Fiction Archive | 2/27/2009
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Black Crusade: Chapter 6
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 Six

Diederic swore under his breath. All he could see was the filthy wall and the bent grate sticking up before him. He lacked even the leverage to turn around.

"I’d wondered what the commotion was about," the voice continued, slowly drawing nearer. "I was just on my way to the main hall to find out. I ought to thank you for saving me the walk."

Footsteps behind him, growing louder. A shadow, flitting back and forth in the torchlight, fell over him and expanded against the wall. Diederic’s back twitched in anticipation of a sudden knife between his shoulder blades.

"I’ve half a mind to stomp you about the head and shoulders until you fall through, you heathen bastard," the voice continued. "But that would be too generous an end for you, I think. Better to let the prisoners watch you and your whores meet your ends at the hands of the Truth Seekers. None of you have really seen what they can do when they put their minds to it. You should make for a powerful message."

The man stepped, just barely, into Diederic’s peripheral vision. He could make out little save a pair of heavy boots and the bottom hem of a crimson tabard—but that was enough. "Where are my companions?" he demanded through gritted teeth.

"Never you mind," the Redbreast sneered, amusement in his voice. "You’ll be seeing them shortly. You might even see them in one piece, before the end."

Diederic felt gauntlets close on the scruff of his robe, felt himself being hauled from the hole. As though resigned to his fate, he raised one arm to clasp the guard’s wrist—and then lifted the other as well, leaving the entirety of his weight to hang, unsupported, from the Redbreast’s grip.

The man grunted and staggered, bending at the waist, but did not fall. Diederic stared up into a face younger than his own, its eyes burning with zealous hatred, its flesh turning red with exertion. Boots slipped on the waste-slick floor, sweat dripped from the guard’s head, but he refused to fall, to join Diederic in plummeting to the filthy water below.

And then Violca, her eye already swelling shut where the Redbreast had struck her, appeared behind them and efficiently kicked the struggling guard behind his right knee. The Redbreast simply folded—Diederic’s weight was far too much to support on a single leg. He fell forward, his chin catching the edge of the twisted grate—the resounding click of his teeth echoed through the room. Diederic hung for a moment, suspended by the guard’s body lying across the hole, and then gravity and the slick surface won out. With a sickening slurp, the pair dropped out of sight.

Violca ran forward to peer down into the gaping hole, steadying herself with one hand on the wall. "Diederic! Diederic, are you hurt?"

From beneath, echoing oddly in the chamber, his words drifted back to her. "Not as badly as he is. Leona?"

"Fine. Or as fine as I, at any rate."

"Good. Get the rope and get down here before someone else shows up."

Diederic sat in the murky, malodorous water, perhaps a foot deep, and prodded at his right ankle. The pain was sharp, but not too strong. Odds were good he had but twisted the joint, not broken it, and that meant he could walk. With his other hand, he continued to hold the unconscious Redbreast’s head beneath the surface, though the bubbles had already ceased.

The light from the torch above darkened as Leona slid into the gap. Unsteadily, nervously, she dropped, inch by inch, until she was low enough for Diederic to lift her from the rope. Violca, who lacked any such anchor, simply allowed herself to dangle by her fingertips from the grate and then drop, aided again by Diederic’s steadying hand.

In the meantime, Leona efficiently stripped everything of use from the Redbreast’s body. The flint and steel she kept, along with the man’s key. It was unlikely to unlock anything in these lower tunnels, but one never knew. The short sword she handed to Diederic who, after a moment’s contemplation, sighed and handed it to Violca.

"The sword is a lot easier to use than the leg irons," he replied to her questioning gaze, "and I’d prefer more than one of us be armed."

Swiftly, the trio stripped themselves of their outer robes, which had accumulated abhorrent levels of filth and stench. The inner ones weren’t much better, soaked through as they were, but at least they had avoided the worst of the clinging, wastes. Diederic tried the guard’s boots, decided they were too large for comfort, and discarded them.

"I must admit, Diederic," Leona acknowledged as they began walking, deciding that one direction was as good as another, "that when you told us of these tunnels, I only half believed you. Why would the Redbreasts waste time having you dig new passages for more space, if these lie available and unused?"

Diederic paused to remove his own flint, using it like chalk to leave a tiny mark on the archway through which they passed. "I wondered that myself, when I learned of them. I can only assume that either the Inquisitors are not aware of them—though I find that unlikely—or that they have some ceremonial purpose."

