Fiction Archive | 5/1/2009
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Black Crusade: Chapter 15
By Ari Marmell

The following continues the new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!


Author’s Note

While the majority of the details portrayed over the course of Chapters One through Three are purely fictionalized, the background circumstances are, alas, entirely factual.

On July 15, 1099, the "pilgrims" of the First Crusade—led by, among others, the Duke Godefroy de Bouillon of France—collapsed portions of the defensive walls of Jerusalem, putting an end to the siege of the city. The next twenty-four hours were among the bloodiest in the history of the Crusades, as seemingly-maddened knights and soldiers slaughtered an enormous portion of the Holy City’s population: Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians; men, women, and children. Nobody was spared the violence and anger of the crusaders; and while historical accounts claiming the soldiers waded in blood up to their ankles are almost certainly exaggerations, they still represent a chilling view of what happened that day.

This is not fiction, much as we might wish it were. This is history.

And if there are Dark Powers, scouring the many worlds for those "worthy" of their embrace, surely such horrors committed in the name of God would be exactly what they sought.

Chapter Fifteen

As Diederic had anticipated, Parsimol resembled a dozen other communities through which he'd traveled. Larger than Birne, it boasted primitive fortification: an old abatis of felled trees and sharpened branches circled most of the town. Portions of the wall had begun to rot or boasted large gaps where a trunk had gone missing, and nobody seemed in any rush to shore it up. Roofs of thatch and clay shingles peeked up over the wall, as though checking to see if it were safe. In the distance, some several hundred yards through the thick trees beyond the town, an old, decrepit tower emerged shyly from the foliage. Few details were visible from afar, but it was an angular, blocky sort of thing, very much unlike the cupolas and cylindrical towers of modern Church construction.

Several large gates, little more than wide gaps in the abatis, provided ingress for the main roads, and if Parsimol had any sort of standing militia, clearly examination of travelers was not among their duties. Diederic and Violca entered the town without incident, save the reactions of a few of the villagers who scowled or spat upon recognizing a Vistana in their midst. Violca refused to acknowledge their existence.

Instead, after scarcely a minute, she laid a hand on Diederic's shoulder. "Do you see it?" she whispered.

He frowned, and cast his eyes about. There was something off—something to Parsimol the likes of which he'd never seen before—but it took him long moments to put his finger on what it was.

The buzz of conversation in the markets was muted, the occasional laugh short and weak. The people went about their daily lives, but many of them moved slowly, with the extra care of men unsure of their steps.

"They look tired," he said finally, as much a question as a statement. "Worn down."

Violca nodded. "And the crops, as we entered?"

Diederic glanced back, peering through the gap in the wall. The fields were healthier than most across Malosia, though not so lush as some he had seen.

"I think," he observed, "that we've come to the right place."


The following hours were a blur, returning to him slowly in bits and snippets as he sat huddled in the heavy wicker cage, infused with the scent of thick soil and thicker smoke. He remembered an inn, or perhaps a tavern, for those had seemed the most likely places to question the locals. He recalled that the nostril-tickling mix of alcohol and sawdust, the hum of dull conversation, and even the layout of the common room were so much akin to those of the village he and Violca had departed days earlier that he'd actually stuck his head back through the door, just to confirm that he was where he thought he was.

He remembered suspicious gazes cast Violca's way, whispers of "Vistani thief" and "gypsy whore." He could not remember whether she had reacted.

Like wisps the memories came to him, bits of vapor carried on the wind. For the life of him he couldn't remember the faces of any of the folk to whom he'd spoken, yet he recalled multiple conversations. He'd talked to them of Parsimol, the town's history, the state of affairs in Malosia, even the weather—everything a man could think to cover before finally getting around to an uncomfortable point.

Had he been careless? Asked the wrong questions of the wrong listener? He didn't know; it refused to come back to him.

He remembered a round of drinks, purchased by God knew who. And he remembered Violca, smaller than he, succumbing first to whatever had been added to the ale. He stood, his chair falling back, and even as the room tilted he had drawn his axe and backed against the wall, daring them to come for him.

And they had: half a dozen men whose faces would not return to him. They had neared, bludgeons in hand, but refused to step within reach of his axe.

Each and every one of them had begun to melt!

Diederic trembled as the memory flooded through his mind, as intense now on recollection as in the moment of experience.

Their flesh had melted, flowing from their bones, dripping over their coats and tunics. It pooled on the floor, grown black and foul, and smelled not of flesh, but of heavy swamps and stagnant pools. Their eyes floated loose in their sockets, bobbing like dead fish upon the waves, and as they neared they sang an ancient lullaby in the voice of an adolescent child.

