The following continues the 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!
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.
Before the trial reached the end of its first day, Diederic wished that he had let fall his axe, rather than permitting Lambrecht to draw another breath.
The sun had risen eleven times over the Holy City since the day the soldiers of Mother Church had breached the walls, and in that time the pilgrims had done a remarkable job of making daily life seem normal. The streets were free of corpses and the hot desert winds swept aside the stench of decay, though many of the stones boasted dry and flaking stains. Not only the soldiers, but the many Christians who had followed behind them, had already claimed many of the city's homes for themselves. A few shops had opened for purchase or trade of goods, while many other storefronts had new owners who worked furiously to ready themselves for business. The unarmed and unarmored once again made up the majority of traffic along the city's byways. Church bells tolled the hours, and every chapel in the city held regular mass.
The synod that would confront Father Lambrecht, on matters both ecclesiastical and secular, assembled in a large pavilion at the base of the Temple Mount. A horseshoe-shaped platform rose high above the ground. Along its length, a dozen men sat in judgment, the most exalted three in the center from whence they would lead and moderate the proceedings. Eleven of the twelve were drawn from among the highest, most noble, and most faithful of the pilgrims; the twelfth was the most illustrious of all.
Having already offered his testimony, Diederic stood at the rear of the pavilion along with many dozens of Jerusalem's new citizens, eager to see the laws of man and God in practice. A priest accused of heresy, of murder? This was the most sensational news since Raymond de Toulouse had refused the crown of the new Kingdom of Jerusalem four days prior.
The knight stood with his arms crossed and his brow furrowed. He was clad not in his hauberk, but in black hose and a silken tunic of gray—attire appropriate for his status as landed gentry. Atop it all he wore his knight's tabard, cleaned and mended of the many injuries and indignities it had sustained during the siege and the madness that had followed. He stood and he watched and he cursed the slack-jawed curiosity of those around him, wincing at the acrid stink of their sweat in such close quarters. But most of all he cursed himself, for allowing the snake-tongued priest any opportunity to defend himself.
"Summon the accused."
Diederic turned along with the crowd as three sets of footsteps sounded from the entrance. His eyes blazed with hatred, where those in the crowd shone only with fascination.
He strode forward with his head high, as though he were still clad in priestly vestments rather than the ragged and stained grey tunic that hung from his shoulders to his knees. He walked with an obvious limp, a relic of the fall he had taken from the dais, but he refused the aid of any crutch. Some kind soul among his keepers had straightened his broken nose as best they could, but it jutted left at a slight angle. His hair was tangled and knotted, his cheeks unshaven; he exuded a stench that put the audience in the gallery to shame. But Lambrecht projected the image of a man to be respected. The two armored sentries who strode beside him could have been mistaken for bodyguards and manservants rather than jailors.
Even as they guided him onto the square wooden platform that stood before the assembled judges, Lambrecht kept his gaze locked firmly on the three men in the center of the synod. He knew—as did Diederic, and indeed everyone present—that while he might technically stand accused before twelve, it was these three who must be convinced of his innocence, or his guilt.
To the left of center loomed the towering Laureins d'Auvergne, a French earl known to both Diederic and Joris van den Felle. He stroked his heavy beard as the accused mounted the stand; Diederic knew he had at least one vote on his side.
To the right, a scrawny fellow in the cassock and miter of high Church office. This was Bishop Colaert: one of the oldest men to have embarked on the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, let alone to have survived it. His face, deeply lined, had showed no reaction to Diederic's testimony at all, nor to the arrival of the accused priest.
And in the center, drawing awed looks from the assembly, Godefroy de Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre and crowned Princeps of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He sat resplendent in polished armor and white tabard with golden cross, battle-ready garb that he had refused to shed for any purpose since the city had fallen. So great were the charges leveled here, against a man of the cloth, that he had insisted on sitting on the synod himself, despite the work yet to be done in repairing Jerusalem and intelligence that suggested the approach of a Fatimid army several days hence.
Once Lambrecht finally stood atop the platform with both hands clasped on the railing, Godefroy rose from his seat. "Father Lambrecht Raes, you stand before this synod in the eyes of God and your fellow men, charged with crimes against the laws of Heaven and Earth." His voice carried through the pavilion, silencing all whispers and mutters amid the gathered throng. Even the sounds that carried from the city outside faded away, as though all Jerusalem paid heed to his words. "You stand accused of heresy against God the Father and Christ the Son. You stand accused of the practice of sorceries, and the binding of spirits, by use of pagan rituals. You stand accused of the murder of men of Christendom, soldiers of the Church, and in the case of Joris van den Felle, a man above you in social worth. And you stand accused of assault upon the person, and attempted murder, of the knight Sir Diederic de Wyndt.
