Fiction Archive | 5/22/2009
Article Header Image
Black Crusade: Chapter 18
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 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.

The first were a pair of Inquisition Redbreasts, swords held low and unsheathed in their fists. Both were coated in a patina of sweat, both showed dings and scrapes upon their armor from recent combat, but both stood tall and strong, ready to fight once more. Behind them, somehow larger and more purposeful than he had been, strode Oste van Brekke, First Confessor of the Empyrean Inquisition. His armor showed signs of recent abuse too. His black tabard was ragged, torn, bloodstained, and his left arm hung in a makeshift sling at his chest. But his right hand clutched a heavy flail, a chain-mace with a head larger than a cantaloupe and bristling with studs, to which shards of bone and strands of bloody hair still clung. Behind him came two more Redbreasts, and two more beyond them; the latter gripped neither sword nor axe, but short recurved bows, arrows nocked and ready to fly.

"Van Brekke?" Cornelis demanded in a quavering voice, "What are you doing here? We are grateful if you've come to protect us, but I think you'll find it unnecessary. If you would please—"

"I would not, your Eminence. I have heard enough." Dismissing the old man, van Brekke directed his attention onward. "Lambrecht Raes," he announced, the smile that he kept forcibly from his face making itself apparent in his tone, "by the authority of the Empyrean Inquisition, I am placing you under arrest on charges of heresy, witchcraft, necromancy, and the deliberate temptation of others to follow you into said crimes."

Lambrecht only smiled in turn. "You lack the authority to arrest me, van Brekke, and you know it. The pontiff—"

"Can no longer protect you." The First Confessor gestured around the haft of the flail; his archers stepped forward in response. "If he refuses to cooperate," van Brekke told them, "bring him down."

The priest's smile faltered as he realized that the Confessor was entirely serious. He stepped back, away from the Redbreasts, placing the pontiff between himself and the arrows.

"Van Brekke," the old man shouted, pointing, "I am now ordering you to stand down! You will leave us, and report to me later, where we may discuss your lack of—"

"You have no standing to order me about any longer, your Eminence." Where his arrest of Lambrecht had been delighted, even taunting, now van Brekke's tone fell. A single tear rolled from an eye to lose itself in the forest of his beard. As he spoke, however, his voice hardened once more, and by his final word, his face had reddened with growing anger. "Cornelis Antheunis, by the authority of the Empyrean Inquisition, I place you under arrest for willing collaboration with witches, and failure to either report or attempt to stop the practice of black magics, in violation of the dictates set forth by your own Inquisition! You will be taken into custody, stripped of all rank and privileges, and made to answer for your actions."

Cornelis staggered as though struck, pale as his robes of office, one hand clutching his chest. Behind him, Lambrecht fled with a wordless cry. The walking corpses burst once more into the hall, three from the pontiff's office, three more from the chamber adjacent to the storeroom in which Diederic and Violca helplessly thrashed and silently screamed. They formed two lines across the passage as they advanced, a shield of armor and bone for the running priest.

The first archer loosed his arrow rapidly but wildly, cursing as it skimmed past the cowering pontiff to embed itself uselessly in a shambling corpse. The second, a seasoned veteran of a dozen campaigns, dropped to one knee and waited… waited….


As Lambrecht stepped toward the door, his legs carrying him out from behind his bastion of rotting flesh, the archer's weapon thrummed. Straight and true the arrow flew, mere inches above the floor, passing between the legs of the walking dead. Lambrecht slammed into the doorframe, shrieking, dropping to the floor to clutch at the shaft of wood protruding from his calf.

Beside him, its pages flapping wildly though the hallway lacked any sort of breeze, landed the Laginate Grimoire.

Van Brekke and the Redbreasts surged ahead, and the dead moved to push them back. The First Confessor shouted at his men to beat the corpses down, to clear a path, to reach the black sorcerer before he could escape. Yet try as he might, though his flail crushed bone, and he hurled his great bulk against the undead bulwark time and again, Lambrecht's puppets would not permit him passage.