He had recognized it to be false: illusion, hallucination. Even so, his axe had fallen limply from his hand; the wall shoved him away to land on his knees. The drug, or herb, or whatever he had drunk, rose up to claim him before the first bludgeon fell.

And now, now as he struggled back toward consciousness, swimming up through the darkness that clouded his senses and weighed on his thoughts, a part of him wished those men had finished the job.

Stripped of everything but his clothes, he sat hunched in a small but sturdy cage, its bars made of heavy wicker. Violca huddled across from him, her knees pressed against his own in the cramped quarters. Above, the moon shone faintly through a circle in the trees; they were in a clearing of some sort, distant from the village itself. That same tower—even more dilapidated than it had appeared from afar—loomed over them, so that it seemed to balance the moon atop its crumbling parapets. A simple pattern of marble shapes, like tombstones but far smaller, spiraled out from the clearing's center, where a large bonfire burned in the midst of a blackened iron frame. A heavy rope and pulley dangled from a bough above, and Diederic could not help but note that the iron stand in which the fire burned was of the perfect size and shape to hold the cage itself.

Above the crackling flame, he heard the constant slow beat of a nearby drum. Around and along the spiral of stone, a dozen figures danced, clad in simple robes of white. The flickering shadows hurled strange shapes and images across the celebrants, transforming this one into a hideously clawed nightmare, that one into a cowering sheep. Above them all, the trees ran thick with owls and crows, an inhuman audience that should have been frightened away, but seemed instead to gather in hopes of an entertaining show.

"Whatever you said to them," Violca offered, her voice small, "doesn't seem to have gone over well."

Diederic grunted and rapped his knuckles up and down the bars. He might break them, given time and a willingness to mangle his hand, but under the eyes of a dozen sentinels, he rather doubted he could manage it.

"You cried out a time or two before you awoke," she said to him, her eyes tracking his progress. "Do I understand that you saw more than I before we were taken?"

He grunted once more and continued his efforts, refusing to meet her eyes. "I have… visions, waking nightmares, when confronted with witchcraft. I'm told that some men can look back into the spirit world when that world looks upon them, but I've no idea why I should be one of them."

"Perhaps because this witchcraft comes from the book which bridges Malosia to your world?"

Diederic shrugged. "I'm not certain it matters. I—"

A low moan arose from the assembled dancers, a breath of awe and ecstasy. They dropped, all of them, to their knees, bowing toward the rickety tower. Diederic and Violca looked up, the Vistana twisting and squeezing beside her companion so she might see in the proper direction.

Some twenty feet up, a gaping hole in the stone tower revealed a landing on the stairway within. Standing upon it, so near the breach it seemed she must topple outward, was a tall woman clad in a robe of dull brown. It looked, to Diederic's eyes, very much like the robes assigned to prisoners in Perdition Hill, save for its darker hue. A heavy blindfold of gray covered her eyes and tied her platinum hair back from her face. Behind her, near enough to reach out to her if need be, stood a pair of large men. They were heavily muscled, clad only in kilts, with heavy sporrans hanging from their waists.

And the moans and gasps of the assembled throng transformed themselves into a spoken name, chanted over and over like a holy mantra.

Bellustaire.

She stood for long minutes, basking in the adoration of her congregants, head tilted as though she might see through her heavy blindfold. Then, with a raised hand, she called the assembly to silence and bid them rise.

Her voice was strong, surprisingly deep. It carried over the crackling flames and the beat of the unseen drummer who had never silenced his instrument. At first, Diederic thought the words she spoke to be some language the likes of which he had never heard. It took him a moment to recognize that she recited a litany of names—horrible names, inhuman names—on whom she called to bless their gathering.

"We take from the earth," she intoned.

"And to the earth we must give." The response came from every one of the assembled throng.

"From the spirits above, from the demons below, we take."

"We must give above. We must give below."

"From the demons, power. From the spirits, life."

"So power, and life, we offer in turn."

"Blessed are those whose lives and souls feed the spirits above, and the demons below."

"We offer them thanks." Every eye in the crowd turned at this last line, to stare intently at the caged pair.

"Think nothing of it," Diederic mumbled sourly.

"I have questions," Bellustaire intoned, her voice slipping out of ritual cadence. "You will answer them."

"And if we do, you'll let us go?" Violca called out.

