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.
"M'lord, with the utmost respect, is it entirely necessary to keep him here?"
Under other circumstances, Captain Wulfaer would never have spoken thus to the man who strode two paces before and beside him. In fact, in all the years he had served, the entirety of his words to this man had amounted to little more than multiple repetitions of—and variations on—"Yes, my lord!"
But these were as far from normal circumstances as Wulfaer had ever seen, and his need to defend the man who had saved his life, and his troops, had emboldened him.
He could have been anyone's favorite old uncle, the man to whom he spoke. His hair and beard were the white of the dandelion, and would have sprouted as wildly without the utmost care to brush, comb, and tie them down into some measure of dignity. His eyes were bright, despite his age, his round cheeks red beneath the beard. He boasted that precise level of rotundity that marked the demarcation between plump and obese, and his smile was both friendly and frequent.
An all-purpose smile, that. One that had shined over the delight of his own grandchildren, as they received their gifts on Scions Mass Eve, and gleamed with equal fervor and satisfaction over the slow and deliberate breaking of a heretic's bones and the roasting of his flesh in search of a confession. For this affable old fellow, clad in simple robes of black, was Oste van Brekke, First Confessor of the Empyrean Inquisition, and arguably the most powerful man in the Church's service, second only to Pontiff Cornelis the First himself.
And First Confessor van Brekke was not smiling now.
Wulfaer swallowed nervously as his highest superior drew to a halt, allowing his footsteps to fade away down the stone corridor, as though they ran ahead to announce their coming. The First Confessor crossed his arms before him, his hands hidden in his voluminous sleeves, but did not turn.
"Captain," he said, and his voice was calm, collected, even gentle, "putting aside for the nonce his heretical claims of priesthood in a Church unknown to us, the man is a witch."
"I don't believe he is, m'lord."
"Yes, so you've said." Van Brekke finally turned, and Wulfaer swallowed once more. Was he actually arguing with the First Confessor? "Yet you cannot explain the abilities, the magic, he displayed."
"No, m'lord. But he did save my life, and the lives of most of my men. And if he were indeed a witch, surely he could have made some effort to escape capture. He did not. He volunteered to come with us."
"Again, so you've said." Van Brekke placed a fatherly, comforting hand upon Wulfaer's shoulder. "And I've not been deaf to your words, Captain. Your report is why the fellow… I'm sorry, his name once more?"
"Right, then. Why Lambrecht is merely confined, and has not been handed over to the Truth Seekers for confession."
"Thank you for that, m'lord."
"If he can indeed convince me that his abilities stem from some source other than the dark arts, that he can be of use to our cause, I'll happily release him, take him in, introduce him personally to the pontiff. But," he added, allowing his hand to drop, "honesty compels me, Captain, to confide in you that I think it unlikely. I believe that what we have here is just another witch who hoped that using his sorceries on your behalf might purchase him some leeway. And I fear—grateful as I am that you and most of your soldiers are alive—that it shall not."
Wulfaer frowned, but "Yes, m'lord," was again the only safe response.
They proceeded, a quartet of pikemen accompanying them some paces behind, along stone walkways. Rather fancifully dubbed the Citadel of Truth (the peasantry were so easily awed by such titles), the ornate keep stood in the shadow of the Empyrean Basilica in the heart of Caercaelum. It was taller than the Basilica itself, but a far smaller structure overall. In truth, it was not even all that impressive a fortress: narrow and old, and not so formidable as many of the Inquisition's other strongholds. Nevertheless, the Citadel was the heart of the Church's sword and shield, the Empyrean Inquisition.
In a way, even being imprisoned here was an honor, for this dungeon was home only to those suspects in whom the First Confessor, or other luminaries of the Church, had taken a personal interest.
The stairs at the hall's terminus spiraled down, and down, and down. Ultimately, it was a trick of architecture and geography. Those who walked the stairway might feel they had progressed deep underground, especially if they were familiar with other prisons such as Perdition Hill. In truth, they were barely ten feet beneath the earth, having simply progressed from one level of the Citadel to another farther down the slope of Scions Mount.
