or anyone here owed him that. “First time bringing a heretic downstairs?” he asked.
Her stare betrayed no emotion. She simply said, “They are ready.”
He sighed and pushed off from the column, flicking the cigarette to the floor, still lit. The novice sniffed and turned down the steps behind her. As Hans followed her through the arch, the air instantly grew cooler. She fastened the door behind them with a large ring of rusted keys—no short task with how many things she had to turn, bolt, and latch—and they began their descent. The passage became narrower the further down they went. The walls, which had started smooth, became etched and uneven, and the flickering light from the torch sent bizarre shadows dancing over the hollows and crevices.
It was slow going. The novice took her time on each uneven step. Hans cracked his neck, hands stuffed in his coat pocket. “So it’s just the usual, right?” he asked. “Did the Prior have anything to say?”
“You will follow Prior Jesephal and Subprior Grighan’s instructions precisely,” said the novice without turning. Then she paused, turned, looked him dead in the eye, and her voice took on a bolder tone. “Your mother was a passionate woman of faith, and very dear to the Creed. You will honor her with a respect befitting the saints, no matter your motivations.” She continued down the steps without another word.
Hans sighed. He should’ve pressed his sisters harder, he thought, gotten Petra or Jutta to come instead of him. They might have had better luck feigning good faith, and the estate transfers might have gone more smoothly overall. He needed the money more than they did though. Professorships weren’t exactly luxury jobs these days. The goads from the other department faculty echoed in his memory: Doctor Hans Zweifler—professor of comparative religious studies and foremost critic of the Creed Maane—returning to the Kirk Lundzang itself to preside over a Letzelung. The things you did for an inheritance. Prodigal son indeed.
The stairs ended, and they stepped through a low stone opening. To either side were rows of the blue torches fanning out seemingly into infinity. Between each torch opened a narrow slit in the rock, each rising high into an invisible ceiling and barely wide enough for an adult to walk straight into without scuffing their shoulders. A wave of vertigo hit Hans as that memory
(chasing jutta past the torches, that ajar door through which they’d entered now far above and behind them. mischievous giggles, sneakers stomping on the cold ancient stone. grabbing the corner of one of the inlets and swinging inside, past the stacks of large rectangular chrome plates inlaid with blue filigrees lining either wall of the narrow corridor, away from the fading light of the torches. turning a corner, blinded by light, crashing into the scratchy robes of a subprior, torch goes flying, his guttural shouts: out! out, you little rats! out! and then mother, oh mother, how angry she had been, how embarrassed, practically throwing herself at the subprior’s feet: stupid children playing stupid games. i will see that they learn respect. it will never happen again, father, i promise you)
struck again. He steadied himself and peered down one of the rows, at the metallic plates set into the stone like lines of cells. At the center of each were several lines of black text in relief. Names, titles, numbers, none that Hans could make out in the dim light.
“This way.” The novice started marching down past the rows. Hans swallowed and turned to follow. Stacks of the ornamented metal cells lit up blue with the light of the novice’s torch as they passed aisle after aisle before disappearing into shadow again.
Ahead, light rebounded out of one of the passages. The novice stopped in front of it, held her torch into the opening, and turned to Hans.
“The Prior and Subprior are waiting for you,” she said. Hans looked through the opening and saw two tall shapes standing deep down the corridor, flickering in and out of focus against the light of another torch. A faint feeling started to grow in him, a feeling that he was falling away from his body, that all his senses were becoming ever so slightly duller, more muted. He took a deep breath, as if to pull himself back into his body. Then he nodded to the novice, who only stared back, and stepped into the passage.
The walls on either side barely cleared his shoulders. Hans felt as if they were leaning into him, closing him in, and he opted to turn his body sideways, shuffling further down toward the figures. As he got closer, the one holding the torch turned towards Hans. A man, just past middle age, bald, with a faint sharply trimmed goatee and mustache and a tall forehead. His pale skin turned an discomforting blue in the light of the torch, and his gilded collar reached above the crown of his head and amplified the torch’s glare onto Hans like a dish.
Prior Jesephal smiled. “Well, well. The prodigal son returns.”
Hans chuckled to himself. “You wouldn’t be the first to say it. Good to see you too, Prior.”
