The following continues the new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!
While the majority of the details portrayed over the course of Chapters One through Three are purely fictionalized, the background circumstances are, alas, entirely factual.
On July 15, 1099, the "pilgrims" of the First Crusade—led by, among others, the Duke Godefroy de Bouillon of France—collapsed portions of the defensive walls of Jerusalem, putting an end to the siege of the city. The next twenty-four hours were among the bloodiest in the history of the Crusades, as seemingly-maddened knights and soldiers slaughtered an enormous portion of the Holy City’s population: Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians; men, women, and children. Nobody was spared the violence and anger of the crusaders; and while historical accounts claiming the soldiers waded in blood up to their ankles are almost certainly exaggerations, they still represent a chilling view of what happened that day.
This is not fiction, much as we might wish it were. This is history.
And if there are Dark Powers, scouring the many worlds for those "worthy" of their embrace, surely such horrors committed in the name of God would be exactly what they sought.
Again, Diederic stooped by the unearthed circle, deep within Birne's orchard. He had feared that simply setting foot within the gate would herald the return of the insect swarm, but so far the only vermin he had seen were a few worms unearthed by the recent downpour, and a colony of ants feasting upon one of said worms that had not survived the rain. Still, he avoided the large peach tree, just to be certain.
From his crouch he stared at the decrepit old home, as though the intensity of his gaze might be enough to bring it to him. But then, his eyes were the problem, weren't they? Images of Leona as a twisting corpse surrounded by a swarm of hornets, flashed across his vision. He shuddered.
It was a difficult shot at the best of times. Throwing from a crouch, between closely spaced trees and low-hanging branches, it became downright frustrating. With each throw, leaves rustled, tiny branches snapped, and with each sound, Diederic was certain that a cloud of stinging, biting insects would rise up and descend upon him like a Biblical plague.
On what must have been his ninth or tenth try, as the grinding of his teeth threatened to drown out the sounds of the orchard, the stone finally flew true, despite the trailing weight of the hemp lashed around it. It sailed smoothly between the branches to drape itself over the wooden fence.
Diederic tugged, carefully. The stone brushed against the topmost rail and threatened to flip back over, but it held. So long as he was cautious, kept his pull light and even, it should serve. Carefully he reached into the pouch of supplies he had liberated from Marta's house and tied a flimsy scarf across his mouth and nose.
And now, exasperating as throwing the rope had been, came the difficult part. Taking the rope in both hands, hunching down below the level of the branches, Diederic closed his eyes. Ears straining for any sound of motion, skin twitching in anticipation of an unseen assault, he began to creep forward, the rope his only guide.
Branches tugged at his clothes, roots reached up to tangle his steps, but Diederic persevered. Nicked and battered by the various obstacles, he finally felt the sun upon his head and rose to his full height, but he kept his eyes shut and followed the rope.
He heard the sounds of buzzing, felt the first bite on his forehead. Fire rushed across his face from the painful venom, and Diederic risked a quickened pace. He felt impact after impact upon his hauberk, his sleeves, his trousers, and the cloth that protected most of his face. What little skin remained exposed suffered bite upon bite, sting after sting. Tears of pain welled up between his tightly closed eyelids, and Diederic began to wonder if he would make it as far as the fence. The pressure on his skin, as insect after insect struck his clothes and his exposed flesh, was as constant as the storm's rain; not a sound in the world could have penetrated the incessant hum of a thousand tiny wings.
How much was the pain, how much the accumulated venom, how much the resurgence of that same helpless fear from his confrontation with Lambrecht and the Grimoire? Whatever the cause, Diederic felt his legs grow unsteady, his equilibrium falter. His grip on the rope grew slack, and with a frustrated gasp that might have been a sob, he felt himself topple forward….
To slam, chest first, into the wooden fence.
Added to the pain he already felt, the bruised ribs and shortness of breath briefly overwhelmed him. It took Diederic a moment to realize that he had made it. For all the pain and fear, without sight to trick and eyes to deceive, he had managed to penetrate whatever force warded the house.
With the last of his strength, Diederic pushed himself up and over the fence, toppling face first into the mud on the other side.
The buzzing ceased instantly; even the tickling touch of spindly legs Diederic had felt inside his hauberk vanished as he crossed the fence. For a hundred heartbeats he lay there, struggling to catch his breath. Then, one hand still on the fence as though he were afraid it might vanish, Diederic opened his eyes.
The house loomed over him, boarded windows peering malignantly down, angered by his presumptuous intrusion. He felt a strange pressure upon his shoulders, as though the weight of the building itself had settled upon him.
