Excerpt: The Fallen by Eric Van Lustbader

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The Fallen is a new, pulse-pounding thriller from Eric Van Lustbader, the New York Times bestselling author of the Jason Bourne series and The Testament.

The End of Days has been predicted for the last two thousand years. Now, without warning, it is upon us. In a hidden cave in the mountains of Lebanon, a man makes a fateful discovery. He will bring what has been forbidden for thousands of years out of the darkness and into the light: the Testament of Lucifer.

In Istanbul, Bravo Shaw, head of the Gnostic Observatine sect, is warned by Fra Leoni of the war between Good and Evil, waged to a standstill since time immemorial. Now an unfathomable danger has arisen: Lucifer’s advance guard, the Fallen. Humankind is in danger of being enslaved by the forces of evil.

Bravo, Fra Leoni, and Bravo’s blind, brilliant sister, Emma, are the first and last line of defense against the chaos unleashed by the Testament of Lucifer. All roads lead to the Book of Deathly Things: the Testament of Lucifer. But if Bravo and Emma become privy to its dreadful secrets they very might well forfeit far more than just their lives.

In the sequel to his internationally bestselling The Testament, Lustbader delivers a new trilogy that explores religion, politics, and civilization, that plumbs the depths of morality, that, finally, asks us to consider what it really means to be human.

The Fallen will become available May 2nd. Please enjoy this excerpt.


Baatara Gorge Waterfall, Tannourine, Lebanon

“Is it time yet?”

The shadows surrounding the four men were angular, formal, and, therefore, mysterious, beyond Val’s ken. They contained the muscular quality of the stone itself, ancient and, therefore, inscrutable.

Michel shook his head, his thick lips pouty. “Val, you listening to me?”

They were the exact opposite of the shadows found in twilit cities, which were constantly in motion like fish around a sunken ship. These shadows were unmoving, impenetrable, and hid the cleft in the mountainside from which, at their backs, the Baatara cataract shot like tenthousand cannons. The roar was visceral, the air shivering and shuddering from the spill’s kinetic energy. On either side, beyond veils of spray, stone blocks, square and rectangular, rose up at the vertical, as if stacked by some child-giant.

Michel’s Charles de Gaulle nose lifted in the air like that of a hound scenting prey. “Do you smell that?”

Michel’s two men were clad in military camo fatigues and blouses, and high hiking boots with thick rubber soles. They had been smoking incessantly since they made the last leg of their climb up onto this lip of rock hidden behind the waterfall. Now they paused in their puffing and joke telling, sniffing the heavy air themselves. Finding nothing, they returned to the butts of their cigarettes and their obscene jokes. They needed to get as much nicotine into their systems as they could now. Val had given strict orders that there would be no smoking once they entered the cave, which opened before them like the immense jaws of a prehistoric creature.

Val, his back to the cataract, made no reply. He was sitting so far back on the stone lip his clothes were soaked through and clung to the sunburned skin of his neck and arms like a second skin. He liked the feeling of being submerged and yet not, as if he were occupying two realities at once, the one overlapping the other.

He stared intently at the blackness that filled the cave mouth. Except for the area just inside the lip, the blackness was utterly impenetrable, like a night without either moon or stars, a night close with a lowering cloud ceiling so thick it appeared solid as stone.

Michel opened his mouth, closed it again out of deference to his client, the man paying him and his men a small fortune to make this trek, which, so far as Michel could tell, was a wild-goose chase. Apart from the scat and, occasionally, the bones of small mammals, they had found no artifacts in any of the caves they had been exploring for the past eight days. Used to the action of regional and sectarian wars, his men were restless. He could sense their discontent. They wanted something to shoot dead, or, failing that, a target to shoot at. They wanted to smell blood. That’s what mercenaries were all about. Michel was a bit different; moving up the food chain into management would do that to you, he supposed. He had learned the value of patience. Still, he glanced back at Val and wondered when he would give the signal, when they would enter the cave that had never been mapped, the very presence of which had surprised even Michel, who knew this part of Lebanon like the spread thighs of Chloe, his current girl of choice. Val was smart as well as clever—so smart he had hired Michel and his cadre for a spelunking mission because in this day and age, with Lebanon a hotbed of religious intolerance and murderous violence, heavily armed mercs were far more valuable than a handful of professors and archeologists or whomever his client normally hung out with.