His hands wet with his own blood, his nose filled with its metallic scent, Lambrecht yanked the arrow from the wound. He screamed with the pain—a seemingly endless sound—until his lungs refused to produce any further breath. He sat, panting, struggling to tear strips from his robe to bind the agonizing wound. The pain… oh, God, the pain wouldn't end…. But he could walk upon it, he thought as he wrapped it tight, if it meant avoiding the fate his enemies planned for him.

Whimpering softly, he stretched forth a hand to reclaim the Grimoire….

And shrieked once more, recoiling as a Vistani blade spun from the web-shrouded room to slice the flesh and the tendons at the back of his hand.

Through tear-blurred eyes, he stared at Violca, her flesh torn by a hundred tiny bites, a dozen narrow trickles and tributaries of blood flowing down her limbs. Somehow she had twisted about, in spite of the heavy webs that held her, had found (or Seen?) her way between the strands, inched about and loosened her bonds until she had enough slack to strike.

With his wounded hand pressed to his chest, the fabric of his robe held fast to his skin by the growing stain of sticky blood, he pushed himself upright against the doorframe, straining with his one good leg. He struggled to maintain his balance, hobbling, limping, reaching once more toward the book for which he had sacrificed so much.

Another arrow split the wood beside him, quivering, aggravated that it had failed to bite into something far softer and more yielding. Two of the corpses fell as one, their legs hacked out from under them by Inquisition blades, and from between them charged Oste van Brekke, his chain-mace held high and spinning fast.

Sobbing in impotent frustration, Lambrecht stumbled, empty handed, back into the pontiff's quarters. The heavy door slammed shut behind him, and though the latch had disintegrated beneath Diederic's earlier assault, a heavy chair propped against the wood would provide a few moments' delay.

Well, let him wait…. Let him fester and stew and bleed. Van Brekke waved most of his men over to him, leaving one to continue hacking at the downed corpses until they were so many harmless, twitching parts. Five Redbreasts survived, and the First Confessor shut his eyes and offered swift rites over the man who had fallen. Three of the soldiers he ordered to stand guard over other doors in the hall: rooms that connected to the pontiff's suite and might provide a means of escape for Lambrecht. One stood behind Cornelis himself, holding the old man by one arm so he might not flee, and though his expression was ashen at the thought of laying his hands on the pontiff, he obeyed.

With the fifth, van Brekke peered into the web-strewn storage room, gagging at the sight of the vermin scuttling across the two bound prisoners.

"Sir?" the soldier questioned.

Van Brekke hesitated only a moment. He had no doubt that they deserved to suffer for what they had done, and his anger only grew when he considered that it must have been they who had slain the pontiff's personal guards. Alas, until he had Lambrecht in chains, and had cast the Grimoire to the hottest flame, he just might need them still.

And besides, nobody deserved to die from the workings of black sorceries. Let their execution come honestly and purely at the hands and tools of man.

"Cut them down," he ordered.

It was no difficult task. The strands parted beneath the soldier's blade as easily as any normal cobweb. Violca tumbled free the moment he began, and the filaments holding Diederic grew weaker and lighter the deeper the Redbreast moved into the room. By the time he had closed to within a few feet, the knight had freed himself.

He stumbled from the storeroom, every inch of skin an angry red from the bites of creatures no longer seen. Blood from tiny open wounds dripped down both arms, both legs. Even his infected wrist had been chewed open, leaking thick, foul humors across the back of his hand. Loose strands of web dangled from his fingers and his hair. A moment passed before he found the wherewithal to speak.

"Not that I'm ungrateful, van Brekke," he began without preamble, "but what exactly are you doing here?"

The First Confessor harrumphed. "Did you really think I was going to turn you loose in the upper echelons of my Church, de Wyndt? I figured you'd cause enough trouble that Lambrecht would be forced to expose himself, and I could justify taking him regardless of the pontiff's protection. And you're fortunate we got here when we did, given that I had to kill over half my own men to escape that cellar." He frowned abruptly. "I'd hoped not to have to arrest the pontiff himself…."

