Fiction Archive | 5/15/2009
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Black Crusade: Chapter 17
By Ari Marmell

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!

Author’s Note

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.

Chapter Seventeen

Instantly, they were surrounded. Redbreasts with pikes, with swords, with bows, emerged from every corner of the spacious cellar. Two carried lanterns. The flickering light, glinting from their polished armor and crimson tabards, suggested a constantly shifting patina of blood.

Behind the rows of soldiers, a second set of stairs led upward, presumably into whichever of the nearby homes this cellar truly belonged. Diederic eyed the Redbreasts and the distance to the door. If he and Violca tried to retreat the way they had come, the pikemen would cut them down, or the archers perforate them before they'd gone halfway. If they could break through, however, take the stairs just beyond the archers, they might avoid the clearest lines of attack….

With the heavy tread of booted feet upon those distant stairs, Diederic's half-formed plan shifted from foolhardy to suicidal. Defeated for the nonce, he let his shoulders sag and stood motionless, awaiting the appearance of this newcomer.

He was a large man, in all senses of the word. He wore a heavy hauberk, custom-suited to his substantial girth, over which he sported a black tabard, trimmed in crimson and boasting the ensign of the sixfold sun in richly embroidered gold. As he reached the base of the stairs, Tobar darted by the prisoners to stand at his side.

"Here they are, your worship," Tobar simpered, "just as I promised. I told you that you needn't send out so many to search for them, that it would be I to find them, did I not?" "You did." Even from afar, Diederic and Violca heard the tone of revulsion in his words. With a twitch of his fingers, he called over one of the guards, who dropped a small leather pouch into Tobar's waiting palm. It clinked loudly as it landed.

"Stay a bit, Tobar," the man ordered. "I may have further use for you.

"My name," he announced, raising his voice until it seemed to force the air from the cellar, "is Oste van Brekke, First Confessor of the Empyrean Inquisition, Right Hand of his Eminence the Pontiff Cornelis Antheunis the First, Defender of Malosia's Faith.

"And you," he continued without so much as a pause to think about it, "would be Violca Hanza and ‘Sir' Diederic de Wyndt."

Diederic caught himself just before he glanced worriedly at his companion. If nothing else, he would deny this man the satisfaction of seeing him surprised.

Instead, he asked, "And what would a fellow of such impressive stature want with us?" Van Brekke scowled beneath his beard. "The Vistani woman claims unnatural powers of sight. You appeared to my men out of an empty bank of mists. You slew several of my soldiers in your escape from Perdition Hill, others in the Forest of Cineris, and while I can offer no proof of it, I suspect more murders in the weeks since."

It was Diederic's turn to scowl. "You'll not take either of us back into those dungeons of yours, van Brekke. We'll die, the both of us, before that happens, and I swear to my God and yours, we'll take more than a spare few of your Redbreasts with us!" Several of the soldiers snarled, clasping hands on hilts or stretching bowstrings back with an ominous groaning of wood.

"Oh, still your axe and your tongue both, de Wyndt! I'd like nothing better than to see you both burnt and broken before being stretched by the neck from the rafters. But I've not had my own people watching the Church soldiers, nor paid spies scouring every spot of trouble in this city, just so I could kill you first!"

Van Brekke trundled into the center of the cellar, shouldering his way through the wall of soldiers, and motioned his "guests" to join him. Suspicion warred with curiosity within Diederic, but as curiosity had the Redbreasts on its side, it swiftly won out. He advanced to roughly a spear's length from the First Confessor; the looks on the Redbreasts' faces told him that any closer would be unwise. Violca remained at the base of the stair, seemingly deaf to the conversation.

"There is a poison within my Church, de Wyndt," van Brekke told him without preamble. "A toxin that rots away the Empyrean heart, and threatens to bring down all that I honor, all that I love."

Despite the blades threatening him, Diederic smiled. "Lambrecht Raes." It was not a question.

Van Brekke nodded. "None other. We share an enemy, de Wyndt. Yet so long as he operates under the auspices and approval of the pontiff, my own oaths bar me from acting against him."

