What if the three women from the ship were wrong? What if the gate did lead to an eternal hell? Maybe the women themselves were demons sent to corrupt them. Maybe there were rival gods. Torralei remembered the look on Heifiel’s face as she herself had been dragged towards the gate. Heifiel was a Seraphim. She was close to Avourel. If there were any secrets about the gate, Heifiel would know them, wouldn’t she?
The temple bell pealed once, twice, and a third time.
As the sound of the bell faded away, the two Powers dragged Torralei through the temple entrance. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her. She felt embarrassed about the dried-up blood on her face and shirt. This was how people were going to remember her, if they remembered her at all. Dirty, disheveled, beaten down. She hadn’t made any impact on the world in the time she was alive. She hadn’t even made a single friend. Nobody would miss her when she was gone.
She kept her face down to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes until she’d been brought directly in front of Avourel. The god was standing in front of the gate, all the other angles in a semicircle around him.
Omael pulled back her hair, forcing her to gasp in pain and look up at the god. Then Omael pushed her down to her knees.
“Look at her!” Avourel pointed down at Torralei. “She quakes in fear before my power.”
Avourel raised his arms and looked out over the angels. “Shall I… Wait. Where’s Jannalor?”
“He and Elyon are standing guard over the righteous crates of justice,” said Elnaril.
Avourel frowned at him.
“Right, right, of course you’d know that.” Elnaril swallowed. “I mean, I mean, you meant that rhetorically. I’ll just… I’ll just go and get them right now.”
Elnaril hurried away and Avourel turned his attention back to Torralei.
“My wayward child.” The god shook his head. Torralei felt as if she’d seen this play before, but this time she was on stage, not in the audience. “I’m not angry. Just disappointed. I have given you life. A perfect life in an idyllic world.” The god spread his arms. “Is this not paradise? Is this not what everyone dreams of?”
He paused, then cleared his throat.
“Umm.. glory and adoration to the high and mighty Avourel?” an angel asked from the back of the crowd. Then everyone joined in, singing. “Glory and adoration! Glory and adoration!”
Was anyone besides her getting bored with all the fawning? Torralei glanced out of the corner of her eye at the angels on the far end of the semi-circle. They seemed enthusiastic enough. But at least one angel must not have been, since Avourel raised his arm and pointed.
“You! What do you have to say about the accused?”
Torralei looked behind her. An angel at the back was looking around, frightened. Torralei hasn’t interacted with him at all these last two days. He had a bed on the other side of the cloisters, she thought, and did something with the crops.
“Umm… she took your name in vain?” the angel asked. “I mean, yes, she took your name in vain.” He nodded. “And, umm… she didn’t show proper respect.”
“And…?” Avourel prompted.
“And she deserves to suffer eternal hellfire?”
The angel looked around, panicking, but nobody was about to help him out. “And glory to you on the highest, most merciful and bountiful god?”
Avourel nodded, apparently satisfied, then pointed to another angel. “You!”
Torralei tried to tune out the accusations. The things that the other angels said were hurtful, but most weren’t true. She hadn’t even been around long enough to have time to do all the things they said. They all had to know that they were lying.
Then Elnaril returned with Jannalor and Elyon, and Hamalar came back from wherever she’d beem. They had the hardest time with the denunciations because Avourel apparently wanted each one to be original, and they hadn’t heard the ones from before.
Finally, Hamalar accused Torralei of saying that she planned to set an army of monkeys loose in the temple.
“Now, why would you want to do that?” Avourel asked her.
“What? I didn’t!” Omael kicked Torralei in the side and she gasped.
“We’re tired of all your lies.” Avourel bent down at stared at Torralei’s face. “Why. Did you want. To set monkeys. Loose in the temple?”
Omael grabbed Torralei’s shoulder and squeezed.
“I didn’t, I swear,” she said, then twisted around to look at the other angels. “The only thing I did was refuse to give Omael a…”
Omael slapped her hard, hitting her broken nose and making it start bleeding again. Torralei yelped and fell sideways onto the stone floor and Ophahim pushed her back to her knees.
“She is incorrigible,” said Omael. “She does not deserve your love or generosity. She has evil in her heart.”
“I have been too kind and gentle,” said Avourel. “We must all be diligent, watching for signs of evil, not letting our better natures lead us to looking the other way. This is what patience and forgiveness leads to.” He backed away and stepped two steps to the side. “Take her away.” He swung his arm and pointed at the gate, which flickered ominously behind him.
