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.
It had no name.
Oh, there was one recorded somewhere. Nobody would build a fortress of this size without naming it, and that information could likely be found buried in the Empyrean Church archives, deep beneath the Holy Basilica in the heart of Caercaelum. But whatever name the fortress might have borne was long forgotten, lost in the infamy of the ground on which it stood.
To turnkey and prisoner alike, it was Perdition Hill. The fortress was unimportant; it was the man-made hell beneath that mattered.
Leona Talliers crouched stiffly beside an underground pool, up to her elbows in lukewarm, gritty water. With hands rubbed raw from constant scouring and pocked by exposure to splashing lye, she hauled a soggy, cream-colored robe from the pool. It was tattered and worn, but now, at least, moderately cleansed of dust, sweat, and blood. With hardly a glance, she passed the robe along. Savah would beat it dry with heavy sticks before passing it, in her turn, to another woman; she would attempt, with hands as abused as Leona's own, to mend the garment without leaving new bloodstains that would necessitate a second washing.
Daring the displeasure of the pacing guards, ever alert for signs of slacking, Leona paused to wipe the perspiration from her brow, moistening a sleeve already yellowed through constant similar use. Although she wished desperately for a respite from the heat, she knew better than to splash any of the water from the pool across her parched face. She had done that once, and the diluted lye accumulated within the water had irritated her eyes for a week.
The heat beneath the hill was oppressive—a weight that bound the prisoners as thoroughly as any chain. It was not the sharp burn of the flame but the slow sweltering of the oven; it baked the miasma of sweat, smoke, human waste, and despair into a nigh-tangible mass that plugged the corridors. The slightest effort was exhausting, yet sleep came reluctantly and fitfully at best. Robes were washed regularly, to prevent the accumulation of vermin, but as for the men and women themselves, they had long since forgotten what it was to be clean, to be free of the sticky film of sweat and dirt that each wore as a second skin. The furnaces in the lower levels, and the torches that were the only source of illumination, kept the heat constant regardless of time or season. Night and day were not the province of sun and moon down here, but simply the whim of the guards.
Ignoring the ache in her back and neck, Leona bent forward again to begin laboring on the next of the filthy robes. A brief glimpse of her reflection took her aback, as it always did. Her hair had once been fiery red, her skin a healthy bronze, but a year and more beneath the earth had dulled the former, and paled the latter almost white where it was not gray from filth or ruddy from the heat. Leona stared at her reflection, and a stranger met her gaze.
She flinched as a scourge cracked behind her, so near that she felt the wind of its passing in her hair. She glanced behind at the mail hauberk and crimson tabard, traditional to the guard, and bowed her head once in apology before scrubbing at the robe. She knew better than to look to her companions for sympathy. Were she to taste the lash directly, it would simply mean more work for others to clean and mend the robe she now wore.
Hours passed, each one an eternity. The water in the pool now mixed not merely with lye, but with blood from shredded skin, and the foul secretions of blisters formed and torn in quick succession. Finally, however, Leona felt the grip of a guard upon her shoulder, pulling her from the pool and directing her to stand.
"Get a whole load ready," he informed her, not even bothering to look her in the face. "Gather it up, and come with me."
Her back protesting strenuously as she bent, her arms quivering beneath her burden, Leona gathered a sizable heap of the garments and followed as the guard led her from the chamber and into a gently sloping passage.
As she passed beneath the arch, her eyes darted upward, taking in the inscription on the stone mantle above.
"Predicants 15:5." Of all the Septateuchal passages inscribed in the halls of Perdition Hill, this was the one most often repeated, and one she had long since learned by heart.
"Suffer among you no man who is slothful, but ensure he labors as is equitable for his due. If he worketh not, offer unto him no charity, but allow him to falter."
And work for their due the prisoners did, if they wanted to eat. Arduous and painful as it was, Leona gave thanks for laundry duty. In Perdition Hill there were tasks aplenty that were far more odious.
Unwilling to offer the guard any cause for anger, Leona struggled to keep up, ignoring the bone-deep weariness that was as constant a companion to her as hunger. Her calloused feet, though bare, beat like heavy boots upon the floor. On they walked, onward and upward, through passageways of ruddy stone that writhed through the Hill, the tentacles of some shapeless beast from before the coming of man.