For Val, the incessant roar of the cataract was acting on him like a temporal trampoline, flinging him backward and forward in time. First, he was a child, entering the cave he had been literally dreaming of since he was a boy of five. So young, he hadn’t understood its significance, nor had he when he reached his adolescence. And yet the dream had continued to stalk his sleep, the precise configuration of the cave mouth becoming as familiar to him as the rhythm of his own breath just before he fell asleep.

Now the trampoline returned him to last night and his overheated hotel room with its wartime blackout curtains drawn securely across the smoke-and ash-streaked windows, as he talked to Maura on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, telling her that this was it, that tomorrow he would summit the area of the cave, explore it, and at last find King Solomon’s mine.

“And all because of your dream?” Maura knew enough not to laugh. She never laughed at his bouts of near clairvoyance; why should she? They all became realities, from her car being stolen to the offer of a plum job as an animator that she never saw coming, being certain she had not survived the interview. At the callback she became a believer in Val’s gift.

“Yes,” Val breathed into the phone in the shallows of last night. “That cave has been calling to me ever since I was a child.”

“What do you think it wants with you?” Maura’s voice was soft, blurry, sensual. They had just finished making love over the intercontinental connection.

An insane question only Maura would ask. “It wants me to find the true secret of King Solomon. You know that’s why I took this assignment in the first place. The Knights of Saint Clement want the king’s hoard of gold. But I’m convinced Solomon had a secret more vital, more valuable, than mere gold.”

“You’re talking about the shadow figure you saw in your room when you were five.”

“It told me it was my fate to find the Testament of Lucifer.”

“The Book of Deathly Things.”

“Yes. The first of the Unholy Trinity. I was meant to bring the Testament of Lucifer back from the darkness into which it had been cast so long ago.”

Maura had shivered. “But really, Val, Lucifer? Even if it were real—”

“It is real!”

“Even more reason not to go into this cave. I mean, what if you do find the book? It’s the Devil’s property. We’re Catholic. We believe in the Resurrection and the Light. This is a darkness you shouldn’t touch.”

“What would you have me do if I find it?”

“Destroy it. Val, please. You must, at all costs. If it really is the Testament of Lucifer it’s a dreadful thing. It mustn’t be brought into the light.”

The cataract’s trampoline launched him forward to the present. He glanced at his chronometer: almost time. He needed to clear his mind of his hotel room, of the long-range sex he’d experienced with Maura, of Maura herself—the scent of her, a mix of lime, hibiscus, and plumeria so powerful he was once again engulfed by it.

His nostrils flared in order to rid himself of her, and he smelled it—whatever scent Michel’s truffle-hunting nose had picked up. Without rising, Val frog-hopped a pace closer to the cave mouth. His sopping clothes now felt cold and clammy. He sniffed again, inhaling more of the humid atmosphere this time. There was no doubt about it. No doubt. The odor was emanating from the cave.

“There’s definitely someone in there,” Michel whispered as he hunkered down next to Val.

“Or something,” Val said, eyes not moving from the cave mouth. “Recent reports have put a leopard in the vicinity.”

“Worse for us, it could be a wild boar,” Michel said. “I myself have seen three in this region over the years.”

Without turning, Michel gave a hand signal, and his two mercs brought their AK-47s into the fire-ready position. One of them licked his lips. There were no more jokes or smokes, no talk at all. These men were hardened professionals. Whoever was in there wasn’t going to get the best of them. They’d be bullet-flayed to kingdom come. The men were looking forward to beginning what to them had become an assault. Action, at last!

