Road's End, Book 4 in the Narrow Gate series

Road's End is the exciting fourth book in The Narrow Gate series. Kara and Mathew continue their quest to find the Narrow Gate, but they must first deal with a new threat and come to terms about their feelings for one another.

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Chapter One

The happy sound of a girl’s laughter echoed amid the thick growth of lush foliage as Kara sat on the stone bench tucked away in the corner of the conservatory. Bright shafts of sunlight streamed in from the glass ceiling high above, gilding Jax’s silky fur, deepening the red tints in his coat as he leapt and played with a small Stray near a group of apple trees.

Kara smiled as she watched them, thinking how bittersweet the sight was. Since they’d arrived back in the city at Otto’s sanctuary, as Kara had begun to think of it, this girl had never laughed, nor shown any other signs of mirth or pleasure, but now, playing with the fox, her joy seemed real.

Kara felt a now‑familiar stab of guilt run through her, piercing her heart with an unsettling ache. As she watched Maude’s daughter in this rare moment of unguarded happiness, she knew that she herself was ultimately responsible for the child’s usual lack of joy. If she had not fled GateWide when Maude had come to her with her warning, if she had instead stayed and endured becoming one of the Sovereign’s Strays, then Maude would most probably still be alive and the girl would never have become a Stray herself. The girl would never have lost her brothers and sisters to the Sovereign’s cruelty and she would never have learned the brutalities inflicted upon the Strays who served in the House. If not for Kara, the girl would still be a child, with her happiness and joy intact. Instead, she was a wary creature made mature and bitter before her time.

Kara had hoped that since they had been at the sanctuary, and under Otto’s care and protection for several weeks now, the girl would have at least started to come out of her shell and begin to act like a child again. But it seemed that the opposite was true. The girl spent much of her time alone, away from the other Strays and, it seemed lately, in avoidance of Kara herself. The girl often paced from room to room in the enormous sanctuary, frequently hiding in the shadows or going deep into the dense and sheltering foliage of the conservatory to sit for hours in solitude. Only rarely did Kara see her keeping company with anyone, and if she did happen to spend time with someone, it was always with the boy, Jack.

In those first few days at the sanctuary, when Kara had done her best to make the Strays feel comfortable and welcome, she had learned that the girl’s name was Merrilee, which Kara thought was a bitter irony in and of itself. Though Merrilee had proven herself to be brave, stoic, and steadfast through adversity while they were escaping GateWide, the girl was anything but merry.

Mathew approached her side but Kara did not look away from the fox and the girl playing in the shafts of sunlight as he came up to lean against the stone wall next to the bench. Kara was not looking forward to another argument with him, so she kept her eyes focused on the happy scene in front of her, paying no heed to his presence.

Mathew allowed her to ignore him for several more moments, saying nothing, before he thrust an apple in front of her nose, blocking her vision.

“You’ll need to eat something before we go out again,” he said.

Kara felt the tension between them rise, a feeling that, sadly, was becoming as familiar as the guilt that she now carried with her everywhere.

She sighed and reached up to take the apple from him.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ve packed some smoked, dried fish in the saddlebags, if you need more than the apple while we’re out,” he patted the bags that he’d slung over one shoulder. “Are you ready?”

Kara held back another sigh and stood, reluctant to leave the conservatory and the rare moment of peace that she’d found there. In the previous few weeks, it seemed that she’d spent all of her waking moments either helping to rehabilitate the Strays, preparing food for them, foraging, or out on patrol; and all the while, her guilt ate at her, spurring her on to do more and more for them. Although, logically, she knew that she could not make up for the lives that had been lost because of her actions, emotionally she couldn’t accept that there was nothing that she could do to make it better, and so she continued to try.

She left the shady, peaceful spot and crossed the sunlit entry, her feet treading softly against the mossy stones that lined the perimeter of the conservatory’s plantings. Her movements caught Merrilee’s attention and the girl stopped cavorting with the fox and stilled, looking up at them as they passed, a glimmer of something in her eyes.

Kara said nothing as they passed, for she’d come to suspect that Merrilee liked it better that way. She had noticed that glimmer of emotion in the girl’s eyes more often over the past few days, and she couldn’t quite decide what it was. Was it bitterness because of what Kara’s long‑ago decision to flee had cost Merrilee? Was it anger because of what the Sovereign had done to her and the other Strays? Or was it something else?