But whether the house liked it or not—and indeed, whether he himself did—Diederic was there. The fence remained solid and held its position, and nothing but muddy, overgrown grass stood between him and the age-warped walls.
Upon closer inspection, the heavy padlock proved a feeble hindrance. Its presence suggested more recent use than Leona had implied, but the lock did not merely hold the door shut, it held it up. The leather hinges were old and brittle; the wood in which they were mounted was soft and rotted. A single kick was enough to separate them entirely.
The door swung inward with a dull crash and then dangled, squeaking, from the padlock. Swirls of dust, a barrage of splinters, and mud knocked loose from his boot settled into the room as Diederic stepped over the threshold. He grimaced as he crossed the room. So much for any element of surprise!
Even now, in the middle of the day, the chamber was cast in a pall of twilight. The sun peeking nervously between the boards of the windows provided barely the light of a handful of candles, and it seemed unwilling to cross the open doorway, perhaps frightened by what lay beyond. Diederic found himself in, as best as he could tell, a broad chamber that occupied the majority of the first floor. He saw a few spots where supporting walls might once have stood. Bits of rubble, discarded furniture, and piles of old leaves all lay scattered across the wooden floor. It creaked with every step he took, releasing puffs of dust that smelled heavily of mildew. He left behind him a trail of dripping, flaking mud, and heavy footprints in the dust.
At roughly the center of the room he stopped, cursed under his breath, and lit a torch. He had brought only one, in case the house had a cellar; he had not anticipated it being so dark inside. Best to hurry, then.
The inner walls were bedecked with mildew, and old water stains, tear-like, marred the wood from ceiling to floor. Closer now, and in better light, Diederic could indeed make out the remains of interior walls that had once divided this level into at least four separate rooms. With the exception of the stone hearth and its cast iron hook, however, insufficient furniture remained intact to suggest what purpose any given chamber might have served. With his foot, he prodded at a pile of rotted cloth and splintered wood that might once have been a bed, or perhaps a sofa. A scattering of centipedes was his only reward. Diederic recoiled, and turned his attention back to the room at large.
On the far wall, a staircase led upward. The steps looked at least as feeble as the floor, and entire sections of the railing had fallen away. Just beneath it was a small door, one Diederic would have to duck to pass through. Unremarkable, it might have led to anything from a simple storage cupboard to basement stairs. What drew his attention, however, were the hinges themselves. Unlike those of the front door, they appeared relatively new.
A step, a creak of wood, another step—and a tiny plume of dust drifted down from the ceiling above. Diederic froze, staring upward, ears straining for any sound. Had his own movement caused the house to subtly shift, or had the dust been shaken loose by someone or something else, moving in the room above?
A minute of silence, two, and Diederic relaxed, if only slightly. He allowed another moment of internal debate before he moved toward the door beneath the stairs.
It was padlocked too, but a few heavy blows with the axe solved that problem readily enough. The door swung outward, leaving the padlock and an uneven chunk of wood behind. Diederic ducked his head and peered inside.
The aroma of moist earth, nearly as potent here as it had been in the orchard, covered him like a blanket. The air was damp and surprisingly warm. Beetles and roaches skittered away from the light of his torch. A rickety wooden staircase led down, into a basement or cellar invisible from atop the steps.
With no room to swing it, Diederic carefully laid his axe down upon the steps. Torch held aloft in one hand, dagger in the other, he descended into the ever-thickening air. The stairs shuddered with every step, threatening to tear loose from the wall, and every inch claimed by the torchlight saw more insects scattering in fear. By the time he reached the bottom, Diederic could scarcely breathe. The rich dirt scent was overwhelming, but there was something more to it, something lingering beneath it, something cloying and unpleasant.
Wooden shelves, waterlogged by years of moisture and weighed down by layers of mildew, sagged from the walls. The ground was indeed naught but dirt, uncovered by any manmade floor. It was rough and uneven, showing various lumps. Something had been buried beneath the earthen floor, quickly and carelessly.
Images of summoning circles flashed through Diederic's mind, but he doubted that was what he would find. He placed the torch in a wall bracket and, again scraping at the soil with his hands, he began to dig.
The first body was barely a foot deep.
The overwhelming stench of decay struck him like a fist, causing his eyes to water and his gorge to rise. Much of the meat had already leached away into the soil, leaving a shriveled layer of skin and flesh behind. If any doubt had remained to Diederic that the Empyrean Church was not responsible for Birne's misfortunes, they were laid to rest now, for the body was clad in the crimson mantle of an Inquisition soldier. He couldn't see the Church using up its own elite in that way.
