The following begins a new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of the forthcoming Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!
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.
Lambrecht seemed to have some notion of where he was going, so Diederic followed along and swallowed his questions. Their footsteps carried them past more scenes of bloodshed, as knights and other pilgrims slaughtered citizens where they stood. But at least it was a normal madness, so to speak, rather than the twisted mania they had confronted in the courtyard. Diederic, who had been so revolted by the slaughter mere hours before, found himself inured to the crimson spatters, the screams of the dying, the meaty thud of blades biting into flesh.
Eventually the mud gave way to true roadways paved with stones as they progressed into more affluent districts of the city. Storefronts and tents had once made this a bazaar, but the doors were now splintered, the stone façades bloodstained, the pavilions torn down and reduced to shreds. Bodies lay scattered, their humors pooling on the paving stones.
Diederic wished the roads had remained dirt. The spilled blood might not transform these streets to mud, as it did in the poorer quarters, but at least that mud helped to cover and absorb the miasma of decay. Elsewhere, the stench was merely horrific; here it was near to overpowering. It set the eyes to watering, the gut to churning.
"Whatever you do," Lambrecht ordered suddenly, "make no attempt to help anyone without my express consent."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Trust me, Sir Diederic. Most of these poor souls are well beyond your aid."
Diederic initially had no idea what the priest was talking about.
And then he merely wished he didn’t.
It started with a giggle, barely heard. It was not like that of the axe-wielding Saracen, falsetto and false. This was truly the laughter of a child. She lay cradled in the arms of her young mother, who sat beside the road gently rocking her back and forth. Two rivulets of blood ran down the child’s face from red and angry eye sockets. The young woman hummed softly to the mutilated, giggling girl—hummed rather than sang, because her mouth was full of something round and ripe. Jackdaws and vultures circled above and pranced in the streets, their calls high and piercing, but they ignored the dead in favor of the wounded and the dying. From some nearby building, in tones so deep it carried through the paving stones, an unseen congregation chanted guttural nonsense. It was only after several moments that Diederic recognized a familiar prayer, and realized that the words were Latin and Hebrew, sung backward. Down the road, a naked man stood facing a doorway, his head thrown back, his voice hoarse from screaming. Every few seconds, he slammed the door on something unseen, leaving an ever-growing stain on the wood below the level of his waist, and each time his screams grew louder.
The Saracen axe fell to the street with a clatter. Diederic followed it a moment later, crashing to his knees. Someone inside his head was screaming, but he hadn’t the presence of mind to realize it was he.
His eyes were shut, his hands clasped tightly over his ears, and still it continued. He heard a horrific clatter up ahead, and somehow he knew it was the sound of teeth falling on the paving stones. From an unknowable distance, Diederic heard the voice of his long-dead mother, speaking to him of lewd and carnal acts.
"Sir Diederic!" Lambrecht’s voice seemed a distant thing, scarcely heard. He did not recognize the priest’s grip on his shoulder. "Diederic, you must focus!"
Wings flapped above him, and even through closed eyelids he saw the day grow dark as carrion birds blotted out the sun. A newborn wailing streets away went suddenly silent as its mother pressed her knees together, crushing the life from it.
"This is what happened to the others, Diederic! To the men who attacked us! Would you be like them? Be strong! 'The Lord is my shepherd…' Speak it with me, Diederic! Speak it! ‘The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down—'."
"'…maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.'" Diederic found himself repeating the words instinctively, though he could barely hear himself over the sounds in his head.
"'He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.'" It was not the sacred meaning of the psalm to which he clung like a drowning man; his faith in God, already shaken, had only further diminished in the past moments. It was the familiarity of the words, the sense of ritual, in which he found his focus. His voice rose with each breath, until he was shouting over everything else.
"…'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear—I will fear no…'"
His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. He could not finish it, could not bring himself to say the words. For he did fear. As never before in a life of violence and danger, he feared.
Slowly, pale and shaking, Diederic opened his eyes. The horrors he had seen continued on the street before him, engaged in tableaux snatched directly from Hell. But everything else he had seen and heard from afar was gone as if it had never been.