Another archway, beyond which opened a side passage leading to one of the many chapels scattered throughout the catacomb. Within the chapel, an Empyrean priest waxed philosophic about the wages of sin and the virtues of cooperation to a literal captive audience. Leona herself had not yet attended her mandatory daily allotment of mass, but she rather doubted her dour companion would excuse her long enough to do so. She would have to sit through the nightly prayers before dinner, then.
It seemed they had walked forever—an illusion that, though familiar to Leona as her own breathing, she could not shake. It was indeed a lengthy trek from the washing pool; then, it was a long way from anywhere to anywhere in this thrice-damned place.
Finally, when her calluses threatened to split upon the stone floor, and her arms visibly shook beneath their heavy load, they were there.
The main hall was enormous, unbelievably so. Arched ceilings rose high unto the very top of the hill, supported by buttresses ornately carved with warlike angels glaring down upon the prisoners. A great chandelier, in which burned a thousand candles, illuminated the chamber, reflecting off the reddish stone and a series of stained glass windows high upon the walls. There were seven windows in total: one for each of the Sixfold Scions, and a seventh that showed only sunrise. The windows led nowhere of course, and the only light ever to fall upon them was cast by those many candles.
And above every door from the hall, in large ornate letters, was the same inscription, the mantra of Perdition Hill: Honesty is a song sung only by the righteous. Speak truth, and let thyself be made worthy.
Now that it was evening, or what the guards proclaimed and the prisoners accepted to be evening, the hall filled with the slow shuffle of feet and the rustling of cloth. Men and women returned from their daily labors, battered, exhausted, and oftentimes injured, and the guards strode alongside them, mail hauberks clanking in counterpoint. The acrid stench of sweat and blood rode before the prisoners, and their whimpers and groans reverberated in the passageways.
With her guard looming behind her like a shadow, fingering the handle of his lash whenever she slowed, Leona stood between two large wicker baskets along one long wall. One by one, in a stream as endless as the tides, prisoners shuffled past. Each hauled a robe soiled by the day's toil over his or her head—modesty requires privacy, and privacy was nowhere to be had beneath the Hill—and dropped it in the first basket. Her movements mechanical, Leona drew a clean robe from the other basket and handed it on. Over and over, prisoner after prisoner, until by evening's end, she would be left with a full basket of dirty garments to be hauled back down to the pool come the morrow. This was her life, had been for some time, and would assuredly be until the day she died. She had had over a year to grow accustomed to that fact; it galled her still. For Leona Talliers, like many of those held in Perdition Hill and the other prisons of the Empyrean Inquisition, was largely innocent of the charges against her.
But then, others were not.
"They took him below some hours ago."
Leona started, might even have let loose a soft yelp. Lost in thought and the repetitive duties of her task, she had not expected anyone to speak with her. Fearfully she glanced behind, waiting for the overseer's lash, but he was gone, having moved away to discuss some matter with another guard.
When she looked back, Leona already knew whom she would see. Only one among the prisoners had the sort of timing, the sort of foresight, to appear at the precise moment the guard was absent.
The Vistana stood before her, dark eyes shadowed, somehow impressive despite being clad in the same tattered garment as everyone else. Like the fortress above, the Vistana doubtless had a true name, but none of the prisoners used it. Most refused even to associate with her. Everyone knew the Vistani practiced true witchcraft, and here proximity was as good as guilt. Leona would have had nothing to do with her, either, save that the two were joined by a mutual interest.
"Again?" Leona asked, voice hushed. "He has not recovered from the last time!"
The pale-skinned woman sighed. "He'll not be waiting his turn in line, then."
The Vistana nodded. "But neither will the guards forgive him tomorrow if he stinks of today's labors. Pass me two robes, Leona. I'll smuggle the extra to him."
Leona hesitated, but she had only seconds before the guard returned. With a nod, she slipped the Vistana two of the cream-hued garments, then watched as the slim, dark-haired woman slipped away into the crowd.
And indeed, when everyone's tasks for the evening were complete, and the prisoners herded like cattle and packed into the waiting cells for a meager dinner and a fitful night's sleep, not only the Vistana but also Leona herself found themselves sharing the stranger's cell. Leona shivered briefly at the Vistana's foresight, and wondered again what witchcrafts the gypsies truly practiced.
Filthy, louse-ridden straw crunched beneath her feet as Leona made her way to the rear of the cell, away from the rusty bars and the eyes of the crimson-clad guards. The other prisoners within the cell, several dozen in all, were too focused on their bowls of watery gruel to do more than grunt a protest as she squeezed between them. Taking care not to stain her newly cleaned robe with the eye-watering mildew that clung low to the wall and fed off the decaying straw, Leona crouched beside the Vistana, who gently tended to the stranger's wounds.