Even a moderately casual search around the first corpse, at roughly the same depth, revealed a second, a third, a fourth, and more. Two were Redbreasts, others travelers from afar, to judge by their garb, and a few might have been men and women of Birne itself. All those near the surface were relatively fresh, but beneath them Diederic saw a limb protruding here, a bone there. God alone knew how deep the bodies were buried, or for how long they had been there, but it must have been years—long enough for some to have decomposed entirely to bone.
Shaking his head in horrified wonder, Diederic began to rise, brushing the soil from his hands.
The topmost Redbreast lurched upright, sitting up before him. A putrid hand lashed outward, flinging soil and bits of flesh, to clasp viselike about the knight's forearm. Chain and bone alike creaked beneath the inhuman pressure as the body yanked Diederic close. Empty, dripping sockets locked gazes with Diederic's widened eyes. Lungs that had not moved in months began once more to pump; a hot, wet breath, laden with maggots and decay, wafted across the knight's face, making him gasp and gag. Frantically wiping damp particles of rotted flesh and worse from his face, Diederic hurled himself back, pulling away from the corpse's grip with all his might….
He slammed hard into the far wall, sending the already-precarious shelves crashing to the soft earth. Clouds of dust poured down around him, from wall and ceiling both. Diederic coughed, clearing his lungs, and rose to a fighting crouch, dagger held before him.
But he had no enemy to face. The body of the Redbreast lay as it always had, half-covered in soil and clay. He felt no pain in his wrist, merely the sensation of pressure already fading away, and his tentative touch found nothing awful clinging to his face.
Shaking, Diederic grabbed the torch and backed his way to the steps, and upward, never taking his eyes from the bodies that lay exposed in the fruit cellar. He staggered twice, moving unsteadily up the stairway, but he refused to look away from the earthen floor below.
It cost him. He felt the impact of his boot on wood, heard the clatter of metal dragged across the step. He knelt, cursing, making a desperate grab, but it was already too late. He watched helplessly as the axe he had left lying at the top of the stairs plunged off the side and landed with a dull thump in the cellar below. He warred with himself, desperate to go and retrieve it, but the mere thought of stepping back down there set his heart to pounding once more. Cursing again, bitterly, he moved back into the main room.
At the top, he slammed the door behind him. It would take a carpenter of some skill and great patience to repair the damage he had done to the lock, so he settled instead for dragging pieces of broken furniture to block the door, and using a chair leg to prop it shut. He did not actually expect the bodies to rise up and pursue him, any more than Cerran's or Leona's transformations had persisted, but with his breath catching in his chest, his skin tingling at every sensation, he was unwilling to take the chance.
His shoulders finally relaxing just a bit, he made his way around to the base of the larger staircase leading up. He expected to find nothing more of interest—surely a cellar full of corpses was secret enough!—but he needed to be certain.
It wasn't until he was halfway up the stairs that something struck him as not quite right. Leaning down, he peered once more into the main room on the first floor.
The front door, which should have hung loosely where he had kicked it in, stood firm in its frame. Indeed, a trio of wooden boards nailed across it from left to right ensured that it would be no easy task to take down a second time.
He found himself only marginally surprised, and wondered if that meant that he was growing accustomed to this awful place. He continued his climb with his torch extended ahead of him, to burn or brush aside the worst of the cobwebs that crossed the stairs.
The second floor was in no better shape than the first, though at least it had kept its interior walls. Those walls were waterlogged and mildewed; several puddles of stagnant water had collected in depressions in the old wooden floor, only slowly draining into the level below. Mosquitoes buzzed angrily around these spawning pools, daring Diederic, begging him, to come closer. Heavy cobwebs filled the upper halves of the rooms, suggesting that nobody had passed through in months, if not years, but the occasional clear print in the dust belied that assessment. Someone or something had been here, no matter what the native spiders might have to say about it. Diederic waved his torch idly, watching the webs crisp and curl away from the flame. He heard rats skittering about in the shadows at the edges of the room, but they seemed too frightened of either his presence or his fire to emerge.
It was, if anything, even darker here than it was below. The windows were all thoroughly boarded, and what little sunlight squeezed through those barriers seemed to ooze viscously down the wood, rather than spreading out into the room. His footsteps screeched as they had below, and he could feel the wood give beneath his boots, bowing downward. Nervously, he cast his gaze to his feet, and made certain to watch where he placed his weight.
