Taurin strode through the west entrance of the seventh level, struggling to contain the storm that seethed inside him. How could such a thing happen? And by someone he had befriended, had known since the man was a mere boy. He hissed between clenched teeth, long legs and an icy bitterness fueling his rapid progress toward the Master Warden’s office.
Wardens were chosen for their cool self-possession, their ability to remain calm, unruffled, whether facing demons, minions or any of the myriad creatures that haunted the lower levels. They were chosen for their ability to work alone, think quickly, deal swiftly with anything, anyone, that threatened the Ethereal balance. On the other side of the coin, wardens were equally adept at compassionately guiding and soothing the lost or confused, helping wherever they were needed.
Nearing the arched opening that would take him to Headquarters, Taurin slowed his pace and tried to find some semblance of his usually unflappable composure before he spoke to his commander. Balling his fists, he closed his eyes and took long, deep breaths as he fought for control, something he hadn’t had to do in over two millennia. At that thought, his temper spiked again and grinding his teeth until his jaws burned, Taurin acknowledged there was no way he was going to calm down anytime soon. Not until he found Daniel Valentine and dragged him back to the Ethereal to face his punishment.
Smiling with grim anticipation, he stomped through the archway, sharply turning down the left corridor with lethal purpose. Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice the junior recruit who took one look at his face and backed into the wall with a barely contained whimper.
“I need to see Syrus,” Taurin barked at the commander's assistant, an attractive woman seated behind a large desk in the reception area. “Now.”
“I’m fine, thank you so much for asking. And it's lovely to see you, too, Taurin.” Sarcasm stung the air.
They glared at each other for a moment, then Taurin ran a hand through his hair, and sighed heavily. “My apologies, Valeria. I’ve got a major situation, and much time has already passed—”
“He's in a rare temper. I hope you have answers.”
“Not yet, though I may have a way to find them. Getting Syrus to agree might prove more difficult. My plan is unprecedented but then, so is this theft.”
“How was it even possible?” Valeria whispered, her eyes wide with alarm. “Does this mean any book can be taken?” The very thought was horrifying.
“No,” Taurin growled, “I'll get to the bottom of it and this won't happen again, not on my watch.” He struggled to soften his tone. “I’ve just come from being locked in the Library with Deacon while we tried to fathom how this was done, though half my time was spent peeling him off the ceiling once convinced a theft had truly taken place. Calming that man was harder than wrestling a fiend back into the depths to finish a penance.”
Valeria stood. “I’ll tell Syrus you’re waiting. It should take just a moment; he is very anxious for details.” She walked to the tall double doors behind her desk, knocked softly and disappeared inside.
Taurin paced back and forth, eyes on his boots as thoughts spun, filling him with turmoil. He needed to find his equilibrium or Syrus wouldn’t even consider the idea he had in mind.
Raising his head, he found himself in front of a map that covered an entire wall in the room. He rarely saw the Ethereal like this, laid out in shimmering layer upon layer. He marveled at the tableau, as if it were a cross-section of each level and yet also an aerial view. That brought a slight smile; in his earthbound days, the only things that flew were birds and Roman spears.
He traced a finger from the lowest levels—cruel, unrepentant, evil places—noted the twenty toll houses, then moved upward to the broad band of light where souls arrived after death, reconnected with family, departed in rebirth, made their choices. Rising higher, he touched each softly-colored plane as it blended seamlessly into the one above.
At the sixth level, his finger stopped, his mood abruptly darkening. The Library, sacred and revered, housing a book for every soul. Inviolate, never breached. And yet, Daniel Valentine, for whatever reason, had done it. It would have been beyond madness had he tried to leave the Ethereal with his own book, but to take one that didn’t belong to him? It defied understanding. But still the question remained: Why? Taurin, still reeling from the theft, and the betrayal, would have his answers, by fair means or foul.
Dropping his hand, he continued to stare at the map, eyes moving above the Library to the seventh level where he now stood, where the Wardens lived and worked. There were four entrances—at the compass points of east, west, north and south—that eventually led to the center, to the commander. For Taurin, this was his home, his life.
Finally, his gaze rose to the heart, the essence of the Ethereal, the plane beyond all planes. Golden wisps of light radiated downward, touching every level, even the most abominable in the lowest of the low. It was breathtaking to see it like this, see the complete picture, the magnificent embodiment of the Universe, the—
“Taurin.” Syrus stood in the doorway to his office. Jerking his head for Taurin to follow him, he paused to say softly over his shoulder as Valeria returned to her desk, “Hold everything, Val. And I mean everything. No exceptions.”