Torralei looked around for a way to escape. The mass of the angels were between her and the temple entrance. There were doors to the sides. She didn’t know where they led, but there were angels in those directions as well. Straight ahead, the gate was set into a solid stone wall, broken up only by curtains hanging in the farthest corners. She could hide behind a curtain, she thought. Like that would save her.
Ophanim and Omael pulled Torralei up to her feet then dragged her to directly before the gate.
She looked towards a side door and thought of running.
“Take her away,” Avourel said, and the angels burst into song.
“Glory in his power, glory in his power!”
The two Powers grabbed her arms and stepped forward, taking her through the gate. She briefly glimpsed a world of flame, and then they were in a small stone room, three women huddled in a back corner.
“Tie her up with the others,” she heard a low voice say to her right.
She jerked around. The voice was spoken by a fighter in heavy armor, carrying a sword and with a grim and frightening look on his face. She took a step back and glanced down. Her feet were chained together. What was going on? Where was she?
The fighter stepped away from her. She tried to pull away but a second fighter was holding her under her arm, her hands tied behind her.
“Do we have an extra chain?” the second fighter asked and turned away from her to look.
She took the opportunity to twist away, ducking down under his hand, turned around, and threw herself through the glowing, glittering surface behind her.
There was a glimpse of a world in which robed singers stood in a semicircle inside a stone-walled room, while a bearded figure in a white cassock with a glittering crystal crown on his head held up his arms in front of them. The singers turned and started walking away.
Then there was fire. The flames were all around her. She stumbled forward. Her feet were tied together. So were her wrists. She took small steps straight into the flames.
“Where is she?” she heard a voice call out behind her.
She glanced back briefly and saw two men coming through a shimmering portal.
“Do you see her? She couldn’t have gone far.”
She moved further into the flames and heavy smoke, feeling the burn on her legs. Then it was clearer up ahead. She lurched forward one step, then another, then the flames cleared slightly and she pushed forward again and the surface she’d been walking on fell away below her.
She fell forward and rolled and kept rolling, rocks hitting her sides until a particularly large one stopped her. She bit back a moan, sat up, and looked around. The fall hadn’t hurt as much as she would have expected it to.
Smoke hang heavy in the air, and visibility was low. There was a hill behind her, the one that she’d fallen down. Someone was chasing her, she remembered, and she crawled to the other side of the boulder she was leaning against.
There were large heavy stones all around, and areas where the fire was thick and heavy. But despite the smoke, she found that she could breathe easily, and the fire cast heat but didn’t burn her.
She peered around the boulder. She could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed to be moving further away.
Was there any escape?
That must have been a gate behind her, she thought. She’d come through a gate.
She almost knew who had been chasing her. The thought was right on the tip of her tongue.
She rose to a crouch and started moving away from the hill. That gate had two destinations, she thought. A temple with Avourel’s worshippers. And a room with his prisoners.
Who was Avourel? She felt like her mind was full of fog that was slowly clearing.
Avourel was a god. Or someone who said he was a god.
He was in a virtual world, she thought. Lamacoln. She remembered an island and a sailing ship.
A medieval fantasy world, she thought.
She staggered on. If Avourel had a way into that world, there had to be a way out, she thought.
Maybe there was a second gate here somewhere, one that led out to the real world.
“I see her!”
She looked behind her but couldn’t see her pursuers. Was there anywhere she could hide? Maybe somewhere between the rocks?
She kept moving ahead and the ground dipped again, and now she could see a dark cave entrance nearly hidden by a wall of flames. She pushed forward. She might be able to hide there.
There was something flickering inside the cave. The flames all around it were red, and the smoke was black, but far inside the gate, she could almost see a blue flicker.
She took a deep breath and shuffled through the flames towards the cave’s entrance. She could now make out the blue flicker more clearly. And … was that… was that an exit sign above it?
She walked unsteadily towards the light. It was another gate. A gate back out to the real world, maybe. To her real life.
To her real life. The memories came flooding back. Her family. Her friends. Her work. Her name. Finnbogi Sturluson.
“There she is! Grab her!” They must have found the gate.
She tottered forwards, taking the biggest steps she could with the chain, then threw herself forward through the gate just as a hand reached out to grab her and caught strands of her hair. Her hair ripped and she fell forward and through the portal.
“Well, what have we here? It’s out little wayward angel. I shall name you… Temeliel.”
Temeliel felt stone against his face. He opened his eyes. He was lying on a stone floor in the middle of an empty room. No, not empty. There was a bearded man in a white robes standing there.
The bearded man chuckled as two other men, these ones in armor, appeared from behind Temeliel.
“They always fall for the fake exit gate,” one of the armed men said.