Fiction Archive | 1/23/2009
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Black Crusade: Chapter 1
Part One
By Ari Marmell

The following begins a new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of the forthcoming 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.

One

Even the ambient dust was bloody. It coated tongue, throat, and nostrils like bacon grease, refusing stubbornly to be dislodged. Every painful cough, every sip of precious water teased relief—relief that never lasted longer than a heartbeat.

There was always more blood.

The sounds of battle, the sounds of slaughter, echoed in his ears; but for a few blessed moments, the street around him was wonderfully free of violence. Diederic de Wyndt, vassal to Robert the Second, loyal subject of King Philip the First, and soldier in the pilgrims’ army of Pope Urban the Second, staggered a few more steps and collapsed gratefully against the nearest wall.

Dirt, sand, and worse flaked from the links of his hauberk with every motion; sweat and the blood of many men caked his brow. Diederic landed hard in the mud—mud formed by no water, mud with a horrible crimson tint—uncaring of the stain it left on his already-sullied tabard of blue. With a grunt, he pulled his helm from his head, wincing at the pain and the ringing in his ears. He scowled over the dented steel, staved in by a blow from a Saracen axe. The helm had done its job well enough, shielding his skull from the heavy stroke, but it was certainly unsalvageable now. A second grunt, and the misshapen metal flew spinning into the street.

The missing helm revealed a face grown older than its years. Eyes that had once shone blue with the enthusiasm of youth and faith now appeared a lifeless gray; the surrounding skin was lined from constant squinting against blinding sun and spraying blood. Hair the color of dark sand, darkened further by constant sweat, stuck out from beneath a chain coif. Features that might generously be termed sharp—and more accurately dubbed hatchet-like—were partly hidden by a scruff that was less a formal beard and more a sign that its owner had simply given up regular shaving.

Diederic leaned his aching head back and shut his eyes, hoping for just a moment of respite, but there was no respite to be had here. He could not shut his ears to the shouts and screams and grating of metal on metal, or metal on bone. He could not guard his face from the pounding of the sun, as fierce and unrelenting as the city’s most zealous Saracen defenders.

And always, always, the smell and the taste and the feel of blood; so much blood that surely God Himself must have lost count of the dead and dying.

Sighing, Diederic opened his eyes and forced himself to his feet, leaning on the chipped and battered axe that he felt had become a permanent extension of his arm. Alert for any danger, even more so now that he had lost his helm, the weary knight trudged down what had once been a market lane in the heart of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem. The Holy Land. At Pope Urban’s call, Diederic had crossed a continent, laid siege to cities, spilled the blood of countless Saracens (and perhaps a few Jews and Christians as well), all to reclaim a "Holy Land" whose holiness had been washed away in a sea of red.

Diederic’s steps carried him to a main thoroughfare, where corpses and parts of corpses lay sprawled haphazardly. He stepped on a severed arm without noticing, his boot driving the limb deep into the mud at the elbow. The forearm jutted upward, the hand wobbling limply as though to wave farewell. The shadows of the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock joined into one, stabbing across the street like a blade: God’s own blessing on the fallen—or an angry wave as He washed His hands of the whole sordid affair.

The endless shrieking rose to a crescendo, or perhaps Diederic merely drew nearer its source. He could no longer hear the squelch of his own footsteps in the muddy street, or the clatter of his mail. A trio of horsemen plowed past him at a gallop, forcing him to the side, where he stumbled over another corpse. He barely heard the staccato beat of the animals’ hooves as the riders swept by.

Putting a hand out to steady himself, Diederic took a step forward. Something in the heap of bodies below clutched furiously at his ankle.

Had such a thing occurred in his first battle, he would have lashed out blindly, desperate to get the "dead thing" off of him. Had it occurred in many of the battles since, he would have delved into the corpses, determined the survivor’s identity and intentions before choosing whether to render aid.

Now, with a weariness that leeched into his bones, his heart, and his soul, Diederic simply struck the hand from its wrist with his axe and moved on.

Another corner, then one more, and Diederic walked into the midst of a nightmare made manifest, no less horrifying for the fact that it was intimately familiar.

Nor for the fact that he, despite the better angels of his nature, was a willing participant. None of the pilgrims, from Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert of Flanders to the lowest footsoldier, had expected the battle to end the moment they breached Jerusalem’s walls. Whatever else one might say about the Fatimid Saracens, they were a determined lot, zealous and fearsome. They would not easily or swiftly surrender the Holy City, no matter how badly they were overmatched once their defensive ramparts fell.