And perhaps it hadn’t. Perhaps it had been his horrified imagination, or the beginnings of the madness of which Lambrecht had warned. Diederic hoped it was that and no more, that what he had heard had no basis in reality.
For there at the end, before his mindless recitation of the 23rd Psalm had pulled him back from the abyss, it had changed. Those sounds, the whispers, the call, the squawks, and the screams, all began to blend together into a single hideous voice.
It had promised him respite. It had promised to wipe the terrible things from his eyes, to ward his ears against the mind-rending sounds, even to cleanse his memory of the waking nightmares he had just experienced.
And all he had to do to earn that respite was to kill, and to kill, and to kill….
It had taken Diederic but a few moments to recover his wits and to catch his breath, and it was fortunate that he had done so. For when it became clear that the knight was not to become one of the gibbering madmen, the madmen came for him.
Diederic abandoned any attempt to guess where they were headed, or to remember the route they had traversed. With Father Lambrecht at his back, shouting directions and the occasional warning, Diederic focused simply on maintaining his footing, on taking the turns he was told to take, and on cutting down the next in the seemingly endless river of lunatics intent on slaughtering the both of them.
Turning a corner, Diederic caught the barest glimpse of light: the sun reflecting off an upraised blade. His head jerked back as the razor-edged steel passed within inches, hacking a tiny white divot into the stone of the wall beside him. Diederic slammed the rim of his shield into the blade, pinning it momentarily to the wall. Twisting about, he chopped over the top of the shield with his axe. It was an awkward strike with little power, but he felt the blade connect with his attacker’s skull. A minor wound, but sufficient to stun the seemingly pain-impervious maniac long enough for a second stroke to finish the job.
Diederic stepped over the slumping corpse and dropped suddenly to one knee, scarcely avoiding the thrust of a wicked spear. A woman, Saracen by her features even if she wore the bloody chain hauberk of a Christian pilgrim, wielded the weapon clumsily but with great vigor. She pulled back and thrust again, and it was a simple matter for Diederic to grab the shaft with his shield hand and yank it from her grip. Undeterred, she hurled herself at him, nails raised to rake at his eyes, and he drove the butt-end of the spear into her chin. She collapsed at his feet, reeking of fevered sweat.
It had been thus for the past half an hour, and showed no signs of letting up. Had a wild mob attacked all at once, they would have been long since overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. But true to Lambrecht’s implication, the lunatics seemed unwilling or unable to gather in sizable groups. Diederic had first thought they simply lacked the coordination, but more than once he had observed them turning on each other, much as the Church soldiers had vented their rage on the city’s citizens. Perhaps their unwillingness to congregate was simply a residual survival instinct.
Metal crashed against metal, against wood, against flesh, as the two pilgrims slowly worked their way across Jerusalem’s districts. The paved roads grew ever more slick with blood, so much so that Diederic again wished for the relative stability of the clinging mud. Sometimes he faced off in battle against a true opponent, a Church or Saracen warrior whose skill at arms showed through his madness. At other times he simply carved a path through obstacles of flesh that, though armed and eager to tear him down, posed no real threat. He felt less a soldier and more a forest guide then, hacking his way through the underbrush.
Onward they continued, taking this street after that. Diederic’s breath rasped in his chest, his axe-arm burned with the strain of hewing down those who stood before him. Sweat dripped from his forehead faster than he could wipe it away, threatening to blur his sight when he needed it most. He tasted bile in the back of his throat, though he knew nothing remained in his innards to bring up.
Then, even as a great shadow fell across their path, Lambrecht declared, "We are here."
Diederic stared, and the few remaining embers of his faith flared briefly to light. Blocks away, the street climbed a shallow but steady incline—one of the many mounts and hills that marked Jerusalem’s cityscape. Atop the rise, scarcely visible from Diederic’s vantage, stood a handful of small chapels, their walls and roofs largely unmarked by the age that left its imprint on most of the city’s structures. Near the southernmost chapel stood a tall stone wall, battered and broken, surrounded by rubble older than the structures built nearby. Momentarily overwhelmed even through his armor of doubt and cynicism, Diederic knelt in reverence toward Golgotha, and the shattered remnants of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Even as he watched, a slow but steady procession of Church soldiers trudged up and down the hill; this, more than even Jerusalem itself, was the heart of their quest, the culmination of their oath. Each and every man had sworn never to stop, never to surrender, until he had prayed in the remnants of that Church.