He had dwelt here for months—though without the passing of the seasons Leona could never have said precisely how many—yet "the stranger" was all they had to call him. His features, though similar to those of Malosians, were just different enough to suggest some other land of origin, and his words, on those rare occasions he spoke at all, carried a hint of an unknown accent. His face, unshaven even when he first arrived, was now covered in a wild growth of beard, the same sand-brown of his hair. He had the physique of a warrior, though weeks of insufficient gruel had left him bordering on gaunt. Most peculiar of all were his eyes, which seemed unwilling to focus, but instead stared beyond his surroundings at some world nobody else could see.
He responded little, if at all, to the words and actions of those around him. He answered no questions, engaged in no conversation. When he spoke at all, it was to utter strange and foreign words—names, -perhaps?—in the awed tone of a man lost in memories, or else in prayer.
Words like Jerusalem. Outremer. Lambrecht. Jesu.
And ever more frequently as the weeks and months went by: Purgatory.
It was frustrating to those few who had tried to befriend him, and most of the other prisoners had long since given up. The Vistana, however, had gazed in wide-eyed fascination the day he appeared in Perdition Hill, and had kept close watch on him ever since, seeing to those needs that he was unable, or unwilling, to meet for himself. Leona could not say what about him had fascinated her. Perhaps it was the Vistana's own interest that had piqued her curiosity. Or perhaps it was the rumors that swirled among the prisoners—rumors regarding the reasons for the stranger's imprisonment.
Who he was, where he was from, what he had done: these were all questions for which the prisoners had no answer. And to judge by the frequency with which the stranger was chosen for "questioning" by the guards, neither had the Inquisition.
And maybe that was what drew Leona's compassion. Not a man or woman present was a stranger to the torture chambers of the Inquisition's Truth Seekers, but the frequency of the stranger's sufferings vastly overshadowed anyone else's.
The Vistana gently pulled the old robe—soiled not only by sweat, but urine as well—from the stranger's body. Leona knelt to aid her in replacing it with the new robe, positioning herself as best as she could to block anyone else's view. She did not even want to imagine the consequences, should any of the guards decide something lewd was occurring in the cell.
Leona tore a strip from the hem of the robe—small enough that it should pass as normal wear—and moistened it with the last remaining drops of her allotted water. As Leona supported the stranger's head, the Vistana, clearly better versed in the healing arts than Leona herself, dabbed carefully at the man's few outward wounds.
Priests of the Empyrean Church were forbidden to shed blood, and even the most vicious of the Inquisitorial Truth Seekers could honestly claim not to have violated that precept. They didn't need to—not when they had plenty of bloodless options at hand.
Today, it appeared the treatment of choice had been suspension by various extremities, possibly with added weights for that extra bit of pressure on the joints. The stranger's wrists were badly chafed, made red and inflamed by the heavy ropes. Deep bruising suggested substantial damage within, particularly around the chest and shoulders, and one of his arms hung loosely at his side, dislocated. The Vistana bent forward and took a firm grip on that arm.
"Hold his shoulders," she whispered, and with hardly an instant's pause to allow Leona to brace herself, she yanked up and back. The wet snap of the bone slipping into place was inaudible beneath the stranger's agonized cry.
Ignoring the glares of those around them, the two women locked eyes. "We've not much time now," Leona observed. The Vistana merely nodded.
And indeed, she had spent only moments treating the stranger's lesser injuries when the whispered warning of "Redbreasts!" hissed through the crowded cell. Leona lowered the stranger's head to the straw and scooted aside. The Vistana simply folded her hands together, expertly sliding the moist cloth up one sleeve where it would be effectively invisible.
The guards that appeared before the bars glared menacingly into the cell, and offered up a few obligatory utterances along the lines of "What's all this?" and "What are you vermin doing in there?" But cries of pain were hardly a rarity in the nights of Perdition Hill, and when no immediate bloodshed, carnality, illness, or witchcraft presented itself, the soldiers were all too happy to continue on their rounds without so much as unlocking the cell door.
The stranger twitched and rolled over in the straw, his utterances limited to the occasional groan.
"Has he ever been so bad?" Leona asked, her voice barely louder than a breath, though the guards had gone.
