JUDGEMENT: Chapter 2
Kat Dubois Chronicles, book 5
*NOTE - This is an unedited excerpt. Please excuse any typos.*
We raced down the cavernous gallery, our footsteps amplified by the high ceiling, echoing all around us as we ran. The sounds of confusion and shouting from the lower level grew louder as we neared the main staircase.
We barreled down the left side of the imposing double staircase, the slap of shoes on marble drowned out by the noise from below. People pushed their way into the palazzo through the main entrance, fighting to get through. The crowd was bottlenecking at the towering doors. From the wild eyes and frenzied energy, it was safe to assume that the danger was outside and that they were seeking refuge within the palazzo.
When we reached the landing where the two staircases converged, I grabbed Nik’s arm and pulled him to a stop so we could look out the tall, arched window. It gave us a good view of the Piazza Navona and the chaos filling the elongated square. An ocean of people moved away from the church across the square, but their progress was a slow current. A crowd like that, with everyone fighting to get ahead of everyone else was downright scary. It was everyone for themselves, and trampling was a real danger. A few enterprising people had even climbed the Fiumi Fountain, cambering up and over the four river gods to the towering obelisk at the center. At least whoever reached that first would be safe from being trampled.
It was easy enough to figure out where the explosion had originated. The thick plume of smoke billowing up from the far side of the square was a dead giveaway.
“The church,” I said to Nik, shouting over the cacophony below.
The church, Sant’Agnese, was slated to be the secondary location for the day’s events, where just Nik, Heru, and I were scheduled to address a larger audience of humans for a shorter period of time after the main meeting in the palazzo.
“I see it,” Nik said.
Sant’Agnese was a wide, white stone building with a centralized dome, a couple of towers, and enough other architectural flourishes to make it impossible for us to tell whether the smoke was coming from the church itself or something behind it.
Until a thick fissure snaked up the front of the church’s dome. The sound of stone cracking was so faint, I almost thought I’d imagined it.
“Holy shit,” I breathed. I watched in horror, paralyzed by the new development, as the break in the stone reached the bell tower atop the dome. I held my breath, half expecting the whole thing to collapse in on itself. When ten seconds passed without anything happening, I exhaled in momentary relief and glanced at Nik sidelong.
He was squinting, focus entirely on the church. “The doors are shut,” he said, then closed his eyes and tilted his head to the side, like he was listening really, really hard. After a few heartbeats, he opened his eyes, looking at me. “Can you hear that?”
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “I can’t hear anything over this,” I said, gesturing behind me to the sea of people crammed into the lobby of the palazzo. The sounds of their panic echoed all around us.
“It’s faint,” Nik said, “but I think I can hear people banging on the doors of the church.”
My eyes opened wide, drawn back to the church, and my lips parted, my heart dropping into my stomach. “The overflow,” I whispered, not wanting to believe that the thousands of people who’d bought overflow tickets, giving them admittance to the second, standing room only Q&A session, were still in the church.
From the looks of the fractured dome, the place could become a death trap in a matter of seconds. I gripped Nik’s forearm. “If all of those people are still in there…” I exchanged a horrified look with Nik.
“We have to get them out,” he said.
I nodded vehemently. Not a moment later, a second crack formed in the dome.
We turned away from the window simultaneously and ran toward the final set of stairs. I took the stairs two at a time, but Nik was even faster. “See if you can find whoever did this,” he shouted back to me. “I’ll handle the church.”
“Alright,” I yelled.
With his mastery over his sheut powers, Nik would be far more effective at the church, anyway. With the merest thought, he could reinforce the dome and any other damaged part of the church with At and bore holes through the door and any other blockages caused by debris from the explosion.
And me—I loved a good chase. My heart rate picked up at the prospect, the excitement of a hunt thrumming through my veins, bringing me back to the days when Mari and I had been tasked with tracking down rogue Nejerets for the Senate. We’d been partners for nearly two decades and had worked as a flawless team. The hunt wouldn’t be quite as fun without her. But it would still be fun.
When Nik reached the foot of the stairs, he dove into the anxious crowd, but I paused six stairs up, using the elevation to my advantage. From this vantage point, I could see almost everything going on in the lobby. People still squeazed in through the main entrance, despite the increasingly cramped quarters. There were hundreds of people stuffed in here, maybe thousands, but nothing about any of them suggested that they were the culprit.
I could still feel a slight tingle on my palm, but the itching sensation had mostly abated. Whoever had done this wasn’t close enough to trigger the magical alarm. I wouldn’t find them in the palazzo.
Which meant I had to get outside.