"Do you understand the full nature and import of the crimes of which you stand accused?"
"I do, your Highness." Lambrecht's voice, though powerful still, possessed a nasal quality it had previously lacked—likely the lingering effects of his broken nose.
"Do you understand that you stand accused before both secular and Church law? That a finding of your guilt in the first may result in death by hanging, and in the second, excommunication and the damnation of your immortal soul?"
"And have you heard, standing without while waiting to be called, the testimony offered against you by Sir Diederic de Wyndt?"
"I have." Lambrecht turned about to lock eyes with his accuser, and smiled a friendly greeting. Diederic felt his fists and his jaw clench tight.
"Very well." The Princeps lowered himself once more into his seat. "As it is the graver matter, we will begin first with the accusation of heresy, and the charges that endanger your immortal soul. The matter of your life or death can wait."
Lambrecht merely nodded. Diederic could not help but roll his eyes.
It was Bishop Colaert who spoke next, his quavering voice a sharp contrast to Godefroy's powerful tones. "Father Lambrecht, do you recognize these pages given us by Sir Diederic?" He gestured, and one of the guards stepped forward, a stack of creased parchments in his fist.
Lambrecht leaned forward, as though to get a better look. "Yes, your Eminence."
"Tell us of them."
"These are the surviving pages of the Laginate Grimoire, which tell of pagan rites and witchcrafts. It was compiled and set to parchment by wicked, abominable men in days of old, before the rise of enlightened philosophy in Greece. Even when they worshipped the pagan gods of Olympus, the Greeks were wise enough to shun such works, and most copies of the Grimoire were lost. The last whole copy was destroyed when his Eminence Michael Cerularius ordered the burning of occult works in Constantinople, some forty years gone."
"Indeed." Colaert glanced at his fellow judges, then continued. "And know you how these pages came to rest beneath the Holy City?"
"My understanding, your Eminence, is that they, and other secret writings, were sent forth from Rome to avoid their capture and use by the pagan Goth tribes that beset the empire. They have lain here, forgotten by most, since the Saracens took Jerusalem."
"You damn yourself with your own words!" Laureins shot to his feet, leveling an accusing finger at Lambrecht. "Surely no pious man of God should know so much of these heretical writings!" Many in the gallery nodded in agreement.
Lambrecht, however, merely shrugged. "Do I, your Grace? I should point out that I need merely have argued that I have never before seen these writings, and you would have only Sir Diederic's word otherwise." Diederic opened his mouth to protest—decorum be damned—but Lambrecht offered him no opportunity.
"But I am not here to besmirch the word of an honorable knight of the Church. I could argue, as well, that his Eminence Colaert also knows the history of these writings, else how could he trust my answers? But neither am I here to cast aspersions or doubt upon a fellow man of the cloth.
"No, your Grace. I am familiar with the Laginate Grimoire. Nor does my knowledge stop there. I have held in my hands the Book of Going Forth by Day. I have perused the secrets locked away in the Goetic writings, and examined the rites of the Kalachakra Tantra. I have studied the findings of the Collegium Horizontis and the worshippers of Mercurius ter Maximus. I have even perused an incomplete copy of Al Azif, though it was scribed in the original Arabic, and there was much I could not comprehend."
"Are you confessing to heresy, Father Lambrecht?" It was Princeps Godefroy who asked, but Lambrecht's gaze remained fixed on Laureins. "Or simply attempting to impress us with your wide readings?"
"Your Grace, would you take the field of battle against a foe whose numbers you had not counted? Whose tactics and skills you had not studied? Whose weapons were of a make you knew not?"
"Not if I had any other choice," Laureins admitted.
"Nor would I. Nor would I wish my Church to do so." Now the priest stepped back, clearly addressing the entire synod. "Can we combat heresy if we do not recognize it? Can we ward ourselves, and our flocks, against the workings of Satan if we know not the nature of his tools and his servants?