"Once, when he first arrived—before you joined me in his upkeep. They fed him the pear."
Leona gagged. Perhaps the most diabolical of the Inquisition's tools, the pear was a metal device that widened as an attached screw was turned. Fully collapsed, it fit snugly within a person's mouth, but as it started to expand….
"They did not open it fully," the Vistana continued. "I suppose they wished him to be able to talk. But even so, he could hardly chew for weeks."
"Jesu, forgive me!" Both women started and stared down at their charge, but already he had subsided once more into agonized, restless slumber.
Leona, having completed the long morning walk down to the washing pool, was stunned to discover the stranger assigned to stand beside her this day. Men, particularly those of his physical acumen, normally found themselves assigned far more laborious tasks: assisting in the forges, digging new passages to interconnect the old, breaking rocks. The stranger's injured arm, swollen and weak despite the Vistana's treatment, rendered him unsuitable for such tasks. Yet his arm was hale enough to hold a robe, and he could wield a stick in the other to beat that robe dry.
Perhaps their keepers thought to humiliate him with woman's work—just another torture heaped upon him—but in this they were doomed to disappointment. The stranger carried out his tasks as ordered, as mechanically as a trained animal, and otherwise remained oblivious to his surroundings.
For many hours she worked beside him, handing him one water-sodden garment after another; if he recognized her at all, he gave no sign. Around noon, or so the keepers claimed, the lot of them ceased their labors. They were herded, single file and at spear-point, into the nearest chapel, where they were manacled to stone pews. It, like every chapel, had inscribed above the entryway the notation "Proclamations 9:17."
Or, as it meant to those who knew their scripture, "Prayer is the repast that sustains men's souls in misfortune."
Leona watched the priest stride in, accompanied by another pair of guards, and ceremonially dip his fingers in the stone font beside the entrance. Their crimson tabards each displayed the sixfold sun, holiest icon of the Empyrean Church, but the priest boasted the symbol in gold, rather than the guards' standard white. That, and the priest's lack of helm, were the only means of telling one from the other, until the man began to preach.
It was the same hour of her life she experienced every day. The priest read from the Septateuch; extolled the value of honesty, confession, and repentance; railed against the evils of heresy and witchcraft that afflicted the lands and the good people of Malosia; and otherwise said nothing new. Leona would long since have confessed the sin of witchcraft, if only to end her interminable days in Perdition Hill. Alas, the Inquisitors demanded sufficiently detailed confessions that false admissions were easily spotted.
It was after she and the stranger had filed back to their positions by the washing pool, but the guards had not completed escorting everyone else back to their duties, that Leona realized they had a few moments.
"Tell me, stranger," she whispered, barely audible over the water lapping against the edge of the pool. "Who is this 'Jesu' from whom you beg forgiveness?"
Never before had Leona felt the stranger's eyes directly, but now he turned an incredulous gaze upon her. It was apparently the sheer absurdity of her question that drew his attention.
"Jesu," he croaked in a voice unused to speech, as though simple repetition of the name should provide her an answer. "Our savior, son of the Lord our God."
"You know of the Sixfold Scions, then! But I am not familiar with the name you've offered. Which of God's sons is he?"
The stranger's jaw dropped as though it would fall completely from his face. Even as he drew breath to speak, however, one of the women down the line muttered a soft "Redbreasts coming!"
Beneath the eyes of the guards, Leona and the stranger had no more opportunity to speak that day. But as the hours passed, his eyes returned to her again and again, and if his expression was questioning, perplexed, even disbelieving, it was far steadier, and far more alert, than she had ever seen.
In the following days, though the stranger sought any means by which to continue their abbreviated conversation, such opportunities failed to present themselves. Someone else stood between them in the shuffling line to and from chapel. The ebb and flow of the crowd cast them in different cells when it came time to bed down for the night. It was maddening! To have such a brief, tantalizing glimpse into the true nature of this horrific realm in which he found himself, and then to be unable to pursue it further, was worse than having no notion at all.
On the fourth morning after their brief discussion, the guards declared the stranger fit to return to his previous duties. Along with dozens of other men, he was escorted not down to the washing pool, but across the length of Perdition Hill. Here, several small cul-de-sacs extended from the main passage, little more than blisters of open air within the stone. The job of the prisoners was to transform those dead ends into traversable passages by means of inadequate tools and exhaustive labor.