But this? This past night and morning? This was not battle. Diederic knew it; his fellow knights and pilgrims knew it, even as they did nothing to stop it. This was butchery.

A fever had settled over the minds and souls of the pilgrims, a haze of fury that blotted out all other sights, all other sounds.

Old men cowered in the streets and were run through. Children fled from armor-clad invaders and were ridden down, their bodies mangled beneath steel-shod hooves. Women sought shelter within the mosque atop the Temple Mount, begging for their lives and the lives of their families. The floor ran slick with their blood.

Nor was it merely the Saracens who suffered the pilgrims’ ceaseless wrath. Jews and even native Christians felt the bite of the invaders’ steel. Home and storefront, synagogue and church—all crypts, now, and perhaps never again anything more.

A man appeared from an alleyway, hands flailing at Diederic, and Diederic cut him down without breaking stride. A trio of knights tossed a battered Saracen warrior back and forth between them, his bones breaking at every impact. Across the street, a woman shrieked pitifully as her infant son was thrown hard to the ground, to drown facedown in the clinging mud.

It was enough—finally enough—to shake Diederic from the murderous reverie in which he had wandered, half-blind to the world around him, since he had clambered over the broken walls yesterday afternoon. For the first time in hours, the taste of blood in his throat was finally and truly washed away, replaced by the acrid burning of his rising gorge. Was this why he had marched across Christendom, why he had taken up arms in the name of God and country? This?

With a shudder of revulsion, Diederic allowed his bloodstained axe to fall from his grip. The mud it splashed across his calf as it landed was warm and wet, but dried instantly beneath the heavy eastern sun. His shield would have followed his weapon into the muck had it not been strapped so thoroughly to his arm.

No more of this! "No more!" He was aware only afterward that he had spoken the thought aloud. It didn’t matter, since nobody could have heard him.

Diederic didn’t know what it was that had turned him, and far better men than he, into merciless butchers. He knew only that it could not be the will of the God in whose name he fought, and in whose existence he only halfway believed any more. Perhaps he would never know, and perhaps he could not stop it, but he would be damned—assuming he were not already so—if he would be part of it any longer. Diederic had seen other men, some with wounded bodies and some—he realized now—with wounded souls, making their way back to the gaping holes in the walls. He would join them, waiting outside for the massacre of Jerusalem to run its course. And if his fellow pilgrims would count him an oath-breaker for that, then let them.

Had he been asked afterward, he could never have honestly said what it was about the corpse that drew his attention. He had passed by—and over—literally hundreds of bodies from the moment he threw down his weapon and set out for the city walls: corpses clad in the hauberks and tabards of knights as well as more numerous bodies in the steel-and-leather of the Saracen warriors, or the simple garb of peasants. He had ignored them all with equal aplomb, focused on nothing but removing himself from this hellish "holy" city with all haste.

Until this one. Something about this body, lying slumped over in this alley, called to him as the others did not. Diederic tried to continue, to disregard the corpse as he had all the others, but his footsteps faltered of their own accord. Reluctantly, begrudging every wasted second, he turned and knelt beside the body.

It was one of his brother pilgrims. He could tell that much by the bits of blue tabard that showed through the mud, blood, and other, even less pleasant stains. He had not lain here long, perhaps a handful of hours; the mud splashed over him by passersby was not thick enough to account for any longer.

Tugging against the grip of the mud that greedily refused to surrender its prize, Diederic pulled the corpse’s shoulders up, hoping to glimpse a face. Despite the clinging filth, his wish was granted.

"Jesu!" Despite himself, Diederic allowed his grip to slacken, returning his fellow knight disrespectfully to the muck. "Poor Joris..."

Joris van den Felle, a baron of Flanders and distant cousin to Robert the Second, was not the first of Diederic’s countrymen to have died in the last years—not by far. Of all the men Diederic had known before Pope Urban’s call, however, Joris was the first whose dead body Diederic had observed with his own eyes. Diederic, who had not only seen but had delivered enough death for any dozen lifetimes, found himself shaking.

"I’m sorry, Joris," he whispered softly to the corpse. "I wish you had gotten out. Perhaps we...."