They heard running footsteps before they'd reached the bottom. One of the turnkeys met them at the base of the stairs, breathless, bowing low to van Brekke. The First Confessor smiled kindly at him. "Rise, son, and catch your wind." The guarded nodded once in thanks and panted for a long moment.
Then, "Your Eminence, I'm so grateful you've arrived. We have a…" He stopped, shaking his head.
"A what, son?"
"I'm uncertain, my Lord. It—I suppose it's a problem, but I don't truly—"
"Involving the new prisoner?" The question was out before Wulfaer could stop it. He blushed and stepped back, lowering his head in apology, but van Brekke merely cast him a brief reproachful glance.
"Aye," the guard admitted. "With him. Ah, sort of."
"Show me," van Brekke ordered, suddenly not so genial, not so kind.
Another stone hall, echoing, windowless, contributing to the Citadel's illusions—perhaps delusions?—of infinity. They proceeded swiftly: not at a run, but a swift and decisive walk that allowed for greater dignity. At the end stood a solid door, oak and iron. The guard had the heavy key in hand before they reached it. Avuncular and affable the First Confessor might seem, but the turnkey sensed well enough that it would be poor judgment to keep him waiting.
A heavy clang, uttered in the deep voice of iron, announced the opening of the lock. The door swung aside with surprising ease, on well-greased hinges. Beyond it, another trio of guards, standing motionless at their posts, stared ahead emotionlessly, professionally, yet they could not prevent a narrowing of their eyes, a subtle wincing at the sounds from beyond.
And what sounds! From the communal cells came a commotion the likes of which neither Wulfaer nor even van Brekke had ever heard. A dozen voices raised in cacophony, with nary a single spoken word. Giggles and cackles, whimpers and sobs, formed the several notes of a discordant chorus whose song was desperation.
"Open it," van Brekke ordered, his jaw clenched beneath his dandelion beard.
The turnkey raised his jingling ring, then hesitated, even in the face of the First Confessor's order. "My Lord, are you certain? I—"
"Open it. Now!"
A thud of the lock, a creak of the hinge, and it was done. The acrid stench of sweat and the sour miasma of urine tickled their nostrils. The cries and calls assailed their ears. Within the cell, men and women huddled in corners, their heads buried in their hands as they cried, or scratched madly at the unforgiving walls, mindlessly struggling to dig through solid rock. A few lay on the straw atop the floor, barely able to breathe through peals of endless laughter, and one woman… oh, God and Scions! One woman, shrieking wordlessly against some unseen horror, clawed frantically at her ruined, useless eyes with nails bitten into jagged weapons.
And in the center of it all, the eye of the whirlwind, Lambrecht Raes sat, his legs crossed and his eyelids shut in peaceful meditation, unheeding of the chaos around him.
"I believe you should find," he said without looking up, "that these heretics are ready to confess."
Indeed, even as he spoke, the nearest of the sobbing prisoners hurled himself at van Brekke's feet, begging to confess his sins, to name each and every participant in his pagan rituals, if only the Inquisitors would take the visions away! Another after him, and another, and yet more. Some failed to wait even for permission, but began reciting a litany of transgressions: many relatively innocent, mere crimes of greed and lust; others far more severe, the calling down of curses upon a rival, or the sacrifice of beasts to the demons of the fields, in hopes of a healthier crop. A living carpet of men and women spread itself before van Brekke, pleading for mercy, or for whatever punishments the Inquisition chose to levy upon them.
More confessions, in an instant, than the most skilled and experienced Truth Seeker could have extracted in weeks.
Oste van Brekke looked upon the heathen priest who sat unmoving within the cell, and he felt his breath quicken in fear.
"Get them out of here," he ordered, clearing his throat to hide the hoarse tremor in his voice. "All of them!"
Pale-faced guards reached past with trembling hands to lift the prisoners from the floor. Some they scattered to other cells, some to the confessional chambers where scribes awaited day and night to record the details of any admission, a few to the infirmary where Church surgeons would tend to what wounds they could. In moments, none remained, save Lambrecht sitting amid the straw, and Wulfaer and van Brekke framed in the open door.