Jesephal gave a small bow. He sniffed, dabbing at his nose with what looked to be the same gold-trimmed handkerchief he’d always used even when Hans was a child. Behind him, Subprior Grighan stood still as stone about a foot shorter than the Prior, with rounder features. Like the Prior, his head was shaved and his skin pale, though his collar was about half the size of Jesephal’s and not nearly as ornamented. Tucked under his arm was a wooden slate, a pen gripped in his hand. Hans didn’t recognize him, and it was hard to gauge the Subprior’s age in the poor light. His beady unblinking eyes seemed to glow blue with the light of the torch. Hans half raised his hand in greeting. No response.
“I’d be remiss,” said the Prior, “if I didn’t invite you to Mass this evening, but I imagine your reasons for joining us now are more… financially informed, yes?”
Hans raised an eyebrow at the metal plate in the wall they stood beside, at engraving on its surface, the name Zweifler illuminated by the torch. “You know I wouldn’t disrespect you so, Father Jesephal, or Mom. Whatever you may think of me, I have nothing but reverence for tradition.”
Jesephal chuckled, dabbing at above his mustache again. “Now, now, Doctor.” Hans couldn’t help but hear condescension in the way the Prior used his title. “You don’t have to be coy with me, and Subprior Grighan here won’t judge you either.”
“Couldn’t say the same for that poor kid back there,” said Hans, jerking a thumb back toward the junction where the novice had left him. “I don’t want to imagine what she did to get the chore of chaperoning me.”
“Novice Zara is an exemplary pupil,” said Jesephal. “One of our best. I’d be most disappointed if she treated you uncordially.”
“No, not uncordial. Just… look out for those star students. They tend to turn into bloodsucking heathens like me.”
Jesephal gave a mirthless smile, sniffing and stowing his handkerchief. “I’m glad you’re here regardless.” He indicated to the name on the wall. “Your mother would be too. Rest assured, I believe you’ll leave today satisfied. Just as soon as we’re done here.”
Hans held his arms out. “Ready when you are, Father.”
Prior Jesephal gave the slightest of nods. Grighan stepped forward and reached to touch the top of the plate in the wall. It slid away with a hiss, spilling a pale verdant light out into the passage. With the light came a strong smell, a mixture of citrus and copper. Hans set his jaw as his eyes adjusted to the sudden light.
Inside lay a long shallow pool of glowing emerald liquid, and in that pool just below the surface floated the dark silhouetted form of a person. A woman, lying face up, her naked skin shriveled and pruned and spotted with puddled fluids. Her head was completely shaved, her eyes closed. It looked nothing like the woman Hans remembered. He felt an impulse to look away in shame, but in fact after looking at the corpse for only a few seconds, the only thought that came up was: that’s it?
Prior Jesephal held out his hand to Hans, the same one he’d used to dab at his nose moments before. Hans suppressed a cringe, then reluctantly reached out and took it in his own. His skin crawled at the softness and warmth of the Prior’s handkerchief hand. Slowly, Jesephal guided him closer to the wall, bringing both of their hands down into the green pool. The cool liquid parted around their hands like sap, clinging to their skin as if looking for every crevice and fold to fill in. The smell was particularly sweet now, so much so that Hans had to wipe away a tear with his other hand. He hoped neither of the other men had noticed. He could also now see the bottom of the pool, where a webwork of near-transparent fibers as fine as hair lay nested beneath her. Though he couldn’t see it, Hans knew that each of those fibers hooked up to the central nervous system near the base of the neck and along the spine. He almost wished he didn’t know what was coming next.
Subprior Grighan turned to the foot of the niche, where a small panel of luminous dials and switches lay. He tucked the slate under one arm and began carefully adjusting the controls with the opposite hand. Jesephal’s eyes remained downcast, never leaving the pool or the corpse lying in it. Finally, Grighan removed his hands from the panel, turned to the Prior, and nodded solemnly. Jesephal took a deep breath, squeezed Hans’s hand, and began to speak in that voice Hans knew from so many sermons he’d heard growing up.
“By the Finite without end, for the One that is Many, in the flesh that is spirit.”