"You're perfectly willing to send another to act in your stead, though. Tell me, van Brekke, is hypocrisy something they teach in the seminary? So many priests I've met seem well educated in—"

"If you would prefer, I am quite happy to lock you away, or watch you die trying to stop me!"

"Ah, no. No, I'd rather not."

"So." Van Brekke paused a moment, waiting for his breath to slow, the angry red in his face to fade. "You will remove Lambrecht from my Church, de Wyndt, or at least provide the means whereby I can act to do so myself. You will not harm any more of my men, nor any members of the clergy, and most especially not the pontiff, in the process."

"I'm not certain that's going to be poss—"

"Once you succeed—assuming you succeed, and only if you succeed—you will be permitted to depart without further prosecution by myself or my soldiers, and will remain free of said prosecution so long as you never again violate our laws. The slightest such violation, however, renders all such pardons and indulgences void. Am I clearly, completely understood?"

"I should think so."

"Excellent. Tobar here will lead you and your companion into the grounds of the Basilica—yes, Tobar, for an additional fee, of course. From there, you're on your own. My command over the Inquisition is absolute, but I have less influence over the Church regulars, and any attempt to reduce or remove the guards would draw far too much attention."

"My, but you're helpful," Diederic spat bitterly.

Van Brekke ignored him. "While I can make no promises as to Lambrecht's location, I strongly suggest trying his quarters and his office. He's rarely elsewhere, unless meeting with the pontiff. He—"


A bowstring thrummed, an arrow pounced: a striking serpent with fangs of steel. Van Brekke's speed belied both girth and age as he twisted aside, but he could not wholly avoid the attack. Chain parted, flesh parted, and the arrow settled into the meat of his upper arm with a dull thump.

Even as he staggered back against the steps, a trio of Redbreasts leapt upon his attacker, dragging him down before he could nock a second arrow, ignoring their blades to pummel him with fists. Over and over their hands rose and fell, until even the man's mother could scarcely have recognized the bloody, pulped mass that had been his face.

On and on they pounded at him, their indignant cries rising to a fever pitch, until they were little more than squeals—animal calls without anything so coherent as words within.

Other Redbreasts dove into the fray. Perhaps they sought to pull their companions off the mangled corpse, or perhaps they agreed with the first attacker that the First Confessor's words amounted to treason and heresy against the Church. It mattered little. One soldier reached out, placing his hand firmly upon the shoulder of another who crouched over the body, and abruptly found a sword protruding from his thigh. He fell with an angry cry—a cry that became an obscene giggle as his head struck the floor. Blades, nails, and teeth alike reddened with blood, and what had been a disciplined assembly of the Church's finest soldiers degenerated into an abattoir of madness and gore.

Across the cellar floor that was swiftly turning from dirt to mud—that same scarlet-tinted sludge that had clung to Diederic's boots in Jerusalem—van Brekke propped himself up on the steps, surrounded by a trio of soldiers who tended his wounds, their expressions grim, refusing to be drawn into the chaos while their commander needed them. His own face pale, coated in a film of sweat, his body shaking, the First Confessor gestured up the stairs with the thumb of his good hand.

"Go!" he ordered, whatever pain he felt utterly absent from his commanding voice. "Go, now, while you can!"

Diederic and Violca, already edging away from the carnage, broke into a dash. The knight lashed out as he ran, snagging Tobar by the collar, dragging the Vistana along as they pounded up the steps, through someone's kitchen, and out into the streets.

"Perhaps," Tobar suggested as they slowed their pace, "I should receive my payment now. If, gods forbid, van Brekke should be slain below—"

"Should van Brekke be slain," Diederic snarled, "then the Inquisition will be thrown into chaos. You'll have to consider that sufficient payment, if you receive no second bag of silver."

"I could refuse to guide you…."

"Yes. Yes, you could do that."

In those words, the Vistana heard the emptiness of the grave. Swallowing once, he smiled.

"But of course, I would do no such thing. I understand the importance of what we do here."

"Then lead."