"Yes, fine." Diederic glanced over Violca once, as though to assure himself she was all right—or as all right as he, at least—and was puzzled to find her already kneeling beside the pontiff's door, examining it closely, as though attempting to determine the best way in. She looked back at him and mouthed a single word, so that none of the others could see. His eyes widened in understanding, and he nodded.

"Very well, van Brekke. Let's do this before he finds some means of escape after all." Between Diederic and the soldiers, the door proved no more an impediment now than it had earlier. Save for a few drops of blood on the wooden table, they saw no sign of Lambrecht's presence. Swiftly they fanned out, the First Confessor guiding them through the layout of the chambers beyond the main room, the paths by which the priest could have slipped into adjacent suites. They searched in every room, under every piece of furniture, behind every curtain, without success. Diederic's and Violca's efforts left bloody handprints scattered across otherwise pristine walls. The remaining soldiers, set to guard the various doors, swore to the First Confessor's face, in the name of God Most High and the Six Scions, that nobody had snuck past them.

Diederic's growing fury was palpable as he scoured the rooms again and again, hurling chairs aside, slamming his axe through the doors of cabinets and cupboards. Splinters flew, and each time the guards moved as if to stop him, then thought better of it.

The First Confessor leaned idly upon the heavy table, his good hand clasped thoughtfully to his chin. "De Wyndt?" he called softly, and then, when the sounds of violent rage did not abate, more loudly. "De Wyndt!"


"I believe I know where Lambrecht's gone."

The knight stormed from the adjoining room, his posture a model of childish temper. "Where, then?"

"In the Church's earliest days, we lacked the military power we have today. In case of an attempt on the pontiff's life, several secret means of escape were hidden about his quarters and his office."

"And you're only just telling us this now?" Diederic demanded.

"I've only just thought of it, de Wyndt. The passages are all but forgotten. They haven't been opened, let alone used, in generations. Even the pontiff probably didn't know they existed; I only know myself thanks to a passing mention in some treatises on the defense of the Basilica, writings that I've studied as First Confessor. I cannot for the life of me figure how Lambrecht learned of them, but clearly he did so."

"Fine. So where are the entrances? Every moment we stand here talking, he's getting farther away."

"Ah, yes. You see, de Wyndt, there you've hit upon it. I don't know where the damned entrances are."

Five pairs of eyes flickered about the room, taking in its ornate structure, the niches and protrusions, the shelves and tapestries, any one of which could have concealed a doorway. Diederic groaned.

"Violca, your gift? Might you somehow See your way to the entrance?"

Van Brekke opened his mouth to object, but he needn't have bothered. The Vistana shook her head. "The Sight doesn't work like that, Diederic." She paused thoughtfully. "Although…."

She approached the nearest wall, her eyes cast downward. She moved around the room at a slow but steady pace, finally stopping with a wide grin.


The men clustered about her like a pack of hounds as she gracefully gestured to the floor. "I knew trying to spot Lambrecht's blood in this carpet would be difficult, but it occurred… if the doors, and the mechanisms, had gone as long as the First Confessor claims without use…."

There it was, beneath a small gold icon of the sixfold sun: a small but notable constellation of white powder—dust and ground rock—scattered across the crimson carpet.

Diederic smiled broadly at his companion and twisted the tiny statuette. It turned leftward with a dull grind. A large shelf against the wall beside it slid smoothly backward, leaving a gap just wide enough for a large man to slip through if he turned sideways. It opened onto a staircase that plunged sharply into darkness. The air beyond was stale, but carried on it the lingering scents of smoke and lantern oil. Here, where the floor was uncarpeted, they could clearly see a man's footsteps outlined in the dust, escorted by an uneven line of bloody smears.

"Very well," van Brekke announced. "We'll proceed forward as a group. De Wyndt, you—"


The larger man's face reddened once more. "I beg your pardon?" His tone was dangerously calm, belying his expression.

"Van Brekke, think a moment. If you do not accompany whomever you send to lock up the pontiff, he's never going to see the inside of a cell. Or do you really believe that every guard and every priest between here and your dungeon is going to believe the pontiff guilty of heresy on the word of a few Redbreasts?"