Kara’s heart twisted with guilt again, the pain of the emotion going deep. She had so wanted to befriend the girl, to try to atone for what had been done by the Sovereign, but Merrilee remained stoic, showing no sign of emotion toward her except that occasional spark of something in her eyes, and even that appeared infrequently.

Kara sighed sadly as they left the conservatory in silence, leaving Merrilee and Jax to resume their play, though Kara heard no signs of it as she exited the room and walked across the immense entryway in the huge building that now housed them all. She told herself that the sound of her heels clacking against the highly polished marble may have drowned out any noise that the two made as they resumed their play, but she wasn’t sure that this was the case and felt another moment of remorse for interrupting what had been a rare moment of happiness.

Beside her, Mathew remained silent, treading along at her side like a shadow following the slant of the setting sun.

It took only minutes for them both to cross the entryway, traverse a long hallway, and exit through a door that Otto had shown them at the far end of the building. The door led to another attached building, which had not been in the best of repair when they’d arrived with their rescued band of people and animals after their escape from GateWide. But, because of his seemingly limitless strength and endurance, Otto had needed only two days to repair it enough to use as a makeshift stable to house the horses.

The makeshift brick‑and‑stone stable was dim when they entered, with only two yellow‑tinged Old Tech globes glowing inside to provide light. The windows had been closed over by Otto, preventing any unwanted access, allowing no natural light to sneak inside. Otto had removed the first floor ceiling as well and now the airy space stretched up two stories above their heads.

Kara inhaled the peaceful scents of horses, dried grasses, and leather that mingled in the still air as they neared the improvised stalls. Otto had fashioned the stalls out of precisely stacked equally sized chunks of rubble, forming neat, vertical shoulder‑height walls that took up nearly the entire floor space in the building.

Gallant waited patiently in the nearest stall of this improvised stable, munching contentedly on a large bundle of grass that had been brought in from the latest foraging endeavor of the three oldest and healthiest Strays. The filly that Kara favored was in the stall next to Gallant, enjoying her own ration of dried wild grass.

She and Mathew saddled the horses, keeping their silence, but as he removed the saddlebags from his own shoulders and slung them across the back of Gallant’s saddle, Mathew sighed loudly.

“You know, you’d think that after all of those years of being alone and having no one to talk to, you wouldn’t be the one to favor the silent treatment,” he said.

She tossed him a glare over the back of her horse as she gave the cinch strap a final tug.

“I am not giving anyone the silent treatment. I just don’t care to argue with you anymore. And, I don’t think that you should refer to my time alone in the wilderness in jest. It was anything but funny to me,” she replied.

“That wasn’t what I was doing,” Mathew said as he swung himself up onto Gallant’s back, the motion effortless and nimble.

Not for the first time, she noticed how much healthier Mathew seemed and how he’d filled out over the preceding few weeks. The plentiful, healthful food, constant work, and frequent riding had been good for him, and he’d gained both height and muscle in the short time that they’d been at the sanctuary.

She swung herself into her saddle, realizing that the same was true of her own body. The nutritious and abundant food, combined with the constant work needed to take care of the Strays, and the exercise gained while out on patrol in the city or on a foraging trip in the vast meadow that they’d discovered to the west had been good for her as well. She’d gained strength, endurance, and some muscle, too, and her hip no longer pained her.

She had no reply for Mathew, so she simply wheeled her horse around and headed for the exit to the building, which had been left open to provide a little bit of ventilation.

Jack was mucking out a stall near the exit, and he waved to them as they passed, his face covered in stable dirt and a smile. Kara smiled back, glad to see how well he was adjusting to his new life. He hardly seemed like the timid Stray that they’d rescued from GateWide just weeks before. Jack loved the sanctuary, and he loved working with the horses. He’d quickly taken over the chores in the stable as his own, and he seemed to enjoy every moment of his newfound freedom.