“Life in death, death in life,” intoned the Subprior. Hans didn’t speak the response, closing his eyes to hide an eyeroll. Neither of the other men reacted to his silence. His hand began to itch subdued in the pool.
“To the Eternal Mind,” announced the Prior, “to the Infinite of which all material is but a meager limb, a sigh, a passing thought, to You we make our plea.”
“Eternal affront,” Grighan responded, “Eternal delight.” Jesephal’s grip grew stronger, and Hans shifted in a vain effort to keep his knuckles from grinding.
The Prior continued, “In this form, we drink deeply of the flesh and forget our divinity, forget our source, forget our birthright.”
From the corner of his eye, Hans could see the long white sleeve of the Subprior’s robe sway as he reached to the controls again to turn a dial. The pool grew brighter, and the pale net of filaments beneath the body began to pulse. A deep hum began softly, reverberating seemingly from below the pool. In spite of himself, Hans began to breathe more deeply, more rapidly. He looked at the corpse, at its closed eyelids, its bald head.
“And so,” said Jesephal, “with humble hearts, we invoke the rite of Letztelung. In defiance of doubt, we call upon the Eternal Mind: make appear this one, this appenge of the Infinite, this breath of the divine, your daughter Ilse Zweifler, so that she may share with us truth beyond our wildest imaginings, and we may recommit ourselves to Your incomprehensible design.”
Hans reflexively pulled away, so strong was the light now, but Jesephal’s tight grip held him fast. He held up his other hand against the glare. The humming rose in pitch, growing louder and louder. A ripple ran across the surface of the pool. Something twitched under the surface.
“In all the voices of the Infinite,” Prior Jesephal proclaimed above the noise, “with all the tongues of the Creed Maane, living, dead, and yet to be born, I call you, Ilse Zweifler. I call you back into to the Flesh you once called a home. Come to us, daughter of the Creed! Come now!”
A wail, muffled at first. Bubbles spouted from the pool, then a jet of green as the body jerked upright. Hans fell back, and the light from the torch scattered, disorienting him. He fell back against the opposite wall as something splashed his face. “What in the—”
The humming had stopped, and the screaming now filled Hans’s ears. The torch lay a few feet away, still alight on the ground, sending lanky dancing shadows up the bare walls. The corpse was sitting upright in its hollow, the net of pale dripping fibers tumbling out from its neck and back like a jellyfish ripped out of the ocean. Its arms and legs convulsed, and its head was thrown back in a gutteral shriek, the tendons in its neck jerking and tugging in odd rhythms. And as suddenly as it had erupted out, it collapsed back into the cushiony liquid, sending more over the edges to drip down the the stone.
Hans wiped the syrupy stuff away from his face and found stains on his coat and collar as well. The Prior was at his side. Their hands still gripped one another, sticky from the pool, and Jesephal’s robes also bore splotches the color of algae. He looked just as surprised as Hans felt. Subprior Grighan had taken several steps back too, clutching his slate to his chest and actually showing some emotion in the form of a slack jaw and open mouth. Hans turned back to the niche and its inhabitant. The finer details of Letztelung weren’t the kinds of things the Creed actively publicized, though the rumors ran rampant, and academic circles were chock full of speculations and deductions from what information could be learned from apostates willing to come forward. Sometimes it was said, a subject’s neurological damage was so extensive that the corpse didn’t even respond to the jumpstart. Clearly though, what was happening now was something that surprised even these holiest of men.
The body—Mom; Hans pushed the word to the front of his mind, but it was just a sound—she was breathing in ragged gasps without cadence, sucking air in short spurts, and releasing in one long exhale, only to proceed to breathe in too much as if lung capacity meant nothing and then cough it all out. What little muscle was left on her skeleton pulsed and jerked, sending a hand up into the air for a moment just to splash right back down the next. Her neck pulled in odd angles, obscuring her face. A shoulder folded up in front of her ribcage while the other pulled behind.
Hans felt Jesephal’s hand relax for a moment and tried to rip away, but the Prior redoubled his grip. The others at the university would never let him hear the end of it.
Jesephal was laughing, his upper lip glistening and the handkerchief nowhere in sight, and began approaching the niche again, pulling Hans behind him. Grighan’s beady eyes glowed from the shadows, watching the Prior. He too began closing in, his slate held at the ready.