"Or," Leona added, thinking back to the torture chamber and shivering, "that there is something down here they wish to avoid."

Violca followed behind, only half listening to their conversation, her thoughts far away. The dust, the cobwebs, even the tool marks occasionally visible on the walls, all supported the notion that these passageways were ancient, perhaps even predating Perdition Hill’s use as a prison.

She knew them to be ancient indeed—but she knew as well, as though she had Seen it herself, that these passages, and their history, had not existed before Diederic and the other man had come to Malosia.


Long and long they walked, wending their way through corridors wreathed in the dust of years. Though darkened by age, and slowly cooling as they delved deep into the hill beneath the Inquisition forges, the passages looked and felt very much like those of the Perdition Hill complex above. The trio proceeded in the flickering illumination of a single torch at a time, and conserved their water as best they might, unsure how long their meager supplies must last. On occasion, they came to a dead end and were forced to backtrack, and then they were glad for the marks Diederic left behind them on the walls But otherwise they had little cause for happiness or hope.

Their sense of time, already skewed by months of working to the Redbreasts’ schedule, failed them utterly in these empty halls. They had nothing to mark the moments but their footsteps and the burning of each torch, and they rapidly lost track of both. The sconces here contained brands of their own—a fact to be grateful for—but so old was the wood that it burned fast and fitfully, proving woefully ineffective.

The corridors were not without crossroad or contour. Here and there, chambers jutted from the main passage. Some had the tattered, age-worn remnants of bedding or tables; others had shelves with parchment so brittle it was apt to crumble to dust beneath the weight of a lengthy stare. Most, however, boasted little indication of what purpose they might once have served.

Diederic, Leona, and Violca moved through an unending labyrinth of monotony and tedium, and with every passing moment, their supplies dwindled. They walked until they tired, slept poorly, and walked again. At first they conversed, cajoled, even jested with one another, trying to keep their spirits up. By the second night—or rather, by the second time they bedded down on the hard stone—they had nothing more to say. By the third, the tiny bits of dried meat Violca had smuggled from the kitchen had run out despite their most careful rationing, and the few drops of water in the bottoms of their cups sloshed loudly.

But it was then, as well, that something finally went right for the beleaguered fugitives. At Diederic’s insistence, one of the trio remained on watch while the others slept, though here in the empty halls both women felt he was guided by the excessive paranoia of an old soldier. Still, they had agreed, as much to keep the peace as for any other cause, and this night it was Violca’s turn to watch first. She sat for hours, staring sullenly to the limits of the meager torchlight, running nursery rhymes and traditional Vistani dances through her head to keep from dozing. When her best estimate suggested she had watched long enough, she rose on aching, unsteady legs. Ignoring the rumble of hunger in her belly and the sandy parched sensation in the back of her throat, she tottered over to Diederic and bent low to whisper in his ear that his turn had come.

And she stopped, her eyes widening. She thought…. From within or beyond the stone, just faintly audible over the knight’s rough snores, she could have sworn she heard….

"Diederic!" Her voice was a hissed whisper, urgent and piercing. "Diederic, wake up!"

His eyes opened instantly, his hand reaching of its own accord for the heavy length of chain at his side. "What? What is it?"

"Quiet! Listen."

"I don’t—"

"Listen!"

Nothing; for long moments, nothing. Then, just as Diederic’s face began to twist into an expression of anger, he heard it. His eyes grew wide, even as Violca’s had, and he could not help a grin of relief from spreading across his features.

"Water! I hear running water!"

There was, of course, nothing to be done but to awaken Leona and immediately resume their now not so aimless march. If they could find the flow, it could mean more than an opportunity to refill their dangerously empty mugs. It just might lead them to a way out.

With only the faintest trickle to go on, however, it was a task rife with difficulty. Many a time they lost the sound entirely and were forced to backtrack, stopping every few paces to listen at the walls and the floor until they located it once more. Often the corridor turned in the wrong direction, and the trio desperately searched for branching passageways back the way they wished to go, growing ever more panicked until one of them again reacquired the sound.

As they drew nearer the source of the flow, the halls around them began to change. The lines of the stone grew harsh, angular, and somehow less regal, less civilized. Tool marks, old as they were, were obvious in the stone, showing where the hand of man had carved the passageways from the living rock.