The First Confessor chewed his beard for a moment, considering. "Fine," he conceded at last, "but you'll not be running off on your own, either. Lieutenant Merfleur!"

The first of the Redbreasts, who had aided in their search of the suite, snapped to attention. "My lord!"

"You will accompany de Wyndt and the Vistana on their hunt for the witch. Your authority is as mine. Do what you must to ensure that Lambrecht Raes does not escape our justice.

"And keep an eye on these two while you're at it."

"Aye, my lord!"

His face a mixture of warring emotions, van Brekke gazed long at the pontiff to whom he had dedicated his life, now nothing more to him than another old man, quivering in anger at being caught, and fear of the coming consequences. With a grunt and a wave, he departed, two men guarding their prisoner, the others carrying the body of their fallen companion.

Diederic did not wait to watch them go. Ignoring Lieutenant Merfleur, he yanked a lantern from the wall and handed it to Violca, pulled down a second, and proceeded into the hidden corridor. Though most of his wounds had clotted of their own accord, a few wept still; the lantern sizzled sporadically as drops of blood spattered across the glass.

Guided by shadows that pranced about them mockingly, the trio began the long march down the narrow stairs. The lanterns did little good, for the ancient darkness was too old, too stubborn, to step aside for such feeble lights. As their boots echoed on the stone, obscuring Lambrecht's prints with their own, Diederic again wondered if he was fated ever to travel in circles, continually returning from whence he came. The stairway reminded him greatly of the passages beneath Jerusalem. A world away, yet he swore they could have been carved by the same tools, wielded by the same hands.

A dozen feet down was far enough, he decided. Van Brekke and the others had had plenty of time to leave the room, and were unlikely to hear any commotion.

He knelt, setting the lantern beside him, and fiddled a bit with his boot as though adjusting it. There he remained, long enough for the Redbreast—Mer-something—to pass. Then he reached out and wrapped his arms about the man's head and neck in a vicious chokehold, leaning backward as he did so.

On even ground, the Inquisitor might have countered the sudden assault. With steps below, however, and dragged backward and upward until his feet left the stone, he lacked the leverage to act. For a moment he kicked feebly, thrashed so far as Diederic's grip would allow, and then plummeted into unconsciousness.

Diederic laid him down carefully upon the steps and nodded to Violca. "He should be out for some time." The Vistana rolled her eyes.

"Let me see it, Violca."

From her pouch, her hand quivering at the pages' touch, it appeared: the Laginate Grimoire, which she had swiftly hidden while crouched outside the pontiff's door lest van Brekke spot it.

He took it without asking, staring at the heavy parchment, then shoved it violently into his own pouch. The Vistana considered protesting, then thought better of it. Had Diederic been paying any attention to her at all, had he not been so wrapped up in the thought of his vengeance and his voyage home, he might have seen the lines of tension around her temples, the hard line of her mouth, the constant flickering of her gaze.

"Have we any need even to continue this chase?" he asked, eyes as bright as the lantern at his ankle. "We have both halves of the tome. You said that your people could use that to send us both back home."

"I said they might be able to, Diederic. Remember, I made you no promise."

"I remember." He pondered a moment. "And if it does work, Violca? He and I will return together?"

His face fell at her hesitation, for it seemed reply enough. "Violca? I've told you before. Do not lie to me. Not about this."

"I do not know the ways of the Mists, Diederic. Nobody truly does, though my elders know more than most. I cannot say for certain. But," she continued as he drew breath to argue, "I think your answer is no. I would imagine that whatever distance separates you on this side of the Mists would remain on the other."

"Then we continue. He must not escape me, Violca. He will not!"

She knew she should refuse, should insist that Lambrecht's injuries and his loss of the Grimoire must be punishment enough, should argue on behalf of the men and women of Caercaelum who even now suffered and bled and died beneath the madness that leaked from that accursed book.

She knew, as well, that any such pleas would fall on deafened ears. Furthermore, she lacked the energy, the focus, to make her arguments persuasive. Something beneath them, something as thick and pervasive as the darkness, pressed painfully on her head. For the first time, she felt the presence of her own Sight as an alien weight behind her eyes.

