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!
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.
"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.
"I saw them, Diederic. All of them. Men, women, children… the ghosts of Scions Mount are beyond counting. But I understand, now, I think. I understand how the 'God Most High and the Sixfold Scions' were born." Again she had shuddered. "I mean, would you worship those—those things if you knew what they truly were?"
Still he said nothing, failed to acknowledge that she had spoken at all.
"They must have come to believe the lie," she mused. "I'd be surprised if anyone today knew how their Empyrean faith began…."
Again he refused to answer, and Violca ceased trying to draw him out. She'd hoped to segue from what she had learned into what had happened down below. The Vistana needed someone to speak to about what she'd seen, what she'd felt, what had been done to her, someone to help her make sense of it, as Madam Tsura would have done.
But Diederic was all she had, and for now, his thoughts were far from kindness or support.
Thus they had traversed the rest of the way in silence, until emerging once again into the Basilica's upper levels. There he paused only long enough to wipe the worst of the blood from his limbs, tossing her a sheet off the pontiff's bed that she might do the same, then continued through the holy structure's winding halls. Only when he had hurled open the outer doors and plunged out into the night did Violca finally speak once more.
"Diederic, where precisely do you think we're going?"
At least this time he didn't ignore her entirely. "We are going," he told her without stopping, "to speak with someone who can tell us where Lambrecht may have gone."
Violca blinked. "Who would know that besides the pontiff?"
The cold expression he cast her way was more than answer enough.
They swept across the Basilica's open fields, and through the streets atop Scions Mount. Caercaelum below was brightly lit, not merely by an abundance of lamps, but several fires spreading out of control in the poor neighborhoods of wooden buildings. The chaos seemed unwilling or unable to encompass the Mount itself—held back, perhaps, by the sheer accumulation of a single, focused faith—but even that, Diederic knew, would hold only for a time.
Van Brekke appeared mere seconds after the guards announced their arrival at the Citadel of Truth. No longer clad in armor but instead his blackest ceremonial robes, he looked to have come straight from prayer. He was clearly not pleased to see them, an emotion that only deepened when they told him their purpose in coming.
"You're mad, de Wyndt!"
"I've been told that a lot lately. I still must speak with him."
"Not a chance! If you think I'm going to permit him to be interrogated by outsiders, as though he were some common prisoner—"
"He is a common prisoner, van Brekke! You said so yourself! Besides," Diederic continued, lowering his voice as the assembled Redbreasts glared, "you yourself said that Lambrecht cannot be permitted to escape. This may be the only way to prevent that."
"Because you lost him!" the First Confessor accused. The slump of his shoulders, however, was sign enough that he had relented.
"De Wyndt… will Lambrecht's death end the madness afflicting my city?"
"Absolutely." Diederic met the old man's gaze, and did not so much as blink. "I believe what we're seeing out there is Lambrecht's vengeance on all of us."
Behind him, Violca looked at the floor and scowled.
"All right, de Wyndt. Follow me. But God and Scions, try to show some respect!"
They hurried through halls of heavy brick, a welcome change for Diederic, who was sick of underground passages of hewn stone.
"Incidentally, de Wyndt…."
"Where's Lieutenant Merfleur?"
"Lying unconscious on a stairwell. He went mad, attacked us as soon as you were out of sight. Don't concern yourself, he'll be fine. I made sure to do him no permanent harm."
"My, how generous of you."
They passed a dozen guards along their way, and a dozen more, until finally they entered the dungeons of the Citadel of Truth.
He huddled in a smaller cell, bereft of any other prisoners. The straw upon the floor was fresh and clean, the chamber pot pristine, the scraps of food remaining on his plate evidence of beef and roasted vegetables, rather than the gruel other captives choked down. He was clad in a traditional prisoner's robe—again, far cleaner and better kept than any Diederic had seen during his own incarceration—and held an old copy of the Septateuch in his lap. His lips moved in prayer as he read, and he seemed content to ignore the men who had appeared in the doorway.
"Your Eminence," Diederic greeted him, his only nod toward courtesy. "We need to find Lambrecht."
The pontiff turned a page of his holy text, refusing even to glance up.