The light was failing, burnished gold into inky indigo, as if the sky itself were falling. For Val, who had dreamed of this moment virtually all of his life, there was no need to check his chronometer again. His inner clock, by which he had set sail into the sometimes frightening and not altogether wholesome world of adults, told him it was time to move. He rose off his haunches, having seen this moment play out in his dreams since time immemorial, at least as he sensed it. Before the age of five he had no memories at all. Every once in a while he harbored the absurd notion that he had been born that age.

Michel followed him. His two men, with no palpable signal from their leader, flanked out on either side. At the edge of the darkness, they turned on their headlamps, adjusting the beams. Michel did the same, but Val, rejecting the technology, fired up the first of a half-dozen phosphorus torches he had brought and was carrying in a rubber gasket-sealed quiver at his left hip.

Together, the four men were swallowed by the cave mouth.

The blackness outside the narrow beams of light and the phosphorus glow closed around them so heavily it was as if they had immediately sunk to the bottom of the sea. A dozen paces in, Val realized that the air was different. The cataract’s humidity had died away behind them, supplanted by a desert-like aridity. The soft tissues lining their nostrils were sucked dry so quickly and completely the men were instantly assaulted by sinus headaches.

The torch illuminated the cave walls, the limestone more or less identical to that of the caves they had explored previously. The ceiling here was not nearly as low, however, and the men were able to walk upright, rather than crouched over, “like beetles,” as one of the men had said with an unmistakable quaver.

“The smell,” Michel said in Val’s ear, and Val nodded, the odor unmistakable now, stronger. An element within it tickled a vague memory as it worked its way from Val’s nose into his brain. Something familiar. Had he been somewhere he had smelled it before? It seemed that way to him, the notion more firmly embedding itself in his consciousness the deeper they penetrated into the cave.

There was no animal scat here, no piles of tiny bones, white as the face of the moon. Only darkness, desolation, and an unspeakable loneliness. The way now slanted down, and with their descent came a stirring in the air that brought the odor to them at what surely must have been full strength.

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” Michel whispered beside him, nearly choking on his words. “What the hell is it?”

Again Val shook his head. He gave no answer to Michel, just as he had provided no answer when, on the third day, after visiting eight caves, Michel had said to him, What are you looking for?

The Testament of Lucifer. Those were the words that had formed in Val’s mind, but he didn’t voice it. Why would he? It would only confuse Michel, and the last thing Val wanted was for Michel to lose confidence in him, for Michel to think his mission was one driven by idiocy or vanity. Val, an excellent judge of character from the time he had been a child, knew that Michel wouldn’t tolerate either, and who could blame him? Not Val. He wouldn’t have tolerated them, either.

Once again he was hurtled back in time, to the day before he left for Lebanon.

“You can’t go,” Maura was saying, gesturing to a suitcase on the bed in their Paris flat in the Marais. “What you’re looking for—”

Val, smiling and shaking his head simultaneously, said, “I have to go, Maura. I have to find it. Don’t you see? It’s my life’s purpose.”

He could feel the edge of her anger protruding from her like a blade and behind it, propelling it, her anxiety for him. So he took her in his arms, kissed her tenderly, as he would a child awakened by a nightmare, which was a mistake; Maura hated being treated like a child.

She pulled away from him, and he said, “No. Not like this. We can’t part on a sour note.”

She tossed her head, impatient, angrier than ever. “You say that it was promised to you, Val, but the Devil’s promise . . . do you know how insane that sounds?”

“Have my visions ever been wrong?”

“And that’s what terrifies me the most: that it’s all true, that Lucifer somehow chose you, whispered in your ear.” She shuddered.

“The Testament of Lucifer does exist: I was never more sure of anything in my life.” But now he experienced a sudden stab, not of doubt about his mission, but of the nature of its purpose. For a moment he was surrounded by a bubble of clarity. Maura was smart—more, she was far shrewder then he was. Could she be right about this? Was he really in danger, or would the shadow figure protect him from all harm, as it had promised?

