Myka was willing to admit that she was afraid. She would be a fool not to be. Each step into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher felt like it carried the weight of thousands, the burden of her quest pressing in on her even in the lofty cathedral. She mumbled apologies to the other tourists she had to push through (glad that their backpacks made hers less conspicuous) as she wound her way to judgment. She was not the first agent to set foot in the Holy Land, but she was the first who knew which way to go. She was the first who knew what must be done.
She was the first willing to sacrifice everything for the woman she loved.
And suddenly, there it was, encased in glass: the door that marked the final step of Myka’s journey.
The agent was thankfully alone by the sacred display, so no one was there to see her take Francois Villon’s Inkwell (that had been a trick to acquire) from her pack and pour it onto the glass. Quickly replacing the bottle, Myka reached through the portal it created and pressed her hand to the cool stone. Her fingertips tracing the deep gouge in the rock that held even deeper meaning, she whispered the words first spoken in pain and grief and despair, now in wonder and fear and hope.
The cathedral shifted and blurred around her, and in the time it took Myka to blink and take a dizzy stumble backwards, she found herself in the darkness of a stone cavern. Though there was no source of light that she could discern, she could see the space clearly: the rough walls around her, the sand beneath her boots, and the crudely-hewn archway before her. But beyond the arch was a blackness so dark as to be solid. Myka reached a tentative hand towards the door, and though her fingertips disappeared into the inky beyond, she felt no different, though neither did she feel the other side. Closing her eyes and filling her head with memories of Helena, Myka stepped forward.
* * *
Pain. Pain like nothing Myka had ever imagined, let alone experienced. Bone was breaking; skin was tearing; her entire body twisted and writhed as if trying both to pull apart and contract inward until everything was inside out. Myka barely registered that the screams she heard were her own; everything was a haze of red and black and agony.
Helena. She tried to summon the woman in her mind even as her bones became razors against her nerves. Helena, Helena, Helena. Black hair, pale skin, soft eyes, lips quirked in a warm but wry smile, that soothing voice saying her name…
* * *
Myka fell face-first into the sand, sprawling across the ground in a sweat-soaked heap. She gasped for air as she rolled onto her side, her body still twitching with echoes of unspeakable agony. For what felt like hours, she could only lie there in shock, choking out sobs as she tried to process what she had just endured.
Finally, she sat up and looked back at the black archway, its already sinister appearance barely hinting at the horror that lay within. Shuddering, Myka forced herself to her feet and turned from the source of her ordeal. What she saw made her take an involuntary step back. Three skeletons lay against the wall in front of her, each one twisted and arched in unnatural positions that could only come from agonizing death. The sight of what she could have been nearly made Myka turn back, but the thought was fleeting; nothing would stop her in her quest to save Helena. Not even the second black archway in her path.
Wiping the lingering sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, Myka caught a glimpse of her watch and did a double-take. She had entered the cathedral on a Friday. Now the digital display told her it was Saturday. Unless the archway had somehow messed with her watch (or time itself), she had been in the blackness for a whole day.
Twenty-four hours of unceasing pain. No wonder the skeletons appeared as they did.
Undeterred but still fearful, Myka took a deep breath and released it with a shuddering exhale as she braced herself for whatever came next. Facing the second archway, Myka closed her eyes and whispered Helena’s name before stepping through.
* * *
She had prepared herself for pain, but this was infinitely worse.
It was the pain of having a father who never seemed to love her; the pain of being shunned and taunted and bullied; the pain of losing the people she loved, of watching people she cared about suffer, of everything that ever battered her weary heart until it shattered into a thousand pieces.
Myka knew this time that she was the one sobbing, pleading for forgiveness, crumbling under the weight of every emotion she had buried every day of her life. Her sorrow came in screams as she relived Yellowstone again and again and again, holding Helena’s revolver against her own head as she commanded the woman to shoot her, commanded her to end it all, and oh how Myka wanted it all to end…
Hands pressing together through the glass. Smiling and forgiveness, even through tears. Loving sobs over soul-baring stories, words of devotion and promises of reunion, whisper-guided ascents to ecstasy and crying out each other’s names as they yearned across the distance…
* * *
Myka landed face-first once again, but she didn’t hesitate to roll onto her side and hug her knees to her chest. Sobs wracked her body, harder even than when the lantern had cut her off from Helena. And just as she had then, Myka cried for her, wishing the woman was there to hold her and comfort her and guide her through this ordeal. The memory came unbidden through her tears:
“And so it was that Myka was forced to take the final step of the journey alone in body, but with Helena’s love as her constant and forever companion. Despite what she may think, even in times of deepest despair, Myka will never be alone.”
“Not alone…” Myka gasped, half-delirious. “Helena…not alone…”
Pushing herself to her knees, Myka looked at her watch. Sunday. Another twenty-four hours of excruciation. Lifting her head to take in her surroundings, her weariness was replaced with a surge of hope. Yes, there was a skeleton to her left, its curled position one of listless defeat, but to her right was the boulder she had fought so hard to reach.
Now she just had to get it out of the way.
* * *
Though she had brought both food and water with her, just in case, the water was the only thing Myka touched, needing to wash away the rawness left by her sobs and screams. Bottle drained and hope renewed, Myka pulled the book from her pack first. She had marked the pages she thought she would need, but she was ready to recite the entire second half of the tome if need be.