Tobar led. Diederic glanced at Violca, opened his mouth to ask some question, and closed it again with a sharp clack. Her face was as rigid as stone, her eyes locked straight ahead. It occurred to him only then that she had not said a word during the discussion below, had barely seemed to register the goings-on at all.

Had she gone mad too? Is this what the bloodlust of the Grimoire looked like on a Vistana? Diederic didn't think so—she was too controlled, too contained—but before he could again attempt to question her, to speak to her, to simply gain her attention, she was off and following Tobar as he slipped and twisted through the crowds of pedestrians. With a grunt, Diederic followed, but his gaze remained locked on his companion, rather than their guide.

Another roundabout odyssey ensued, traversing major streets and back alleys alike. As before, Tobar sometimes led them through small storerooms or old houses. Once or twice he even led them through underground passages, ancient halls of stone whose purpose in Caercaelum had long been forgotten. Several times Diederic asked the Vistana how he knew of such places, and several times he found himself brushed off with such meaningless replies as "We Vistani know many things."

They emerged from an old storm grate to find themselves at the very edge of the Basilica's grounds. From beneath the surrounding wall, they peered past an old tool shed and over the single most important piece of property in Malosia entire.

Grasses of the most impressive springtime green stretched over the rolling, wavelike slope of Scions Mount. Pebbled pathways wound around tiny hillocks, burbling fountains, tiny orchards of rich fruit trees, and imposing marble sculptures of pontiffs and Church luminaries past and present. Pikemen in the white and gold of the Church livery stood at their posts, still as those statues, or walked the walls and the paths, alert for trouble but rarely expecting any. Pages darted back and forth on errands for men far more important than they could ever dream of being, and priests clad in black and crimson strode the grounds, heads down in thought or raised in philosophical debate.

Rising above it all, the walls of the Basilica itself—or rather the outermost buildings attached to the Basilica: libraries and dormitories and workrooms and shops, all intended to service the clergy so that none need ever descend into the city proper. Even these walls were whitewashed, so as to blend with the marble walls of the cathedral itself, and gleamed in the reflected gold of the minarets and domes above.

"I fear I can bring you no nearer," Tobar whispered. "None of the passages I know of travel directly beneath the Basilica. You'll have to—"

"Tobar?" It was the first word Violca had spoken since they'd entered the cellar. So startled was Diederic that he turned in answer too, as though she'd called his own name.

Thus he was able to watch, slack-jawed, as Violca sidled up to Tobar and slid the entire length of her wicked knife into his gut.

Tobar's entire body shuddered violently, and he doubled over, only to catch himself in Violca's embrace. His mouth moved, gasping and fish-like, but no sound emerged save for a single bloody cough.

"Vishnadd lunadi," she hissed. "Let justice be done! You are no Vistana!" Violca thrust higher even as Tobar folded, her blade ripping, tearing, puncturing. When she finally withdrew, knife and wrist covered in warm blood, there was nothing left in Tobar to hold him upright. Eyes still unblinking, she knelt beside the fallen body, calmly wiping her weapon clean on his tunic. Then, as an afterthought, she slipped from his waist the coinpurse given him by van Brekke.

At Diederic's incredulous stare, she merely shrugged, rising again to her feet. "No Vistana betrays another to giorgios without suffering for it," she told him, her voice absent of any remorse, of any emotion at all. "If it makes you feel any better, blame it on the book.

"In the meanwhile, tell me how you plan to get us across dozens of yards of open grass, let alone the twisting halls of the Basilica itself."

"Actually," Diederic said, giving himself a mental shake, "I have a thought about that." For a long time he said nothing more, staring out over the grounds, timing the paths of the various soldiers on patrol. Hours drifted by and the sun had grown low in the western sky, when he finally nodded.

"Lend me a hand," he ordered, bending down to lift the dead man from the floor, "and be ready…."

"Stop fidgeting! This is going to be difficult enough to manage without you twitching like a beheaded chicken!"

"What do you want from me, giorgio! I've never worn one of these damn things before! I feel like my shoulders are going to fall off."