As below, the furniture here was broken and decayed, though some rooms had aged better than others. He inched open a door that hung upon a single hinge and found himself in what was recognizably a bedroom. The mattress against the far wall lay atop a pile of splintered wood, and even in the feeble lighting, he could see how it bulged and writhed with the vermin that had taken up residence within. To his left, a small table leaned heavily against the wall, thanks to a missing leg, but was otherwise largely intact. It boasted dust-covered combs and bottles of myriad sizes, suggesting a lady's dressing area. A large brass-framed mirror stood above it, the glass too grimy and dusty to show anything but a faint bright spot where Diederic's torch gleamed back at him. Everything else in the room was reflected as nothing more than dark and blocky shapes, rather like a poorly constructed mural. Diederic himself showed as little more than a column against the deeper darkness—a column holding aloft the room's only light.
A column behind which something moved, darting across the room with the speed of a diving falcon.
It was little more than a flash of motion in the mirror, utterly lacking in detail, gone even before Diederic spun around. It left behind no evidence but a swirl of dust and the gentle swinging of the door it had brushed on its way out.
Diederic ran after it, dagger held high, footsteps thudding and echoing off the unstable floor. Despite his speed, no trace of the swiftly moving intruder remained—nothing except a faint sob that hung in the air. It seemed to his ears to be the cry of a despairing child, standing at her mother's grave or watching a favored pet sicken and die. He heard a door slam from above, watched as the ceiling shook and another plume of dust puffed earthward.
The creaking floor grew louder now, and Diederic refused to admit it was anything other than his own imagination that made it sound less like old wood and more like a screeching animal. With his poignard and torch gripped in sweat-soaked gauntlets, he set foot upon the stair that would take him to the house's third and highest floor.
One step, two, three; then he felt it. A breeze where there should be no breeze, colder than the outside air, gusting insistently down the staircase. The cobwebs above him billowed and wafted out, reaching toward him with tiny tendrils of gossamer white. His torchlight flickered, guttered, rallied….
And went out.
He stood stock-still, waiting for his eyes to adjust to what feeble light wormed its way in from outside. He could see no more than two or three steps ahead, but it seemed brighter above than it did below. He remembered the missing board he had seen from outside, and guessed that the stairs must open up into the chamber behind it. Testing each step as it creaked beneath his weight, Diederic inched his way upward. From above he once more heard the sound of sobbing, but it struck him now as less desperate and more devious: the cries of a youngster who had learned to summon tears at a moment's notice if it meant getting the toy or pastry she craved.
The cobwebs continued to billow as he passed, and Diederic was reminded of his passage through the mists. His footsteps slowed further as he reached the top of the stairway; above all else, he wished he had his axe.
A single long hallway with a handful of doors made up the entirety of the third floor. Only one of those doors stood open, and through it lanced a single pale beam of sunlight. Even from where he stood, Diederic could see the window with its missing plank, standing in what appeared to be an old library. The room's shelves were teetering, and completely bereft of books, but they could have served no other purpose. It was an odd find in a village such as Birne, but Diederic could well imagine that the founding families had taken pride in their education and literacy.
No leaves marred the floor here, but the dust was thick as ever. Diederic could clearly see the prints of someone moving through the hallway. And again, the age of the prints was at odds with the thickness of the cobwebs in the stairs. Even more strangely, the tracks seemed aimless, directionless. He could see them easily enough, but each time he attempted to follow the prints with his gaze, he lost them in the shadows and the swirling dust, only to locate them once more pointing in an entirely different direction.
There was nothing for it, he realized glumly, but to try each room one by one. Dagger at the ready in one hand, he reached out with the extinguished torch to push open the nearest door.
He had not quite made contact when he heard the voice again—not from the room before him but from the farthest, down the hall. This time, the child was not crying at all, but giggling in anticipation. It was a disturbing laugh, displaying a level of wanton desire with which no child ought be familiar. Worse, it struck him as not unlike the laughter he had heard in the Forest of Cineris, just before the Fair Folk began their wild hunt.
Even as he watched, the door at the end of the hall began, ever so gradually, to drift open. The laughter grew louder still.
Diederic crossed the hall at a headlong charge, ignoring the shuddering of the floorboards. Shoulder first, he slammed into the door like a battering ram, determined to take whatever lurked behind it by surprise.
The sodden wood parted before him like so much parchment, and Diederic stumbled into the chamber beyond. Old rags and bits of clothing, rotted and moth-eaten, wrapped tightly, perhaps deliberately, about his ankles. He had a vague sense of a rich child's bedroom—complete with frilly canopy above the bed, shelves of stuffed animals, and a chest of toys—before he tumbled headfirst into the side of the bed.