Diederic’s eyes locked, of their own accord, on a bloody bit of bone, laid bare and visible when Joris’s head had fallen again to the ground. It was a narrow wound, deep. No axe had ever inflicted such a wound, nor a sword. This was the bite of a poignard or a dagger, snuck in between helm and hauberk. A bite that came from behind.

Slowly, his jaw set, Diederic rose to his feet. Death in war he could accept; even the ongoing massacre of Jerusalem’s weak and innocent, while now abhorrent to him, he tolerated as an evil he could not prevent. But the base murder of a friend and fellow knight—murder that, at least by his initial scrutiny, could only have come from a man Joris trusted—that could not be allowed to stand unanswered.

Diederic chided himself for discarding his axe so hastily. His sword, not much more than a long and heavy knife, would fare far worse against Saracen leathers (or a pilgrim’s chain, for that matter), but it would have to suffice.

With no clue to Joris’s murderer beyond the direction from which the knight had apparently come, Diederic shouldered his shield and set off into the winding streets of Jerusalem.

He was on the right trail, at least. The body of Heinric, Joris’s squire and manservant, slumped in a doorway and marred by stab wounds similar to his master’s own, was more than sufficient evidence of that. Diederic stalked down endless alleyways, hewing as nearly as he could to a straight line. Stone walls the color of sand hemmed him in on either side. Doors were narrow and locked tight against the violence in the streets; windows were shuttered. Here, the shadows grew so long that even the sun’s slenderest fingers could not poke and prod. The screams grew distant, the overwhelming scent of blood more faint, and Diederic began to feel as though he walked through some distant canyon, rather than the heart of the most coveted city in creation.

And then, it seemed, he was somewhere else, if only for the span of a single heartbeat. From one step to the next, the horrific slurp of mud beneath his feet yielded to the crunch of drying grass; the shadows of the buildings smoothed and rounded into the silhouettes of rolling hills. A single hot gust of wind, shrieking madly as if it carried all the cries of every man, woman, and child the pilgrims had butchered, descended upon him like a funeral shroud.

Diederic staggered, his shield raised instinctively to protect his face. But the wind was gone as swiftly as it had begun; by the time he blinked the grit from his eyes, the mud road and the building façades had returned to normal.

He blinked once, twice, glaring about him, daring reality to show him anything beyond what he expected. It did not oblige.

"This damned city is driving me as mad as everyone else," he informed the empty doorways around him. His hand perfectly steady—he knew it was not shaking, because he refused to let it—he reached down and took hold of his waterskin. It sloshed softly as he raised it to his lips, complaining that it grew dangerously near empty. He raised it to his lips, and—

Dear God!

With a high-pitched, almost womanly shriek, Diederic hurled the skin from him as far as it would fly. It landed with a wet slap against the wall of some Saracen’s home before sliding down into the mud, spitting forth the last of its precious water with the impact.

It was flesh. Not tanned and treated leather, but true, honest-to-God flesh. He’d tasted it as it had slithered warmly between his lips, covered in a salty patina of dust and sweat. It had quivered at the touch of his tongue.

Diederic, his gorge rising once more, fell to his hands and knees and retched into the mud, though he had little enough in his gut to purge. But even as his body shook, his gaze was drawn to the waterskin. And it was, indeed, just a waterskin: soft leather and heavy stitches, lying abandoned in the mud.

God and Jesu, he really was going mad!

Staggering to his feet, leaving a wide berth between himself and the waterskin, he continued on. His determination seemed to have left him along with the minuscule bits of food and drink he’d vomited up. If he didn’t find Joris’s killer soon, or at least a clue as to whom he might actually be hunting, he would give it up as just one more tragedy of battle, and depart the city for good and all.

The world grew quieter as he continued, as though he had found a single oasis of peace in the ongoing violence. Suspicious eyes glared from between closed shutters, mostly belonging to women and children who still hoped to hide from the murderers who had fallen upon them. Diederic’s hand fell to his sword of its own accord. He didn’t think peasants much of a threat—women and children even less—but he had never lost his respect for sheer numbers.

Approaching a T-intersection of back roads, with little indication of where to go next, Diederic determined that this was the end. If one of the two paths ahead didn’t offer some solid evidence, he would turn about and leave.

To the right, nothing: more buildings, a few more corpses scattered about, covered in mud and a growing horde of flies.

To the left...

Diederic could only stare. If he was, indeed, going mad, then Jerusalem itself was doing the same.