Both clad in the hauberks, tabards, and—perhaps most importantly—helms of the Church guard, Diederic and Violca strode across the grounds with military posture and precision. Or at least Diederic did. Violca seemed to be having issues.

This, the knight bemoaned mentally, for the umpteenth time, is never going to work.

Indeed, his desperate plan left far too much to chance. Violca's face was partly hidden within the helm, and the hauberk and tabard concealed her more feminine attributes, but her unfamiliarity with the armor showed in her posture, in every step, and anyone who cast her more than a passing glance might well notice that the entire ensemble was too large on her.

Nor was the Vistana the only potential flaw in the scheme. Diederic himself looked more the part of a Church soldier, and indeed made efforts to keep himself between his companion and any observers. But he didn't know his way around the Basilica and remained ignorant of any potential passwords or customs, any one of which could expose him. Further, while the bodies—Tobar and the two soldiers they had lured from their patrol with the Vistani corpse—were hidden deep within the storm drain, there was still no telling if and when they might be discovered, or the two guards missed.

So they made their way across the wide property, their shadows stretching beneath the setting sun, and prayed to God or gods that they might go unnoticed just a few moments longer….

And strangely enough, they did. The grounds began to empty, priests and messengers retiring to their evening meals, neither giving the guards so much as a second glance. More suspiciously, at least to Diederic's eye, the soldiers began to clear too. Patrols grew less frequent, but those that remained now moved about in larger numbers, and the assembly of sentinels at the gates to the Basilica grew thick. The ambient noises of the night—birds and insects—grew faint beneath the low but constant rumble of hushed conversation from the guardposts.

"What's happening?" Violca whispered, glancing about as much as the confining helm would allow.

"They're readying for an attack!" Diederic answered, his voice worried. "The soldiers…. They're moving from a ceremonial patrol pattern to duty stations. We'd best move faster, before some officer decides we belong at one of the gates."

Fortune was with them again, and they arrived at the complex before such a fate could befall them. Wide stone steps led to a towering portal of brass, standing open a few more moments before it would be shut and barred for the night. The sentinels beside it scarcely acknowledged Diederic and Violca at all, save with a distracted nod that the two imposters swiftly returned.

Despite the pressing need for alacrity, neither could help but halt and stare for a moment upon passing through the door. The hall was formed of perfectly aligned bricks, fit together so tightly that the addition of mortar had been little more than a formality. A rich crimson carpet stretched to infinity, running down the center of the hall, and glass lanterns hung from intricate sconces at regular intervals. The passage smelled thickly of incense, doubtless added to the lanterns to overpower the oily smoke. Doors of rich wood and additional hallways provided dozens of means of egress, and both newcomers suddenly understood that the various sayings comparing the halls of the Basilica to the winding streets of a small town were no hyperbole at all.

Around them were even more soldiers, pages, and priests, all scurrying this way and that. Bits and snippets of conversation drifted to Diederic's ears, and they were enough to chill his blood. The Basilica had indeed gone on the defensive, due to growing riots and random bloodshed in the streets of Caercaelum.

The madness of the Grimoire was spreading.

It was that realization that offered Diederic the inspiration he needed to find their way through the winding halls. Reaching out, he gruffly snagged the collar of a passing pageboy. The child yelped sharply, but drew himself to shaky attention at the sight of the soldier who had grabbed him.

"I've vital information regarding the riots, boy," Diederic rumbled in his best battlefield tone. That announcement drew curious and frightened attention from other passersby in the hall, but there was no helping that. "You will escort us, and announce us, to the Pontiff. At once!"

Why do you not report to your commanding officer, and have him funnel the intelligence upward? Why do you require an escort, or a herald? Why me?

All these questions, and more, Diederic saw flashing in the boy's eyes—and, as the knight had expected, they stayed there, without ever reaching his tongue. Too well trained to question the orders of a superior, any superior, the page spun about and proceeded through the hall with Diederic and Violca at his heels.