Though Diederic felt the tug of the oath he thought he had already abandoned, he glanced questioningly at the priest who stood beside him, head bowed in deep respect. Surely the Hill of Calvary could not be their destination! No matter how desecrated, the remnants of the Holy Sepulchre could not be the source and the center of this madness!
Again, Lambrecht seemed to read his thoughts before Diederic could give them voice. "Much as I would dearly love to climb that hill for myself, following in His footsteps, it is not our destination. We go there."
Diederic followed Lambrecht’s pointing finger. "I see nothing. Just more homes."
"That is because you are not meant to see, Sir Diederic. Nobody was. Some hundred paces from us stands a house, perhaps larger than average, but otherwise normal enough. There was a time, however, when it was touched daily by the hand of God. Before Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah destroyed it, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cast its shadow directly across this house at the precise moment of dawn.
"It is there that we should find what we seek."
Diederic rose to his feet and followed as the priest set off toward the west, but already he had wrapped his cloak of cynicism about him once more. And Diederic began to wonder: If Lambrecht had known exactly where they were heading all along, where to find the cause of the insanity that gripped the district, why had he said nothing of it earlier?
Even as he opened his mouth to inquire, however, a trio of lunatics—two Saracens and an Italian peasant-bowman—appeared from around the next bend. Swords and axes rose and fell, and Diederic no longer had the breath to spare for questions.
He recognized the house as they drew near, without a word from Father Lambrecht. It would have been impossible to miss.
None of the victims of the spreading madness attacked them once they stood before it. This close to the source of the nightmare, it seemed that even the coordination to stand and wield a weapon was beyond them. A long-bearded man, clad in black and wearing the shawl of Judaism, shouted profanities in Hebrew as he ripped the teeth from a corpse at his feet. A young Saracen couple, newly wed, sliced ribbons of flesh from each other with rusty blades and fed them, one by one, to a wild dog who sat at their feet. A young nun lay suffocating slowly on the ground, her mouth and nostrils sewn shut, apparently by her own hand.
Diederic trembled, and he felt the pressure of that terrible voice begin to build once more in his head. His eyesight blurred, and his hands began to sweat, loosening his grip on axe and shield."Father?" He hated the childish tenor of his voice, but it was all he could do to force the word past the rising fever dream. He’d found his way back once, with Lambrecht’s guidance. He could do so again.
But his ears remained empty of the priest’s words of support, his shoulder devoid of Lambrecht’s comforting hands. Indeed, through eyes that refused to focus, Diederic saw a dark shape move past him to traverse the three steps leading up to the door. He heard a faint creak as the portal opened, and a resounding thud as it closed.
Seemingly aware of Diederic’s sudden weakness, the voice in his head grew loud and shrill, demanding that he rise up and take his place among the ever-growing horde of lunatics, that he wield his axe to no greater or more discriminate purpose than the mutilation of every living thing. The images in his mind’s eye grew ever more horrible: scene after scene of bloodshed and pain, swift but vivid images of truths terrible enough to scar the soul. They floated in a sea of unending screams, buoyed aloft by a bank of impenetrable mists. For a sliver of eternity, Diederic teetered on the brink of madness. But where his faith was far too weak to support him, his growing anger was a lifeline, a tendril of reality and sanity to which he might cling. It started as a whisper, obscured by the terrible sounds that buffeted his senses, but with every breath it grew.
He had been abandoned.
Left for madness, torment, death.
Over the nightmarish images that circled in his mind, Diederic laid the face of Father Lambrecht like a blanket. From his memory he dredged the priest’s every feature, every movement, every word. He heard again the psalms, the Last Rites, the words of encouragement. They rang hollow now, each and every one.