Dust poured from the walls, clogging and choking; the clatter of the heavy picks against the stone was deafening. Still, the stranger labored on. He ignored the agony that flared often through his injured arm, ignored the fountain-like rivulets of sweat that dripped without providing the slightest relief from the heat, and pondered.
This was Purgatory. While not miserable or agonizing enough for any Hell, it was certainly as far from Heaven as could be imagined…. Where else could he have found himself?
Yet the woman's question had shaken him from his horrified, despairing reverie. Even the most righteous of heathens were condemned to Hell, but here was a woman who had apparently never even heard of the son of God.
Or had heard of too many….
He shook his head, sending a cloud of rock dust cascading from his hair to the floor. He had questions, too many questions, and nobody from whom to seek his answers. He wanted to throw down his pick and go find this woman, demand that she explain.
He did not. Even in his prime, before months of deprivation had weakened him so, he could not have battled his way through so many guards. This duty was considered most dangerous for the prisoners, as accidents were not uncommon, but also for the guards, who must watch over men armed with picks and shovels that could easily serve as weapons. Twice as many of the—what had the other prisoners called them? Redbreasts—twice as many Redbreasts stood watch over the miners as over any other contingent of prisoners. One man with an old pickaxe, however determined, could never hope to win through the lot of them.
And so the stranger worked, pounding away at the stone even as he pounded away at his dilemma, and he grew frustrated at his lack of progress with either.
It was during his second week back in the tunnels that the cave-in occurred.
The stranger and three of his fellow prisoners chipped fiercely away at a stretch of wall. They knew that they were close to breaking through—had known for days, ever since the dull clang of their picks on stone had begun to echo hollowly. Even before they heard the barked orders from the guards, felt the sting of the lash on their backs, they had redoubled their efforts, working tirelessly through the following days. It was not a need to please their jailors that inspired them, but the knowledge that once the wall had fallen, the turnkeys would have to discuss with their engineers where next to dig. Breaking through this wall meant at least a day, possibly two, of respite—or at least of easier duties—before their efforts must resume once more.
Finally, some hours after midday mass, they were rewarded for their efforts by a loud crack, accompanied by a visible shifting of the rock. A ragged cheer, made hoarse by thirst and ambient dust, but heartfelt nonetheless, arose from the workers—a cheer that was cut short by the low, doleful groan that echoed from beneath them.
As though it had waited eons for just such an excuse, the wall collapsed into dozens of smaller stones, shattering like glass. Dust billowed outward as the rock impacted the floor, sending all four men into fits of coughing and retching, obscuring their vision like a thick smoke.
Or, the stranger could not help but note, like mist.
Even as they doubled over, hands outstretched blindly to locate one another in the rolling dust, a second groan, louder than the first, shook the floor beneath their feet.
And then, perhaps unable to bear the impact of the collapsing wall, that floor was gone. Unlike the wall, it did not go all at once. It was that fact alone that saved him. The stranger felt the stone shift and begin to slide away. Disoriented by the cloud of grit, unable to catch his breath for coughing, still he was able to leap aside, his body propelled by instincts honed through years upon years of battle. He felt the base of his heel part as he pushed off, split by the jagged edge of a breaking rock. He ignored the pain, ignored the warmth of his own blood, and could only hope as he took to the air that he had not, in his befuddlement, hurled himself at one of the other walls.
Thus the impact of the floor rising up to meet him, knocking both breath and no small amount of dust from his lungs, was a welcome pain. The stranger spun himself about, shredding his robe against the rocky floor, and lunged for a hand protruding from the cloud. He clenched it tight, shouting meaningless encouragements for the man on the other end to hold on. And for a moment, that man was saved.
But the weight was heavy, awkward, and the stranger felt the stones loosen and shift beneath him. Maybe, just maybe, he could save his fellow prisoner. And maybe, more likely, they would plummet to their deaths together.
With a whispered apology, the stranger opened his grip. Skin slipped from skin, and a brief, choked scream was silenced by a sodden thump.
There he lay, hands crossed above his head, as the tunnel shook and the earth itself seemed determined to collapse. Everything from the tiniest pebble to rocks larger than his head clattered to the floor around him, bounced off his upraised arms, his legs, his back. They bruised flesh and bone but thankfully inflicted no more serious injury.
Finally, the shuddering subsided, the dust began to settle. The stranger cautiously opened his eyes. Through the clouds that impaired his vision, he thought he made out a large perpendicular corridor, some ways up the passage. In that, at least, they had accomplished their objective.