There was something deep in the shadows that wanted to be Seen.

The stairs terminated in a heavy door, standing ever so slightly ajar. Diederic shoved it open, and Violca bit her lip until it bled to keep from crying out as the pressure on her mind increased five-fold.

Revealed in the light of their dancing lanterns, an old, rat-eaten carpet of dull gold stretched through a hallway walled in marble. Ancient paintings, their subjects indiscernible beneath layers of grime, hung at irregular intervals, and several unlit chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Their arms were draped in cobwebs, and Diederic could not help but cringe from them, hunching his shoulders.

If this hall was indeed an escape route for fleeing clergy, its builders obviously meant for them to flee in comfort. Dear God, did it really matter to the ancient priests how fancy an escape tunnel might be! The entire passage was a monument to waste, to opulence for opulence's sake, and the grizzled warrior could not keep a curl of revulsion off his lips.

No time to waste in contemplation, though. Even had this not been the only route, Diederic would have known Lambrecht had come this way. His prints showed in the dust-choked carpet, his blood and sweat hung on the stagnant air. Onward Diederic strode with nary a glance behind, or he might have seen the pain and terror that slithered occasionally across Violca's face.

She could no longer be certain that what she saw was real at all. Things moved in the flashes of darkness between the flickering of the flame, things with faces distended in agony and older than the stone that pressed in around her. She saw the images in the paintings, beyond the mask of dust, and they stared back at her with accusing eyes. She looked deep into a filthy mirror that hung precariously on the wall, saw that the reflection of Diederic's wounds left a trail of blood across the inside of the glass, and she trembled.

She struggled, for she did not want to See….

Round and round they traveled, following the subtle curve of the passage as it wound through the bedrock of Scions Mount. From the main hall, narrow passages branched at seemingly random intervals, tributaries from the primary flow. But Diederic ignored them. Only when he came to an enormous door, solid oak and bound in bronze, did he halt. Now that he was forced to slow, he saw that Lambrecht's prints did not end at the portal, but turned back upon themselves. Apparently the priest had struggled with the door—struggled with it and lost.

Brushing past Violca without so much as a glance, Diederic tracked the limping steps back, until they turned off into a tiny passage. Nothing differentiated this one from any other, leading him to wonder whether Lambrecht had chosen by design or by chance. Either way, there was nothing to do but follow.

A second stairway led them down, and a third not far beyond that, so narrow that even turned sideways, Diederic felt his hauberk scrape against the stone. He marveled at the depth to which they had already traveled, akin to that of Perdition Hill, and prayed they had not much farther to go. Behind him, Violca stumbled, her eyes squeezed shut until they ached, one hand on the wall to guide her. Over and over, under her breath, she repeated every traditional Vistani chant, every meditation, even the nursery rhymes of her childhood—flimsy bulwarks to keep the weight of ages at bay just a few moments more. She no longer remembered how to speak anything else, could not have told Diederic of her suffering even had she wished it.

Finally the narrow confines opened into a passage that did not wind, did not twist, but cut through the rock like an arrow. No carpet muffled their steps, no marble facade hid the rough-hewn stone. Lambrecht's trail in the film of dust grew thin, and Diederic increased his pace once more, terrified of losing his quarry after having come so close.

So focused was he on moving forward—so distracted was Violca by the images she fought not to see, the calls and the chants and the screams she struggled not to hear—that neither noticed much of the hall around them.

They failed to notice that their shadows had begun to move.

With each step, each flicker of the lanterns, Diederic's and Violca's shadows pivoted around them. No bend in the hall, no movement of the light, could account for it; the shadows moved utterly independently of the fire.

Subtly they rotated—slowly, inches and degrees—and for a time they went unnoticed. And even once Violca saw it, peering about blearily during a lull in the visions, saw that their shadows no longer stretched out before and behind but fell across the rightmost wall in utter disdain for the lanterns, she held her tongue, convinced that these must be nothing more than effects of the pressures weighing on her Sight.

When she'd finally determined that she had better say something, had finally drawn breath to speak, or perhaps to scream, it was too late.