“Val,” Maura said, her arms around him. “Think for a moment. What is the Devil’s promise worth? The Church teaches us that Lucifer is a seducer and a liar. Nothing he says can be trusted.”

And just like that, the bubble of clarity burst, and once again Val’s mission was all. “The promise of power beyond mortal ken,” he whispered into her ear, in the honeyed tones of Lucifer himself.

“ ‘Beyond mortal ken,’ ” she repeated. “You see? This promise you say . . . it’s not . . . it’s false, Val. It has to be. This Book is not for mortal eyes, yours or anyone else’s.” Her gaze had locked with his. “I’m begging you not to go. I’m so afraid it won’t end well.” A silence as profound as that he had experienced in his childhood room closed its fist around them.

There was silence now, as he was hurled back into the present, but it was of an altogether different kind. It was the silence of something alien, unknowable, holding its breath.

The Book of Deathly Things, purportedly conjured for King Solomon, through the arcane work of his cabal of alchemists.

Michel looked around, the beam of his light swinging from left to right. “Val, now you must tell me why we really have come here. It has to do with King Solomon, yes?”

“I’m looking for signs that these caves were inhabited by a sect of Canaanites,” which was a truth his guide could accept.

Michel pursed his lips. The tip of his nose was almost touching the limestone wall, as if he felt it was the source of the strange odor. “Wasn’t it the Phoenicians?”

Phoinikies is Greek for purple.” Val stood farther back, the better to gain perspective. “The Greeks, who were everywhere three thousand years ago, called the Canaanites Phoenicians because of the purple dye they manufactured from murex seashells.” Michel’s men remained at the center of the cave floor, peering into the emptiness beyond the light of their headlamps. “It was the Phoenicians who gave the Greeks twenty-two magic signs called the alphabet that the Greeks codified into a written language. Eventually, it became the Latinized alphabet.”

Did the Canaanites know of the Book of Deathly Things? Was it three thousand years old, like the twenty-two magic symbols that formed the alphabet? Where had those symbols come from? Were they part of the Testament of Lucifer, the language it was written in in fiery cuneiform? Val stirred, as if these thoughts caused a restlessness, driven by a sense of his long journey’s end at last close at hand. Was it Lucifer he had heard when he was five? Was it Lucifer he had smelled? Was this the same smell? How could it be? Val asked himself as he led the way down, ever down, the floor of the cave steepening. At the same time, the ceiling rose so high that finally it was beyond the reach of even the torch’s blue-white fluorescence.

After a few moments, he paused, sensing some unfathomable change in the deeply shadowed surroundings. He shone the torchlight on the left-hand wall and something like a galvanic shock passed through him. He moved the torch nearer so that he could better distinguish the images painted on the limestone: armed horsemen, warriors in chariots of gold, a procession leading to a seated dark-bearded personage of obvious great rank, a circlet of gold around his head. Behind him rose a shadow, taller, thinner, but somehow more majestic, even, than the king.

Knowledge, long buried in his psyche, burst forth, staggering Val. The Book of Deathly Things.

“How old d’you think these are?” Michel said. “And who the hell are they kowtowing to?”

“Impossible to say for certain,” Val said as he played the torchlight over the paintings. “The pigments are rich; it’s as if they were painted yesterday.”

“But they weren’t?” Michel was asking a question.

“No.” Val peered more closely. “No sunlight to fade the pigments, and the style is unquestionably Phoenician.” The phosphorescence flickered, and he pulled a second torch from his quiver, lit it as the first guttered out. He squinted. “The king could be David or Solomon. The Phoenicians built temples out of their fragrant cedar for both of them.” He leaned closer. “But see here, this seal. Solomon’s seal.”

Michel’s eyes opened wide. “King Solomon’s mine. Rivers of gold! So that’s what you’re after!”