Between him and it, however, lay a jagged gap in the floor, easily three paces across. The light of the dust-muted torches was insufficient to see what might lie below. All he could tell was that the open space below was no natural cavern, but a squared passage—as artificial, as manmade, as the one he currently occupied.
He could, however, clearly make out the form of one of his fellow prisoners crouched tightly against the wall, mere feet from the pit's edge. Of the third worker there was no sign, and the stranger could only assume that he shared the same fate as the man he had been unable to save.
Now that the falling stone had subsided, he could already hear the sound of running footsteps from back down the passage, and the shouts from the guards—not of concern but of anger. He and his surviving companion would taste the lash, and possibly far worse, before night had fallen; there was no help for it. Two prisoners dead, all the effort that had gone into carving out the connecting passage wasted, and the soldiers would be looking to cast the blame on someone. Since they could neither argue with their superiors, nor place responsibility on the engineers, the prisoners who labored at the actual digging would have to suffice.
But in the moments before the Redbreasts arrived, and in the slow, excruciating hours to follow, the stranger could not shake his ever-growing clutch of questions from his mind. It was time, by God, to have his answers!
"My name is Diederic de Wyndt."
Leona, halfway to dozing against the rear wall, started awake at the sound of the voice. She knew it could not possibly be, but it sounded like….
It was. The stranger sat in the next cell, slumped sideways against the bars. He had tied his evening's robe around his waist, rather than pulling it on as was proper—probably, she realized, to avoid staining it with the blood that ran from the whiplashes across his back. His head turned to the side, he gazed at her with a directness of which she had believed him incapable. Her eyes wide with wonder, she crawled nearer the bars so they could converse in a whisper.
"Did you—were you speaking to me?"
"I was. You tried to speak with me days ago, and I was rude. I apologize."
"There is no need. I am Leonera Talliers. Everyone calls me Leona."
"An honor, my lady. And your companion?"
Leona did not even bother to look behind her. God and Scions, did the woman know everything before it happened?
"We call her 'the Vistana.' She—"
"My name," the dark-skinned woman interrupted, her voice no less a whisper but sharp enough to demand attention, "is Violca Hanza. And the honor, Diederic de Wyndt, is mine. I have waited for you for a very long time."
For a long moment, both Diederic and Leona stared at the Vistana. The air around them grew heavy with the sounds of mutters, groans, and snores.
When it became clear that neither was entirely certain how to proceed, Violca asked, "You come from afar, do you not, Diederic?"
The gruff knight actually chuckled. "Farther, I think, than any of us—myself included—could believe."
"The rumors say you came from the Mists," Leona breathed, unable to keep from asking. "That you just appeared from nowhere!"
"And right into the arms of a squad of your Redbreasts," he confirmed. "As impossible as it sounds, no less to me than to you, that is precisely how I arrived here."
"True witchcraft!" Leona leaned away and made a strange gesture, touching first throat, then navel, then an X-pattern across her breast. It threw Diederic briefly, until he remembered her mention of the "Sixfold Scions," and the sun with six rays that adorned the tabards of the guard.
"Indeed, likely it was, though none of my doing," he acknowledged. "And the welcome they offered me suggests that such heresies are no more smiled upon here than they are back home."
"They are not," Violca confirmed. "Every man and woman here is accused of witchcraft, or some equal heresy, against the Empyrean Church."
"And are you witches, then?"
"I am not!" Leona protested. "Nor are many of us here! The Inquisition sees guilt where none exists."
Violca smiled softly. "I See in the manner of my people, giorgio. Some call that witchcraft."
Diederic's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. For now he was more interested in learning of this land—a land that he was becoming less and less convinced was Purgatory—than he was in directing suspicion at one of the few who had shown him any kindness.
"You know so little of your own circumstance," Leona said. "Is there no Inquisition in your own land?"
"There is not. My own Mother Church seeks out heresies, but she has no servants dedicated to such a task." He thought, bitterly, of Lambrecht, of the Laginate Grimoire. "Perhaps," he added, "she should, at that."
He raised his eyes. "At the entrance to the torture chambers, above the mantle, I saw an inscription." Sometimes, dwelling on that writing was all that had kept him sane. It, like the longer mantra in the main hall, was not quite Latin, but so near that he could interpret it easily. "It reads 'Malosians 8:6.'"