"The Romans hid these books, rather than burn them, because they recognized their importance. Even King Solomon consulted seers and bound spirits. Even Christ Jesu descended bodily into Hell. I study the foe so I may know him, not so I may join him; I armor my heart and soul against the temptations of these foul magics with my love of God and Church."
Diederic, to his mounting horror, saw not only many of the spectators, but at least half the judges, slowly nodding in understanding.
Godefroy leaned forward in his chair. "Perhaps it is true that knowledge of these matters, though distasteful and hazardous to body and soul, may not be heresy unto itself. But practice of these rites is as worship of false idols, and is an offense directly unto God. You have not answered those charges, Father Lambrecht."
Lambrecht looked down at his hands, clenched nervously on the wooden barrier. "I would not speak ill of a fellow Christian, your Highness."
"Speak. We will judge the value of your words for ourselves."
"Very well." Lambrecht's gaze returned to meet his accusers. "I have no doubt in my heart that Sir Diederic is a just and honorable man, and soldier of the Church. But I fear I must question his mental state in the hours following the fall of Jerusalem."
Diederic leapt forward with a low growl, only to find himself held about the waist and shoulders by Lambrecht's jailors.
"Sir Diederic," Godefroy thundered. "We will forgive this outburst once. But you have said your piece, and you will now stand quietly with the other observers, or you will be dismissed from these proceedings."
His teeth grinding audibly, the knight bowed his head and stepped back.
"Not a man among us," Lambrecht continued, "is ignorant of the events that followed our entry into the city." A number of those present lowered their eyes in shame, though many more seemed unrepentant. "Diederic as much as confessed to me that he was part of those, that the madness of battle had overtaken him. He claims that I cast magics upon him, but he offers nothing but insect bites and the evidence of his senses—senses that he, himself, describes as impaired—as proof.
"I believe that Diederic, the poor fellow, was indeed struck by a temporary madness. And that in his desperation to assuage himself of his guilt for the actions he took therein, he has convinced himself that some outside influence was responsible. Perhaps there was, but if so, it was the work of Satan, not I."
"I know Sir Diederic," Laureins grumbled. "If he swears to me he saw a thing, I believe in that thing as surely as if I saw it myself." But his voice had quieted, and whatever certainty he might retain was absent from the eyes of Colaert and Godefroy.
The trio of worthies dismissed the synod soon after, that they might spend the evening in contemplation and deliberation. They would take up the issue of Lambrecht's secular crimes on the morrow, or perhaps the day after, once his ecclesiastic standing was determined. But Diederic, his gut churning, hardly needed to wait. He knew already how that day would go.
Did Sir Diederic see me murder any man? He could hear it in Lambrecht's own voice. Did anyone else? Assumptions and suppositions do not make me guilty, your Highness, though I understand fully his burning desire to find someone responsible for the deaths of his friends.
Even the dagger would not suffice. True, Lambrecht should not be carrying such a weapon, but Diederic could hardly prove that it, and not any other blade like it in all Jerusalem, had been the one to take Joris's life.
He had been a fool—a blind, naive fool—to carry Lambrecht alive from beneath the bedrock of the city. So exhausted, so pained, so shaken to his very core by what he'd experienced, it had never occurred to Diederic how fantastic his story would sound to others, and how little he truly had to prove its validity.
Sleep came slowly and reluctantly to Diederic that night, and in his dreams he watched again and again as Lambrecht walked from the pavilion, his head held high—a free man.
The straw, indeed the very stone, reeked of sweat and urine, terror and death. Through the tiny window the sun peered only a few moments each day, and the stale and malodorous air seemed unwilling to make the effort of climbing through it. Rat droppings traced hidden routes across the floor like trails of breadcrumbs; one could almost see the pestilence they left in their wake, rising from them like heat on a summer's day. For most of the day and night, the room was illuminated only by the torches flickering in the hallway beyond.
In the midst of it, his eyes turned inward in what might have been prayer, Father Lambrecht sat cross-legged in his ragged grey robe.
He did not know how long he had sat. His days were marked only by the occasional arrival of food and water, and a fleeting glimpse of sunlight around mid-afternoon. His testimony at trial had been akin to a vacation, and already he was uncertain how long ago he had offered that testimony. He suspected it was earlier that day, though it could have been as long ago as yesterday.
When a trio of figures blocked the torchlight through the window of his cell door—a barred portal somewhat larger than the one through which the sun occasionally crept—Lambrecht did not even bother to look at them.