"People are dying outside, old man! Swept by a madness caused by Lambrecht's own sorceries! Surely you still care for the well-being of your flock!"
His eyelids twitched at that, his fingers paused as they traced his place in the book, but he would not speak.
"He's been like this since we brought him in," van Brekke told them. "He prays, he studies the Septateuch, and nothing more. I think he expects he will be freed from here, exonerated and returned to his position. Or at least that he will die here and receive his just reward in Heaven, for I doubt not that he maintains he did no wrong."
Her eyes sunken, lined with exhaustion, Violca slipped by them and stepped into the cell. Van Brekke moved to stop her, but pulled up short as Diederic threw an arm across his chest. "She won't harm him," he hissed at the First Confessor.
The Vistana knelt beside the old man, straw crunching loudly beneath her knees, and leaned over so she might whisper in his ear.
"You know what I am?" she breathed, so that even at this distance, the pontiff had to strain to hear her words. "I am the chosen heir of the raunie of my tribe. I share her blood. I share her gifts.
"Tell me, old man. Does the pontiff of the Empyrean Church wish to meet his God and Scions with the stain of a Vistani curse upon his soul? The gaze of the Evil Eye piercing the core of his being? What torture can your First Confessor threaten that compares to what I can do to you?"
Gracefully she stood, and Cornelis's eyes rose with her. "You have," she told him in a more normal tone of voice, "until I reach the door."
The answer came just as her steps would have carried her to Diederic's side, pushed through parched and tired lips.
"I don't understand. Explain. What church?"
The old man tightened his grip on the pages, as though they might save him from his fate. "I bequeathed Father Lambrecht an old church, where he might pray and preach as he saw fit. I assigned him a pair of underpriests, to prepare and maintain the chapel at need. It stands in the tanners' quarter, near Old Potter's Road."
Van Brekke's mouth gaped, his muscles tensed, as though he had been struck by some mild fit. "You—you gave a church to a heathen priest!" His voice rose high in incredulity, cracked on the final word.
"You never understood, van Brekke! His faith is not so different from ours. I told him so long as he preached our shared gospels, spoke of his Jesu as one of our Scions, he might guide his flock as he liked. He might have saved us, van Brekke! He might have saved us, had you in your narrow-minded ignorance not—"
He ranted on as the First Confessor stormed from the cell, Diederic and Violca close behind. The crash of the door finally put an end to his diatribe.
"Would Lambrecht actually take sanctuary at his church?" Violca wondered. "Even if he thinks it a place of safety, he must know we would eventually find him there."
"He might assume he has some time, though," Diederic offered. "And in either case, he's no more interested in fleeing the city than I am. Not without"—he glanced at the First Confessor, idly tapping the pouch at his side—"everything he considers his own.
"He ran because he was outmatched, ill-prepared. But he'll want us to find him, Violca. Make no mistake. He wants quit of this game as much as I.
"Van Brekke? Old Potter's Road?"
"My men will show you the way."
Indeed they did, a score of them. A tide of steel and crimson, they washed through the streets of Caercaelum, as around them madness raged.
In the middle of the road, a pile of cradles burned, the shrieks of the infants drowned out by the roaring flames and their parents dancing around the fire. A trio of Church soldiers ran pell-mell through the streets, cutting down any living thing to cross their path, until they clashed with the advancing Redbreasts and were left bleeding on the ground. Crouched behind windowsills, warring neighbors hurled rocks and knives and dismembered bodies at one another, their voices raised in gleeful laughter.
Strangers called to Diederic, to Violca, to the Inquisitors, called to them by name, in the tones of loved ones long gone. They promised them joy, promised them pain, promised them favors carnal and profane, if only they would stop and listen. One of the Redbreasts gave in, his mind splintering like a dropped vase, and the procession left him behind to rant and rave with his new brethren. There was nothing to be done for him, nothing save ending this nightmare for good and all.