Leona dredged deep in her memory, and then nodded. "Only the faithful man sees. Only the faithful man hears. Only the faithful man knows. Trust ye in the faithful man, for no other is worth your trust," she quoted.
"It sounds very much like a Bible verse."
Even Violca seemed confused at that. "I know not of what you speak," Leona told him. "It is a verse from the Septateuch."
"Septateuch? Ah. Seven books, yes? One for each Scion, and the last for... God, their father?"
Leona smiled. "The first for the God Most High, not the last, but otherwise, yes. You learn swiftly, Diederic."
"So who were the 'Malosians,' then?"
"We all are, Diederic. That is, most of us. Not you, and perhaps not the Vist... Violca. This land is Malosia."
"Tell me of it."
It seemed a straightforward enough question. Diederic cocked his head in confusion when neither of the two women immediately answered.
"Which of us would you prefer to start?" Leona finally asked.
"Does it matter so much?"
"Rather," Violca told him.
"You see," Leona said, "I have lived here my whole life, nearly twenty summers. My parents lived here, and my grandparents before them, all in a small village called Birne. We have legends that tell of Birne's founding many generations ago. The Empyrean Church has reigned from Caercaelum for far longer, ever since it absorbed the authority of the Crown. Our histories go back centuries."
"I am Vistani," Violca interjected where Leona paused. "We know the lands within the Mists. We know the Mists themselves, at least so well as any mortal might hope. We See.
"I tell you that I witnessed the birth of this land from the Mists. I felt the pains of that childbirth. I, and several of my cousins, have wandered this land since its beginning, seeking to understand how it came about, and why, to this day, it appears so empty, so hollow, to our Sight.
"And I tell you, Diederic de Wyndt, that I have spent less than seven seasons in this land, the last two down here in this wretched prison. I cannot account for Leona's memories, or her people's history, save perhaps that they sprang whole from the Mists. But nonetheless, I know that I speak truth."
It was impossible, absolutely and utterly. A land, a people, a history could not appear fully formed, like Minerva from Jove's skull. But somehow, in the core of his soul, Diederic knew that Violca's words were fact, as thoroughly as he knew his name, or that his limbs would move if and as he willed them.
Either Diederic could no longer trust his own ears, his own eyes, his own mind, or God Himself—for who else could create a land?—had a hand in Malosia's birth. And in either case, the cruel, horrific nature of this land could mean only one thing.
This was Purgatory, after all.
Diederic folded in on himself, hugging his knees to his chest, and no matter how Leona and Violca tried to coax him, he spoke to them no more that night.
Yet Diederic's curiosity was well and truly piqued. Try though he might over the next few days to lose himself once more to reverie and despair—for they were so much easier than the exhaustion and torture that were now his lot in life—he could not. His mind refused to wrap itself once more in its protective fugue, and though he felt certain this Malosia was merely an aspect of his sentence to Purgatory, a portion of his soul was not convinced.
Still, he spoke no more with Leona or Violca. He feared they would pull him even farther from the emotional retreat he so desperately craved, or at least that they would confuse him further, when he had not made sense of what he already knew. And so he avoided them, doing his best when the prisoners were herded to their cells to note where they were going, and to go elsewhere.
He managed this for several days, before finally overhearing a conversation that demanded his attention. It seemed unlikely, even at the time: Violca happened to share her revelation on the one night that Diederic happened to be in the neighboring cell, forced near enough to the bars by the press of his fellow captives that he was able to overhear her whispers? Unlikely, indeed! Yet it only occurred to him later to wonder if the Vistani, using the Sight she claimed to possess, had planned it thus.
It had been a particularly loathsome day. Diederic and a dozen other men had been led to a cramped passage, its ceiling barely five feet off the floor, and commanded to expand it. The necessity of crouching had backs, legs, and necks aching within moments. Their overseer, displeased with their rate of progress and unwilling to accept the awkward position as an excuse, had been unusually free with the whip. That evening in the cell, Diederic reeked of stale sweat and dried blood, his body throbbing with pain to match one of his sessions with the Truth Seekers. He had all but fallen into a pained slumber (perhaps "passed out" would be nearer the truth) when he heard Violca's voice.
"…less empty with every passing dawn." Her tone was low, monotonous, entrancing—or perhaps entranced. "What was fluid becomes hard and unyielding. What Might Be becomes What Is. What Must Not Be becomes What May Be. It looks backward at us, shrieks its desire, fills the land with its malevolence; for above all else, it desires to be born."