Diederic dropped back and gestured for the Vistana to do the same, allowing the page to move a few paces ahead. "It would have been far too questionable," he whispered to her, "had I asked to be taken to Lambrecht's quarters. I would have no conceivable business with him, nor way of knowing him. As an advisor to the pontiff, though, his chambers should be nearby. We can find them from there."

"Yes, thank you, Diederic. I had, in fact, come to that conclusion myself."

The knight glowered, but said nothing more.

At any other time, he would have loved to explore, to examine the Basilica's wonders. As they neared the center and climbed stairway upon stairway, it only grew richer and more fantastic. The walls were no longer brick, but marble—or at least faced in marble. Niches in those walls held intricate busts of saints, fabulous tapestries depicting scenes and passages of the Septateuch hung from the walls, and the lantern sconces were replaced by hanging chandeliers of brass and crystal.

When the stairs climbed no higher, and the brass on the chandeliers was replaced by gleaming gold, they knew that they were close indeed. Nudging Diederic to draw his attention, Violca gestured at the pageboy's back and frowned. Diederic nodded once.

"This'll do, boy," he commanded. "We can take it from here. Return to your duties."

"But you said… that is, yes, sir." Puzzlement clear on his young features, the child slipped past them and vanished once more down the stairs.

Even standing on the proper floor, in the general vicinity of the Basilica's highest quarters and offices, they had a fair bit of searching to do. Thus it was some minutes and many hallways later that Diederic and Violca turned a corner and found themselves face to face with half a dozen guards.

They wore neither the white tabards of Church soldiers nor the crimson of Inquisitors, but rather gold, the sixfold sun emblazoned across their chests in deepest red. One of the lot, boasting a gold feathered crest on his helm, stepped to meet them.

"Nobody sees the pontiff right now," he announced from behind a bushy mustache. "He's holding emergency consultations." Abruptly, he cocked his head to the side. "What are you doing up here, anyway, soldier? You should be on station! Why…?"

His eyes drifted to Violca, and suddenly narrowed. The Vistana had been discovered, and she knew it. She had only one option left to her.

"Halt!" She kicked at the back of Diederic's leg, and he dropped to one knee before her, shouting more in surprise than in pain. With the rasp of steel on leather, her sword was in one hand, held at Diederic's throat, just beneath his helm; the other hand clutched the top of that same helm, forcing his head back. "One false move, and your man dies!"

Faster than the eye could follow, all six soldiers bristled with blades, broadswords and hand-axes ready to slay. At their officer's gesture they flowed forward swiftly and competently, two on each side of the hall, one with the commander moving down the center. Some two paces from the stranger and her "hostage," they stopped.

"I haven't the first notion of what you hoped to accomplish here, woman," the officer said calmly, "but it's clearly failed. Let him go, and perhaps we can discuss possibilities for you to leave here alive."

"And if I refuse?"

"Then you both die." His tone was chilling, unwavering. He might as well have been discussing two potential options for supper. "We all know the risks we take when we swear to serve God, Scions, and Pontiff. Should he fall here, he will be well rewarded in Heaven. Will you?"

Violca shoved Diederic from her with a cry. Even as he tumbled, the knight tensed and lunged, pushing off from the leg on which he knelt. He crashed into the calves of the two men in the center of the hall, bringing them down in a single jumbled mess. His dagger in hand, for there was precious little room to swing an axe, Diederic stabbed once, twice, and stood alone when he rose to his feet.

Four against two: still poor odds. He had to be fast—faster than ever before—and trust Violca to follow his lead. His dagger spun through the air, and he had his axe in hand before the blade struck its target. It careened, harmless, from a third soldier's armor, but that was enough. Distracted by the sudden attack, the soldier failed to note the approaching Vistana until her stolen sword slashed deep, below the trailing edge of the hauberk, severing tendons at the back of his knees. Even as he toppled, screaming, she shoved him forward with a shoulder so that he fell at his companion's feet. It wasn't enough to trip him up as she had hoped, but it kept him from dancing aside as Diederic's axe swept in to crunch through his protective mail. The sound was not unlike that of a bird biting into a beetle.