A dozen times they were attacked, and a dozen times they pressed on. A woman lunged from an alley, screaming at Diederic, wielding the body of her child like a club as she hacked at him. He simply caught her wrist and tossed her aside, leaving her for the soldiers to deal with. From the shadows came an old man with a meat cleaver, cut down without a second's hesitation. Nothing would stop Diederic now, not so close. Nothing. A teenage boy armed with a stolen sword, a seamstress with her left hand stitched in a bloody mess to her face, her right clutching a large pair of scissors, some godforsaken fellow, his entire body set alight, still possessed of enough malice, enough control, to wield a weapon in anger… all these impeded Diederic's advance, and all were hacked down or tossed aside for the Redbreasts to put out of their misery.
He knew they had entered the tanners' quarter not merely by the terrible scents in the air but by the feel of the road beneath his feet. The cobbles gave way to sucking mud, mud with that same crimson tint that haunted Diederic's nightmares. He pressed on.
Four men, their expressions vacant and bestial, stirred a great tanning cauldron in the nearest shop, the skins of their wives growing soft and supple in the boiling oils. And Diederic pressed on.
A score of children swarmed like ants over a heap of corpses, each tearing some body part from the pile and wandering away to play with his new toy. And Diederic pressed on. Violca took no part in the slaughter, allowing the warriors around her to deal what death must be dealt, and glared at Diederic's back. She felt the urge to warn him of what must come, but quashed it before it could take voice. He'd never listen, now. And it was already far, far too late.
Only when the church loomed before him, a great structure of rich timber and heavy woods in the traditional barn-like shape, did Diederic stop and look around him. Violca still stood at his side, for which he was grateful, and most of the Redbreasts as well, though they had lost a handful of their own along the way to madness or sudden violence.
Lights flickered in the church windows, though barely visible, for all were shuttered. Sounds emerged from within too, the faint susurrus of many voices speaking, chanting, giggling, as one.
Axe at the ready, Diederic marched up the steps to the front doors. It was time, finally time, to end this.
They flew open with a heavy kick, scattering bits of paper and parchment that had lain strewn about the entry. A hanging lantern cast its light upon the center of the sanctuary while two iron candelabras, each the height of an upright lance, burned beside the altar. Rows of wooden pews extended to either side of a worn central carpet—pews that seated perhaps two dozen men and women, all rocking gently in apparent religious ecstasy. Only as Diederic drew near, strode past them, did he note the grotesque cast to their expressions, the wide and staring eyes, the silent gibbering of their lips as what little remained of their humanity begged to be set free from its prison of insanity, of flesh, of bone.
From the wall beyond the altar hung a great bronze crucifix, a simple sculpture of the Savior. Easily twice the height of a man, it dominated the church entire, held in place by heavy ropes that ran through a number of hooks to wrap about a single anchor at the floor. Even now Diederic felt the ingrained urge to cross himself, to prostrate himself before the icon of his God. He did not, for he would not grant Lambrecht even that much control. And there stood Lambrecht himself, facing the altar, his back to the door. He moved carefully, favoring his injured hand and leg, as he lit another of the many candles that stood atop the holy shrine.
"I've given some thought to your words, Sir Diederic," he said without turning. "And I've come to the conclusion that you truly are a fool."
"Is that so?" Diederic strode down the central aisle, alert for attack from either side. None came.
"Indeed. My Church is naïve, perhaps. Foolish and set in her ways. Weak, unwilling to do what must be done to protect herself from the heathens and the heretics and the witches at the gates.
"But she is not evil, Sir Diederic. She is not a deceiver. She is not built on a foundation of lies. Of the two of us, my idiot friend, it is not I, was never I, who saw her thus."
Halfway across the chapel, now. Keep talking, you bastard, keep talking….
"How did you enjoy my webs, Sir Diederic? How did it feel, motionless, helpless? Did you feel the bite of the spiders? Did you feel the sting of things neither insect nor vermin, things more spirit than ichor and chitin, things not of this world?"
Almost there, now….
"Tell me, Sir Diederic: When the webs gave way, where do you suppose those little beasties went? Can you feel them still, their tiny legs brushing against your flesh, against your soul?"
Diederic raised his axe. Only a few more steps….
He froze so suddenly he nearly toppled over, his balance gone. Every muscle, every joint, tingled and began to ache, deeply, horribly. He felt as though something had thrust itself between every bone, poured sand in his joints, preventing him from so much as shifting his weight.