The sunlight outside was dazzling after the dim interior of the stable, and Kara blinked as they rode out of the open double doors and entered the maze of carefully placed debris that littered the exit route. The maze had been another project of Otto’s and the metal giant had achieved a truly amazing effect in a relatively short amount of time. Enormous chunks of concrete rubble had been stacked and piled very high, leaving only a slim path between the towering walls, just wide enough for a single horse to pass through. The debris had been arranged flawlessly, and looked just as much a part of the impassable crumbling rubble here as it did in other ruined areas that littered the city. Otto had truly outdone himself, because the maze stretched out for miles. Even the enormous entrance doors at the front of the sanctuary had been hidden behind layers and layers of stacked rubble, with only a thin access path leading to them.

The buildings that housed the conservatory and stable were only accessible through the series of slim paths that Otto had formed inside the maze, and the outer exits to the maze were well hidden. So far, not a single Enforcer or Fidget had been able to find a way inside the maze of pathways the metal giant had built.

Kara took the lead, gently guiding the filly onto the single‑file path, and Mathew followed close behind. The hushed quiet of the decimated city closed in on them as they rode deep into the maze and today the silence seemed oppressive and ominous. Kara rationalized that it was only the stress of her constant arguing with Mathew and the stress of the struggle to nurse the remaining Strays back to health quickly that caused her to feel so anxious. And though there seemed to be no outward cause for her to feel this way, by the time they cautiously exited the maze, her nerves were a bit frayed from the heavy, portentous quiet.

The path they’d taken inside the maze exited not far from the south edge of the city, and it was only a few minutes’ ride to the original road that had first led them to Otto. It was toward that road that Kara guided the filly.

Mathew drew abreast of her on Gallant as soon as they cleared the engineered rubble.

“Are we still going to place a false trail through the Old Forest today?” he asked, his voice pitched just loud enough to be heard over the sound of their horses’ hooves.

They’d spent much time in the Old Forest in the preceding few weeks. Enough that they’d found the easiest path through it and back to GateWide. This new familiarity with the vast forest allowed them to place spurious trails, leading nowhere, just where the Enforcers would find them.

She nodded, “I think that’s best, don’t you? That’s where most of the Enforcer activity has been lately.”

“I wish that the Sovereign would stop sending them after us. It’s been weeks. You’d think that he would give up and admit defeat. Why can’t he just leave us in peace?”

Kara glanced sideways at him. “He wants your father’s Old Tech device. He’s not going to give up until he has it.”

Mathew snorted. “Too bad I can’t get a message to him to let him know that it no longer works.”

“Still? Have you tried it today? Have you given it enough time in the sun?”

“I have tried it today, and it has been in the sun every day, all day, since our return here. It still doesn’t work to communicate with my father. I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”

Kara sighed, knowing what he’d say next. True to form, he launched into the same argument that they’d been having for the previous two weeks.

“You know that we need to go, Kara. We need to find the Narrow Gate. We can leave the Strays with Otto and come back for them when they’re healthy enough to travel.”

“And you know that the Strays still need our care and direction. I want to find the Narrow Gate and our fathers every bit as much as you do, but is it the right thing to do, leaving the Strays? You know how I feel about this, Mathew; we’ve been over this at least a dozen times!”

“Of course it is the right thing to do! Finding the way for them has to be the right thing. And Otto will be here with them. He will care for and protect them. Just the same as he’s been doing since we returned. Just like what he did for us when we found him.”

“I know Otto will look after them, but I don’t agree, Mathew. I cannot agree. It seems like a selfish indulgence to just leave them here because we want to find the Narrow Gate.”

Mathew’s voice rose with his frustration, “It isn’t selfish, Kara, it is the right thing to do!”

“I don’t think so. But, you know that if that’s how you feel, you are welcome to follow your own direction. I am not forcing my decision upon you.”

“I am not leaving here without you. You know that. We started the journey together, and we should finish it together. But it needs to be soon, Kara. We need to leave. You said yourself that you don’t think that the Sovereign will stop sending his Enforcers. And I don’t think the Fidgets are going to stop hunting us, either. We are just putting the others in danger if we stay longer.”

Kara scoffed. “If we leave in order to protect the Strays, how would the Enforcers even know that we had left the city?”

Mathew gave her a long look. “Because we’d make sure they knew. We’d leave a trail. Or a message. We could draw them away from the others.”

Kara opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say anything, the horse shied violently beneath her. She was just barely able to keep her seat as the filly bleated in terror and crow‑hopped sideways, violently knocking into Gallant in her fright.