I raced the rest of the way down the stairs and launched into the throng crowding the lobby. They slowed me down, but I couldn’t stop. A sense of terrible inevitability pushed me onward, making my heart hammer in my chest.
The crowd became denser the closer I drew to the main doorway. I shouldered people out of the way, moving against the stream, and eventually managed to squeeze through the doorway.
I was on the wrong side of the palazzo. The church was on the opposite side, which meant the bomber was probably over there, too, and the only way to get to the piazza was to head around the block. That wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do, what with the huge crowd amassed on the sidewalk and street beyond, some trying to get up the stairs and into the palace, others throwing caution to the wind for the sake of the excitement and heading toward the square.
“Shit,” I breathed, standing atop the entry stairway and scanning the crowd.
It was much larger now than it had been when Nik and I first arrived. The people of Rome had greeted us by the tens of thousands with hand-made signs and shouts of welcome. But this crowd buzzed with anxiety, the raised, panicked voices only building the tense expectation within me.
I had to find the culprit before he or she could do worse than they already had. The sense of mounting dread all but ensured that this catastrophe was only just beginning.
I wanted to scream at these people to leave. To get the hell out of here, away from the church. Away from the piazza and the palazzo and the bomber. Away from me. They should have been running for their damn lives. But they weren’t, which meant I had to stop the bomber before another, worse explosion exploited the human tendency to rubber-neck. Before curiosity could get all of these people killed.
I couldn’t see anything in this crowd, not from the ground. There definitely wasn’t any clear way through the throng. I needed to get higher.
“Out of my way!” I shouted as I pushed between people. “Move, dammit!”
I earned a few angry looks, quickly followed by shocked second glances. I heard the word “goddess” thrown around—and my name, too—my presence distracting the people from the very real and present danger, and an eerie hush fell over the crowd in the immediate vicinity. They finally seemed to realize who I was and that I was trying to get through, and as they made an opening for me, I felt a rare rush of gratitude for my newfound celebrity.
I raced through the crowd, aiming for the blockade that had been set up in preparation for our arrival. I had my eye on a police SUV with garish yellow and blue paint checkering the sides.
Once I reached the car, I leapt onto the hood, the metal crunching under my boots. I climbed up the windshield, using the bar of lights to help pull me up, then stood and surveyed the sea of people surrounding me. My eyes watered, and the taste of smoke was thick in the air. Hands on my hips and eyes squinting, I scanned the area all around me.
There were so many people. If I was right, if the worst really was yet to come and another bomb went off soon—if it happened in the middle of this immense crowd—the effects would be devastating. So much worse than the destruction at the church.
As my searching gaze swept across a portion of the crowd on the far side of the street, my palm suddenly burned like I’d grabbed a hot iron, and my heart skipped a beat. The universe was telling me that the threat I sensed via the symbol on my palm—likely whoever was responsible for the church bombing—was somewhere in the group of people on the sidewalk across the street.
I honed in on their faces, getting a good look at each and every person. I missed her at first, but a niggling feeling made me do a double take. And sure enough, there among the humans, I spotted a Nejeret. She was a small, nondescript woman with tan skin, dark hair covered by a beige headscarf, and a pinched mouth, wearing a tan trench coat. Her eyes met mine across the crowd, just for a moment, and the searing pain caused by Eye of Horus inked onto my palm flared hotter.
It was her. The bomber. It had to be.
Target in sight, I crouched down, placing my hand on the edge of the roof of the SUV, and was about to jump down to the street when a horrifying groan rumbled up from the earth. Not a second later, the whole car rattled as the ground shook.
It must have been another explosion, only this time, deep underground. Deep under the streets of the city, a warren of ancient catacombs cut through the bedrock. If someone set off a large enough explosion, even twenty yards underground…
There was the sound of breaking rock, and the road fractured, a jagged crack running down the center of the cobblestone street, some fifty yards long and widening to several feet across. People screamed and shouted, reaching out for their companions even as those nearest to the crack fell into that growing dark abyss. The crowd went from milling to manic in a matter of seconds.
I watched on in shock, mouth gaping.
More cracks sprouted from that central fissure, and the paving stones on either side crumbled into the opening alongside people, giving way to a ravenous sink hole.
I stood, extending my hands out on either side of me to steady myself as the SUV continued to shake. Nik would’ve been able to fix this in a heartbeat by covering the whole street with a sheet of At. But he was busy on the other side of the palazzo, helping the people trapped in the church.
All the people on this side had was me.
I just hoped I was enough.
That's it for chapter 2! Thanks for reading!
You can read chapter 3 here. :)