Wedged impossibly across the narrow street was a wagon, the likes of which the knight had never seen. High wooden walls and a solid roof were painted an array of bright hues. They, along with the heavy door at the rear, suggested that the enclosed chamber might serve as someone’s living quarters, and the clothing and bedding scattered about the wreckage seemed to confirm that assessment. Large wheels with wooden spokes had been reduced to little more than kindling. Three human and two equine corpses lay mangled and broken amid the wreckage. The couple and the boy, a family presumably, had features that could possibly have been Saracen. But their garb—colorful adornments over simple white and black—was as unfamiliar as the wagon itself.

They could have been foreign travelers, Diederic supposed, attempting to flee the city. Yet there were two details around which he simply could not wrap his mind: the wagon was far too wide to have driven down so slender a thoroughfare, and there was no way to explain the shattering of wood and bone—no obstacle into which the wagon could have crashed, no height from which it might have fallen.

His curiosity piqued, Diederic approached the wagon, nudging the splintered wood with his foot. It creaked softly, but revealed no secrets.

Or had it truly not? Not from the wagon itself, but around the next gradual bend in the road, a low voice carried on the hot and charnel air. It was a voice Diederic could never have heard anywhere else in the city where the screams of the dying rang loud. Even here, in the deathly silence, he had to strain to make out the words.

"...et suam piissimam misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Dominus quidquid per visum. Amen. Per istam sanctam unctionem et suam..."

Latin had never been Diederic’s strongest subject of study, but every pilgrim who had marched on the Holy Land would recognize that utterance. Stepping softly across the shattered wood, he continued down the street toward the source of the voice.

"... tibi Dominus quidquid per odoratum. Amen."

In a small courtyard, little more than a widening of the intersection of four streets, blood stained the roadway—blood so fresh it hadn’t fully seeped into the mud. In one of the many doorways facing the yard, a man knelt beside the bodies of two others. All three were clad in the armor of pilgrims from the west, and it was the kneeling man whose prayers Diederic had overheard.

His tabard covered in mud sufficient to hide whatever standard he might have worn, his hauberk as battle-scarred as any other, the praying man could easily have been mistaken for just another soldier of the Church, had Diederic not heard the words, not watched as the man even now anointed the fallen with oil. His conical helm sat in the mud beside him, leaving uncovered his long brown hair grown gray at the roots. He had the same slack features and loose jowls Diederic had seen on other priests and noblemen among the pilgrims, men well-fed and accustomed to plenty in their lives back West, whose skin had not caught up to the weight they’d lost in their travels.

"... tactum. Amen. Per istam sanctam unctionem..." He moved as he worked, swiftly and expertly applying the holy unction to the fallen soldiers, asking God’s forgiveness for any possible sin.

Diederic drew breath to hail the priest, but his greeting swiftly became a wordless shout of warning as shapes rose up in the opposite alleyway, behind the kneeling man.

With reflexes that were, if not those of a warrior, certainly impressive in a man of the cloth, the priest shot to his feet, bringing to hand an ugly mace that was hardly more than a heavy lump of steel on a shaft. It was a common weapon among the pilgrim clergy, a means of sidestepping the Church dictum that clergymen should not shed blood. It was sophistry at best, if not true hypocrisy—but under the circumstances, Diederic was glad of it. Better a hypocritical priest than an unarmed one.

Two men emerged from the alley, both clad in the light armor of the city’s Fatimid defenders. One hefted a thin-bladed sword, the other a bronze-colored axe not terribly different in design from that which Diederic had so recently discarded. They strode together in lockstep without a word or glance between them, expressions unchanging, eyes unblinking.

Diederic slipped and slid as he ran across the muddy, blood-slick courtyard, desperate to reach the priest before the enemy did. Under other circumstances, Diederic would have been supremely confident in their ability to handle a pair of opponents. But for one, he lacked his axe, and for another, this silent, mechanical advance was dramatically out of character for the Saracen warriors of Jerusalem, normally passionate and fanatical defenders of what they believed was theirs.

The soldiers reached the doorway in which the priest had sheltered when Diederic was only halfway across the courtyard. Mace held in a two-fisted grip, the clergyman retreated a single step, placing his back to one edge of the portal, limiting their angle of approach. The Saracen with the sword struck first, a stab meant to impale armor and flesh alike, possibly pinning its victim to the door.