"Good day to you, Sir Diederic. Or good evening. I'm afraid my sense of such things is impeded at present. I don't suppose you've come to apologize?"
In the hallway beyond the door, Diederic turned to the ubiquitous pair of guards. "I need to speak with him alone."
The soldiers did not move.
"What have you to worry about? You've confiscated my weapons. Even if I wished him harm, I'm hardly strong enough to break through the cell door barehanded."
"I apologize, Sir Knight," the man on the left offered, "but it would be inappropriate of us to—"
"'Sir Knight,' indeed." Diederic faced the both of them. "I am Diederic de Wyndt, landed vassal to Robert the Second, Duke of Flanders, himself vassal to the king of France. And I am now ordering you to leave me to converse with the prisoner. Alone."
The guards' reluctance was almost palpable, but disobedience was not an option. With many a backward glance, they disappeared up the passageway, the lingering echoes of their footsteps sending a brief chill down Diederic's spine.
"Quite an impressive show of authority, Sir Diederic." Lambrecht finally lowered his gaze to stare at the man opposite the bars.
"We have exactly as long as it takes them to find someone of comparable status to countermand my orders, Lambrecht. But for the moment, it's just you and I."
"So it is."
"So for just this moment, may we drop this nonsense about my hallucinations? I want to know. I want to know why you really sought the Laginate Grimoire. I guarded your life from those madmen, including some who had but lately been fellow pilgrims on the same journey as I. You owe me the truth, at the very least."
"I'm far from certain that I owe you a thing, Sir Diederic." For a long moment their eyes locked: a struggle of will and hatred into which their bodies, separated by the heavy door, could not follow.
At last, however, the priest smiled. "But then, why not?" When he spoke now, his voice was as soft as Diederic had ever heard from him, scarcely above a whisper. Even if the knight had placed additional listeners in the hall, outside Lambrecht's line of sight—and he had indeed considered doing just that, though he had not followed through—they would have been unable to hear. Diederic himself had to press his face tight against the bars and concentrate to make out the words.
"I spoke truthfully to the synod. The future of Christendom and of our Mother Church rests in understanding the tools and the weapons of our adversaries.
"But understanding them is not enough, Diederic! The soldiers of evil are many, and they are powerful. We must be willing to wield their own weapons against them, lest they overrun us and throw down all we have built! Fire to fight fire, Sir Knight. Sorcery to battle sorcery. It is the only way."
"You're mad!" Diederic had to struggle against a very physical urge to back away from the door.
"Would you stop at any length to save the life of a loved one, Sir Diederic? A wife, or a son? Why should my love for the Church be any the lesser? She is shortsighted and provincial, but I will save her despite herself, despite her blindness.
"Is that all you would ask of me? I cannot imagine we shall have the opportunity to converse again."
Long seconds passed without a word, the silence broken only by the occasional chittering of rats in the walls. Then, just as voices drifted from down the hall, suggesting the imminent return of the guards, Diederic spoke.
"Why, in the name of all that's holy, would you offer the Last Rites to men that you murdered?"
For the first time since they had met, Lambrecht appeared truly taken aback. "Why would I... Because they were dead, Sir Diederic."
"I could not let them stop me in my endeavors, once they had learned of them. But it was their lives that stood in my way, not their souls. Why would I damn them to no purpose?"
Diederic was still shaking his head in stunned disbelief when the guards returned with orders to remove him from the gaol.
His name was Eliseo. Just Eliseo. Once, so recently he could smell the fading aroma of those days upon the air, he had borne a last name: a family name, a name that was spoken with honor and respect throughout Spain.
No more. Eliseo had been so full of faith, so full of enthusiasm, so full of courage when he rose to answer Pope Urban's call. He had traveled far from the only home he had ever known to take back the Holy Land from the Saracen heretics. But hundreds upon hundreds of miles, and day after day of endless bloodshed, had sucked the faith and the courage from him like leeches. When the time had finally come, when the walls of Jerusalem had fallen, he had seen the horrors that lay between him and the Holy Sepulchre, and had looked back upon the butchery he had already inflicted upon the citizens of the city. And the last of his conviction had left him. He had thrown down his sword and his shield and fled from the city—an oath-breaker and a coward.
And were that not enough, he had caught a Saracen arrow in the thigh as he ran, a wound that grew hot and angry, perhaps an early sample of the torments he would suffer in Hell for betraying his vows.