The shadows shifted to fall directly, impossibly, across the lanterns that cast them. And where they fell upon the fires, they snuffed those fires out. With a hiss, the passageway descended into a darkness blacker than death itself.

With the loss of normal sight on which to focus, the mundane to shield her from the visions beyond, Violca lost what defense she had against the images assailing her mind. Her shrieks echoed long and loud through the endless corridors, until Diederic thought his own ears would burst.

And just as suddenly, they ceased.

For a moment Diederic stood frozen, awaiting some sign of attack, or for the telltale thump that would indicate his companion had fallen. Neither came.

"Violca?" he whispered finally. "Violca, are you—Jesu!"

He literally scraped his helm on the low ceiling, so violently did he jump at her touch. She said nothing, merely clung to his shoulder with a single hand, but he recognized her voice in the harsh, raspy breathing that was her only answer.

Perhaps Diederic might have said more, might finally have asked her what was amiss. As his eyes adjusted, however, he came to notice that they did not, after all, stand in absolute darkness. At the hallway's distant end, there was light: scarcely more than the faintest glow, but light nonetheless.

His axe clutched in one fist, the other hand on the wall, he moved slowly toward it. Violca's hand dropped from his shoulder, but he heard her steps as well as his own, and knew that she followed.

As they neared the luminescence—a strange blue radiance—it grew brighter, and the archway at the corridor's end became clear. Glyphs were etched deep in the stone around and above the opening. They seemed too organic, too random, to be language—less runes than they might have been trails left by worms as they crawled across the living rock. Still they held meaning, legible to the most primal instincts if not to the conscious, civilized mind…. Meaning enough that, despite his obsessive need for vengeance, Diederic had to force himself with iron will not to turn tail and retreat into the comforting dark.

Beyond the door lay a cavernous chamber, massive, imposing, and very much like one other Diederic had seen before.

It was nearly identical to the unholy cathedral beneath Perdition Hill. Again the many rows of seats rose upward and outward along the many walls, and again he found himself standing halfway up the manmade slope. Again the ceiling was covered in etchings and carvings, the stars of the heavens, circles and runes of foulest power, the shapeless mockery of the sixfold sun.

One difference, however, attracted his eyes instantly, despite the hypnotic draw of the images above. Where the priest's steep stair in the other chamber had climbed from a simple stone altar, here the center of the room was occupied by a pyramid in miniature, a structure of six sides and six steps. Each level held its own manacles, its own tiny channels through which the blood of the slain might flow.

On the pyramid's lowest step a lantern flickered, clearly out of place. It was that tiny fire, gleaming from the metallic floor and the lapis lazuli of the inscriptions, that had drawn Diederic's notice from the darkened hall. The reflected blue from above was somehow sickening to the eye, poisonous to the mind. It cast the far reaches of the chamber in deep shadow, so that only the central portions of the room remained visible.

Despite that cloak of darkness, Diederic knew that he and Violca were not alone, knew that Lambrecht lurked in the black—would have known even had the lantern been absent. He felt the bastard's presence.

Whether Lambrecht would have sensed their presence in turn, Diederic would never know. For even as he tensed to make his way around the chamber, to find the priest wherever he hid and drag him screaming from the shadows, Violca fell to her knees. Her mouth gaped wide, her jaw popping audibly with strain, and what came from within was the sepulchral moan of a dozen voices. Her head was tilted upward, but she saw nothing at all, for her eyes had rolled back in her skull, revealing only the whites and the pink flesh beneath.

Her words, like her groan of lament, were spoken not by any one voice, but by a veritable chorus of the ancient damned.

"As beneath the skin of the world, so too beneath the flesh of men, do nameless godlings gnaw. They grow fat upon the stuff of souls."

Diederic remembered the inscription by the shrine beneath Perdition Hill—"Prayer is the repast that fattens men's souls for consumption"—and he trembled.