And oh, dear God, the things inside him were moving!
Violca had frozen as well, two steps behind, only the fearful flicker in her eyes suggesting that she still lived. The soldiers darted from the door, only to find their passage blocked as every crooning, swaying madman in the church rose up to intercept them. Swords and axes rose against teeth and fists, and blood spilled heavy across the church's wooden floor.
Lambrecht finally turned from the altar, his robe swirling dramatically about him. In his good hand, he held a pair of figurines, sculpted crudely from the wax of the dripping candles. Each was roughly humanoid—one broad and burly, one lithe and feminine—and each held within a dead spider, preserved as though trapped in amber. The heretic priest raised them with a smile, to ensure that his foes could see clearly, then tucked them into one voluminous sleeve. "I had feared," he confessed, "that you might find me here before I'd had the opportunity to complete these. Thankfully, God and fortune stand with me.
"Now, Diederic, Violca. Drop your weapons and step forward."
He refused to move. He would not move! Alas, though he screamed and railed in silence, everything that was Diederic stood helpless, powerless, before his enemy's commands.
He felt things moving about in his body, passing horribly through meat and bone, legs skittering on layers of tissue, splashing through veins of pumping blood. They pressed upon his muscles, plucked at tendons like harp-strings, and Diederic's body moved. He heard his axe clatter to the floor, heard men fighting and screaming and dying behind him, and could not even turn to look as he stepped spastically, awkwardly, to Lambrecht's side.
The priest placed a hand, almost affectionately, on Diederic's shoulder. "My poor, foolish friend. I have had months to study the Grimoire! I know it as well as I know my Bible, my catechism! To think that I would be helpless without it…." He clucked his tongue, shook his head in mock sadness.
"Still, there is much to the book I've yet to learn. And with that in mind… hand it over, Diederic, if you would be so kind."
No! No, I will not!
But he did. Again, the skittering, slithering things within his body guided his limbs like a marionette. Shaking, sweating, he reached into his pouch and handed the Grimoire to Lambrecht.
"Marvelous, Diederic! Simply marvelous." He clutched the book in his good hand, caressing it lovingly, sensuously, with the other. "Kneel beside the altar, both of you, and do not rise until I command it. I wish you to witness my ascension back to glory!"
As ordered, Diederic dropped to his knees beside the stone altar, eyes cast downward and ahead. Beside him, Lambrecht's voice rose in an unholy chant, a mix of Ancient Greek and other, older tongues. Behind him the battle raged, and even across the church, Diederic could smell the spilled blood, the excrement purged by the dead.
God help him, what could he do! It couldn't end like this! It could not—
He saw it, behind the altar where it sat contentedly, patiently awaiting its part in the next service. A stone basin, simple, unadorned, less than two feet in diameter. He saw it, saw the great icon of Jesu reflected in its contents, and knew that this, this was his final chance.
He had been ordered not to rise, and he would not, could not. But sluggishly, awkwardly, he reached to his belt, pulled from its ties the tiny clay mug that had served as his only utensil around many a campfire. The things inside him did not move to hinder, for he violated no order, but he kept his movements small, agonizingly slow, for fear of attracting the notice of the heretic beside him.
He almost failed, even at the last, almost could not reach without rising from his crouch. Desperately he stretched, clutching the mug from the bottom with the very tips of his fingers… and finally, he dipped its lip just below the surface of the font.
Praying as he had not done in many a year, Diederic bent his head, slipped the cup to his lips, and drank.
Lambrecht gasped as the ecstasy of the incantation rippled through his body. He felt the tendons in his hands knit themselves together, the torn flesh of his calf meld into a seamless whole. Behind him, one of his enslaved lunatics cried out and collapsed, Lambrecht's own wounds opening inexplicably across her flesh. But so be it. She was merely another of the unimportant masses over whom he would soon rule.
Exulting, he turned to watch the deaths of the traitorous Inquisitors who had sided with his foe…. Turned and cried out in agony at the sudden pain across the back of his head. He felt the bone give ever so slightly, felt the blood pour down his neck. The book and the wax figures both toppled from his suddenly nerveless hands, and he staggered forward, shaking, nauseated.