Eliseo. Literally "My God is Salvation." How poorly his parents had chosen!
Now he sat before an open storefront, his chair an upturned barrel, his table a broad windowsill. He sat amid other pilgrims shorn of faith and hope, wounded in body and in mind, sporting bandages and fresh scars—each as alone on his own barrel as Eliseo was. To the shopkeep they paid what coin they had in trade for whatever wines and other intoxicants the man had purchased from other travelers, or scavenged from the ruined homes of Jerusalem's Christians and Jews. They drank away all that they had, in hopes of forgetting all they had been. And like Eliseo most refused to dishonor their loved ones back home by telling any man their full name.
Eliseo was on his third cracked and filthy clay cup of bitter dregs the proprietor laughably called wine; it gave sufficient cause for his tongue to curl and his eyes to water, but not enough to slip into the drunken stupor he sought. Tilting his head and raising the vessel skyward, he allowed the last drops and bits of accumulated detritus to trickle down his throat and across his greasy, unshaven chin. Eliseo cursed thickly at the cup, as though it were responsible for the lack of any further liquid, and dropped it to the counter. Before it struck, a shadow appeared beside him, seemingly out of nowhere. "I could use your help, my friend."
The newcomer was French, to judge by his inflection. Eliseo didn't bother to look up. "Nobody needs my help. I have no help left to give anyone. Go away."
The figure did not go away. He pulled over a barrel instead and took a seat beside Eliseo. "Shopkeep! Bring my companion here another cup of... whatever that godforsaken stuff is."
That, at least, was sufficient to drag the Spaniard's attention off his hands. The man sitting beside him was clad in a fine tunic and blue tabard. His hair was cut short, and a thin beard hid his cheeks and chin. He did not belong here. His eyes were not quite empty enough.
"In point of fact, my friend," the stranger continued, "you are exactly the sort of person whose help I require. And in doing so, you can earn enough money to keep yourself in wine—real wine, not this putrid hemlock—for months to come."
"I see." For the first time in many days, Eliseo felt a faint stirring of some emotion other than dull thirst. "Then I am happy to hear your proposal, Sir... ?"
"Diederic. Diederic de Wyndt."
"…was then, my Lords, that I saw the man who now stands accused. He was clutched tight to another, also a pilgrim, and I thought at first that perhaps I witnessed one soldier supporting his wounded brother. But as they turned, I saw, to my horror, that the accused held a dagger plunged into the other man's neck. I watched as he removed the blade and laid his victim down in the doorway. And it was then that I saw the second corpse, lying there already."
A low mutter sounded through the pavilion at Eliseo's testimony. Diederic could barely keep himself from grinning as he watched Lambrecht's hands clench and unclench upon the handrail of his platform. The priest was no longer smiling.
"I see." Bishop Colaert leaned forward across the horseshoe table. "And is it not possible that you saw Father Lambrecht aiding a man who had been wounded prior to your arrival? Removing a weapon with which someone else had struck?"
Eliseo shook his head. "No, your Eminence. I am no physician, but I have fought for many years. I have wounded and slain other men, and been wounded in turn. I can assure you that a wound such as that I saw would have proved immediately lethal. It is not possible that the fellow could have walked, or even been helped, anywhere."
Colaert scowled unhappily, but both Laureins and Godefroy, to say nothing of the other judges of the synod, nodded their agreement.
"Very well," Colaert conceded. "Tell us of what followed."
The witness glanced around the room—too nervously, Diederic thought. Eliseo's eyes fell beneath Lambrecht's furious gaze, and he cleared his throat twice before he could continue.
"It seemed at first that he was offering the Last Rites to the two men, for he knelt beside them and spoke, anointing them with unguents. But as I drew nearer, I heard that it was no holy rite he uttered."
"And how can you be sure of this?" Princeps Godefroy inquired.
"I might not look it now, your Highness, but I am an educated man. I know my letters, and my Bible, and my histories. And though I am far from fluent, I know bits of several languages. This one he spoke was not French, nor Latin, but Greek. It sounded, to me, as though he asked direction of the corpses themselves, my Lords. He sought... Forgive me, as I said, my Greek is far from perfect. Something related to a person, or maybe a place, called 'Lagina.'"
Almost there. Diederic's fists were clenched, his brow furrowed. One more answer... He knew the question was coming; it was Laureins who asked it.