Mildew and dust shot up his nostrils at the impact, choking him, as the mattress collapsed in a puff of old fibers and dead beetles. The silken canopy tore and draped over him like a net, and even the wooden frame collapsed beneath his weight. As the dust began to clear, Diederic found himself prone on the floor beneath the boarded window, limbs entangled in bits of sheet and canopy, the sagging mattress blocking his view of the room.
From out in the hall, a single footstep echoed.
The floor shook, wood dust sifted from the window, and one of the stuffed animals toppled from its shelf to land on Diederic's stomach. It might once have been a bear, but entire portions of its face had been eaten away, revealing yellowed stuffing that swarmed with mites. A single button eye stared accusingly at him, as a millipede scrambled for shelter in the hole where the other had once rested.
A second step. Diederic thrashed about him, trying to tear free of the entangling fabrics, but it seemed they had a mind of their own. Tangles worked themselves into knots; threads clung with the tenacity of twine.
A third step. The room grew shadowed as something loomed heavy in the doorway, blocking the light from the hall. Diederic could hear the jagged rasp of something sickly, breathing… breathing….
Frantic now, his vision blurred by sweat, Diederic began sawing at the entangling fabrics with his dagger. They parted easily, but always there seemed to be just one more. The wooden frame protested loudly, the mattress sagged further, as something slowly crawled its way, inch by inch, across the shattered bed. As he struggled to win free, Diederic saw the mattress fold at the edge, saw the shape of a single hand pulling itself forward….
With the suddenness of a striking viper, she appeared above him, leaning awkwardly over the broken bed. The skin of her face was wrinkled, withered—older than any mortal had right to be, older than age itself. Her mouth stretched wide in a manic grin, leaking a foul yellow drool and revealing teeth broken and serrated, more animal than man. Diederic's eyes watered at her breath, which smelled of mulch and bile. The growth that dangled from her head, casting her face in shadow, was no hair, but a heavy moss—the moss that grows upon the sides of dead things. The nails of her hands were jagged wood, and her eyes were shot through not with blood, but the green veins of the darkest leaf.
It wasn't real…. He recognized Leona's features, twisted and distended beyond even his prior visions, beyond anything remotely human. It wasn't real…. Diederic forced his eyelids, craving desperately to squeeze closed, to remain open and staring, waiting for her face to revert to normal as it had done last time. It wasn't real….
Cackling, the hag that had once been his trusted friend lunged forward with her left arm, her right clinging to the decaying mattress. Claws of wood raked the skin of Diederic's cheek, leaving an array of splinters deep behind them. Battle-honed reflexes twisted his head away at the last instant, so that she merely tore a few inches of flesh, rather than ripping the face from his skull. The desperate maneuver slammed his head solidly into the wall behind, and for an instant the hideous creature before him was replaced by little more than flashing colors.
"Leona?" He barely forced the words past the pounding in his skull, didn't even know if this was really whom he thought it was. "Leona, why?"
Slashing blindly with his dagger, hoping to keep the hag away for a few precious instants, Diederic pushed hard against the wall, struggling to stand. A few bits of the cloth clung to him, but not enough any longer to hold him fast. His shoulder cried out in agony as a claw struck with bone-jarring force, not quite enough to penetrate his mail but sufficient to pin him where he stood. His vision cleared, bit by bit, just in time to show him the hag's broken, gaping maw lunging at his throat.
Wielding the torch like a club—and God be praised, how had he managed to hold to it all this time?—he struck at her face. Teeth cracked and came loose beneath the impact of the wood, and the creature loosed an angry howl. With his other hand, Diederic stabbed furiously at the arm that held him.
Skin parted like old parchment, but no blood poured forth. There was nothing… nothing in the wound but sawdust. Her mouth gaped open, and again Diederic heard that manic cackle, but it seemed somehow to come from behind the creature—from beyond, not from within.
Whether she was a willing participant in his betrayal or another innocent victim seemed no longer to matter. Whatever Leona Talliers had been, she was no longer. She had become something Other, something driven by some demon of the wood, or perhaps the same fey spirits Diederic had encountered before. What remained of her humanity was a shell at best, a vessel for things ancient and inhuman.
Diederic's thoughts scattered as a vicious backhand caught him across the face. Agony stabbed through his eye to the other side of his head, and he felt the cheekbone bruise, perhaps even crack. The impact knocked him clear across the room, slamming him hard into the chest of toys. Wood splintered beneath him, a few long shards stabbing through the links of his hauberk, and he found himself covered in broken dolls and bits of miniature castle. There was no sign of either his torch or his dagger, nor sufficient time to dig for them.