Five short shapes were darting toward them, peeling away from the shadowed rubble at the sides of the road, and the horse nearly unseated her again in an attempt to avoid them. Kara had only a moment to realize that the shapes were Fidgets. Fidgets! The creatures that never ventured out in daytime, the creatures that could not tolerate sunlight, were now attacking them in broad daylight.

She gave the filly her head, and the horse leapt forward, away from a wickedly sharp claw that was thrust in their direction from under one of the Fidget’s odd coverings. Coverings that shielded every inch of skin and shaded their sensitive eyes from the brightness of the sun beneath large, drooping hoods.

Chapter Two

Hooves thundered upon broken and cracked asphalt as they raced away. The Fidgets squealed in anger as they were easily left behind. Mathew’s heart pounded inside his ribcage, almost matching the staccato beat of Gallant’s long stride. The Fidgets had nearly had them!

The Fidgets had never attacked them during the day before. And he’d never seen them use coverings such as they’d been wearing to protect themselves from the sun. A chill raced down his spine as he realized that they were getting smarter, and had learned a new trick—a trick that would endanger the small group at the sanctuary even more.

If the Fidgets could hunt them during the daylight hours in addition to the nighttime hours, it seemed only a matter of time before they found the secret paths that led to the sanctuary, because they’d have double the time to search for them.

Beside him, Kara slowed her horse to a walk, looking back over her shoulder as he slowed Gallant to match her filly’s pace.

“We lost them,” Kara said.

Mathew nodded. It didn’t take much for the horses to outdistance Fidgets. Fidgets had short little legs that were not made for running. Instead, their stumpy limbs were tipped with long, vicious claws, made to rend and tear and dig. The Fidgets in the Old Forest had used those claws to kill their food and dig burrows into hardened ground so that they could hide underground during the day, away from the damaging sun. The odd, intelligent Fidgets from the Narrow Road used those claws to kill for vengeance, greed, and an insatiable hunger.

“It isn’t a good sign that they were able to figure out how to protect themselves from the sun and are now coming out to attack during the day,” Mathew said. He glanced back over his shoulder, then swept his gaze across the rows of crumbling buildings teetering on each side of the road, anxiously looking for any more Fidgets.

“I wish Zandra was still with us,” Kara said. “She would have smelled them long before they even got close to us.”

Mathew heard the longing in her voice, and also the faint hint of despair that had seemed to plague Kara lately, and he wished heartily that there was something that he could do to ease both. However, most of his attempts to talk to her lately had ended in an argument. He knew what she was feeling, because he felt a bit of it himself. Otto had told him that it was called survivor’s guilt. The Sovereign had killed many of the Strays, and yet both he and Kara had survived. And, not only had they survived, but Jack had told them that the Sovereign had killed some of the other Strays as an act of retribution when Kara and Mathew had escaped the Enforcers who had been sent to bring them back to GateWide. So, indirectly, they were even somewhat responsible for the senseless deaths.

It was a heavy burden to carry, knowing that their actions had inadvertently caused so many cold‑blooded murders. Mathew knew exactly how that crushing guilt felt and he was willing to help Kara with the feelings that she struggled with, if only she’d let him. But she wouldn’t. She was, instead, stoically burying herself in the task of rehabilitating the Strays, almost to the exclusion of all else. To Mathew’s mind, the Strays were all doing fine at that point, and Kara needed to stop mothering them and turn her attention to resuming their search for the Narrow Gate, but she would not agree.

Sadly, it appeared as if Kara had lost her way. And no amount of argument from him seemed to be able to help her find it again. So he sighed, shook himself out of his own morose thoughts, and said, “I wish all of the tracken were still with us. With their heightened senses, it would be great to have them as sentries.”

Kara nodded, “Yes, it would, but I especially miss Zandra.”

“Tiber just wanted to give them all a chance to live away from humans, deep in the wilderness, now that they’re free,” Mathew said.

“I know, but I still miss her,” Kara said. “Do you think they’ll ever come back?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps Zandra and Razer might, just to see how we’re doing.”

“But, if they don’t come back soon, they might never find us once we leave for the Narrow Gate,” Kara said sadly, the note of despondency growing in her voice.