Diederic could not help but notice, with a shiver, that the marks were fundamentally wrong. No expert, he, but he had learned a bit about stonecutting during his slave labors in the passages above. He knew enough to recognize the signs of tool use on stone when he saw it. And he knew enough to recognize that these passages had been carved not down from the surface of the hill, but upward, from the unknowable depths.

It was a fact, he decided, about which the others did not need to worry for the time being.

The floors shifted abruptly from rough worked stone to a cobbled mosaic of asymmetrical tiles. What they might have been intended to represent was impossible to say, their colors scuffed away beneath years of tromping feet, but the remaining shapes were subtly disturbing, hinting at images that no sane mind would choose to witness. The heat of the passages above was gone completely now, replaced by a faint, chilling breeze, its source unclear, that set the torchlight to dancing wildly.

Where Diederic’s eyes were locked to the floor, however, Leona’s had drifted upward. And as they approached an archway, sealed by a heavy wooden door, she grasped Diederic’s shoulder and pointed, shuddering at what she saw.

Above the door was carved an inscription, very much like those found in Perdition Hill proper. It, like the others, was near enough to Latin for the knight to make out its meaning. But where the inscriptions above had simply referenced Septateuchal passages, this one was spelled out in its entirety.

"Prayer is the fodder that fattens men’s souls for consumption."

"That’s… not as you quoted it to me earlier," Diederic whispered to Leona. She could only shake her head.

Hesitantly, oddly afraid to take their eyes from the inscription, the trio turned their attention to the door itself. Made of a dark wood, it boasted no carvings, no decoration, nothing but a simple latch and handle. It was the first they had seen in all their wanderings, which in and of itself was remarkable, but the door proved otherwise mundane.

The chamber beyond was not.

Diederic hauled the door open, wincing at the deafening whine of ancient hinges long unused, and thrust his torch through the widening aperture. The light fell upon the outermost edge of an amphitheater. Concentric rings of stone benches descended in ever-tightening layers down from the level of the door toward a wide-open space below. Dust lay thick upon the stone, and the air was heavy, somber, patient. The feeble torch failed to illuminate the center of the chamber, let alone the far side, but even so this was undoubtedly a place of worship, a place of power. The trio of intruders knew it, and the room knew it, too.

Cautiously, their eyes darting this way and that, the fugitives made their way into the room, descending toward the shadowed center. Their footsteps echoed into infinity, not fading away so much as they were simply lost in the vastness beyond. Four other doors, apparently identical to that through which they had entered, provided ingress into the room. Where the sixth might have been, directly across from them, the advancing torchlight revealed a steep set of steps that cut directly through the rings of seats and led into the darkness that obscured the amphitheater’s ceiling.

The open floor of the chamber finally came into view, and the entire room brightened as the torchlight reflected brilliantly from a metallic floor polished mirror-smooth. Near the base of the steep staircase, a pair of stone fountains in abstract shapes sprayed gouts of water upward. They must have been powered entirely by naturally flowing water, for surely no mechanism could have survived so long unattended.

And in the precise center of the chamber, a simple altar, hardly more than a lump of stone slightly shorter than a sarcophagus. Whatever carvings or adornments it might have boasted were hidden by a worn, moth-eaten cloth draped across it. It was deepest crimson—the same red as the Inquisition tabards, once one allowed for years of fading—and it boasted upon it a great symbol in white.

At first, from a distance, Diederic, Leona, and Violca took it for the sixfold sun. Proximity, however, revealed subtle differences, marking it as something very much other than the icon of the Empyrean Church. The central image was no perfect circle, but an uneven, amorphous shape, organic rather than geometric in origin. From it projected six asymmetrical, meandering limbs. No sunrays, these, but wriggling tendrils, or perhaps plumes of smoke.

Or mist.

Unaware of Diederic’s sudden hesitation, Violca moved ahead to examine the altar. She ran her fingers over the cloth, shaking them now and again to remove the accumulated dust.

"Leona? You know the Empyrean Church better than I. What do you make of this?"

Silence.

"Leona?"

