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The First Stratum

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Everything about Besek is unsettling. Tear had thought she was prepared for that; after all, Pope Mohs had given her special dispensation to study the forbidden texts in preparation for this mission. But the heaviness of the air and the slowness it brings to her limbs make her fight poorly in Besek's first illusory stage—where their surroundings mimic the twilit outskirts of Yulia City, but the only inhabitants are goat-footed, lanky Majin.

This is unacceptable, Tear tells herself, catching her breath. She has a mission to complete.

"Onward," Van says, closing the Librum he's been using to forge their path. "We'll clear one more stage before we return to Isapolis to recuperate."

The mercenaries he's hired—tattooed blond twins with a trace of Stag in their accents—nod and move on without comment. Van lingers, watching Tear.

She straightens, starting toward the path that will lead them deeper into Besek's labyrinth.

"Mystearica," Van says. He takes her elbow—a steadying gesture, but a steering one, too. "Walk with me. Are you all right?"

He hasn't let go. Tear doesn't miss the meaning in the gesture. "I'm fine. Just getting used to the atmosphere. We knew this would be a problem."

Van nods. "Stay close to me," he says. "The Librum helps minimize that effect. I would protect you as much as I can."

She fights the guilt, but it's a losing battle. "Van..."

"I know that Mohs doesn't trust me," he says conversationally as they follow their mercenary scouts. "And I would not be surprised if you shared his reservations." Tear starts to protest, and Van raises his hand. "No, you don't need to argue. I won't ask you to confirm or deny anything."

"Then why tell me this?" Tear asks. She was assigned to this mission for that very reason. As commander of the Protectors of the Faith, Van is the Church's best hope for conquering Besek and discovering the Eternal Poison before someone less scrupulous can do so. But as a man with burning personal ambition, Van is a dangerous choice to send into a place that preys on the heart as Besek does.

His expression softens, and he turns to face her, cupping her cheek in one hand. "Because you are precious to me, Mystearica," he says. Tear's heart is suddenly in her throat; where is her resolve? "Because I want to give you the world you deserve." His eyes are so intense, his voice so gentle. "I'm not asking you to promise me anything, not now. But I want you to watch me carefully as we carry out this mission. Come to your own conclusions, not Mohs'."

Tear swallows hard. "You have no intention of destroying the Eternal Poison," she says. It's heresy, directly thwarting the will of the Pope. She should be furious.

"Is that truly the greatest good?" Van asks. "Destroying it for the Church's dogma, instead of using it to right wrongs?"

"But—" Tear hesitates, trying to marshal an argument. Nothing comes.

Van shakes his head. "You don't need to decide now," he says. "Only consider it as we search." He tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear and turns back toward the path. "Come," he says. "Our companions will be wondering what happened to us."

They follow the pagan mercenaries through the dark, twisting passageway that leads deeper into Besek; at its end it turns, then opens out into a completely different scene. The sky is bright blue overhead, cloudless, and they stand at the foot of a long hill decorated by arching, white-stone buildings. It's beautiful, but completely unfamiliar.

Van's harshly drawn breath makes Tear pause, makes her look over at him in alarm. "What is it?" she asks. The first stratum of Besek takes its shape from the minds of the people exploring it. This place must hold painful memories for Van; Tear has never seen him look so openly shaken. "Where is this?"

He shakes his head. "This was your birthright, Mystearica," he says hoarsely. "You should have grown up here. This was Hod." He takes a step onto the white stone of the road. "With the Eternal Poison's power...."

There's no way he'll be able to resist Besek's temptations, Tear thinks. There's no way he'll agree to simply destroy the Eternal Poison.

But with Besek showing her what he fights for...she doesn't know if she can stop him.