Lambrecht had known where he was going. That fact, above all others, rang like a bell in Diederic’s soul. Lambrecht had known, and he had offered no warning.
And if the priest could abandon a companion and a fellow pilgrim to madness and a foul, honorless death, of what else was he capable? Diederic thought back to the bodies over which Lambrecht was performing the Last Rites when they had met, and he wondered suddenly how they had died. He had seen no trace of injury, nor of fresh blood, and he wondered.
Had he turned them over, might he have seen a narrow wound, like Joris’s own, in their backs?
His fist clenched on the Saracen axe so tightly his gauntlets bit furrows deep into the wood, Diederic slowly straightened. His vision cleared, his eyes locked on the door before him. The screams and whispers in his head faded, not completely, but to a background annoyance—the slosh of a stream against its banks, or the buzzing of distant flies.
Well, let them continue to harangue him, to taunt him, to wheedle and promise and cajole. They wanted him to kill? Fine, he would kill.
He started with the lunatics gathered around the house. Lambrecht had left him to suffer the horrors of madness; Diederic would not do the same to them. Not one so much as lifted a hand in defense. Then, after wiping his axe clean on the nun’s tattered habit, he strode forward and put his boot to the door. It exploded inward, and Diederic was through before the last of the splinters struck the floor.
Somewhere within, doing God only knew what, was Father Lambrecht. And Diederic would have answers from him—would learn if he sought justice only for himself, or in the names of his fallen brethren as well—before he spilled the priest’s lifeblood on the stones.
The stairs seemed to descend forever into darkness, and after all he had seen in the past hours, Diederic was prepared to believe that they very well could.
The house itself had been normal enough, if richly furnished and carpeted. He had seen no sign of current inhabitation. Perhaps the family had fled before the siege, or perhaps no one dwelt here any longer. Axe in hand, alert for the slightest movement, he had crept from foyer to bedchamber, kitchen to dining hall, and had found nothing more significant than a frightened lizard for his trouble. His arms had quivered, and he had demolished a heavy table with a fearsome shout and a heavy blow of his axe before he was even aware of his mounting frustration. If Lambrecht had simply left via the courtyard in back, he might have headed anywhere, and Diederic would never find him.
Nonetheless, Diederic was certain that this had been the priest’s intended destination. It hardly made sense that Lambrecht would have risked life and limb fighting through the throng of madmen purely to deceive a companion whom he’d planned to abandon.
And indeed, Diederic’s persistence had paid off. As he paced back and forth throughout the house, focusing on each step to distract from the sights and sounds that churned in the back of his mind, he finally noticed a change in the tenor of those steps in the bedchamber. Beneath the wooden frame and goose-down mattress, he found a heavy stone plugging a passage that descended into the earth. Had it been fitted properly in place, Diederic would never have found it, but the last man to pass through—and dare he hope it had been Lambrecht?—had not taken the time to secure it.
Now the cries and calls of the city faded into the distance above him. The only sounds he heard were the sharp echoes of his footfalls on the dusty stone steps and the crackling of the makeshift torch—formerly linens and a table leg—he gripped in his shield hand. Around and around, and ever downward, the staircase wended its way deep into the bedrock of the Holy City. The dust of centuries lay thick upon the steps, but even in the inconstant torchlight, Diederic could see the prints of someone come shortly before him. Beetle carapaces crunched beneath his boots; spiders scurried about the walls, repairing webs but recently disturbed.
When his depth beneath the house reached, at a guess, roughly thrice his own height, the scent of the stale air subtly changed. Diederic, who had traveled into Roman catacombs before, recognized immediately that he was in the presence of ancient death.
As such, he was prepared for the appearance of ossuaries recessed into the walls where the dead might rest. What he did not expect was to find the recesses along the stairs themselves, nor to find them standing vertically. The dead here did not rest, but stood sentry against intrusion.
Corpse after corpse, clad in ancient armor, glared impassively at him from empty sockets. Rictus grins showed missing teeth, the gaps bridged as often as not by cobwebs that fluttered in a weak, unfelt breeze, granting each skull the illusion of breath. Bony hands held tight to spears or rested on heavy Roman shields.