“Don’t be foolish. King Solomon’s mine is a thing of fiction.”

Nevertheless, Michel’s two mercs abandoned their posts, moving nearer, lest they be left out of the action. Their faces projected their greed as if it were a moving image thrown on to a theater screen.

Val snorted. “Solomon’s rivers of gold occupy the same fantasy space as El Dorado.” But now he knew that to be a lie, for he suspected that here lay the portal to Solomon’s mine. The wall painting was far more fascinating and frightening than he let on, for the thin, shadowy figure behind the king was holding out an object. Apart from its seeming to be round, Val could not what the object might be: a ceremonial platter, a royal disc, something other? On it was incised a golden square. Within the square was a white-black triangle with bloodred trim. The oddest feature was that this sigil appeared to be depicted three-dimensionally, like an M. C. Escher drawing: a single uninterrupted surface over all three dimensions. Val squinted, his nose only millimeters from the painting. It seemed impossible; he had never encountered any Phoenician paintings—or from any ancient civilization, for that matter—that depicted three dimensions, let alone in this meta-geometrical fashion. Something primitive deep in his lower belly contracted, and the odor from his childhood bedroom came to him again more assertively. This so exhilarated him that he could scarcely draw a breath.

“Look at this, Michel. Have you ever seen an object like this?”

His guide frowned. “I couldn’t say.”

“The one the shadow figure behind the king’s chair is handing to King Solomon.”

Michel turned from the painting to stare at Val. “What shadow? There’s nothing behind the king, except this weird circular writing that looks like a combination of Greek, sort of, and mathematical symbols.” He peered a bit closer. “It looks like a language older than the human race.”

Val and Michel kept descending, the way steepening even more. The mercs followed, somewhat reluctantly, throwing covetous glances over their shoulders, as if they thought Solomon’s gold lay behind his image.

For his part, Val was deeply disturbed. It seemed impossible that Michel hadn’t seen the shadow standing behind King Solomon on the wall painting. Had Val imagined it? Was it just a smudge or the shadow of one of the mercs behind them that had been there for a moment, then, as the merc moved, was gone? Both of these explanations were, of course, possible, but deep in Val’s gut he knew the truth. The shadow was there; it had been handing King Solomon a disc or a sphere covered with writing so bizarre that—Michel was right—it looked older than the human race. That shadow threw Val back in time to his childhood bedroom. He shivered, both in fear and in anticipation.

A thousand yards farther the ground abruptly leveled out.

“What the hell is going on?” A degree of awe had entered Michel’s voice, turning it wavering, fluty, as if he were speaking underwater. “This isn’t like any cave I’ve ever been in.”

“No,” Val said. “This part is man-made.” Three thousand years ago, something buried deep in his mind told him, but, again, he did not give voice to the thought.

Michel squatted down, his hand running across the limestone surface. “It’s smooth,” he said, almost overcome. “Like the floor of a room.”

And instantly Val was hurtled back to his childhood bedroom. It was the night of his fifth birthday. He had gotten a tricycle, a plush Babar, a huge Star Wars Lego set, from which he’d already constructed the Death Star more than once, having destroyed it with a Lego TIE Fighter, just like Luke.

Apart from the dim multi-colored glow of Val’s slowly revolving flying-saucer night-light, all was dark as he lay in his bed, far too excited to sleep. He cradled Babar, whispering to the elephant-king, whose storybooks his father read to him nightly in their original French.

A breeze crossed his face, like a distant challenge. He turned his head, saw a stirring of the Star Wars curtains, heard the chirruping song of the cicadas through the now open window. He had seen his mom close it just before turning off the light, under the mistaken notion he might catch a cold, as if the night wind, mild as it was in April, in some way had sinister designs on him. Outside, a pockmarked full moon rode on a sea of clouds like a ship, an unearthly transport, spilling its light across his bedroom floor. And then the odor came to him—animal, vegetable, mineral? None of those. Something other, and he looked to the moon, the unearthly transport, and wondered what it had brought him.