"Can you tell us, Master Eliseo, why you have only now come forward with this tale, rather than at the start of the trial three days gone?"
Eliseo gestured sheepishly at the bandages that clothed his thigh. "I took this wound not long after the walls fell, your Grace, and it grew feverish. It was but yesterday that I was released from the surgeon's care and heard of these proceedings."
Diederic held his breath. It had cost him the bulk of the wealth he had brought with him from France to entice Eliseo to bear false witness. The rest had gone to a surgeon, more interested in the pleasures of the body than the good of his patients, to support Eliseo's excuse. It was the weakest point of their facade, and both Diederic and Eliseo knew it. The surgeon had received only a pittance—all the knight had remaining—and unlike Eliseo, he had no vested interest in maintaining the lie. If the synod chose to summon him for confirmation, the entire tapestry might unravel.
But Colaert seemed disgusted with the whole affair. The gaze he turned to Lambrecht was no longer so sympathetic as it once had been. And neither Godefroy nor Laureins had any reason to suspect Eliseo, or Diederic, of falsehood.
More for the sake of appearances than any true emotional investment in the outcome, the bishop pressed one more question. "Why did you not attempt to apprehend the accused yourself, or come to the aid of the fallen men? You could not have known for certain that the other men were already dead."
"No, your Eminence, I could not. But even as I made to approach, I saw this man"—and here he pointed to Diederic—"emerge from one street, and heard the sounds of others approaching from afar. While I know now it was not the case, at the time I suspected Sir Diederic of being an accomplice to the accused. Knowing I was outmatched, I fear that I fled so that they might not notice me."
Lambrecht leaned slowly over the guardrail. "Neither," he quoted with a snarl, "shall you bear false witness against thy neighbor." But though Eliseo again struggled to keep his gaze steady, and his jaw might have quivered, it was a hollow protestation, and they both knew it. The priest had no compelling argument that the testimony was falsified, and it overlapped and supported just enough of Diederic's own to sound convincing. Had it only been the Spaniard's word against Lambrecht, that might have been one thing, but Diederic was a landed knight. Now that his claims had substantiation, they carried the weight of evidence.
Godefroy, Princeps of Jerusalem, rose from his seat. "Remove the accused from the pavilion and bid the observers depart. We will deliberate, and call him back when we have decided upon his fate."
For the first time, Lambrecht's expression was far from polite when he was dragged past Diederic in the grip of his guards. The knight allowed himself to grin at last.
"Let it be known that this court—under the ecclesiastic authority granted me as servant of Pope Urban and Princeps of Jerusalem—hereby finds you, Lambrecht Raes, to have knowingly and willfully pursued heresies, to have engaged in the casting of spells, and to have made false use of your office as a priest. For these there can be no other censure but excommunication. You shall evermore be denied communion, and all the sacraments and grace offered by our Mother Church, by the Lord God, and his son Christ Jesu.
"Furthermore, let it be known that this court—under the temporal authority granted me by King Phillippe the First of France, and by Emperor Alexius the First of Byzantium, and mine by right as Princeps of Jerusalem—hereby finds you, Lambrecht Raes, guilty of the secular crimes of murder and perjury before a high court. For these crimes, you shall be hoisted by the neck and hanged until you are dead. And as you die, you shall witness the purification by fire of the blasphemous pages for which you spilled the blood of good Christian men.
"Let no man offer the condemned comfort, nor any priest offer him Last Rites, nor let him be buried in consecrated ground.
"So have we ruled. So let it be done."
Lambrecht's scream of denial and rage as he was dragged from the pavilion was the most exquisite symphony Diederic had ever heard.
The sun hovered on the western horizon: the last sleepy glimpse of day's eye before the lid of night closed over it. Determined to carry out the distasteful act as swiftly as possible, the synod set soldiers to locating a viable spot. Finding a tree sturdy enough to support a hanging in the center of the city might have proved difficult, had it not proved unnecessary. A grain warehouse not far from the pavilion boasted a system of ropes and pulleys built to handle weights far greater than any man; the paved street outside would provide a safe spot for the small bonfire to which they would feed the Laginate Grimoire. As the warehouse's owner had vanished during the fall of the city and Godefroy's new regime had awarded it to no claimants, it was available for whatever use the synod chose to put it.