From her position lying across the bed, the thing that had been his friend somehow tensed and leaped, clearing the entire room in less than a heartbeat, to stand on bent and rickety legs before the sprawling knight. She struck downward, fingers bent into talons, even as he lunged to his feet, arms crossed above his head to absorb the blow. The impact drove him back to his knees, sending waves of pain coursing up both arms and fire through his infected wrist. Groaning with the exertion, he twisted his upper body as he stood, driving the claws off to one side.
He knew the backhand was coming again, as it had before. He knew as well that he could not likely avoid it—but then, he hadn't planned to. Once more bracing his arms, he tensed for the impact to come.
His arms and ribs very nearly broke under the force of the blow, and again Diederic was hurled from his feet and across the room, back the way he had come. His plan, such as it was, had been to scamper to his feet, hopefully before the creature reached him again, and burst through the planks that boarded the window, taking the struggle outside.
What luck, then, he had the wherewithal to think dryly to himself as he plummeted earthward, that the hag's blow had actually sent him straight through those flimsy boards. He bounced once off the roof of the second story, and landed with a bone-jarring thump in the heavy mud.
Long he lay there, bits of wood and shingle raining around him, trying desperately to draw breath into his bruised and battered lungs. The stabbing pain in his side implied a broken rib, and the agony that shot through his leg suggested an ankle barely spared the same fate. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, and he could only hope it came from a bit lip or tongue and not some deeper organ.
If she would only give him a few moments to recover….
No. Even as he watched, the creature that once answered to Leona-Talliers hauled herself out the window, arms and head first. Bent backwards, her back to the wall, she clung to the house by her hands and feet like some obscene spider, scuttling downward in defiance of all the laws of God. Her head hung upside down, her teeth gnashed, and spittle dripped from blubbering lips to flow past her eyes and into her mossy hair.
Ignoring the pain, the grinding in his chest with every breath, Diederic hauled himself to his feet and stumbled toward the fence. So unsteady was he that he didn't so much hurdle the wooden rail as fall over it, crying out as the impact drove nails of agony through his cracked rib. He gave thanks that at least the mystical wards which had prevented him from finding his way through the orchard did not seem to function in the other direction.
A single glance, cast under the lowest rail of the fence, showed the hag already skittering from the wall onto the grass. From her upside-down crawl she rose fluidly to a standing position and dashed for the fence with the speed of a hunting wolf.
Diederic staggered ahead, crawling every few steps when he toppled from his run. It wasn't far, but he was so slow, so unsteady, and the hag was so unbelievably fast.
Please, God, hold her off just a moment more….
He stumbled once more, caught himself against the bole of a tree, and tried to get his bearings.
The circle! He coughed twice, his entire body wracked, as he glanced wildly around. Where the Hell was the circle!
It was, if he understood such things properly, designed to keep demons and spirits in. Just maybe it would be enough to keep the thing inside Leona out.
Another staggered step, another tree, and there it was….
But it was not empty.
Crouched in the dirt, her skirt and hands and even the ends of her hair covered in muddy soil, Silma Reveaux glared at Diederic through eyes that glowed with rage and hate. In the same voice that had cackled from Leona's throat, she shrieked her fury to the trees and the winds, and pointed toward Diederic with a yellowed nail atop a palsied finger. In her other hand, she clutched a bundle of twigs, tied with twine into something that only narrowly resembled a human form. It boasted a tiny lock of red-brown hair atop its rudimentary head, and Diederic thought he could just make out runes much like those carved into the roots of the circle itself.
The knight's own howl of rage cut through his agony, his exhaustion. Wincing against the pain in his chest, forcing himself to stand upright, he lunged even as the Leona-thing came hurtling through the trees, flashing across the intervening space like a javelin. It gibbered as it came, some horrid combination of cackle and wracking cough.
Diederic crossed the circle inches before the creature's talons closed upon his cloak. He felt the old woman's feeble bones break under his weight as he struck her, heard her gasp of agony, and rejoiced in her pain with every sound Leona made. He ripped the woman from the protective circle and hurled her at the hag's feet. Stepping to the side where the wooden figurine had fallen, he crushed it beneath a heavy heel.
The hag froze, its entire body trembling, as it stared at the moaning crone prostrate before it. The wind stirred, blowing through the orchard as though the trees were no impediment at all. Around and around it blew, collecting the leaves and the dirt and even the insects like a curious child. The fog swirled with it, mixing the lot into a heavy stew, until sight was but a memory of happier times. Buried beneath the wind, something howled—something that should never have had a voice of its own.