The final two guards were upon them from across the hall, and the battle became a furious dance of steel on steel, broadsword on axe. Inexperienced in such matters, Violca held back, watching wide-eyed as Diederic parried blows intended for both of them, and knew that he must inevitably slip, react that split second too late.

Better, then, not to wait. She crouched low behind her human shield, waited until the man to her left swung once more, and reached out with the stolen broadsword and stabbed him hard through the foot.

He cried out despite himself, dropping his weapon to clutch at his mangled limb—and that was the end of it. Focusing on one man alone, Diederic stepped in and guided his axe through an intricate whirling pattern that ended deep within his foe's throat, then turned and ended both surviving soldiers' suffering for good measure.

Carefully he wiped his axe clean, replaced it in the loop at his belt, and only then did he allow himself to collapse to his knees, gasping and panting for air.

"That was impressive," Violca complimented him, stepping around pools of sticky crimson to put a hand on his shoulder.

He had no reply for her as he struggled to catch his breath, but the glare in his eye was answer enough.

"What would you have had me do?" she asked with a shrug. "It's not as though I could have taken the time to explain what I was about to do, could I?"

Still he glowered, an expression that slowly grew less angry, more puzzled, as the burning in his chest finally eased. "Where's everyone else?" he asked.

Violca instantly took his meaning. She turned about, surveying the empty hall. "The doors look thick enough," she said finally. "Perhaps nobody heard?"

"Or perhaps they're cowering in wait, while additional guards are on their way." Diederic rose to his feet. "We haven't the time to search every one of these doors, Violca. How do we find him?"

Pointedly, the Vistana faced the door at the very end of the hall, a door bound in gold and covered in intricate carvings of the sixfold sun. The door before which the guards had originally stood their post.

"We go," she said, "and we ask someone who knows."

Diederic followed her gaze uncomprehendingly, and then suddenly paled. "You're jesting!"

"Who better to know where to find his chief advisors?"

"Please tell me you're jesting?"

"It's even possible Lambrecht is in there with him, you know."

Diederic shook his head, but he had no other ideas.

"If this isn't Hell," he muttered as he approached the door, "I'm certainly going there now." Placing one hand on the knob, he was unsurprised to find it latched. He hurled his shoulder into the heavy wood. The door itself was solid enough to withstand any such battery, but the ornate ceremonial latch was not. Once, twice, and it gave. Muttering further under his breath, he advanced to interrogate the Pontiff of the Empyrean Church.

He wasn't all that impressive to look at, especially when viewed by one who had been present at Pope Urban's powerful, soul-stirring call to retake the Holy Land. He was old, this Pontiff Cornelis, and he wrapped his years about him, hanging from his shoulders, as thoroughly as he did his cloud-white robe of office. His hair was gray and wispy, protruding only in tufts from an otherwise balding head, and his ancient fingers shook as they clasped the arms of his thickly cushioned chair. From his neck hung a heavy gold chain, on which dangled the ubiquitous sixfold sun, and on the table before him sat a red shawl and skullcap—the other accoutrements of his office.

He seemed to shrink back as his door exploded inward, as though trying to vanish into the cushions themselves. The lines and wrinkles of his face cast the illusion of wisdom, but in his eyes there was only an ancient fear.

Diederic found himself faintly disappointed.

Still, this was a man who ruled a Church, a Church that itself ruled a nation, and he was not about to let himself be cowed. Rising to his feet, supported by the heavy arm of the chair, he pointed furiously across the table.

"How dare you, either of you! Do you know who I am? Do you know the wrath and the terror you've brought upon yourself with this intrusion?"

"I know, your Eminence," Diederic began, bowing low. "And I apologize, but—"

"Who are you? Where are my guards?"

"My name is Diederic de Wyndt, your Eminence. And your—"

"De Wyndt!" Despite himself, the pontiff quailed, though he steadied himself with a breath. "I know you. I know of your witchcraft, and your heresy! So you thought to bring your evil here, did you? I'll have none of it! I shall personally watch as van Brekke breaks your joints and burns your flesh, and you will beg my forgiveness, and God's, and his Scions', before you perish! And just perhaps, I will be merciful enough to offer it!