Who had… no! No, it could not be!
Behind him, Diederic de Wyndt stood tall, lips twisted in rage, a bloody candlestick clutched in his fist.
"Not… not possible!" Lambrecht gasped, the gorge rising in the back of his throat.
"A good friend of mine," Diederic told him, stepping between the priest and the fallen book, "once showed me that holy water does wonderful things against spirits and specters." He handed his cup down into Violca's grateful grasp. She tossed the drink back and rose to her feet.
Lambrecht lashed out, flinging a palmful of his own blood at Diederic's grinning face. The knight cringed away, wiping the foul stuff from his eyes, and in that moment, the priest tottered unevenly down the aisle, away from the altar, to stand in the midst of his remaining lunatics—of the dead and of the dying.
"Surrender now, Lambrecht!" The knight dropped the candlestick in favor of his axe, which he scooped up from the pew upon which it had fallen. "There's nowhere left to go! Look!" He pointed at the chaos, slowly and finally subsiding, by the church's door. "You've few minions left to fight for you!"
Indeed, of the several dozen "worshippers," perhaps five or six remained. They had, alas, done their damage in the process, for only eight or nine Redbreasts stood against them.
Lambrecht refused to concede defeat. "Ah, Sir Diederic, always failing to peer beyond the obvious! Perhaps it is you who should look more closely!"
The dying fell motionless, as the last of the life drained from them—but the dead, in their turn, had begun to twitch, to writhe, to rise. Worshipper and Redbreast both, it made no difference now. They staggered, in ones and twos, to their feet.
"I've had months, Diederic, to prepare for this moment! Every corpse to fall in this church must rise again, and all with but a single purpose: to bring me my book!
"Against how many dozen of the walking dead can you stand, when you've nowhere to retreat?" And Lambrecht, though it sent spikes of agony through his injured skull, could only laugh once more.
Roughly half the surviving Inquisitors broke, scrambling madly for the door—a door that, Diederic noted dully without surprise, now refused to open. They desperately pounded at the unyielding wood, until they were pulled down from behind, hacked and torn by shrieking madmen and the silent dead.
The remaining four dashed along the sides of the church, hugging the walls, keeping as much distance between them and the abominations as possible, until they had joined Diederic and Violca at the altar. "What now, sir?" the first asked, his face and lips as pale as the corpses that shambled toward them.
It was Violca who answered. "Fire! If we need to put them down and keep them down…."
Diederic was already nodding. "You!" he ordered the nearest soldier. "Search behind the altar! There must be oil for the lanterns! The rest of you, kindling!"
They had mere moments as the dead crossed the length of the church, Lambrecht moving with them, remaining in their midst. Axes chopped splinters from the nearest pews, desperate hands yanked the cloth cover from atop the altar. Even the pages of the Septateuch itself, with much apologizing and prayers for forgiveness, went to join the swiftly growing pile.
"All right!" Diederic ordered, and for a moment he was back on the battlefields of the Holy Land. "You two! Push the altar aside, try to create a bulwark, then guard the flank. Any of those things try to get around us, your job is to drive them back in line!" Turning to the remaining pair of Redbreasts, he gestured at the towering candelabras, long shafts of iron. "Those are your best weapons," he told them. "Axes and swords if they get inside your reach, but otherwise, you use those to push them into the flame, and to hold them there!
"Violca, your knife! If any of the dead win past the Redbreasts, you may need to slow them down."
"What of you, then, Diederic?"
He merely smiled.
It seemed impossible at first. The hastily-shifted altar provided a bit of shelter from the left, and the fire burned to the right, but there was little to prevent the shambling creatures from proceeding up the center aisle, where the altar had been. The soldiers could only trust that Diederic knew what he was doing as he barked his orders, that he had some plan in mind.
They had no idea.
Twisting his axe in sweaty hands, he waited—waited as the mob of the dead moved nearer, and nearer still. And then, with a shout, he struck.
Not at the nearest corpse, against whom it would prove little use. Not at Lambrecht, who stood beyond his reach, protected by a bastion of flesh.
He struck at the ornate webbing of ropes that held the great crucifix to the wall.
