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FIVE MILES TO the northwest of Sagrada Família, Admiral Ávila gazed through the windshield of the Uber at the broad expanse of city lights, which glittered against the blackness of the Balearic Sea beyond.

Barcelona at last, the old naval officer thought, pulling out his phone and calling the Regent, as promised.

The Regent answered on the first ring. “Admiral Ávila. Where are you?”

“Minutes outside the city.”

“Your arrival is well timed. I have just received troubling news.”

“Tell me.”

“You have successfully severed the head of the snake. However, just as we feared, the long tail is still writhing dangerously.”

“How can I be of service?” Ávila asked.

When the Regent shared his desires, Ávila was surprised. He had not imagined that the night would entail any more loss of life, but he was not about to question the Regent. I am no more than a foot soldier, he reminded himself.

“This mission will be dangerous,” the Regent said. “If you are caught, show the authorities the symbol on your palm. You will be freed shortly. We have influence everywhere.”

“I don’t intend to be caught,” Ávila said, glancing at his tattoo.

“Good,” the Regent said in an eerily lifeless tone. “If all goes according to plan, soon they will both be dead, and all of this will be over.”

The connection was broken.

In the sudden silence, Ávila raised his eyes to the brightest point on the horizon—a hideous cluster of deformed spires ablaze with construction lights.

Sagrada Família, he thought, repulsed by the whimsical silhouette. A shrine to all that is wrong with our faith.

Barcelona’s celebrated church, Ávila believed, was a monument to weakness and moral collapse—a surrender to liberal Catholicism, brazenly twisting and distorting thousands of years of faith into a warped hybrid of nature worship, pseudoscience, and Gnostic heresy.

There are giant lizards crawling up a church of Christ!

The collapse of tradition in the world terrified Ávila, but he felt buoyed by the appearance of a new group of world leaders who apparently shared his fears and were doing whatever it took to restore tradition. Ávila’s own devotion to the Palmarian Church, and especially to Pope Innocent XIV, had given him a new reason to live, helping him see his own tragedy through an entirely new lens.

My wife and child were casualties of war, Ávila thought, a war waged by the forces of evil against God, against tradition. Forgiveness is not the only road to salvation.

Five nights ago, Ávila had been asleep in his modest apartment when he was awoken by the loud ping of an arriving text message on his cell phone. “It’s midnight,” he grumbled, hazily squinting at the screen to find out who had contacted him at this hour.

Número oculto

Ávila rubbed his eyes and read the incoming message.

Compruebe su saldo bancario

Check my bank balance?

Ávila frowned, now suspecting some kind of telemarketing scam. Annoyed, he got out of bed and walked to the kitchen to get a drink of water. As he stood at the sink, he glanced over at his laptop, knowing he would probably not get back to sleep until he took a look.

He logged onto his bank’s website, fully anticipating seeing his usual, pitifully small balance—the remains of his military pension. However, when his account information appeared, he leaped to his feet so suddenly that he knocked over a chair.

But that’s impossible!

He closed his eyes and then looked again. Then he refreshed the screen.

The number remained.

He fumbled with the mouse, scrolling to his account activity, and was stunned to see that an anonymous deposit of a hundred thousand euros had been wired into his account an hour earlier. The source was numbered and untraceable.

Who would do this?!

The sharp buzzing of his cell phone made Ávila’s heart beat faster. He grabbed his phone and looked at his caller ID.

Número oculto

Ávila stared at the phone and then seized it. “¿Sí?

A soft voice spoke to him in pure Castilian Spanish. “Good evening, Admiral. I trust you have seen the gift we sent you?”

“I … have,” he stammered. “Who are you?”

“You may call me the Regent,” the voice replied. “I represent your brethren, the members of the church that you have faithfully attended for the past two years. Your skills and loyalty have not gone unnoticed, Admiral. We would now like to give you the opportunity to serve a higher purpose. His Holiness has proposed for you a series of missions … tasks sent to you by God.”

Ávila was now fully awake, his palms sweating.

“The money we gave you is an advance on your first mission,” the voice continued. “If you choose to carry out the mission, consider it an opportunity to prove yourself worthy of taking a place within our highest ranks.” He paused. “There exists a powerful hierarchy in our church that is invisible to the world. We believe you would be an asset at the top of our organization.”

Although excited by the prospect of advancement, Ávila felt wary. “What is the mission? And what if I choose not to carry it out?”

“You will not be judged in any way, and you may keep the money in return for your secrecy. Does that sound reasonable?”

“It sounds quite generous.”

“We like you. We want to help you. And out of fairness to you, I want to warn you that the pope’s mission is a difficult one.” He paused. “It may involve violence.”

Ávila’s body went rigid. Violence?

“Admiral, the forces of evil are growing stronger every day. God is at war, and wars entail casualties.”

Ávila flashed on the horror of the bomb that had killed his family. Shivering, he banished the dark memories. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can accept a violent mission—”

“The pope handpicked you, Admiral,” the Regent whispered. “The man you will target in this mission … is the man who murdered your family.”

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