The priest’s counter was stiffly formal but nonetheless effective. The mace came crashing down across the flat of the Saracen’s blade, knocking it harmlessly aside. Even as the momentum turned the priest partway around, he thrust out with a kick, staggering his attacker back a few paces and granting himself a moment to recover his balance.

Except he didn’t have that moment. Still moving in absolute silence, the second Saracen stepped into the first’s place without a second of hesitation, his axe raised for a killing stroke.

From three paces away, Diederic threw finesse to the winds and hurled himself bodily at the axe-wielder’s legs, leading with the edge of his heavy shield. His tabard tore across his chest, and he felt sun-warmed mud ooze into his hauberk, but his momentum was more than a match for the tug of the ubiquitous muck. The deafening crash as Diederic’s armored form slammed into the Saracen’s shins was not quite enough to drown out the grinding crack as the rim of his shield reduced the man’s anklebone to so many splinters. The Saracen toppled like a felled tree, landing on his stomach atop Diederic. Anticipating at least a moment of shock, the pilgrim almost didn’t react in time as his enemy twisted his axe and tried to run the blade across the back of Diederic’s legs. Thrashing wildly, Diederic kept the Saracen from pressing hard enough to cut or drawing back an arm to swing until he was able to kick the man off him and roll to his feet, drawing his sword as he stood.

Lying face down in the mud, his right foot hanging limply from his ankle like ripened fruit ready to fall, the Saracen...

Giggled.

It was a loathsome, high-pitched thing, a eunich’s delight at contemplating post perversions. Spittle bubbled between the Saracen’s lips, slowly descending to the ground in long strings, and his eyes rolled back in his head. First his chest, then his entire body shook, as the giggling erupted into hysterical cackles.

Using his axe as a makeshift crutch, the laughing Saracen slowly stood. Utterly oblivious to the agony, he took a single step and collapsed to his knees as the shattered ankle gave way beneath him. He rose again, took a step, collapsed. And again. And again. And all the while, he laughed.

His lips pressed together in a line of bloodless white, Diederic waited until his foe collapsed once more, and then he struck. His hands shook, but his aim was true. The Saracen crumpled, his throat pumping even more blood into the courtyard. He had finally stopped laughing, and he did not rise again.

As if in a dream, Diederic turned slowly, the world tilting around him. In the doorway, his eyes wide, the priest stood over the body of the second Saracen. The dead man’s ribs and skull had both been staved in by the holy man’s bludgeon. The priest’s attention was not on the foe he had just slain but on the far side of the courtyard. A raised finger pointed over Diederic’s shoulder.

Another turn, and the knight saw a third man emerging from the street that had spawned the pair of Saracens. This was no Saracen, though, but a fellow soldier of the Church, who nonetheless approached with the same inhuman silence and mechanical fluidity of his predecessors. Behind him, and from every other visible street and alley, followed a fourth man, another Saracen; a fifth, clad in the simple garb of Jerusalem’s peasantry; a sixth, another knight-pilgrim; and others beyond. While they all boasted the same inhuman gait, they did not move in unison. Each was ever so slightly out of step with the next, creating a discordance that was subtly but profoundly disturbing to the eye.

Diederic glanced from his blade to the mail worn by the pilgrims amid the approaching throng, and unconsciously shook his head. Grunting, he heaved the blade as hard as he could, sending it spinning toward the head of the leading man. The knight deflected the awkward attack, as Diederic had expected he would, but it halted him—and thus, those who approached behind him—for a span of heartbeats. It was long enough for Diederic to snatch up the Saracen axe and move to stand in the doorway beside the priest. "What in God’s name is happening here, Father?"

The priest raised his free hand in a half-shrug. "I think God has little to do with this, Sir Knight, though I thank him for delivering you to me in this moment of need."

Diederic could not help but scoff, staring at the slow but inexorable approach of the mob. "God seems to have underestimated your need for aid, Father."

"Indeed so? Then perhaps you might consider wielding that rather sizable axe against the wooden door behind us, rather than the approaching maniacs?"

Diederic blinked once. "Can you hold them off?"

"Let us try not to find out."

The knight spun and raised the axe, bringing it down with a loud crash.

The approaching mob erupted in a cacophony of moans, shrieks, and gibbers, some pointing accusingly at Diederic and the priest.

A second crash. The wood by the latch splintered but held, locked in place by the bar behind it. The lunatics broke into a shambling run, the faster ones bumping into the slower and shoving them aside.