Violca and Diederic turned as one, their hearts quickening, afraid that their companion might simply have vanished into the darkness; it would not have been so surprising, in this terrible place. Instead, they found her staring upward, her expression slack in rapt fascination. The knight and the Vistana both found their gazes drifting ceilingward to match. Where the light of the torch alone had failed to penetrate the darkness above, the added illumination reflected from the floor had proved sufficient. From above, gleaming in silver and lapis lazuli inlaid deep into the black stone, a perfect rendition of the night sky gazed down upon them, the eyes of an unblinking and uncaring god. Stars and planets, comets and constellations—complete as life and twice as clear—wove their way along their prescribed course through the heavens. Diederic had never once seen Malosia’s night sky, but he had no doubt at all that this would prove a flawless match. It was utter perfection—the culmination of a lifetime’s expertise at sculpting and crafting.

Nor were the stars and the other wonders of the firmament the only signs on the ceiling above. Arcs and angles, showing the movement of the celestial bodies through the ever-changing spheres, crossed and recrossed the black expanse. Runic circles, pentagrams, goetic seals, and other far more esoteric iconography hovered amid and among the stars, sometimes connecting them, sometimes overlapping.

And in the center, around which all the cosmos must revolve, an amorphous form akin to that found upon the altar cloth. An unmarked darkness amid the bright and busy mosaic, it drew the eye in a way that even the brilliant astrological imagery could not, as if one stared into a deep and motionless pool. The plumes of shadow that stretched from it ran through and around the occult symbols to terminate at each of the doors: the five the fugitives had already seen, and a sixth they could only now detect atop the great stair.

Long minutes passed as the fugitives stared at the tableau above. It was wondrous, sublime, profoundly disturbing.

It was Violca who first tore her attention from the ceiling and back to more immediate surroundings. Driven by curiosity, yes, but also by a strange and desperate need to find something else on which to focus her attention, she reached out, gathering a handful of cloth in her fist, and yanked the covering from the altar. Motes of dust and flakes of something dried, crusted, and brown drifted to land around her feet, and the Vistana found herself wishing she had remained enraptured by the ceiling after all.

The altar bowed lightly upward in the center, sloping down toward the head and foot. A faint humanoid form was etched shallowly into the stone, crossing over the hump; anyone lying in such a pose would be bent backward most uncomfortably. Three rusty lengths of chain, each ending in a closed manacle, offered mute testimony to the notion that those who might assume such a posture did not do so out of willing religious devotion. A jagged hole in the stone, flecked with rust, suggested a fourth chain, now long gone, had once completed the set.

The surface of the altar was stained, thick and heavy, with layer upon layer of dried, flaking blood. It accumulated in two distinct spots, one at the throat, the other the abdomen, and was so thick in places it altered the contour of the stone itself. But worst of all was the dried brown smear that worked its way from the lower stain and onto the surrounding floor: the spoor of something less than human, drenched in sacrificial blood, slouching unevenly away from its detestable genesis.

Attracted by Violca’s gasp of revulsion, Diederic and Leona gathered around her, observing her abhorrent discovery for themselves. Diederic found himself speculating less about the secrets hidden in the history of the Empyrean Church, and more about those that might lurk back home. His own Church, he knew, had adapted various pagan rites over time, the better to win over the heathens who observed them. Could it have secrets so dark buried in the archives of its past as well? He thought again of Lambrecht, and he wondered….


It was Leona who broke their silence, their morbid fascination. With a final shudder of disgust, she said, "There’s nothing here for us. We should go."

"Actually," Diederic countered, the spell broken, "there is." Tearing his gaze from the altar, he strode to the nearest of the two fountains. He dipped a finger in the water, sniffed it, dabbed just a bit on his tongue. It was gritty and tasted of rock and minerals, but it seemed safe enough. Safer, certainly, than going without. He plunged his cup into the spray, allowing it to fill, and motioned for the others to do the same.

Unfortunately, while this solved the most immediate of their problems, it did little for the long term. The sanctuary provided no food, nor any obvious method of egress from the catacombs. In the end, they chose to mount the narrow stair, which they guessed once served as the priest’s entrance. If anyone was likely to have a swift means of entry and exit, they figured, it would be the clergy. It was better than choosing doors at random, at any rate.

The door atop the stair, other than being substantially higher off the central floor, looked no different than the one from which they had entered. The staircase itself was uncomfortably steep, with barely a single stride between the top step and the doorway. Diederic and Leona perched precariously upon the stair while Violca examined the portal itself. An old, rusted padlock barred their progress only briefly—so long as it took Diederic and Violca to carefully swap positions so the knight could smash the lock from its socket with his chain—and simply as that, they were through.