Ropes snapped and tore with deafening pops, flung aside to kick dust from the wall, so hard did they impact the wood. As though suddenly animate, the sculpture seemed to push itself off the wall, to plunge downward with conscious intent. The base of the cross rang like a great bell as it gouged deep into the wooden floor, launching a veritable geyser of splinters. Jammed deep in the earth, the enormous icon paused, teetered, and then toppled forward, ponderous and inevitable.
The entire structure shook as it crashed to the floor, blocking the corpses' path. Shingles slid to the ground outside, and several of the rafters collapsed. A number of men, living and dead, were knocked from their feet at the terrible impact, and the air grew thick and blinding with wood dust.
Knocked to his knees, his arms raised to protect his face from flying splinters, Lambrecht squinted through the cloud. The floor around him felt tacky and wet, and he slowly realized that he knelt in a layer of humors spilt from the pulped remains of the dead men who had preceded him. All he could see was the top of the great bronze icon, pointed accusingly at him, mere feet from where he knelt.
And then something moved in the dust, crossing the fallen crucifix like a great bridge. Lambrecht struggled to rise, to turn, to flee, but his hands and feet could only scrabble for purchase in the mess around him. He had to move, to get away, before….
Diederic was upon him. Lambrecht found himself hauled upward by the collar of his robe, lifted until his feet dangled, kicking above the floor.
"God," the knight told him, his eyes and face alight as he stood atop the fallen cross, "has brought me to you."
Lambrecht tried to speak—to plead perhaps, perhaps simply to taunt—but no breath would come. His thrashing grew only more violent as he realized that Diederic had no plan to put him down, nor to carry him before the Inquisition. The knight adjusted his grip, tightened it, tightened….
"You were sentenced to hang," Diederic snarled, kicking out as one of the corpses tried to scrabble up onto the fallen icon, sending the body back down to join its fellows. "Far be it from me to stand in the way of justice!"
No! No, not like this! This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen! He had too much left to do! Too many victories lay ahead, too great a purpose! God was on his side! He would prevail! He would….
Lambrecht kicked once more as his face purpled terribly beneath Diederic's choking grip, once more again—and fell limp. Still Diederic squeezed, months of pain and fury in his clenching fists, long after the priest hung limp and lifeless. Only when he felt the flesh give beneath his fingers, felt bone and cartilage crumble beneath his grip, did Diederic allow the body to fall.
If he had hoped the death of their master would send the dead back to their eternal rest, Diederic was sorely mistaken. Onward they advanced—on him, on his companions by the altar. The aroma of roasted flesh filled the church, and the flames began to spread as the wooden floor beneath the pyre finally caught. But the dead came on. Diederic turned and strode back across his bridge of bronze to rejoin his allies, to stand beside them as they thrust body after body into the spreading flames.
"Diederic, behind you!"
Violca's shout, barely audible above the clatter of steel and the crackling fire, came a fraction of a second too late. The knight had turned halfway around when a heavy weight struck him from behind, sending him sprawling across the great crucifix. A knee landed upon his infected wrist, sending agony coursing through his arm and chest.
Lambrecht lay across him, his jaw distended in a silent scream. His head hung loosely, impossibly, upon his neck, yet his hands scrabbled across his foe, one hand clutching for Diederic's throat, the other digging furiously in the pouch at his belt.
It could not be! Diederic had felt the life drain from the priest, had crushed it from him with his own hands! Lambrecht could not live!
And of course, he did not. Even as Diederic wrestled with hands grown impossibly strong, struggled to keep those fingers from closing about his throat, he remembered Lambrecht's own boast.
"Every corpse to fall in this church must rise again…."
Animated by his own magics, Lambrecht held Diederic tight to the fallen sculpture, even as he yanked the Laginate Grimoire from the pouch at the knight's side. Yanked it free….
"… and all with but a single purpose: to bring me my book!"
Whatever malign intelligence drove Lambrecht's corpse onward, it knew not what to do next. Its purpose was fulfilled, the commands of its master and creator followed to the letter. Slowly, like bubbles rising to the surface of a great lake, awareness and intelligence began to return to Lambrecht's eyes, the living corpse drawing upon the power of the book to remember who and what it was.