And then it stopped. The detritus fell to earth like a brief wooden rain. Leona stood for just a moment, and indeed she was Leona again. Her mouth and her arm began to bleed, her eyes to blink. She sobbed once before she collapsed to the wet soil, her eyes rolling heavenward.
Sprawled beside her, the thing that had been Silma Reveaux struggled to rise under the power of whatever spirit had driven the hag. Its mossy hair hung in gnarled curls, its talons clutched spasmodically at the earth, and it chortled at the inner screams of the woman who had yanked it from the world and bound it to another's mortal flesh. But this body was old, and broken, and the thing inside needed time to knit it whole once more.
Time that Diederic intended it would never have.
"I know not what you bargained with, old fool," Diederic muttered at Silma, casting his eyes about him until he found a sturdy branch. He knelt beside it, wrapped the end in a bit of cloth he tore from the hem of his cloak. "But I hope it was worth it!"
Two strikes of his flint and steel, and the rag-wrapped branch ignited. For long moments Diederic held it aloft, ensuring the wood had well and thoroughly caught, ignoring the high moaning beneath him.
"You're tough as Saracen scale, and you may not bleed," he said gruffly to the hag, "but I'll wager you can still burn."
A pair of figures crashed through the orchard, both gasping audibly for breath. Diederic held the burning branch before him like a club, relaxing only slightly when he recognized them as Theoric and Father Cerran.
"Please, stop," Theoric begged as they drew near. "This isn't necessary."
"With all respect, old man, you haven't the slightest idea of what you speak. This is not the lady Reveaux, not any longer. This—"
"It is, actually," the elder told him. "She's just not… alone." As Diederic's gaze narrowed, he continued hurriedly, "We can place her in the circle, Sir Knight, and confine her there until Father Cerran can exorcise the demon riding her. There's no cause to kill her."
"Hogwash, Theoric. She called this thing deliberately, probably when her first assassin failed to kill me in the fog. She stuck it inside Leona; it wore her, like a suit of armor!" He pointed angrily at the circle. "But then, you know all about this, don't you, Theoric? Or am I mistaken in assuming that you're also a scion of one of Birne's precious founding families?"
The old man cast his eyes earthward. "Diederic, please. Step aside with me, and let Father Cerran do his work. Silma's not an evil woman. She was simply blinded by rage and grief at the death of her son. Can you truly blame her? Have you not felt the need for revenge burn in your own gut?"
The knight grumbled something inaudible.
"I will allow Cerran to try, on two conditions, Theoric."
"First, he tends to Leona's wounds."
"Second, I want the truth of what's happening here. All of it. If I suspect for one instant that you've lied to me, or omitted anything, neither Silma nor you will leave this orchard."
The elder looked up at Diederic's face and shuddered. For all the knight's injuries, his obvious exhaustion, the fact that he was armed with naught but a flaming branch, Theoric had no doubt that he meant exactly what he said.
Leaving the puzzled priest to drag the moaning creature into the summoning circle, they moved deeper into the orchard.
"I've been seeing things, Theoric," Diederic began before they'd even come to a stop. "Horrific, nightmarish things. Will that stop once Cerran's exorcism is complete?"
"I—honestly, Sir Knight, I cannot say for certain, though I believe so. She set woods demons and fey spirits against you, and they do not dwell entirely in our world. Folklore suggests that, when the spirit world peers at certain people, those people see glimpses of that world in their turn. Perhaps you are one of those."
"Perhaps." Realizing that Theoric would keep walking if allowed, Diederic halted, grabbing the old man's shoulder to force the same.
The old man sighed. "You have traveled through the Cineris, Sir Knight. I understand you faced some difficulty in doing so."
"You might say so."
"When Birne was founded, the Fair Folk were wilder still, and the demons of the wood ran rampant. The soil was rich, the wood solid, the animals healthy, but there could be no town here. Not without tribute."
Diederic nodded as it all fell into place. "The founding families of Birne… you're witches. You have been for every generation since… offering and sacrificing to your fey and your demons, so the town might remain prosperous."
Theoric nodded. "And prosper we did, far more so than any other village within a week's travel!"
"And if the occasional innocent had to lose his life…. Well, that's just the price to be paid, is that it?"
The old man's eyes welled up. "We're not evil folk here, Diederic. Most of Birne's families do not even know this. We've kept it secret, within the founding families, all this time.
"You must understand: a simple tribute of food or drink, perhaps a bit of incense, or at worst a goat or a calf, was normally sufficient. Only at our highest festivals was human sacrifice demanded. And always, where possible, we chose those who deserved it: merchants who tried to cheat us, or travelers who mistreated our daughters. All the favors granted us by the old powers, we used them purely for the benefit of the town. Healthy crops, abundant food… we were never selfish with them, never!"