That odor. Forward again, slingshot through time, into the present, standing on the verge of the cavern’s vault, at the sill of his childhood bedroom, the two overlapping until they became one and the same.

“What are you doing?” Michel tried to grasp Val’s arm, to pull him back, but Val shook him off, ran toward the heart of the cavern.

Michel was stymied. He was alarmed by Val’s action, yet reluctant to physically restrain his client. He turned to his mercs. “How big is this thing?”

“Fucking huge,” one said.

“Impossible to see the far end of it,” the second one said.

“Christ.” Michel ran a hand through his hair, was appalled to find it wet with sweat. “Go after him,” he ordered. “Keep the fucker from harming himself.”

He drew his 9mm Glock, placed his forefinger alongside the trigger guard, followed in his men’s wake. His nose twitched, and he began to feel an itching in his brain from the odor, which was now so strong it overpowered even the extreme dryness of the cavern that had produced the headache that was making his vision pulse and his inhalations painful.

Before he had gone a half-dozen paces, he saw the violent bursts from an AK-47, heard the deafening thunder-like detonations, echoed over and over again. He sprinted forward, calling to his men, then shouting Val’s name.

Another burst of fire, this time so close it nearly blinded him. He almost stumbled over one of his men who lay twisted and motionless. Michel knelt down, reached out, and almost immediately flinched away. It seemed to him as if every bone in the man’s body had been broken.

Michel quickly made a visual survey of the immediate area but saw no one, nothing moving. Everything still as death. He gingerly reached for the corpse with his free hand and turned the body so the head was facing him. He sprang to his feet, cursing and starting to cry all at once. The man’s face was gone, as if eaten away by acid. But there was no acid on earth that could eat through skin, viscera, muscle, and cartilage so quickly, leaving just the bare skull. Had his face been ripped off? But there was no blood, no ribbons of skin and muscle at the edges. It was as if the face had just melted away.

Michel stood and backed away, pressed his throbbing temples with fingers and thumb. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, hoping what he had seen was a hallucination, possibly brought on by inhaling that terrible odor. But even as he turned back, he felt his gorge rise at the sight of the impossible carnage.

Whirling, he pressed deeper into the cavern, his Glock pointed ahead of him, his forefinger itching to pull the trigger the moment he came upon whatever it was that had massacred his man in such a way.

Val turned his head toward the shadow, or what he thought was a shadow but might only have been movement within shadows—a deeper black in the darkness beyond the aurora of his torch.

And again he was swept back in time to his childhood bedroom on the night of his fifth birthday, the cicadas’ tuneless song, the full moon, and the shadow within the shadows of his room. The curtains flickering and twisting. The floor from window to bed barred with shadow and moonlight turning the bedroom into a kind of cell from which there was no escape.

In his bedroom the shadow within the shadows moved; in the cavern the shadow within the shadows moved, their movements seemingly synchronized, overlapping, becoming one, annihilating time and space. At once, Val felt immensely heavy, as if gravity, having been summoned, was streaming into the cavern, pooling at his feet, immobilizing them. He tried to move but could not.

As if intuiting his distress, one of Michel’s mercs appeared at his side.

“Do you see it?” Val whispered. “There, in the shadows, moving from right to left.”

The merc squeezed the trigger on his AK-47, sending a spray of bullets in the direction of the movement. At almost the same instant Val yelled, “No! Don’t shoot!” but his voice was drowned out by the rapid gunfire.

“Stay here,” the merc growled, and sprinted toward the shadow.

Michel advanced into the cavern and came up beside Val. He seemed oddly out of breath, as if he had run up the mountain path they had taken to get to the cave. When Val shone the phosphorus torchlight on him, he saw that Michel was sweating profusely.

“What’s going on?” Val said. “What’s happened?”