Mathew didn’t know what to do for her. Kara seemed to be falling deeper and deeper into hopelessness with each passing day. It scared him to think that she might be losing her resolve, and perhaps even her faith. He knew, even if she didn’t, that he would not find the Narrow Gate without her. His own faith just wasn’t strong enough, and he still needed to learn how to do the right thing more often. Kara was the expert in doing the right thing. He wasn’t.

Because he didn’t know what to say, other than that they should resume their search for the Narrow Gate before it was too late—before she grew even more depressed and withdrawn or before the Enforcers or Fidgets managed to find the sanctuary—he remained quiet. Though she seemed to think otherwise, he really had no wish to argue with her anymore.

Their awkward silence lasted all through that afternoon as they laid a false trail through the Old Forest to keep the ever‑seeking Enforcers busy and away from the maze and the sanctuary that it protected. On the way back to the sanctuary, they’d only spoken when he’d offered her some of the smoked fish from the saddlebags, and even then their conversation had been stilted and off‑kilter.

He missed the closeness that had been developing between them. Though all they seemed to do anymore was argue, Kara was still the only true friend that he’d ever had. Even when he’d lived in GateWide, before he’d become a Stray, he hadn’t had any true friends because he hadn’t known how to be a friend to anyone but himself. He’d been too selfish and spoiled. But with Kara, it had been different. She’d shown him a different way. At least for a time.

Normally, Mathew would have enjoyed their ride back through the ruined city, but not that day. Usually, he kept an eye out for unique finds, Old Tech, or frivolous trinkets left over from the Time Before, things to add to his collection at the sanctuary, but that day he kept a close watch for Fidgets. By the time they arrived back at the entrance to the maze that Otto had constructed, he was almost as tense as Kara looked to be. His neck muscles ached from his tension and his repeated looks from side to side and then behind them, trying to make sure they weren’t being followed by a crafty Fidget or a lurking Enforcer.

He heaved a heavy sigh as they entered the constricted pathway, knowing that he only had a few more moments to have Kara to himself before they returned to the sanctuary and she was inundated by the needs and requests from the Strays. Finally, he gave in. If all she wanted to think or talk about was the needs of the Strays, he could do that, too.

“Did Otto tell you that someone has taken some of the Old Tech from the storage area?” Mathew asked quietly, eyeing her stiff back as she rode single‑file in front of him.

The towering walls of concrete rubble passed his words back and forth between them, creating just a bit of an echo inside the silence of the maze. He was always careful to speak softly as they rode through the passageways, increasingly paranoid that the secret pathways would be discovered.

The sound of the horses’ hooves was softened somewhat by the layers of plant debris that he and Otto had gathered and lain along the trails just for that purpose, but Mathew was still feeling increasingly anxious that they’d be discovered any day. The feeling that they needed to leave before that option was taken from them was so strong some days that it felt almost like a physical pressure upon his chest. If the Enforcers found them and dragged them back to the House, he did not think that they’d be able to escape again.

As the echo of his words faded, he heard Kara sigh, “Yes, Otto told me.”

“What do you think it means?” Mathew asked, trying to allow her to take the lead in the conversation. He knew it was a little pathetic, but after all day of silence, he really just wanted to hear the sound of her voice.

“I don’t know. The Strays have all been told that we have some Old Tech, and that we’ve been gathering what we can find of it when we go out foraging. And, if Otto can figure out their purpose, I’ve made sure that the Strays all know exactly what each device does. I’ve also told them how important it is that they not play with the Old Tech because of the dangers it offers, but this is so much like the Sovereign’s decree that no one be allowed to touch Old Tech that perhaps one of them just did it anyway. Or, perhaps someone became curious and took some Old Tech just to look at.”

“Yes, perhaps someone was just curious,” Mathew echoed, just to have something to say. Her guess was as good as any. He really had no idea why any of the Strays would have a purpose for the Old Tech. He would think that all of the Strays would be afraid to even be near the Old Tech, given the experience that they’d had with it at the House at the hands of the Sovereign.

“What do you mean by that?” Kara asked, her voice sharpening as it always seemed to do lately when she spoke to him.