Leona glanced back at the archway as they shuffled through, her eyes seeking the ubiquitous inscription of their own accord.

"Reason blinds the eye to truth."

She shook her head, and did not share her discovery with the others.

The passage in which they found themselves was unlike those they had so far encountered. The stonework was far smoother, the intersection of the walls with the floor and ceiling more sharply angled and delineated. The floor was paved in simple rows, though why anyone would cobble a stone floor was something of a mystery to Diederic, and the sconces on the walls were frequent and evenly spaced. Passages branched out to either side here and there, but these more closely resembled the other halls. The fugitives chose to keep to the main passage, in the hope that it might lead somewhere worthwhile.

And indeed, that seemed the right decision, for it became clear after several moments of travel that the passage was sloping upward—so gradually as to be scarcely noticeable, but climbing just the same. Perhaps, just perhaps, they had finally found their way out! Invigorating as they found the prospect, however, it had been many long hours of hiking, searching, and climbing. Exhaustion tugged at them like the chains of their prior imprisonment, and after only a few minutes of travel, Violca suggested that they bed down for a rest. Neither of the others argued.

Diederic volunteered for the first watch, clutching a flickering torch as the others slept. He watched as the smoke drifted upward to vanish into the darkness; it writhed and curled, hypnotic in its patterns. Slowly, his eyes grew unfocused, his breathing deep and even. Never would a man of arms such as he have fallen asleep on watch—never—had things in the darkness not weighed heavy on his mind, and upon his eyes.

Lulled by a voice he could not hear, Diederic slept. The torch fell from his limp hand and rolled across the stone, but continued feebly to burn.

He jerked awake, heart pumping, eyes wide. This was unacceptable! To allow himself to doze, when it was his duty to stand sentry, was a gross dereliction of duty! Tensing his jaw until his teeth ground audibly, he propped himself up and reached again for the torch. He never touched it. Again he heard the faint strains of a distant lullaby, felt it gently wind through his ears, his soul. It was so calming, so peaceful, and he was so tired…. Almost blissfully, he allowed himself to drift back into slumber.

The tiny part of his mind that rebelled, that shouted at him that there could be no lullaby, that they were alone in the dark, could not make itself heard over the gentle song. Perhaps they dreamed, all three in tandem, the same images assailing their minds and souls. Or perhaps, despite their slumber, some part of them observed the hall around them, as if through opened eyes and attentive ears. It was illusion; it was real, and if it was more one than the other, none of them could ever say with certainty.

From the unseen distance, the sound began. Little more than a faint scraping, as of something dragged across the polished stone, it seemed impossibly far, yet ever nearer with each step. Shuffle. Scrape. Shuffle. Scrape.

Behind it, a low voice gibbered and wept. The air in the passage grew wet, sticky, the miasma pestilence given breath.

The hall filled with a growing luminescence: the twinkling of a hundred candles. They saw the darkened hallway, shimmering, faint, like a desert mirage. Beneath that image, overlapping, they found themselves within a cavernous ballroom. Fine red carpet crossed the chamber and led to a broad stair, providing access to some unseen second floor. Great chandeliers of gold hung from the ceiling, and it was from these the light emanated. The strings of an orchestra sounded faintly in the corners of the room, though they saw no musicians playing, nor any instruments. The entire chamber, in fact, was utterly empty, save for the trio themselves… and one other.

It floated, writhing gently in an unfelt breeze, perhaps a dozen paces from where they stood—or where they slept.

It was elegant, intricate, the height of fashion hundreds of years gone. Satin of deepest blues and richest greens, ruffles that gleamed like newly sprouted leaves beneath a morning dew, and a train that would have put a prince’s bride to shame. It must have been the true delight of some belle dame of wealth and privilege, the piece de resistance of her wardrobe.

It was also marred by violence: bloodied at the throat and at the belly, the dried stains had caused the delicate fabrics to stiffen and tear. It leaned to one side, weighted down by a length of rusty chain manacled to the left cuff, where the woman’s wrist would be. But no wrist filled that cuff, for no body filled the gown. It floated, empty and unworn.