“Oh daughter.” Jesephal’s voice was soft, almost cooing, nothing like the preacher’s voice he’d been using before. They reached the edge of the niche, and Hans could clearly see her face again. Her eyes darted and rolled in every direction, and he wondered how much she could see in the dark with all the light emanating around—that is, if her eyes were even working at all. Her face was a picture not of pain or rage, orgasm or ecstasy. It was all of them at once in blurry cacophony, each tugging and shoving at one other to get to the front.
Prior Jesephal reached out to take the woman’s twitching hand. He guided it to rest on top of his and Hans’s joined hands, placing his other hand on top of all of them. Her skin was cold and slick, and Hans felt a moment of dissociation as he lost track of which fingers were his in that knot.
“How we’ve missed you these past days,” Jesephal was saying to her. “And I am so sorry—we all are—to have ripped you away so harshly, though you knew the path—we all do.” He glanced at Grighan, who now stood at her feet, a pen poised over his slate. In a slightly louder voice, Jesephal said, “Ilse Zweifler, you who have gone ahead of us into Truth as we languish in Illusion: speak to us. In the sight of your own blood, tell us what you have seen.” And then again in that quiet, gentle voice, squeezing their hands, “Breathe, daughter. It will not be much longer.”
If she heard the Prior’s words, let alone understood them, she gave no sign. A line of bright green drool ran from the corner of her mouth, dripping at odd angles as her head thrashed in the viscous pool. The coughing gurgling sounds spitting out from her throat reminded Hans of something amphibian, something snatched out swamp mud and tossed out flipping onto hard dry dirt. The vocal cords engaged seemingly at random, unwilled. Her voice was a pointillist music, scratches of melody and rhythm, consonants and vowels and sounds on another spectrum altogether with no obvious connection or flow to them. Near her feet, the Subprior’s were glued to her as he scratched away with his pen. Dictating, Hans knew—transcribing the event in specialized script for the Augurs, who would interpret and integrate the transcription into the Vedas of the Creed.
He looked down again, and found his mother staring at him. His breath caught in his throat. The noises had ceased, the thrashing had stilled, the twisting of the muscles in her face went limp. When Hans thought back on the moment later, he realized it must have lasted less than a second. As a memory it smeared and stretched, the way memories fray at the edges when handled for too long. Her eyes, as round and pale and still frozen pools. Her withered lips slack and slightly agape. A face from a dream with no attachment to the world, gazing up at him. Pleading. Longing. Wishing.
As soon as the pieces had lined up, they shattered. She arched her back cried out, pulling Jesephal and Hans half into the niche with a strength unbefitting her atrophied arms. Her pupils disappeared into the back of her head. The chokes and gasps slowly became shallow and faint, and the frenetic dancing of her arms and legs slowed to a halt. The green pool stilled, and the light faded.
The seconds passed at a crawl. Hans felt a hammering in his chest, pumping his awareness somewhere outside of time. The only sound was the frantic scratching of the Subprior’s pen, and the only light came from the torch lying where it had fallen on the ground a few feet away. The pool itself was now the swampy color of thick moss. Hans’s hand had become numb, still held between Jesephal’s and the corpse’s, as if his arm dissolved into air midway past the elbow. Pins and needles suddenly swarmed that hand when Jesephal let go and lifted his arms to the unseen ceiling above. He spoke again in that sermon tone, addressing something bigger than life.
“To this one, we bid our last farewell. But every farewell is a greeting, a coming home, a great completion. We the Many Flesh give thanks for you, Ilse Zweifler, voice of the Infinite, for your Truth you share. To this life we now return, to share your word with our fellowship, until the day comes that all of us join together again in the embrace of the Great Quiet.” Then Jesephal and Grighan said in chorus, “World without end, death without waste, life without birth; our Creed is kept.”
Jesephal looked to Grighan, who stepped forward and tapped the side of the opening. The metal plate slid back into place, sealing the body back inside. The metallic smell hung in the still air.
The Subprior bowed his head, turned to walk the opposite way down the hall, carrying his slate and pen at his side, and disappeared around a corner. Then Jesephal stooped down to pick up the fallen torch. He raised it and the hallway lit up pale blue, looking practically daylit now. He turned to Hans. He was smiling.