Diederic ceased walking once, to stare back at a lifeless sentry. His footfalls continued to echo down the steps, three—no, four—times before the stairway was engulfed in silence. Perhaps it was a trick of the shadows that whirled and cavorted around the torch, but Diederic was almost certain that he saw his own face reflected back from the gaping sockets.
Unnerved, he continued down the stair….
In utter silence. His heavy boot made no report as it impacted the ancient stone. A second step, a third; still there was nothing, nothing at all. Had it not been for the crackling of the torch and the rasp of his suddenly labored breathing, Diederic would have been certain he had been struck deaf. He wanted desperately to turn back, but he could not bear the thought of Lambrecht getting away with his betrayal.
On the fifth stair, his steps again sounded as normal, reverberating between the walls. Diederic’s brow wrinkled with a disconcerting thought.
His steps had remained silent until he had caught up with his echo.
Diederic quickened his pace, and determined not to stop again until he had reached the bottom, however much farther, however deep, it might be.
Not that far at all, as it happened.
The staircase made half a revolution more, another several feet of descent, and deposited Diederic at one end of an impossibly long hallway. By this point, he had utterly lost any sense of direction on the winding stairs, and could not begin to guess where beneath Jerusalem the corridor might lead. If by some stroke of chance he faced due east, it would carry him directly beneath Golgotha itself, but somehow he doubted his destination could be anywhere so sacred.
The footprints in the heavy dust led him farther on. Embers spiraled from his torch to fizzle on his gauntlet or the uncaring stone floor. It was surprisingly cool down here, surrounded by darkness and rock, but the air remained stuffy and thick. It resisted his attempts to catch his breath, as though resentful of his intrusion. Unseen things, too large for scorpions but too many-legged for rats, scuttled in the darkness beyond the advancing torchlight, and watched his passage through eyes that had never known the sun.
Finally, the dancing firelight fell upon the corridor’s end, and upon a door far older than most of the buildings above. Constructed of a smooth, heavy wood that Diederic did not recognize, it seemed blacker than the surrounding shadows, absorbing much of the light. Brass bars secured the door both horizontally and vertically, creating the image of a great cross of light before a gulf of endless darkness.
Above the door, etched deeply into the stone and filled with silver, an inscription read simply, "Deuteronomy 18:10."
Diederic scowled, and gave the door a heavy shove.
The maddening shriek of stone-on-stone belied the ease with which the cumbersome portal swung open. With the element of surprise well and truly lost, Diederic darted through the doorway and leaped to his left, determined not to be trapped there by any lurking foe.
Foe there was, but hardly lurking.
"I am impressed, Sir Diederic. You’ve greater strength of will than I’d credited you for."
Beyond the door stretched a chamber of cavernous proportions. The floor, sloping gently downward, boasted scraps of cloth, tufts of wool, and scattered bits of straw, arranged roughly in rows. It took Diederic a moment to recognize them as the age-eaten remnants of kneeling cushions. On the far side of the hall, a series of broad and shallow stairs covered in insect-eaten carpet led up to a high dais, overlooking the whole of the chamber. The farthermost wall supported an enormous crucifix which hung above a large altar, covered in ornate Greek lettering and thick layers of cobwebs, constructed of the same dark wood as the door. It could only have been intended as an enormous sanctuary.
And sitting cross-legged before an open panel in the altar, visible only due to the burning oil lamp on the floor beside him, waited Father Lambrecht. In his lap he held something shielded from Diederic’s gaze by the fold of his tabard sleeve. At his side rested his heavy mace.
"I intend to do far more than impress you, Lambrecht." Diederic allowed his own torch to fall to the ground. The shadows leaped, but combined with the lantern across the room, the fallen brand cast light enough for him to begin crossing the chamber. He casually swung his axe with every step, promising the priest what was to come. "And is that the prize for which you abandoned me to madness?" Then, as though the thought had only just occurred, "And stabbed in the back good men who trusted you?"
