Note: For all of you who gleefully followed along with the smart-mouthed Sister, here we go again!
The title ("In All The Empty Places"), by the way, is a reference to an old blessing... "May God stand between you and harm in all the empty places where you must walk." By definition, the AX walks in some pretty empty places, and considering where this story is going to go (and the characters along with it), it seemed singularly appropriate.
Unexpected Results II: In All the Empty Places
Slowly, solemnly, they filed into the great cathedral, heads bowed and hands clasped. Some entered one at a time, others came in groups. The entire church was filled with candles, and flowers were draped or placed over almost every available surface.
Near the front of the church stood his Holiness, Pope Alessandro the Eighteenth, his young face filled with sorrow. To his left stood Cardinal Francesco de Medici, while to his right stood Cardinal Caterina Sforza. Francesco looked as stern and foreboding as ever, but Caterina's grief was more evident, and Alessandro turned to her in concern.
"Sister..." he whispered, laying a hand on her arm.
She shook her head slightly, and rested her hand on top of her younger brother's. "I will be fine, your Holiness. But... the service should begin soon." Almost defiantly, she tossed her head back, the thick blonde waves tumbling down her back as she blinked back her tears.
Then a low whispering filled the room, and all eyes turned toward the back of the cathedral.
Nine people stood there, pausing for just an instant before beginning the long, slow walk down the center aisle.
In front, walking abreast and bearing lit candles, came three nuns, two wearing white, the third in black. A few steps behind them, six black-clad priests moved slowly, a casket borne solemnly on their shoulders.
In the loft above, a choir began to sing, and the rich swelling tones of an organ filled the cathedral as the procession made its way down the aisle. The gathered members of the Vatican bowed their hands in prayer as Alessandro stepped forward, his hands spread in benediction, his eyes focused sadly on the casket.
His voice shaking, he began the Requiem mass in Latin, while the nuns moved to one side, and the priests set the casket down before the altar.
"Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem. Exaudi orationem meam; ad te omnis caro veniet. Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis..."
As the priests straightened, the nuns moved so that each stood between two of the Fathers, then all nine knelt in unison, heads bowed, and several of them openly weeping.
As they knelt, Brother Petro and Sister Paula, in full Inquisitor regalia, shouldered their weapons and took their places on either end of the casket.
Letting her younger brother's words wash over her, Caterina swallowed hard at the sight of the nine before the casket. All of them were trying so hard not to completely break down at the loss of one of their own, but she could see that the effort was taking its toll.
On the far left was Hugue, tall and blond and solemn, his mouth a thin line as he stared down at the casket. Caterina knew how hard this was for him... as he had been the one to bring her back from Barcelona.
Next to him was Esther, openly crying. First to have lost Bishop Laura, and now this. Not for the first time did Caterina wonder at the fairness of God's choosing on when, and how, His faithful were called home.
On her other side was Tres, one of the only ones not weeping. But even the cyborg seemed somber as he stared forward. The Cardinal momentarily wondered what was going through his mind as he knelt with the others before her gaze moved on.
Beside Tres knelt Abel. The poor man looked lost in a daze, as though he couldn't believe that this was actually happening. His lips were moving in silent prayer, but Caterina couldn't quite make out the words. Unlike Tres, she was almost certain she knew what was going through Abel's mind, and wished with all her heart that there was something she could do for him.
At Abel's side was Johanna, tears streaming down her pale face. The doctors had not cleared her to leave the hospital, but the Sister had defied them to attend.
Beside Johanna was Vaclav... dear Vaclav. With his hands clasped, and his face covered with tears, once again Caterina was struck by his resemblance to the weeping Christ that hung above the altar.
Next to Vaclav was William. The Professor's face was solemn as he contemplated the casket, then he sighed and bowed his head once more.
On William's right was Kate. The hologram was sobbing, her face hidden in her hands as she cried. The loss of her friend was hitting her hard, even through her typical Albion reserve.
On the far right was Leon, for once properly attired and clean-shaven. He didn't weep, but his jaw was clenched tightly, as were his fists, and his eyes were closed.
The Mass seemed to last forever, but the nine surviving AX members never moved from their place before the casket until the very end, when the other Vatican members came forth to pay their own final respects. When that happened, Hugue, Esther, Tres, Abel, and Johanna moved to stand at one end of the casket, while Vaclav, William, Kate, and Leon moved to the other.
Soon the casket was covered in flowers from those who had come forward, and then the rest of the congregation filed out, leaving only the Pope, the Cardinals, the two Inquisitors, and the nine AX members.
Francesco studied them for a moment, as though deciding whether or not he should speak.
"My sympathies to each of you in your time of loss," he said at last, his eyes moving over the group. Then he stalked out, his robes sweeping around him as he left. Brother Petro and Sister Paula bowed first to the Pope, then to Cardinal Caterina, and lastly to the AX members before turning and following Francesco out of the cathedral.
Alessandro swallowed and then addressed the AX members. "I... I am sorry..." he stammered quietly, then his own tears spilled over. "I'm so sorry..."
Nodding to his sister and to the others gathered, he took his own leave.
Silence fell over the cathedral as now only the AX members and their leader remained.
"We will keep vigil tonight," Caterina said quietly. "One each hour until dawn. At that time..." She did not go on, but they knew what she meant. Tomorrow at dawn, the casket would be borne down to the sacred catacombs beneath the Vatican.
The AX members nodded, and Abel moved to once again kneel before the casket, while the other eight prepared to leave. Caterina hesitated for a moment, then she rested her hand on Abel's shoulder.
The priest looked up at her, and Caterina could see the anguish in his eyes. He opened his mouth as though to speak, then closed it again, shook his head, and faced the casket once more.
The others fell in step behind Caterina as she made her way up the aisle and out of the cathedral.
All except Johanna, who knelt beside Abel and put her arm around his shoulders.
"You should go," he said softly, not looking at her. "You're still not recovered."
"I may not be able to help the dead, Father Abel... but I can help the living."
Abel turned to her then, his eyes burning brightly behind his tears.
"Let it go, Father," she whispered, her own voice breaking, not bothering to hold back her own tears. "Let her go..."
And she held him tightly as he collapsed in her arms, sobbing a name over and over and over again.
To be continued...