Hans sighed. “Well.”
“Well,” the Prior agreed. He retrieved his handkerchief from a pocket in his robe and began dabbing his upper lip again.
The plate in the wall, that name—Zweifler—caught Hans’s eye again. He approached it. All across the front of his mind blared the realization that he could just go now. He could simply leave, get the Treasurers to make the transfers, and never look back. This could be it. Nothing left to tie him to the Creed, or to Mom. All he had to do was start walking.
Instead, he turned and rested his back against the engraving, slouching as he looked through the opposite wall into space. He folded his arms and looked up at the Prior. “So do you want to stop playing games now?”
Jesephal blinked. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“You do,” said Hans, nodding to the casket behind him. “Just what the hell was that?”
“Letzelung isn’t always a quiet affair,” Jesephal said. His smile didn’t falter. “You know that. I think you made that quite clear in that piece you wrote last year. ‘A death cult that pulls a coin out of your ear and tells you it’s the word of God,’ I think were some of your words.”
Hans laughed. “Well that must break your little heart, Father, reading someone from your own flock write say such mean things. If I’d known you were keeping tabs on me, I wouldn’t have been so reserved.”
The smile on Prior Jesephal’s face finally started to wilt. “You’re obviously unsettled, Doctor,” he said, “and believe me, I am just as awestruck as you are by what we’ve just witnessed. But that’s not what you’re really curious about, is it?”
“There’s quite a bit I’m curious about actually. Like whether the other guy knew what you were up to.”
“You’re wondering why I’d let someone like you down here, knowing full well what you and your academic friends might do with the things you saw.”
“Frankly, I’m disappointed it’s this obvious.” Hans rapped a knuckle on the burnished surface behind him. It didn’t ring like he expected, more of a dull clink of iron than the hollow ring of a tub. “That probably wasn’t even her in there, was it? Like you’d actually upset the body of such a generous patron like that. More than usual, I mean. What’d you do, grab some dying wretch off the street?” When Jesephal didn’t answer, he pushed off the wall, shaking his head. “Come on, Father. You’re going to have to do a lot better than this. What did the Augurs put in her to make her… freak out like that? Go on. Indulge an academic.”
Jesephal’s face was now a blank stare, unreadable. Where the torch in the Prior’s hand once outlined the creases and wrinkles in his face, only stony flat surfaces remained. “You think I’m trying to convert you back,” he said.
Hans clapped his hands together. In the expansive dark, it was uncanny the way it didn’t echo. “What a swell narrative that would be,” he said. “The educated skeptic, returning to church to pick up his mother’s money and suffer the ceremony along the way, only to witness something miraculous and buy back in. Maybe a bit trite, but certainly not the worst the Creed has ever pulled.”
Jesephal hung his head. He reached up with his other hand to massage the bridge of his nose. “Do you really think that highly of yourself?” he said. It was the closest thing to an insult Hans had ever heard from the old man. Jesephal chuckled. “You certainly seem to think a lot of me, Hans, to imagine that I’d go that far out of my way to orchestrate something so… dramatic.” He blew his nose into the handkerchief with one hand, wiping away at whatever hidden thing flew down his lip.
“I don’t know,” Hans said with a shrug. “Drama seems pretty on-brand to me.”
“Is that why you became an atheist? Too brash for you?”
Hans sighed and turned, scratching his head. This was going on far too long. Simply stepping foot in the Kirk Lundzang an hour ago had been a step too far, and now he’d failed at the simplest act of keeping his mouth shut. The way Jesephal came off so strong right now unsettled him. Now was as good a time as any to turn heel and leave. No one would think less of him, probably. He couldn’t let Jesephal win this though, not now.
“I don’t mind brash,” he said, looking back at the Prior. “Actually, all it takes is one little flaw. One dumb contradiction in the scriptures, one little slip of the that pristine mask you like to hold up.” Stupid children playing stupid games. “It might take years, maybe even a lifetime, but you never forget that one slip, and eventually the whole picture goes to pieces. And you wonder how it took you so long to see it clearly.”
In the Prior’s eyes, tinged blue by the light of the torch, Hans thought he saw something new. There was a softness now, a respect. “You wanted to be free, Hans.”