"Do you still defend this man?" the First Confessor demanded under his breath. The captain, his face as pallid as any of the guards', could scarcely work his jaw; no sound emerged.
"Do you see, your Eminence?" Lambrecht asked, finally opening his eyes. "I do not offer you merely the means to confront witchcraft, but to ensure its just and proper punishment."
Van Brekke's boots crunched through the straw until he stood directly before the prisoner, looming above him. "You may believe that you are aiding your cause here, Lambrecht," he boomed, "but you are not. You have only further convinced me of your guilt. What you've done here is unnatural, unholy, and I'll have none of it ‘aiding' my Church!"
"Ah, but that's not truly your decision, is it?" Lambrecht craned his neck so he might meet van Brekke's eyes. "You certainly do not look like the pontiff about whom I've heard."
"I am not. I have, however, more than enough authority to deal with the likes of you!" Van Brekke raised an arm to summon the guards back to him—and stopped, hesitating, at the widening of Lambrecht's smile.
"Your Truth Seekers, your Inquisition, your confessions…. They're all about the senses, your Eminence. What a man sees, hears, feels—that to him is real. Let him see, hear, and feel what others do not, and we call that madness.
"Let me show you, your Eminence, what is real."
Van Brekke heard the ringing of church bells in the distance, though the sound could not possibly have penetrated the stone of the Citadel and the earth of Scions Mount. They pealed loudly in his ears, tolled in the depths of his soul, slowly, deeply, one by one.
Clang…. Clang…. Clang….
And in the harsh reverberations of the bells came other sounds, other voices. The echos of the bell became the choking gurgles of a young mother dragged by her ankles behind a moving coach. The stones of the road ate away at the flesh of her face and bosom, as they had already stolen away the life that had grown beneath her swollen abdomen….
Clang…. Clang…. Clang….
They were the crashes and the clatters of the instruments of confession; the clicking of the wheel and the groaning of the rope pulled taught; the sizzling of the hot irons, pressed to white and vulnerable flesh; the sloshing of the water as someone thrashed beneath the surface. And God, he was inflicting each and every torture, by his own hand, and he was suffering each and every torture, inflicted by a figure so familiar he could almost recognize it….
Clang…. Clang…. Clang….
They were the hoofbeats of a column of horses—a battalion, a legion of horses—on which rode countless soldiers in the crimson of the Inquisition. They surged like the tide, their numbers endless; the power of their faith sustained them, made them as certain of their victory as they were of the coming dawn. And one by one, they dashed themselves, broken and bloody, against a wall of standing corpses, lurking wolves, prancing devils, and ancient oaks. The vast armies of the Inquisition, and indeed the Empyrean Church entire flung themselves against the plague of witches that festered in Malosia's heart. The fields ran red with shed blood, and as that blood sank deep into the thirsty ground, from the soil grew a hedge of thorns, brown, twisted, and poisonous. Higher it grew, and higher still, until no trace of the surviving soldiers could be seen from any view….
Oste van Brekke awoke with a prolonged scream. No more the jolly uncle, nor even the imposing First Confessor, but simply an old man subject to the worst, most nightmarish visions his mind could conjure. He sat, the blood and the pain and the horror fresh in his memory, and he covered his eyes with his hands so that none would see his tears.
Beside him, Captain Wulfaer also awoke from his own tortured visions, shaking and sick. In the hall beyond, other guards picked themselves up off the floor.
And before them all stood Lambrecht, leaning heavily upon a pike.
"My apologies, your Eminence, Captain… all of you. I know that was not pleasant.
"But you had to see; you had to understand the madness that threatens your nation and your Church. And you had to understand the madness that you inflict upon yourselves, in your refusal to at least consider the tools I bring you to fight a foe against whom you cannot now stand."
He looked pointedly at the weapon he held, ran his hand down the haft. "If I were your enemy, your Eminence, you would be dead now, and I on my way to freedom." He flipped the pike over, held it haft first toward the nearest guard. "But I am not.
"I can draw out your confessions, your Eminence. I can stand with your soldiers, and shield them from the sorceries of the witches and the demon-worshippers. I can instruct your own priests in doing the same. I can save your Church.