"Now where are my guards!"

Violca, long run out of patience for the old man's shouting, shrugged at Diederic. "Guards? What guards?"

The knight, too, found his awe and respect rapidly overshadowed by his growing irritation. "I think those would be the corpses we passed in the hall."

"Ah, those." She offered a condescending smile to the old man. "Not very effective guards, corpses. You might consider hiring the living instead."

Perhaps it was the cavalier tone in which they spoke of murder, but the fear roiling within Cornelis finally broke through into his expression. His jaw sagged, and he staggered back to sit within the deep chair.

Amid all the anger and the indignation and the frustration, Diederic felt a slight twinge of guilt.

"Listen, your Eminence," he said, somewhat more softly, "we've no intention of harming you. That's not why we're here. All we want is to find one of your associates."

"Father Lambrecht! He warned me about you, told us all about your wicked ways! He…." As though recognizing the obvious for the first time, the Pontiff gazed fearfully across the table at which he sat. "He was right here…."

"Oh, I'm here still, your Eminence. I would never abandon you to the likes of these."

Diederic's soul turned to ice at the sound of that voice. Lambrecht stood in the open doorway, though he could not possibly have slipped past them. He wore a white robe, much like the pontiff's own, albeit trimmed in black; and about his neck he wore a crucifix in lieu of the sixfold sun. One hand fiddled idly with the dangling icon, while the other held something to his mouth—something Diederic could not see, something on which he chewed that squished juicily with every bite.

Diederic never paused, never spoke, hardly even drew breath. Between one heartbeat and the next, he was pounding across the floor, his footsteps muffled in the heavy carpet. He raised his axe high, fully prepared to spill Lambrecht's life upon the floor before the foul priest could speak a single word of plea or incantation. He could feel the exultation rise within him, the sheer unmitigated bliss of finally ending the bastard once and for all. No sudden escapes, no spells, no rising mists. With a mighty swing, the blade descended…. And froze with an arm-bruising clang as a heavy broadsword flickered over Lambrecht's shoulder to intercept.

Feet dragged and armor clanked, as first one, then another of the dead guards from the hall shuffled into the room. They made not so much as a moan as they came, nor drew breath through gaping jaws. Still they surrounded Lambrecht in a protective ring as swiftly as they had moved when yet they lived.

An animal snarl rumbling in his throat, Diederic was forced to retreat, moving out of reach of the dead men's blades.

"Perhaps corpses are not so useless as you implied, Vistana," the priest observed. He bowed his head. "Apologies, your Eminence. I know these men were loyal servants and friends." Standing so near him, Diederic could see the fresh blood that stained Lambrecht's teeth a sickening pink.

"Save your apologies, my son," the pontiff commanded, though his face, already pale with fear, had now turned shades of sickly green. "Do what you must, and we will deal with the consequences later."

"Oh, there won't be a later," Diederic growled. "You think I cannot take six of your abominations, Lambrecht? Violca and I have battled worse. We—"

But Lambrecht was gone, vanishing abruptly from the doorway. Three of his corpses followed, while the others raised their blades and began an unsteady advance.

"Oh, no! Not this time!"

Diederic lifted one of the heavy chairs and crashed into the trio of dead men like a great tide, hurtling them back and aside. He left them there, struggling to rise, as he pounded after the retreating priest, Violca only a step behind.

Timidly, but determined to see what happened, to know the fate of his greatest advisor, Pontiff Cornelis followed after.

A door slammed at the far end of the hall, one far smaller and more plain than those that led into the clergyman's quarters. Bits of dust sifted from the frame, suggesting that the room had seen little recent use. Again Diederic did not slow, slamming into the door with a hauberk-covered shoulder, then dropping into a forward roll to avoid any lurking ambush.

None came.