Something started to buckle inside Hans. Something letting go, inviting him step over and rest. The relief it promised just on the other side was soothing, comforting.
Then the Prior’s eyes changed again. No longer concern, amused condescension, or even compassion. It was the look in the eye of an animal that delights in the smell blood. A hunger. A desperate joyful divine lust crystallized in those piercing blue eyes. Hans nearly jumped back as Jesephal took a probing step toward Hans.
“But you’re already free,” said Prior Jesephal. “You want control, but you’re always been in control. You chose all of this. Everyone does, whether we know it or not. And there’s nothing that I, your mother, or even you can do to take that power away from you.”
The skin on Hans’s arms crawled. Nausea punched him in the gut. The vision of a tender old man had struck Hans as vividly as it was brief, but in its place now lurked a snake. Served him right for letting his guard down.
“Your mother,” sighed the Prior, “unfortunately she never really cultivated the conditions for you to realize these things for yourself. Or your sisters. She had a strong will, and even stronger faith. And I failed for not seeing the impact that had on you. But now…” He took a step toward Hans. “…now you’re starting to see.”
Hans set his jaw. “Tell me if that was her in there.”
“Does it matter?” asked Jesephal. “You see with the eyes of the Eternal Mind. Just the same as me, and just the same as your mother and your sisters. Everything, all of it is true.”
“I’m leaving, Father.” Hans turned to leave, then added, “Keep the money.” He started back down the aisle, the narrow walls scraping the shoulders of his coat. He could see a blue flame ahead—Novice Zara. Behind him, he heard Jesephal’s boots match his stride. The edge of the Prior’s own circle of light kept pace just ahead of Hans.
“When I look at you, Hans, I see the Infinite.” The Prior’s voice was growing harsh and impassioned, as if sermonizing. “When I hear you speak, I hear the voice of the Eternal Mind. You are no aberrant. You are Divinity just like the rest of us!”
“Yeah,” Hans said without turning or breaking stride. “And Divinity is late for office hours. You should keep some clocks down here, Father. Might help you catch the sun now and then.”
At that, the Prior’s footfalls stopped. Hans nearly looked back but caught himself, training his eyes on the novice waiting at the end of the hall, the torch held in front of her like a scepter.
“Novice Zara,” Prior Jesephal called from back down the hall, “please escort our brother Doctor Zweifler to the Treasurers. See that his every need is attended to for the remainder of his stay.” Then, softer, “I hope I will see you again, Doctor Zweifler.”
The novice’s face came into focus as Hans approached, and despite a visible effort on her part, it was not the same dispassionate mask she’d worn before. Of course she’d been listening, he suspected. Probably heard all the good bits. Yes, there it was, that all too familiar story—one fragile piece shatters into a fractal of glass diamonds, followed by the scramble to put it all back together. The Prior wouldn’t lie, surely, not old Jesephal… would he? An entire saga written on that face, for all the attempts to hide it, and Hans felt a grim satisfaction, marred by pity and a reasonable dash of guilt, knowing all too well the mess that awaited young Novice Zara.
He weaved around her torch and pushed past her. She remained stunned in place, but after a few paces, he heard her pattering up behind him. “Doctor Zweifler,” she said. “It’s… back this way.”
He looked back, giving her a sidelong glance. She dodged his eyes. He turned, and she led him back down the rows in the direction they had first come. He barely saw the lines of metal niches they passed, even as the blue torch gleamed on their surfaces. They reached the stairs, his eyes trained on her heels as they ascended. Above, that heavy door waited, all its locks and bolts, for as careworn and rusted as they looked, holding as strong as they did all those years ago and likely long before Hans had been born. The novice’s pace slowed, and his behind hers, as if the weight of that door hindered their climb.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Novice Zara procured the keys and began the murderous ritual of unlocking the door. Hans waited behind a few steps down, and he breathed, and he thought. Clicking pins, squeaking cylinders, clacking bolts. How similar the noises of closing and opening sounded, he thought. In a moment of muted panic, he wondered if the door would open at all, or if one of the keys would break in a keyhole, trapping the two of them down here with the countless bodies of all those fools down there. The moment passed. The novice kept working her way down the door, and he kept breathing, kept waiting.