“I didn’t mean anything by it. I was agreeing with you.” Mathew didn’t know how to get her to see that he was not the person that she needed to be angry with. He was only the person stating the obvious: that they needed to resume their search for the Narrow Gate. He wasn’t the reason for the obvious. The reason was the Sovereign. And the many Enforcers he kept sending to bring them back to GateWide so that they could be made to pay for freeing the Strays and so that he could get his hands on the Old Tech that Mathew’s father had left for Mathew. Another reason was that the Fidgets—not the animal‑like Fidgets in the Old Forest but the intelligent Fidgets that they’d run across on the Narrow Road—had grown increasingly more cunning in their attempts to attack any Stray who ventured outside the maze after dark.

Mathew still hadn’t discovered just exactly what the Old Tech his father had left him was capable of, or why the Sovereign wanted it so badly, but he did know that the Fidgets were stalking them because they wanted their Old Tech back—the Old Tech devices that the Fidgets had taken and hidden away in a secret trove in an old building near the Narrow Road, the very same devices that Kara had picked up and removed from the building as they fled from Enforcers and their harnessed tracken. One of these devices was the shield device that had saved their lives more than once when they’d used it to free the Strays from GateWide.

“What if you’re wrong, Kara?” he asked, suddenly tired of the little word game they seemed to be playing.

“Wrong about their curiosity?” Kara asked.

“No, wrong about not leaving to seek the Narrow Gate,” Mathew said.

“What if I’m not wrong, Mathew? What if helping the Strays get better is what we are supposed to do? I think that you’re just losing your faith. I think that you’re being selfish, and you are only thinking about yourself. The Strays need our help.” Her quiet voice broke with emotion, and she stopped speaking.

Mathew opened his mouth to tell her that he wasn’t being selfish. He wasn’t. But then he wondered if she was right, and closed it again. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t just thinking of himself; he was thinking of her, too. Of her well‑being. Of how wonderful it would be to find the Narrow Gate, to see their fathers again, and to finally be safe. To finally cease worrying about Kara being caught by Enforcers if they discovered the sanctuary. To finally know that she was safe from harm. He’d seen her beaten by the Enforcers once; he did not want to see that again. But, then, that was selfish, wasn’t it? He didn’t think that he could bear to see her get punched by an Enforcer again. He didn’t think that he could stand to see her dragged before the Sovereign and tortured.

And that was selfish. She was right. He selfishly did not want to see her hurt again. And perhaps she was right about him losing his faith, too. Wasn’t he supposed to trust in the Creator’s Word? Wasn’t he supposed to have faith that they’d find the Narrow Gate by following the words that the Creator had had written in the Book?

He shook his head and remained silent. Perhaps Kara was right. Perhaps he’d learned nothing, and he was still the selfish boy he used to be.

Chapter Three

The scene was picturesque, nearly perfect in its bucolic splendor, but Gabert could not focus on the blessings in front of him. Instead, he was as miserable as if he had still been in the Mire. His eyes took in the wonders of the settlement that his companions called the Narrow Gate, but his heart could not feel the happiness that he should have felt upon seeing the legendary place. Instead, all he could feel was regret. Deep, all‑consuming regret and remorse ate at him every hour of every day, overwhelming him.

He had left his family at the mercy of the Sovereign. Even as he was surrounded by a place made perfect by the Creator’s instructions, where his companions and those few others who had managed to find the place lived in peace and harmony, treating each other with mercy, kindness, and love, he could find no respite from his misery. The Narrow Gate was all that it was said to be, but not because of the location, which he had found was not set to any one certain place but moved around as needed. No, the Narrow Gate was wondrous because the Believers, followers of the Creator, acted only according to His Word there.

They did not lie, cheat, steal, or injure others. They did not kill. They were not jealous. They were always willing to share anything they had with anyone in need: food, shelter, a helping hand. All pitched in to make the Narrow Gate a place as wonderful as it was possible to be outside of Heaven. Everyone in the Narrow Gate strived to do the right thing.

And it was this, their undying devotion to the Creator and to doing the right thing that highlighted his own flaws so brightly. Gabert could barely interact with those around him in a way that was in accordance with the Creator’s Word because his remorse was so great. His heart ached constantly with regret. He could not bear to speak to those whose sins were not as great as his own. He was too ashamed.