"But only if you permit me to do so."
Lambrecht bent low, extending a hand to aid van Brekke to his feet. "Take me to see your pontiff, your Eminence. Let him decide if my fate is to fight beside you, or to die in your prisons and take your last hope into the grave with me."
Lambrecht ran a tentative finger over the smooth and ornate wood backing of the velvet-lined chair, chuckled softly at its feel. It sat before a heavy desk of equal opulence; both rested on a lush red carpet. The sixfold sun beamed down on him from the wall above in brass effigy. A shelf across the chamber boasted not only multiple copies of the Septateuch, but apocrypha, histories of Malosia both religious and secular, and even the infamous Spears of the Righteous—the Inquisition's predominant handbook on the uncovering and slaying of witches and necromancers.
His books, on his shelf, beside his desk, in his office.
Cornelis the First, pontiff of the Empyrean Church, had proved even less of an obstacle than Lambrecht had anticipated. True, it had seemed for a few moments that he would not be permitted to see the old man. Even after his demonstration, van Brekke had appeared ready to refuse his requests, to hurl him into the deepest dungeon and leave him to rot… or to die, or perhaps be driven mad by the solitude. Yet his abilities could hardly be questioned, and his intentions were—through both the saving of Wulfaer's life and his failure to escape while the First Confessor lay writhing—certainly made to look benevolent enough. Offered as it was before the eyes and ears of Wulfaer, who knew the dangers faced by the Church in her war against black magics, his request to meet with the pontiff could hardly have been rebuffed.
And so, accompanied by a dozen guards, two priests, and First Confessor van Brekke himself, Lambrecht had been escorted into the august presence of Pontiff Cornelis: an old man, grown thin on a steady diet of faith and crises thereof, utterly terrified of his inability to stem the growing plague of witchery that threatened his people's lives and souls and the very underpinnings of the Church itself.
Lambrecht had required only a few moments to convince Cornelis of the rightness of his cause, that his "charms of faith" were not witchcraft, and that he, and other priests, whom he would instruct, were the Church's best weapons against the witches.
It was his final argument that had truly set the pontiff's fears to rest. "My students shall be few," he had assured the old man, "each willing to risk not merely life but his eternal soul for the benefit of the Church. Even were my methods and my charms profane, we go into battle wielding them with that knowledge firmly in mind. With your blessing and your grace to oversee our confessions, we rest easy in the eternal forgiveness of God and Jesu—that is, God and His Scions. And thus, you may rest assured that your struggle against the witches cannot taint your sacred Church, for even were there damage to be done, it would be confined to only a rare and willing few."
Van Brekke had argued vehemently against it, but once the pontiff saw before him a means of battling back the growing tide of darkness, he could not merely cast it aside—as Lambrecht had known he would not. Thus did Lambrecht, in one day, find himself elevated from a prisoner of the Inquisition to an advisor to Cornelis the First, complete with his own quarters and office in the Empyrean Basilica itself.
It was enough to throw even the driven and determined priest into a few moments of confused disbelief. So long had he sought his way to the heart of power, where he might use his superior knowledge for the true benefit of the Church, he was momentarily unsure of what to do now that he had it.
But then, this was not really his Church, was it? Let him stumble a time or two. It would simply teach him what mistakes to avoid when he found his way home and achieved a comparable position there. In the interim, he had the ear of the most powerful man in Malosia, and if he held no official rank of his own, well, that too could change in time.
And so, at first, he spent his days with written reports of all the Church's priests—experienced and newly anointed, young and old. From them he would select those few to whom he would teach the basics of the Grimoire, just enough that they might stand against other sorcerers, never so much that they might challenge Lambrecht himself. He must be careful indeed, feed them their knowledge slowly, in measured doses. By the time they learned that he had lied to van Brekke and Cornelis both, that the incantations of the Laginate Grimoire did indeed call upon spirits and demons and powers beyond the oversight of Heaven, they must already have come around to Lambrecht's own way of thinking: that the source of one's power was irrelevant, and that it was the use to which one put it that rendered it sacred or profane.