And all too late. Diederic thrust the suddenly immobile body aside, scampering roughly to his feet. Before him, the bonfire had grown wider; flames were licking at the nearest walls.
With a mighty heave, he lifted the body of Lambrecht to its feet once more.
"Rise from this, you bastard!"
The corpse had regained just enough awareness to scream a final scream as it plunged headfirst into the fire.
For a single, frozen moment, it looked as though the Grimoire, skittering from Lambrecht's convulsing hand and beyond the edge of the fire, might survive, might provide Diederic his passage home. It lay upon the wooden floor, pages splayed, resembling nothing so much as a wounded bird.
Then, as twice before, the smoke that rose from the blazing inferno grew pale and transformed into the whitest haze. It poked and prodded, testing the air and ground before it, until it laid a single finger of fog across the ancient parchment.
A flash, blinding and burning to the eye, and the fire had traveled across the insubstantial bridge of mist. As before, the pages of the book curled under the pounding heat, but this time it had nowhere else to go.
With a crackle, a shudder, the faintest of screams, the Laginate Grimoire burned to ash and was gone.
All that remained was silence. The walking dead collapsed in mid-step, nevermore to rise. The sounds of chaos faded outside, leaving only the cries of the injured and the puzzled calls of the formerly mad. Even the fires within the church guttered and died, as though the Mists had stolen away their vital fuels.
The soldiers glanced at one another, uncertain of what to do next. Diederic stared in growing horror at the pile of ashes upon the floor, ashes that had once been his only route home. And Violca….
Violca nodded once, as though in final understanding of some long-pondered dilemma, and walked toward the door, picking her way through the fallen bodies and heaps of rubble.
"Violca? Violca, wait!" Diederic scrambled behind, trying to keep up, though exhaustion tugged at his every limb. "Perhaps… perhaps there is another way? Can your people find me another path home?"
"I think not, giorgio." She laid a hand upon the door and turned back to look at him with a mixture of pity and fear. "But then, I expect that even with the book, we would have failed. Malosia was never prepared to let you go." She turned the latch, which functioned perfectly now, and pulled the portal open.
Outside, the men and women of Caercaelum stared in wide-eyed wonder at the figures emerging from the smoldering church. They gasped as one, and bowed their heads to Diederic, offering tearful thanks and praising his name although as of yet they knew it not.
"I…." Diederic swallowed, hard. Somehow, of all he had seen in this terrible realm, this frightened him more than anything else. "I don't understand, Violca."
"They praise you, Diederic. They know not that you brought this violence and horror among them, only that you have somehow saved them from it. Congratulations. Go… go and meet your citizens."
"Violca, please… don't go."
But already the Vistana had disappeared into the crowd. Only her voice lingered behind, a phantom on the cool night winds.
"I cannot stay, Diederic. I have learned all that my people must know. Malosia is no longer hollow."
As the people surged toward him, sobbing their gratitude, Diederic felt his legs grow shaky. He sat hard upon the steps of the smoldering church, heedless of the residual heat upon his back, his head resting heavily in his hands. Long and long he laughed, until he could scarcely breathe, though his eyes leaked bitter tears. It was all too much, too hard to comprehend at once….
Even for Sir Diederic de Wyndt, Dark Lord of Malosia.
Acknowledgments and Thanks
To Cortney Marabetta, for one of the greatest opportunities of my career.
To Jason, Jason, Jen, Jen, Jamie, Bodie, Ron, Ryan, Jerel, and Gary: The Original Ravenloft Crew.
To C.A. Suleiman, because late is still better than never.
To Naomi, for thoughts and words, and thoughts on words.
To Mom and Dad, for all the usual reasons.
To George, for all the unusual ones.
To you, my readers, for understanding that although there are deliberate similarities, the Empyrean Church is not the Roman Catholic Church, that the witches of Malosia are not Wiccans, and that there are far more important things over which to take offense.
And finally, to the good people of Souragne, and their master Anton Misroi, for waiting patiently while I first explored the new and unknown lands within Malosia's borders. Someday, my dear friends, I promise you.