With the silent shuffle of unseen feet, it glided forward. The chain clinked across carpet and uneven stone; the despairing wails grew loud. It spun and pirouetted across the ballroom, moving straight toward them down the drab stone hall, all in one impossible sequence of graceful steps.

Dreaming or awake, their breathing quickened, their heartbeats raced. On they slept, or dreamt that they slept, and even as the apparition drew nearer, they could not move, could not flee.

And approach it did, gradually, inevitably. The skirt wavered and shifted as though limbs moved beneath it, limbs that utterly failed to resemble human legs. The dried blood stains moistened and became rivulets slowly running down the length of the gown. As it neared, the ballroom shifted and writhed like a living thing. Stairs became row upon row of stone pews, and the chandeliers drew up into the ceiling, until their sparkling lights became the array of stars that had adorned the heights of the dark cathedral.

Wake up! Wake up! You must wake up! But Diederic could not, or if he had woken, he could not move.

And between one breath and the next, it was there before him, dipping low in a curtsy. It flashed across the intervening space faster than any arrow. The shriek of the chain echoed through the passage, but once it faded, the weeping ceased too.

"They took my womb…." The hollow voice, like the lamentations that had preceded it, came not from within the gown but from beyond, below. The right sleeve lashed outward, seizing Diederic’s wrist in an invisible grip, and unseen eyes bored into his soul.

"They took my womb to birth some thing that wants no mother…."

Diederic screamed as his wrist burned—not with the searing touch of flame, but the feverish heat of infection. The thing released his wrist at his scream, and took it again. Released, and grabbed once more. With each touch, the pain grew sharper, ever sharper. And with that pain he awoke.

Still shouting, Diederic lunged to his feet. He reached to grab the torch and cried out once more, agony lancing through him. In the feeble light, he saw the skin where the specter had grabbed him in the depths of dream. It had browned where unseen fingers had clasped it, hardened, and cracked. Pus, hot, yellow-white, and sickly sweet, ran freely down his arm.

Shuddering, he lifted the torch with his other hand and looked about him. Leona and Violca lay upon the floor, tossing and turning, moaning even as they slept. Whatever he had seen, they could see still, and whatever it had done to him, that and worse awaited his companions.

But what could he do? Shouted names, even several vicious slaps across their faces, failed to awaken them.

God help him, what could he do? What did it want?

And then, in a flash of inspiration, as though God had indeed answered, Diederic knew. Ignoring the pain in his wrist, praying only that the spirit would understand his efforts and refrain from harming his companions, he turned and ran. In the clatter of his footsteps, he thought he heard the clanking of that dangling chain.

At a dash he burst through the door to the amphitheater, flailing wildly as he nearly tumbled down the steep and unforgiving stairway. In a descent that was as much a controlled fall as it was a run, he pounded downward, until he stood beside that horrid stone altar with its ancient bloody stains.

What could such a spirit, mutilated and sacrificed for some horrific god, want? Perhaps, just perhaps, the same thing Diederic and the others wanted: freedom from this cursed, forsaken pit of Hell.

Desperately he reached for the first of the chains, wincing at the sight of his wrist, grown dark with blood and other humors. Fingers made clumsy with pain fumbled at the catch. Thankfully, the manacles were held shut merely with pins; had he required a key, all would have been for naught.

Flakes of rust sifted through his fingers as he wrenched open the first of the manacles, the second, and finally the third.

A breeze that smelled thickly of blood and afterbirth washed over his face, and in the unseen distance, an eternal lament finally came to an end.

Violca and Leona sat upright, awake and blinking in the darkness, when Diederic returned, panting for breath, torch in hand. He knew they were going to ask; he didn’t make them wait for an explaination.

"How did you know?" Leona asked softly as he concluded his tale.

Diederic slumped to the floor, waiting for the rush of the fever to pass, cradling his mangled wrist. "She wore... the fourth chain. I hoped that maybe—"

"Maybe?" Violca demanded. "And if you had been wrong?"

Despite his pain, Diederic could not help but grin. "I had no better ideas," he offered, echoing her explanation of days before. "Perhaps next time, you’ll suggest one."

And then there was only silence, as they gathered what little strength remained to continue their journey upward.


Next Week: Chapter Seven...

"My Good Friends, I regret that I cannot travel with you any farther. I apologize, as well, for the nature of this farewell. Know that it could not be helped."

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!