"What trickery is this, Diederic?" Lambrecht's voice, oddly shaken, emerged from the dark, echoed from the walls, as though his presence filled the room entire. "You had best—"

"You call them Scions!" the voices that were Violca screamed to the heights of the vaulted chamber. "You call them sons! They are all of them as children, and they play with us and break us as their toys. Scions of the gibbering moon; scions of the sickened blood. Scions of the outer darkness; scions of the inner void. They are the wriggling spawn of the One Beyond. His shadow is the fall of night, his breath the creeping mists. We are as less than ants to him, and as less than ants he treats us. He walks betwixt the worlds, Diederic de Wyndt. His breath obscures the ancient seals, Lambrecht Raes, throws wide the doors between. Can even your God do thus?

"Can your God set us freeeeee…." Their final plea trailed away into a wordless shriek. It rose higher than any human voice, carried longer than any mortal breath, until Violca fell, senseless, to the stone floor, blood trickling from her throat and across her lips.

"I don't… I don't understand…." Lambrecht gasped, his breathless voice nonetheless carrying to Diederic's ears.

"Don't you?" the knight demanded, his expression growing cold as he cast about for his foe. Finally he understood, truly understood how Violca could believe Malosia to be a new and unnatural land. For only now did he realize from whence the shape of that land must have come. "This is your prison, Lambrecht! A world crafted from your own soul! Who but you could envision a Church based on so loathsome a foundation?"

Silence—a silence as thick and heavy as the shadows themselves. And then, finally, "Who indeed, Sir Diederic?"

For a fleeting instant, Diederic swore he saw movement, saw Lambrecht atop the high priest's stair. And then the chamber echoed with the slam of a ponderous door.

Diederic ran—ran as never before—pounding across the metallic floor, scrambling up the narrow steps. But his heart was heavy, hopeless. He knew, even before he tried it, that the door would refuse to budge, the clasp refuse to turn in his grip.

Atop the stair was no room to charge or to break the portal down. And the ceremonial door was gilded in brass, not thick enough to stop an axe blade, but enough to dull it horribly, to render it useless in chopping through the wood beneath.

Cursing, his entire body shuddering with rage, Diederic slumped beside the door and wept.

Violca heard the shrieking voices that wriggled like worms from her throat and across her tongue, and she could not stop them. Though her eyes were closed, she Saw things that slouched through the darkness, moving not through the angles and spaces and dimensions of her world, but between them. She Saw them, and she knew that they were ancient, truly ancient, in a way Malosia was not, and she could only pray they took no further notice of her, lest her mind be pulped beneath the weight of their attentions.

But these were not all that she Saw.

Beyond the things she could not truly comprehend, as though they were merely shadows cast across her vision by something greater, she Saw a dozen faces, a hundred, a thousand and more. She Saw a man and woman, burning alive yet refusing to die, and facing them a quartet of men in chain armor, each bleeding from his skull. She Saw a dozen Redbreasts, mauled and mangled, across from whom stood a pair of men, one clad as an Empyrean priest, one wrapped in bandages. All of them flickered, reflections of a dying flame cast in a filthy mirror, vanishing the moment she Saw them, reappearing again whenever she dared blink.

And behind them all, hundreds upon hundreds of faces, their eyes stretched wide, their mouths agape and drooling. Madmen and lunatics, murdered by a variety of uncountable wounds, covered not only in their own blood, but the blood of friends, neighbors, and families whom they had slain in their delusions.

They gathered together, waiting, always waiting. For what, Violca did not know…. Not at first.

And then she Saw beyond them, Saw the rolling fields and high peaks, the deep dungeons and the high minarets, and she knew that these men and women were the afterbirth of Malosia's genesis, that it was the domain itself that waited.

Malosia was an empty land, but it would not remain empty much longer.

She Saw two final figures, looming over the dead. She recognized them both, just as welcome, blissful unconsciousness finally claimed her, and she Saw no more.

Next Week: Chapter Nineteen...

"Gods, Diederic. So many...."

After Diederic carried her from the lowest level, Violca had awakened and insisted on walking under her own power, though she swayed a bit and her eyes would not focus. He said nothing, did not inquire after her, but stared fixedly ahead, his fists clenching and unclenching around the lantern.

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!