The air was cold inside the cathedral. He wasn’t certain if that was because the winter wind was slinking through hidden cracks in the stained glass windows or if it was because of the severity with which the large, stone pillars bracketing the sanctuary stood guard over him. He resisted the urge to shiver. Forty-five years as a soldier had taught him to quell most of his physical reactions.
Captain Jeb Moore. Jeb the Avenger. The warrior with a soul colder than the Arctic. That was him.
Dimly, from outside on the streets, he could hear his pursuers calling to each other, searching for him. It wouldn’t take them long to find him.
He knelt on one of the prayer benches toward the front, not far from the altar, his knees resting on two worn spots on the cushion made by some old grandmother’s faithful knees. The dying man fixed to the crucifix beyond the altar stared at him, eyes filled with pained accusations, and Jeb gripped the wooden railing before him with white knuckles.
“Death isn’t so easy to face when he’s come for you, is he, you old dog?” A middle-aged man, tall, yet slightly paunchy, stepped from behind one of the pillars. His dark blue military uniform was pristine except for a wide, almost black splotch around his middle.
Jeb stifled a shout of terror. “Aaron.”
Aaron’s eyes, the color of warm brown coffee, turned icy as they narrowed. “You weren’t expecting me. I’m hurt. I thought you’d realize how much I would long to greet you when Death came, especially since you were the one who introduced us.”
He walked across the front aisle, trailing his fingernails along the wooden railing that separated him from Jeb. As he passed by, Jeb caught a whiff of decay and shuddered.
Aaron whipped around, as if he could sense Jeb’s distress. He grinned, his mouth a black maw of rotten teeth. “Oh yes. We’ve been waiting for you for such a long time.”
Jeb swallowed, his mouth dry. “We?”
“Hello, Uncle Jeb.”
Jeb swung his head around to see another man, this one much younger than Aaron, standing only a few yards away. Jeb took in the familiar dark blue eyes, the thick black hair springing from his head in wild curls, the sharp chin lifted proudly. The white shirt he wore was crisp, its collar stiff, but three red circles stained the left side of his chest, just beside his heart.
“Surely, you remember your young friend Alexander?” Aaron asked. “Of course, you do. Why do I bother asking? He was like a son to you, I think. All that work you did to help reconcile him with his father – such a pity it all went to waste.
Alexander shot an annoyed glance at Aaron. “He never saw me as a son. If he had, he wouldn’t have stabbed me with such ease.” He looked back at Jeb, the lines of fury and revulsion plain on his face, carved alongside those of ambitious egoism and wanton lust.
“Don’t. Call me that.”
“Ah, yes. Such a touching reunion.” Aaron, too, seemed irritated, as though unable to bear losing the spotlight. “Now. There’s one thing I wished to say to you, Jeb.” He leaned so close Jeb choked on his smell. “You should never have laid a finger on me. For I promise you, that where you’re going, I will make your life a living hell.” He stepped back. “Or rather, an un-living one.”
He chuckled, but he was the only one who seemed amused. Alexander crossed his arms disdainfully. “If you’re quite finished, Aaron, the rest are still waiting.”
“The – rest?” Jeb felt the frozen ball in his stomach melt into an icy river that spread through his veins.
“Oh, yes.” Alex’s tone was spiteful. “The rest.”
Though Jeb did not move, did not blink, the cathedral was suddenly full. They lined the edges of the nave, filled the pews and the aisle. Their voices were angry, terrified, desperate, a cacophony of tones and languages. Jeb shuddered, no longer able to control his reactions, as he looked at them. A few of them he recognized, but most he did not. They were acts of war, casualties for a cause, faceless…until now.
Then one stepped forward. His body was covered with injuries, though Jeb knew the blow to his head had been the fatal one. Owen spoke no words, made no accusations. He only held out his hands, palms up, wordlessly asking, Why?
Jeb couldn’t find an answer. Owen had been the one he’d most regretted. Aaron had been a murderer, Alex a traitor, but Owen’s only crime had been loving the wrong woman. And for that, he had died.
But I didn’t kill him. I didn’t kill him!
No. You allowed it to happen.
Jeb’s breathing was erratic. He was losing control. He tried to pull his hands from the railing and found them glued to the wood with blood. He cried out and peeled them away, feeling his skin tear as he did. Frantically, he scrubbed them against his jacket, his pants, trying to rid himself of the blood.
So much blood. So much.
The voices rose around him, growing unbearably loud. Jeb covered his ears, trying to block them out. “Stop! Please…stop.” There was no relief.
He thought they were moving closer and lurched to his feet, desperate to get away. He stumbled toward the front of the church – the back was too far away – but tripped on the front pew and fell in front of the altar, where he sprawled. He clutched at the white cloth covering the altar and bent his head, cowering.
Silence fell, sudden and swift as a boulder off a cliff. Jeb raised his head cautiously, expecting to find one of his accusers standing over him, ready to strike. But his ghosts were gone. Slowly, he released the white cover of the altar and saw that it remained unstained. He looked at his hands. The blood was gone.
“God have mercy,” he breathed.
The sound of running footsteps, a rattle at the church door, stole away the silence. Jeb straightened, reached back to grasp the altar cloth once more.
They were coming.