"Yes," Diederic scoffed, "Silma was quite the altruist."
"Sir Knight, some months back, the favor of the Fair Folk faded. Cattle and crops sickened; children were stillborn or died in their cribs. We performed all the rites and rituals, but it wasn't enough. We came to learn…"
Theoric cleared his throat. "We came to learn that only human sacrifice restored their favors, and only for brief periods. We did all we could to keep our neighbors out of it. We even risked poisoning a patrol of Redbreasts when last they came through! But it was never enough. I do not know if the spirits are angry with us and withholding their grace, or if something is interfering with their own powers, but in the end, it makes no difference. We must sacrifice, and we must keep sacrificing, lest we lose everything we have!"
The old man was crying openly now. "I would not have chosen her. I swear I would not have! But the townsfolk saw our luck changing for the worse, and they needed someone to blame. I could not tell them the truth—that it was not witchcraft, but the failure of witchcraft, that was at fault—so when they selected Marta, I had little choice but to go along with it. At least… at least she'll buy us time before we have to find another sacrifice."
Diederic reached out and snagged the old man's tunic. "You're going to come with me," he rumbled, "and you're going to explain this—all of it—to Leona."
Theoric's eyes locked with the knight's own. "I'll not have to, Sir Diederic. Leona already knows.
"The Talliers were one of Birne's founding families as well."
"You told me you were no witch!" His fists were clenched, his face a deep red, his voice loud enough to shame Gabriel's own trumpet. "You swore to me!"
"I'm not!" Leona's eyes were unfocused, her head throbbing. She had awakened in her cousin's home, only to find the thing standing above her as frightening as what had stood within her. She fell back before him, stumbling over a chair in the center of the room. "Diederic, I'm not a witch! I just…"
"You never asked if I knew anyone who was," she said in a small voice, her eyes downcast.
It took every bit of restraint he had not to strike her. Instead, one of the window shutters exploded outward—the recipient of his rage. His hand ached, but what was one more pain?
"You lied to me, woman! You told me none of this!"
"I thought you'd refuse to help!" She reached out for him, but met nothing but empty air as he stepped away. "Diederic, I thought if you knew witchcraft was practiced here, and to what extent, you'd see no reason to believe my cousin innocent of it!"
Snarling, the knight stalked about the room, gathering his possessions. Bereft of any additional weaponry, he even snatched up the Redbreast's dagger Leona had been wielding. "Diederic, please! We need you! They're still going to burn her!"
"You might have thought of that before you manipulated me." He began shoving supplies, a blanket, and an extra tunic into his pack.
"You still need my help!" Leona hissed at him. "You think you know how to deal with witchcraft because you defeated one grieving old woman? She'll turn to others for help, for revenge—others far beyond the power of anyone who dwells in Birne!"
Diederic only grunted.
"Reveaux cannot follow you from here, Diederic, but the reach of the Laginate Cabal is long, as long as the Inquisition's own! You cannot—"
Her words ended in a startled squeak as Diederic abruptly stood before her, his face bare inches from her own, his hands clenched painfully on her shoulders. "What did you call them!"
"I—who? I don't—"
"The cabal! What did you call them!"
"The La—Laginate Cabal! They're the eldest tradition of witches in Malosia! It was from them my ancestors learned to appease the demons and the Fair Folk!"
"I don't know! I swear I don't! Folklore says that the coven practices near Caercaelum, laughing at how near they are to the Inquisition. But I know nothing more!"
Diederic shoved Leona back with a snarl, already turning away before she stumbled over the chair to land painfully on her backside. Ignoring the ache of his ribs, his wrist, he hefted the bag of supplies over his shoulder and stuck the dagger in his belt.
The Laginate Cabal. It could be no coincidence. Diederic did not know precisely what their connection with the Grimoire might be, but one thing he knew for certain: if Lambrecht was indeed in Malosia, he would learn of the Cabal. And he would seek them out, if he had not done so already.
If he had found them, Diederic would find some means to track him, though it might take a hundred years. And if he had not, then Diederic would wait for him, to give him a proper and long-delayed greeting.
Leona's cries for pity, for mercy—for the sake of her cousin if not for herself—fell to the heedless mud as Diederic set foot upon the main road, determined to leave Birne far behind.
Next Week: Chapter Eleven...
He fell forever, and forever, until he seemed no longer to fall at all, but simply to float in an eternal emptiness. All around was white, an ever-shifting mist, with no sky above him, no earth below.