Armored soldiers led the procession from the synod's pavilion, pulling a heavy wagon in which the condemned stood, his wrists and ankles chained. Next followed the twelve men who had doomed him to such an end; duty and simple decency required that they at least observe the full horror of the sentence they had handed down. And behind them came a throng of stragglers, from both within and without the pavilion. Some came for curiosity and fascination, to witness a spectacle they had never before seen. Others came for entertainment, hoping to liven up a boring afternoon of rebuilding. Only a few, such as Diederic himself, came to see justice done.
Since his initial outburst, Lambrecht had remained silent and stone-still. He walked where his guards guided him, and otherwise looked straight ahead, scarcely even blinking. Only when they led him down from the wagon to stand beneath the noose did he show any sign of awareness. He flinched as the rope was placed about his neck, as though the hemp stung.
Before the condemned stood a small pyramid of wood and kindling, already beginning to spark. A thin column of smoke stretched upward toward the darkening sky. As though one light sought to take the place of the other, the fire flared into full conflagration even as the sun dropped fully below the horizon. The faces of the observers flickered in the dancing firelight.
Bishop Colaert stepped forward, the pages of the Grimoire held in his gloved hands. With a shake of his head, the old clergyman tossed the parchment into the rising flames. He glanced over his shoulder at Princeps Godefroy, who gave a single saddened nod. A quartet of soldiers took solid hold of the rope's trailing end, wrapped it once about their forearms, and hauled. With the squeaking of pulleys and a sickening lurch, Lambrecht's feet left the ground and instantly started to kick and thrash at the air. His face reddened, his eyes and tongue protruded, and blood seeped from under the rope and from within his left ear.
Even as the priest rose from the earth, a peculiar breeze wafted across the assembly. Although the sun had set, the wind carried not the swiftly cooling breath of night in the desert, but a heated bite: the last warm breath of the passing day. It stung the eyes and smelled of burning, of sweat, and of dry rot.
Despite his burning, rage-driven desire to watch every moment of Lambrecht's slow death, Diederic felt his eyes drawn to the fire that burned beside the strangling priest's feet. The corners of the Laginate pages curled up on themselves like a clenching fist, but they did not brown, did not burn. The flames immediately around them subsided, turning from brilliant red and orange to a dull corpse blue.
And then, as others began to notice the phenomenon, the woodpile detonated with a deafening crack.
Flames roared skyward in a pillar of fire nigh Biblical in proportion. Burning debris rained down over every building and tent in sight, setting at least half a dozen alight. Blazing splinters embedded themselves in flesh, in eyes, and in clothing. The screams of the injured, the blind, and the burned shattered the silence of the night. The soldiers who had held Lambrecht aloft let go their grasp on the rope and collapsed to the stones, clutching at their wounds.
From the ground where he had tumbled, Diederic glanced over his burned and bloodied arm, the only shield that had saved his eyesight. And he saw, rising from the scattered flames, not the dark smoke that had been present mere seconds before, but a ghost-white haze.
The mists. The same mists that had crept, tentative and cautious, from the lantern burning in the underground shrine now billowed and flowed from the madly crackling flames. They rose around the falling, choking priest, cradling him like the loving arms of a mother—or perhaps the cocoon of web spun about a spider's prey.
To Diederic, it seemed that Lambrecht's fall was never-ending. Long after he should have struck the ground, after the rope should have pulled loose from the tackle above, he continued to plummet, the ground somehow receding before him. And as he fell, his form began to fade, until he was naught but a silhouette lost in the mists.
It could not be. He would not let it be! With a roar of inarticulate hatred, Diederic lunged to his feet. Blood poured from his arm, from skinned shins, from splinter-dug lines across his cheeks, and he ignored it all. Behind him, burning buildings cracked and splintered, burning men shrieked in agony, but for them he had no ears. Laureins staggered toward his fellow knight, his beard eaten away, his flesh blackened, flames still flickering across the tunic on his back and the hairs on his head; Diederic shoved him aside without a second glance.
His hands outstretched, as though they already clutched Lambrecht by the throat to finish the job the heavy hemp had begun, Diederic dove into the rapidly dispersing mists, and was gone.
Next Week: Chapter Four...
It had no name.
Oh, there was one recorded somewhere. Nobody would build a fortress of this size without naming it, and that infor-mation could likely be found buried in the Empyrean Church archives, deep beneath the Holy Basilica in the heart of Caer-caelum. But whatever name the fortress might have borne was long forgotten, lost in the infamy of the ground on which it stood.