A third. A crack appeared from top to bottom, the entire door bowing inward, but still the bar refused to yield. A fourth. The air in the doorway grew acrid with the sweat of a dozen men; the approaching shadows blotted out the light of the sun. A fifth, and Diederic heard the priest grunt as he raised his mace to parry the first incoming blow; then the lunatic babbling drowned out all other sound, and the spittle of a dozen madmen soaked his back and neck like an autumn shower.

A sixth—Dear God, who had constructed this infernal door!—and a seventh, and finally the wood parted completely, the bar dropping to the floor with a pair of thumps. Diederic reached back and hurled the priest past him into the exposed chamber. With a strength born of desperation, he turned his shield lengthwise and shoved hard. The three madmen who had already crowded into the doorway staggered back, and Diederic took the opportunity to dash through the doorway after his new companion.

They raced through the small house, hurdling or bowling over what furniture they lacked the time to circumvent, a shrieking wave of maddened, armored flesh lapping at their heels. Diederic spared a moment’s thought to the family that dwelt here—he hadn’t seen them, and hoped that meant his pursuers would not either—and then he squeezed through a window after the priest, and there was nothing but the pumping of his legs, his heart, and his lungs as he drove himself onward.

In the end, he wasn’t certain how they managed to outrun the mad and tireless mob. He knew only that the horde was behind them, alley after alley, corner after corner. And then the priest suddenly turned and dragged him into another small doorway, pressed tight against the wall. When Diederic finally rallied his breath and his spirit sufficiently to look behind, there was no sign of pursuit.

As if to confirm what Diederic’s eyes already told him, the priest said, "I believe we’ve eluded them, Sir...?"

"Diederic de Wyndt, Father."

"Ah, a fellow Frenchman! I am Father Lambrecht. You have my undying gratitude for your timely arrival. Surely, you saved my life."

"But from what? What’s happened here, Father? I’ve seen men go wild with bloodlust and battle-frenzy. I’ve seen it in myself; I know how potent it can be. But this?"

Lambrecht nodded thoughtfully. "This is not the first such incident I’ve seen, though I’ll admit it was the largest. Ever since we breached the walls, it has been thus. Soldier and peasant, Christian and Saracen, man, woman, and child alike. It seems confined to a select portion of the city, much as the blood runs to pool in the lowest spots, but I confess myself ignorant of the cause. It was this that my companions and I sought."

"Companions?"

"Yes. I fear you saw me anointing the last of them when you arrived."

"Then it was good luck I arrived when I did. Or"—he added quickly at Lambrecht’s raised eyebrow—"God’s grace. In either case, I should be able to see you safely out of Jerusalem."

"A generous offer indeed, Sir Diederic. But I fear I must decline. My work here is incomplete."

"I’m certain there’s plenty of call for a priest on the outside, Father. The wounded—"

"Have others to care for them. I must find the source of this unnatural plague, before it claims the lives, or the minds and souls, of any more of our brothers. It is why God put me here, allowed me to witness and survive these maddened mobs when others have not. And whether this be madness, fever, or witchcraft, who better to stand against it than a servant of God such as I?"

And if the next band of lunatics throws you down and tears you limb from limb?"

"Then that, too, is God’s will. Of course, such an outcome would be far less likely if I had a skilled knight at my side, to replace those good men who have fallen."

Diederic wanted to refuse, to tell this suicidal priest that he was as crazy as the giggling Saracen. As far as Diederic was concerned, the only reasonable course of action was to find the nearest exit and make for it with all haste.

But then, for all the sense of duty and faith that had been beaten and leeched from him over the years of toil and turmoil, could he truly refuse such a request from a priest? And there was the question of Joris’s murder to consider, even if he hadn’t the slightest notion of how to pursue it any further...

With a sigh, Diederic nodded. "As you wish, Father."


Next Week: Chapter Two...

Lambrecht seemed to have some notion of where he was going, so Diederic followed along and swallowed his questions. Their footsteps carried them past more scenes of bloodshed, as knights and other pilgrims slaughtered citizens where they stood. But at least it was a normal madness, so to speak, rather than the twisted mania they had confronted in the courtyard. Diederic, who had been so revolted by the slaughter mere hours before, found himself inured to the crimson spatters, the screams of the dying, the meaty thud of blades biting into flesh.

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.

Next month, look for Agents of Artifice, the new novel from Ari Marmell.