Slowly, as the cold winter crawled across Malosia, Lambrecht's duties grew more structured, more formal. Some days were devoted to instructing those few students he found worthy; others to assisting the Truth Seekers in extracting confessions from heathens and heretics. Others still were devoted to reporting his progress to Cornelis, and advising him on the efforts to come. On occasion, a week or three was spent in travel with Captain Wulfaer or other Inquisitors, discovering witches and sorcerers in the communities of Malosia and uprooting them.
At first he carried the Grimoire with him on such expeditions, hidden on his person by means both mystical and mundane, that he might draw upon the incantations within its pages to counter the witcheries of his foes. But as he progressed in his understanding of its dark contents, he found the need to keep it near dramatically lessened. So long as he made a regular study of it, burning into his mind the ancient Greek and symbols older still, he found even the most elaborate incantations as easy to recall as the simplest catechism, and the names of the entities on which they called as familiar to him as his own.
Now, as the icy grip of winter finally began to relax, he found himself ensconced in that velvet-lined chair. A sheaf of parchments lay fanned out upon the desk before him, another page clutched in his fist. But his eyes stared over them, not at them, lost in contemplation. n his past two or three excursions, against some of the most potent witches to date, he had felt a chill of recognition flood through him as he countered their curses with his own protective charms. The magics they wielded, the spirits that flew invisibly to do their bidding—they all felt familiar, oh so familiar. Lambrecht would have to visit long with the Inquisition's most recent captives, no matter van Brekke's objections to his prolonged presence. He must know why their sorceries felt so akin to his own! He must—
The clatter at his door yanked him from his reverie. Scowling, he smoothed out the sheet he had crumpled in his fist, and called for the unseen visitor to enter.
"I pray you pardon the interruption, Father, but I bring news."
Father. Cornelis had, at the very least, legitimized Lambrecht's claim to priesthood when he declared him an advisor—another decision to which van Brekke had violently objected, and another grudge against the First Confessor that Lambrecht would one day call due.
Lambrecht nodded at the young page. "By all means, child. What have you to report?"
"All officers of the Inquisition, and of the Church, are being informed, Father. There has been an escape."
"Three prisoners, Father. Somehow, Scions only know how, they managed to extricate themselves from Perdition Hill. At last report, our soldiers were pursuing them into the Forest of Cineris."
"I see." Lambrecht frowned. "I am somewhat new here, child, but I was under the impression that nobody ever escaped an Inquisition prison, let alone one such as Perdition Hill."
"That is so, Father. It has been years since we've had an escape, and never before from the Hill."
"Tell me of the fugitives." Lambrecht nodded at the names and descriptions as they were spoken, his mind already moving on to other matters. A Vistani charlatan, a backwoods yokel…. He'd be interested in learning how they managed their escape, but it hardly seemed….
"What do you mean, the last has no name?"
The page could only shrug helplessly. "No name I am aware of, Father. Even the messenger only called him the stranger. It seems that he scarcely spoke a word to any until shortly before the escape, and most of what he said was nonsense."
"But surely the soldiers who captured him know something of who he is, from whence he came?"
"Hardly, Father. They say he emerged from nowhere in a vulgar display of sorcery. One moment, nobody; the next, he literally appeared from the mists, right in the midst of a division of troops."
"From the mists?" Lambrecht felt his breath quicken, his heart pound hard in his chest. "When did this happen?"
"In the first days of winter, Father."
The young page could only take a step back from the desk in fearful confusion as the mysterious priest rose to his feet, and then slowly began to laugh as though he would never stop.
Next Week: Chapter Fourteen...
The noise of the common room was not actually deafening. Not really.
But magnified through the lens of Diederic's growing impatience and clinging frustration, the clattering of dishes, the clinking of mugs, the stomping of feet, the incessant buzz of conversation punctuated by the sharp braying of drunken laughter, all intertwined to form an inharmonious din of maddening proportions. And so he hunched over an isolated table, the smell of sodden sawdust clogging his nose. He nursed the finest ale his meager pouch could afford—coincidentally, also the cheapest swill the establishment had to offer—and gritted his teeth against the urge to rise up and strike down everyone around him until the afternoon de-scended into blessed silence.