Not only had he selfishly left his family to suffer at the Sovereign’s hands in order to save his own pathetic life, but he had brought the orphaned children of many of his current companions to the House to serve the Sovereign as Strays. Even knowing the increasing madness of the Sovereign and the atrocities that he would be subjecting the newly orphaned Strays to, he had still dragged them off to the House to serve.

The thought of their suffering tore at him, bringing tears to his eyes as he contemplated just how much suffering he was responsible for. His failures were enormous.

He did not deserve to be at the Narrow Gate. He did not deserve to dwell there. He had no experience in doing the right thing. Unlike the others, he had not had any practice in doing the right thing in order to prepare to live amongst the Believers. Unlike his companions, he struggled with doing the right thing and with his belief in the Creator’s ultimate mercy and goodness.

Why had the Creator not struck him down when Gabert had perpetrated such heinous acts upon the innocent? Why had he not been killed sooner, before he contributed to such misery? Gabert did not know. He could not say why the Creator had let him live when he was such a failure.

Gabert had been astounded when he’d been told the true premise behind the Narrow Gate. It was not that doing the right thing brought one to the place of the Narrow Gate; it was that doing the right thing prepared one to live there and continue doing the works of the One True God. The Narrow Road was both figurative and literal. One was supposed to take the harder path and do the right thing, and the actual Narrow Road contained travails that aided new Believers in discovering how to accomplish that. And always, one from the Narrow Gate was stationed near the end of the Narrow Road. Should any new Believers accomplish the feat of completing it, they would be immediately taken to the location of the Narrow Gate.

“Gabert, are you alright?”

The softly spoken words jerked Gabert out of his miserable musings. He sniffed, turning his face away to wipe at the tear tracks upon his cheeks. He did not want the speaker to see his unmanly weakness.

His throat still clogged with regret, he found himself unable to speak, so he just nodded. And then he realized that it was an untruth, so he shook his head. No, he was not alright.

He turned to face the speaker, one of the few women who dwelled in the Narrow Gate, an elderly lady that he could not ever remember seeing in GateWide, though he had tried hard to remember her. The others had told him that her name was Therese, and that she’d been left in the wilderness by Enforcers when the Sovereign had declared her fit only to become fodder for the wild beasts that dwelled there.

“You will be well. This feeling will pass,” Therese murmured quietly, seeming to understand.

Gabert cleared the lump from his throat, his voice cracking as he forced words out.

“How can it pass? I am worthless. I do not belong here while others suffer.”

“There is hope. You must simply read the Word. It will comfort you,” she said, her voice soft and nonjudgmental. She was kind. She’d sought him out often in the weeks since he’d arrived, always trying to help him with his burden of regret.

But she could not. No one could absolve him of the sins that he had committed. No one.

“I’m sorry to disagree, but there is no hope. Only restitution, which I cannot pay here. I see that now. I have sinned mightily. I have caused much suffering and misery. I must make it right.”

“The Creator will forgive you. Just ask it of Him in prayer,” Therese soothed.

“No. I do not even deserve to come before Him that way. I must make amends first, Therese. I have realized it. I must go back to GateWide.”

Therese shook her head. “You will only endanger your loved ones further if you go back. That has been proven time and again. Each time one went back to retrieve their family, they were killed, as were their families.”

“I will gladly die for them, Therese.”

“But that is not required of you just yet. We are working together here on a way to free all of the oppressed in GateWide. It will not be long now until we succeed. The others have been working years toward this goal.”

“I do not think that I can wait. My family . . . Those children . . . I . . .” He could not finish. He could not confess the depths of his failures to one so kind and pure as she. She would never understand. She would see him for the filth that he was.

“You must wait, for the sake of others, Gabert. It would be a mistake to go back now. Before we lost contact with Gregory’s Old Tech, we learned that there is a traitor amongst the children in the city. That must be dealt with first, as soon as we are able to locate them. It may take a while longer than we had intended. But soon, soon the others will free all of the oppressed and all will be reunited with their families. You will see. Have faith, Gabert. Have faith in the One True God and His Way.”

His stomach wrenched with nausea. It was impossible. He must render restitution. He did not care if he would be killed. He must go back for his family.

“I cannot . . .” he choked out. Bitter sobs struggled to escape him, but he held them back. “I cannot.”