Placing her hand against the boulder she knew to be a door, Myka said the words again, hoping they might grant her entry once again.
Undeterred, Myka flipped through the book until she found the entire passage that contained the words, reading aloud in a sure, confident voice.
Myka refused to feel uncertainty, even as it crept along the edges of her mind, instead flipping to the next passage and speaking words of hope, her hand never leaving the stone.
Shoving her growing fear to the back of her mind, Myka flipped back to the first passage and spoke through the entire chapter, beginning with sorrow and ending with promise.
Were it any other book and were she in any other place, Myka would have tossed the tome aside in frustration. As it was, she merely pursed her lips and let out a long sigh. “Fine,” she muttered, opening her pack and replacing the book with care. The next item she produced was a crowbar. “We’ll do this the other way.”
Myka was under no illusion that she would be able to pry any other boulder this size from its place in the sand but, just as the book wasn’t any other book, this wasn’t any other boulder (which is why she whispered several apologies as she wedged one end of the crowbar into the crack). Planting her feet, Myka gripped the bar and pushed as hard as she could. Failing (unsurprisingly), she threw her entire weight into the bar, which also failed. Changing tactics, she moved to the other side of the bar and pulled instead, again using all of her weight to do so. This only succeeded in sending her flat on her ass in the sand after having lost her grip. Trying not to curse as she got to her feet, Myka tried again.
For hours, Myka worked at the crowbar, hoping against hope for even a millimeter of progress. Even when her strength began to flag and she was nearing exhaustion, thoughts of Helena gave her the energy she needed to continue, even as sweat and tears poured down her face. But just when Myka began to move, just when she thought that maybe, maybe this would work, the crowbar snapped.
For the third time in her ordeal, Myka crashed face-first to the ground. Not even bothering to get up fully, she propped herself on her elbows and stared at the pieces of the crowbar in shock and horror. Metal that strong didn’t just snap, not even under the pressure of a desperate agent. The boulder was keeping her out.
Stumbling to her feet, Myka threw the pieces across the cavern with a roar of frustration and rage and despair and everything she’d been trying to keep in for fear of desecrating this holy place. She threw herself against the boulder in a sobbing delirium, pounding the rock with her fists until they bled, screaming the words over and over again, this time for herself and her own pain and not that of another. Finally, her blows began to weaken, and her body slumped against the stone, and with one final, desperate kick at the boulder, she slid to the ground with her back to the impassable door, burying her head in her knees and letting her sobs come in full.
Only then, only in those wracking cries of anguish, did Myka truly think of giving up – of abandoning this quest that had been hopeless from the start and hoping that her words would be enough to set Helena free. Helena would understand; Myka was sure of it. She would understand how impossible this quest was, and how there was never any chance of success, and understand that Myka had tried her hardest, but there was nothing that could be done. “I’m coming back for you, Helena,” Myka had promised, her voice fierce even as a murmur. “I will return to you and I will never leave your side.” Wasn’t that all that mattered, now?
“I know, darling. I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
No. What mattered was that Helena needed her. Helena believed in her. And that was why Myka needed to succeed.
Myka forced herself to take steady breaths until they turned from sharp gasps to deep inhales and exhales.
“I love you, Myka Bering. You’re never alone.”
And with those words in her heart, Myka stood on shaky legs, vowing to leave that cavern with what she came to find and bring it back to Helena. She was heading to her pack to retrieve the book again when she tripped over something sharp. Entirely sick of falling on her ass at this point, Myka turned to glower at the offending object.
And there it was.
The tears that trailed her cheeks were those of wonder as she knelt before the object, its very presence making her quiver in awe. Even as she took a containment bag from her backpack, Myka’s eyes were drawn to the artifact she’d shed sweat, blood, and endless tears to find, unable to believe it was there, before her, real. She reached for it without a thought of putting on gloves, needing to feel the roughness against her skin. The moment it touched her fingertips, she was filled with warmth and light and acceptance and understanding and peace, the kind of peace she’d only ever felt with Helena. Holding the artifact in trembling hands, Myka turned to the boulder one last time, blurred by her tears.
“Thank you,” she whispered, the very words a prayer of praise. “It will never be enough, but thank you.”
The artifact didn’t shoot sparks when Myka placed it in the bag with infinite gentleness; instead, it radiated a brief but soothing golden glow before falling silent. Even as she slipped it into her pack, she somehow felt its power radiating through the silver bag. Clutching her backpack to her chest, Myka stood…
...and found herself back in the first cavern. Behind her, the black arch remained; before her, the stone wall rippled in transparence, revealing the entrance to the cathedral. Myka didn’t need to check her pack to know that the artifact had come with her; she could feel it like a comforting hand on her shoulder, even as it carried the weight of the world. She walked through the portal with the same shifting dizziness as her entry and walked down the front steps of the church.
Myka took deep breaths of fresh air, resisting the urge to stretch and spin in circles after three days of claustrophobia.
Looking behind her, she could see that the portal was gone, and all that remained were tourists and locals alike heading into the cathedral for its most important day of the year. But the hand on her shoulder urged her onward even as it offered her peace, reminding her that her quest was far from finished.
It was time to return to Helena.