If he was startled at the accusation of murder, Lambrecht gave no sign. "It is indeed, Sir Diederic. And if many more men had to die, or go mad, for me to acquire it, it still would have been worthwhile."
"Some ancient Roman or Saracen treasure, Lambrecht? Gold? Perhaps frankincense and myrrh, Father? Or maybe just thirty coins of silver?"
"More valuable than any treasure, this. I hold the future of the Church in my hands." Diederic kicked aside the last of the ravaged cushions and mounted the first of the steps to the dais.
With a flourish more appropriate to a stage performer than a cleric of the Church, Lambrecht flung his arm aside, revealing what he held. Fragments of cobwebs and what looked, to Diederic, like brief wisps of smoke or mist drifted away into the darkness, leaving behind….
"A stack of worn parchment," Diederic was halfway up to the dais now, "for the lives of Joris and the others. Satan’s making ready to welcome you even now, Lambrecht."
But Lambrecht’s eyes had gone unfocused, his voice distant. He seemed lost in some other place, and unaware of his approaching demise.
"These are the surviving pages, Sir Diederic, of the Laginate Grimoire. Most of the works secreted here by the Romans are worthless, or minor curios at best, but these! I have sought a work of this power for years."
"Have you." Diederic crested the last of the steps.
"So much has been lost: to history, to fate, to the shortsightedness of our own Mother Church. But oh, what remains! It speaks of many wonders, the Grimoire. It speaks of the future, read in the stars; and of secrets of the past, revealed in bones. It speaks of the dead, and the truths they whisper to those with ears to hear them."
Diederic’s blood quickened and he raised his axe as he strode across the dais. Only a few paces, now….
Lambrecht’s eyes grew wider, and bubbles of foam burst upon his lips. "It speaks of the nature of dreams, of visions, of sights unseen."
The axe struck like a baleful lightning bolt hurled by an angry god. It rebounded from the stone with a furious clang, and Diederic stumbled to one knee, thrown off balance by the lack of resistance. His vision blurred, as if the room itself vibrated.
Or had his sight been veiled since he entered, and he was only now aware of it? Lambrecht sat several feet from where Diederic had been certain he was. The knight rose and took a step, only to stumble once more as the ground seemed to leap up at him, and the priest himself to split in three even as his form melded with the shadows around them.
"It speaks of spirits bound by words of power, screaming silently in places of prayer."
Diederic’s head felt as though it would split in twain, as a chorus of thousands shrieked without breath in his ears. His axe hit stone once more, and he could not spare a thought to pick it up again.
Through it all, the priest’s voice carried.
"It speaks of the spirits of the wild, that guide the birds, and the beasts, and the fish of the sea, and all things not man."
They skittered into the feeble circle of light, legs and wings and mandibles twitching like drunken marionettes. Diederic could not hear them as they swarmed across his legs, made their way inside his armor. He could not hear them as they began to feast on countless tiny bits of skin. He could not hear them as he fell. He could not hear himself as he screamed.
"It speaks of the spirits that drive men mad, that possess them to partake in abominable acts."
Over the endless shrieks, the room echoed with a distant crash from above, as the first of a hundred lunatics hurled aside the stone door and set foot upon the stairs. Diederic didn’t know how they were managing to stand, let alone walk.
"It speaks of the spirits, Sir Diederic. And it speaks of the hollow, hungry places in which they dwell."
The lantern spat and guttered, and the smoke that emerged from its burning reservoir curled back upon itself and faded. In its place rose a single tendril of white mist. Like a living thing, it prodded at the air, tasting it. It slithered, snakelike, above the floor, to wrap itself lovingly around the pages of the Grimoire, and the hands of the unblinking priest. Gradually Lambrecht’s pupils contracted, and he peered down at the mists that flowed across his arms. Like a child with a toy, he raised one hand, then the other, and the haze drooped from both as if it were a clinging moss.