Instead, Diederic and Violca found themselves in what could only be another storeroom, albeit one with far fancier occupants than those through which they'd passed on their way here. Long tables, perfectly good save for small ground-in stains; sturdy chairs whose only flaw was a slightly flattened cushion; crates of tools and utensils grown discolored through years of usage…. All these and more stood like symbols of the Church's past, a history of indulgence writ large, then locked away.

The dust was a carpet unto itself, and the entire room was obscured with layer upon layer of cobwebs. From wall to floor, from ceiling to crate, they hung like rotted silk—ghostly curtains to protect the privacy of the Church's own ghosts. They looked….

They looked not entirely unlike mist.

Diederic and Violca peered through the wavering shroud, blown this way and that by the breeze of the open door, and both wondered at the same question.

How had Lambrecht and his creatures passed through without disturbing the webs?

As if in answer, Diederic felt a sudden pressure against his wrists, his arms, his legs, even his face. The webs held him tight, ever tighter, where he stood. It wasn't that they wrapped themselves about him, exactly, so much as they always seemed to grow thickest in whatever direction he tried to move. He could not raise a weapon to cut them away, could not take a step to free himself from their grasp, could not even shout; for he could hardly breathe at all against their rising pressure.

Lambrecht strode through the shroud of cobwebs, and the strands flowed around him as though fleeing from his path. In his hands, raised before him like a beggar, he carried his pages of the Grimoire. He flowed toward them—ignoring the pontiff who stood wide-eyed and staring in the doorway, ignoring Violca—to move straight to the knight himself.

"I told you," he whispered, his lips pressed almost lovingly to Diederic's ear, "that you would bring it to me."

From Diederic's pouch, he pulled Bellustaire's scroll. A horrible moan erupted, not from any man present, but from some far, far distance and yet emanating from the book itself. Again it moaned, and again, and behind that voice were all the screams of the dead, the dying, the damned. And beyond even that: terrible cries and alien words voiced by inhuman throats, unintelligible to human ears and unimaginable to human minds.

Stitches popped audibly, separating the pages from the scroll. Like dying birds they flapped, one atop the other, forming half-recognizable patterns of percussion.

And then the moaning, the screams, the snap of parchment on parchment was gone, and there was just the Laginate Grimoire, whole and unmarred, in Lambrecht's covetous grasp.

"Thank you, Diederic." Again he slid through the webs, neither touching nor touched, until he stood once more beside the pontiff. "Your Eminence?" he asked. "Do you mind? They are far too dangerous to risk a second escape."

The pontiff nodded, though he'd paled even further. "As I told you, Lambrecht: do what you must."

The priest whistled—just whistled—and the webs began to quiver. Through the strands, Diederic could hear the scuttle of tiny legs. He recalled once more the swarm beneath Jerusalem, the sentries of Birne's orchard, and still he could not scream. He twisted about, desperate to escape, but his thrashing was for naught, only digging him ever deeper into the web.

Then they were there, scuttling over his exposed flesh and Violca's as well, disappearing down collars, up sleeves, into ears and noses and mouths. Spiders there were, absolutely, but other things as well; things with too few legs to be called spider, or things with far too many, things with hot and fetid breath, things that moaned and giggled obscenely as they sank mandibles and teeth and tongues into quivering, helpless flesh.

And all Diederic could do in these last moments was listen, listen to the whispered prayers of a terrified old cleric, and the low chuckling of a man who, with Diederic's horrible death, would have everything he wanted in this world.

Next Week: Chapter Eighteen...

He would not laugh for long.

From the far end of the hall came the sudden tromp of heavy boots, echoing in the cramped confines of the stairway. The priest and the pontiff spun as one, confused as to who could possibly be intruding on this terrible, wonderful moment.

About the Author

Ari Marmell was born in New York, moved to Houston when he was a year old, moved to Austin when he was 27, but has spent most of his life living in other worlds through a combination of writing and roleplaying games. He has been writing more or less constantly for the last dozen years, though he has only been paid for it the past five. He is the author of multiple roleplaying game supplements including work on Dungeons & Dragons. Ari lives in Austin with his wife, George, and two cats.

Look for Agents of Artifice, the new novel from Ari Marmell -- out now!

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