At that moment, they both started as the merc a dozen paces ahead of them burst into flame. It wasn’t that he was on fire so much as that he had, in the space of a heartbeat, turned into a pillar of flame, the heat so intense his body’s galvanic system had been short-circuited. The merc didn’t writhe, didn’t so much as flinch, but stood straight as a sentinel while the flames consumed him utterly, and his charred bones collapsed in a heap.

“Jesus God! Whatever’s in here, you want no part of it!” Michel cried, but when he grabbed Val’s arm to pull him into a retreat back up to the cave mouth, which seemed as far away as Beirut, Val shook him off.

“Go if you want to,” he said in a steely voice, “but I’m staying.”

“How can you . . . ?” Michel was fairly goggle-eyed. “Pym was killed, too. You’ll end up like both my men.”

Val shook his head, his gaze never leaving the patch of blackness where the shadow now existed, for the moment unmoving. He was close to the Testament. This was the childhood promise fulfilled. “Whatever is here, whatever this is, won’t harm me.”

“How can you say that?” It was clear Michel was losing his composure. The two deaths—the manner of those deaths—had come close to unhinging him. He was a professional soldier of fortune, and it was true that he had seen many deaths, as well as caused more than a few. But this—this was something completely beyond his experience. His brain worked on pure rationalism. He didn’t believe in ESP or telekinesis, UFOs or aliens, past lives, reincarnation, or power spots. What, then, was he to make of the manner of his men’s deaths deep inside this godforsaken cave? He didn’t know. He had no answer, but fear and greed were at war inside himself, and it was suddenly clear to him that greed was winning.

“Fair warning.” He licked his lips, which were as dry as the Gobi. “We’re on the edge of King Solomon’s mine. I don’t know how much gold is in the cavern beyond our sight, but I’m not leaving without my share.”

He started forward, and Val called out to him to stop, to stay where he was. But Michel had caught the fever; greed suffused him; he was deaf and blind to anything else. You are meant to be here, Val heard inside his head, but he isn’t.

Val made a lunge for Michel, one last attempt to forestall him, but the guide shook him roughly off, kept going deeper and deeper into the blackness, his Glock trained at something in the shadows beyond his own dazzling beam and the sputtering torchlight.

Val opened his mouth to make one last attempt to save Michel. But then the shadow within the shadows stirred and it was as if it spoke to him, and he was struck dumb.

The shadow within the shadows barely moved, but the air around Michel seemed to rip apart, as if shredded by the hand of God. And as if Michel had ventured to close to the Burning Bush he too burst into flame, an incandescent candle flaring in the cavern. And by that flare, for just the flicker of an eye, the shadow within the shadows revealed its shape, just as it had so many years ago in Val’s bedroom in the fifth year of his existence.

Val, heart beating like a trip-hammer, stood his ground. He knew as sure as he knew humans inhaled oxygen that he would not be harmed. Abruptly freed from the lock of gravity, he advanced into the darkness. He was taking the small detour around Michel’s remains, a pile of charred bones still smoking like the dregs of a pyre, when his torch guttered and extinguished.

Dropping it, he reached in the darkness for his quiver, fumbled out another torch. He was about to ignite it when the cavern suddenly blazed with light. It wasn’t like any light he had seen before—and yet he had. Once.

In his childhood bedroom the window was wide open; his bedroom was filled with the cicadas’ shrill song and the moonlight, striped by the moving curtains caught by a strange wind. Then his revolving night-light winked out, so that only the moonlight illuminated his room. And then, a breath or two later, the blaze of light . . .

Just the same as this light now that filled the cavern and chased skittering shadows across the floor, along the curved walls. He was in a kind of cathedral, hewn out of the naked rock, and as he blinked, trying to take it all in, and failing, the shadow within the shadows stepped out into the unearthly light, and Val saw it. At last, he thought. It has come to me at last.

Copyright © 2017 by Eric Van Lustbader

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