Clutching the Grimoire’s pages in one hand, scooping up his mace in the other, the priest rose to his feet. The mists pooled around him, fanning out in the wake of his steps. He seemed to drift across the floor as he approached the fallen, twitching knight. "Is it not fascinating, Sir Diederic? The Grimoire has lain here for years, with no harm to any. We awakened the spirits of the book with our coming, sent them forth to wreak madness. Perhaps it savors the taste of blood, or the taste of faith." Lambrecht glanced down; Diederic, for all the pain and horror, stared up at him with rage-filled eyes. "You haven’t much faith left in you, do you, Diederic? But you should still have plenty of blood…." Even as he hefted the pages and the bludgeon, perhaps deciding which was to be Diederic’s fate, the mists wafted across the knight’s face, soft as a dying lover’s caress. A burning cold shot through his body and his soul at their touch: the pain that overwhelms all other torments, the fear that inspires the sickest invalid to rise.
The cold did not mute the screams in his ears. It did not draw the veil from his eyes, nor soothe the stings that reddened his flesh. It did not free him from the grip of the Laginate Grimoire, or the priest who carried it. But for the length of a single, precious breath, it made them cease to matter.
With a howl more animal than man, Diederic lunged to his feet. He felt Lambrecht’s nose fold beneath his gauntleted fist, even as he slapped the clergyman’s mace aside with his other hand. The weapon landed with a resounding thump and slid across the floor to slam into the burning lamp. Oil spilled, and a small trail of fire ran across the stone floor of the dais. The air grew heavy with the scent of smoke, and the strange mist vanished back whence it came.
Lambrecht staggered, gasping, trying to draw breath through nostrils that no longer opened. Tears poured down his face to mix with the thick blood that pooled on his lips and chin. The words on the parchment swam and blurred before his eyes, and crimson droplets appeared on the page. His head ringing, he groped beneath his tabard for his last line of defense.
Diederic advanced on the tottering priest. His sight remained blurred too, but he could make out Lambrecht’s shape before the dancing flames. He heard the scrape of steel on leather, and knew without having to see that Lambrecht now held a dagger—a dagger with a long, narrow blade that had tasted the blood of Joris van den Felle.
Feigning utter blindness, biting his lip to stay focused through the shrieking in his head, Diederic aimed a clumsy blow off to Lambrecht’s right. The priest, dagger upraised to strike, stepped in to take advantage of what seemed a perfect opening.
Diederic spun, clasping Lambrecht about the neck and the wrist, and pitched him bodily over the edge of the dais.
Bone met stone, and bone gave way. Bits of parchment fluttered around the fallen priest, finally coming to rest like the first snowflakes of winter.
Instantly, Diederic’s world righted itself. The numbing screams ceased, his eyesight cleared, and though scores of welts remained, he felt no more movement across his skin. With the pained walk of a much older man, Diederic went about the dais, gathering his axe, his shield, and Lambrecht’s mace, then slowly down the steps. He found the priest, his leg obviously broken, his face swollen, his eyes shut, but breathing all the same. For how many minutes he stood there, axe raised high to sever Lambrecht’s head from his shoulders, Diederic couldn’t say. The blood pounded in his temples, his heart raced, and all he wanted was to rid himself—and the world—of this foul creature.
Finally, however, he lowered the weapon and knelt beside the insensible priest. "This is no mercy," he whispered, hoping even now that part of Lambrecht might hear him. "I do not stay my hand for you. Excommunication first, then a slow hanging for murder: this is the fate you have earned. Not the quick and honorable stroke of an axe."
Diederic gathered the fallen papers, for the synod would require evidence of Lambrecht’s heresy, and shoved them rudely through his belt. Then, though every bone ached with weariness, he stripped Lambrecht’s armor from him and left it heaped upon the floor.
Would the madmen come? Were they even now pouring down the stairs into the corridor? Or had they disappeared, or reverted to helplessness, when the pages of the Grimoire fell from Lambrecht’s hands?
Well, so be it either way. Diederic would fight if he must, and if he was to die here, he would ensure, at least, that he had the strength remaining to take Lambrecht with him. With a pained grunt, Diederic heaved the priest over his shoulder and began the long walk back toward daylight.
Next Week: Chapter Three...
Before the trial reached the end of its first day, Diederic wished that he had let fall his axe, rather than per-mitting Lambrecht to draw another breath.