Leona crouched beside the Vistana, who sat cross-legged, her back against the bars, her eyes rolled up in her skull. She glared as Diederic approached the bars from the other side, her jaw clenched in anger, and for a moment she seemed unwilling to speak to him. Finally, however, she spat, "Violca was worried, for the land and for you. I do not know what she means when she says the land is 'hollow,' but it disturbs her far more than she lets on. She hoped that if she meditated, if she Saw the state of Malosia, that she might again get through to you. I hope you're quite satisfied."
Any reply Diederic might have offered was overwhelmed by a sudden high moan. Violca shuddered, her eyelids fluttering over bloodshot whites, her fingers trembling. Her words, hesitant, sepulchral, seemed to come not from her throat, but from below, as though the world itself would utter them, and needed her only for her voice. "The land seeks a blackened soul to make itself complete! A darkness without to fill a darkness within.
"Malosia calls to him, and he must heed. He comes soon…"
With a wet gurgle that sounded disturbingly akin to a death rattle, Violca tensed, her arms clutching madly at the air. Her head flew back, ringing like a bell as it struck the bars, and blood trickled down her neck from deep within her hair. Even as Leona grabbed for her shoulders, Diederic reached through the bars to cradle the Vistana's head. He could not stop the spasms, dared not try lest he hold her so tightly he cause further damage, but he could at least ensure that she did not injure herself further against the unyielding iron.
At last the convulsions ceased, and not a moment too soon. Already they had attracted the attention of every other prisoner in both cells. Any more and the Redbreasts would be on their way, assuming they were not already. Crouching awkwardly with his hands through the bars, Diederic gently lowered Violca's head to the matted straw. Her breathing was shallow, but now at least it was steady.
For perhaps an hour, Leona and Diederic—so far as he could, through the bars—tended to the unconscious Vistana. Diederic held her head and washed her forehead with a dampened bit of cloth, while Leona looked her over for injuries she might have suffered during her fit. Their audience slowly drifted away and returned to sleep, as it became clear that nothing further of interest would occur.
Eventually, when even Diederic was contemplating lying back for the night and hoping to speak to the Vistana tomorrow, Violca bolted upright, wracked by an ugly coughing fit. The sounds were wet, rasping. She shook for perhaps half a minute, and then she slumped back against the bars, gasping for breath.
Relieved as he was that she seemed improved, Diederic found himself biting his lip in impatience as Leona made endless inquiries after Violca's well-being. How was she feeling? Was she in pain? Did she remember what she Saw? How was she feeling? Was her head all right? Would she like the wound cleaned? And again, how was she feeling? When he could finally stand no more, he rapped a knuckle on the bars. Flakes of rust drifted from the iron as the two women turned to look at him. "Violca," he said, voice gentle but firmly insistent, "you said the land called him, and he would answer. Who is 'he'? Whom did you See?"
Violca's eyes grew unfocused once more—not in trance this time but in the effort of remembrance. "I do not know his name," she said softly, her voice rough from her choking fit. "But I see him standing at the very edge of Malosia, at the horizon, casting his shadow over us all. He is giorgio…"
"Non-Vistani," Leona whispered, in answer to Diederic's puzzled look.
"Not short," Violca continued, "but not quite so tall as you would notice in a crowd. His features are fleshy, resting loose upon his face as though not held quite so tightly as yours or mine."
Diederic's breath caught in his chest as a horrible suspicion began to creep, spider-like, up the length of his spine.
"His hair was once the brown of youth, but now grows hoary from the frost of age, and his eyes are older still. They have sunken into his cheeks, fleeing from the horrors toward which he has turned them. His nose seeps blood when the wind blows cold, and his fingers are stained black with ink, and red, so red…."
She stopped, her eyes snapping back into focus, as the iron bars creaked audibly beneath Diederic's tightening grip. Rusty flecks bit into his skin, and his blood trickled faintly down the metal. He spoke, and his voice was the hissing of an angered snake.
No more despair. No more doubt. No more fear. Be this some strange and foreign land, or Purgatory, or Hell itself, it no longer mattered. Diederic knew now what he must do, and let no man, no woman, no Scion, no God stand in his way!
"Leona," he said softly, crouching low once more, "Violca. I intend to leave this place.
"Will you help me?"
Next Week: Chapter Five...
It had no name.
The first recorded escape from Perdition Hill occurred one night in early spring.