"If you do, I will see to it that you are strangled before you are burned, so you need not feel your sacrifice to the flames."

Violca and Diederic exchanged glances.

The blind witch waved a hand, and one of her congregants stepped forward. With a sudden shock of returning memory, Diederic recognized him as the barkeep at the inn where he had been drugged. He was a balding fellow, rotund and vaguely greasy—the exact sort of person one would picture standing behind a bar in a tavern.

"You do not look like Inquisitors," he said, his voice as unexpectedly high as Bellustaire's was deep. "Why do you seek us out?"

Diederic gave a mental shrug. It wasn't as though he could get in any more trouble. "I want the Laginate Grimoire."

A gasp shook the crowd, and even Bellustaire recoiled. "How do you know of the Grimoire?" she hissed.

"I've met the man who holds the remaining pages. I was rather hoping to kill him."

"You lie! The lost pages were destroyed, ages gone!"

"No. They were not."

"And who is this man?"

"Lambrecht Raes. A priest."

Another gasp and a rising din of whispers and mutters, silenced once more by a wave of the witch's hand.

"Of course." She tilted her head down to address her flock. "That is why our rituals fade early, my children, why our incantations prove ineffective! The Church seeks to steal our magics, to drive a wedge between us and our masters! They have not abandoned us; they simply cannot hear us!"

For all his hatred of Malosia's Church, Diederic recoiled at the invocation of demonic masters. "Lambrecht is priest of a land far from here," he called out, "with no ties to the Empyrean Church. Is it so unthinkable that the Church simply found its own means of dealing with the likes of you?"

The drums went silent. Even the birds in the trees ceased their calls, and the gathered coven seemed no longer even to breathe. Only the fire spoke in its dry and crackling tongue.

"What do you think you know of the Empyrean Church?" Bellustaire demanded, leaning impossibly far out from her platform. "God Most High, and his Six Scions? An old bearded man in white, dwelling in the topmost Heaven, and the sons he sent to guide the poor lost souls of Malosia?

"A mask they wear, built on millennia of lies! Trust me when I tell you ‘tis better to serve the darkest demon than a faith built on a foundation such as that which holds aloft the Church! The demon offers magics and fortune—and at least you know, come day's end, what it is the demon wants in return."

One final wave, more tired than those before, and the assembled throng moved toward the cages. "If it helps ease your passage," she said, the blindfold turned to Diederic as though meeting his gaze, "I fully intend to find this Lambrecht Raes and take the pages from him. Doubtless he will object. He'll not long outlive you."

Nearer they came, an inexorable flood of men and women. Some approached the cage, hands grasping to hold it still, while others reached for the dangling ropes. The rusty tackle swayed and creaked as the iron hook descended, and Diederic knew he and Violca had but seconds remaining.

Just before the first of the heathens' fists closed upon the wicker, Diederic bolted upright, ducking his head against the low ceiling. His muscles tensed as he yanked Violca upright as well, ignoring her startled cry. With the ferocity of a wounded bear, he wrapped her in his arms, lifting her bodily off the floor of the cage. Screaming in fury, he hurled both of them into the wicker bars. They creaked and refused to give. But then, shattering them had never been his intent.

Jarred by the impact, the entire cage—constructed so as to be easily moved—toppled over into the raging bonfire.

Propped against the side of the metallic framework, it wobbled once, twice, and held. The flames licked eagerly at the wood, as though tasting it before they committed to its consumption. Diederic hunched, his back to the flames and as far from the fire as he could move without tipping the cage back over, shielding Violca from the growing heat. Several spots on his trousers and his tunic began to smolder, and he felt the skin on his calves and ankles burn; he held his awkward pose.

Around the cage, the congregants milled, uncertain now what to do. Some edged near the burning wicker, thinking perhaps to pull it from the fire. But why? Just to lift it up and drop it back in? It hardly seemed worth the pain of charred hair and burnt flesh. Within, Violca remained utterly still, terrified even to move lest the cage fall deeper into the bonfire. She knew, or thought she did, what Diederic intended, but she could not see how well it was working, dared not twist in his grip to look.

When he could stand no more, when his clenched teeth could no longer dam the scream of pain, when the flames rose high around his calves, Diederic hurled himself and his companion to the side once more. The cage rolled, awkwardly, slowly, trundling from the edge of the bonfire to come crashing down to earth.

And the wicker bars, their strength eaten away by the blazing fire, gave way beneath the weight of the cage, splintering into blackened bits. The bulk of the framework rolled aside, edges burning bright, to leave Diederic and Violca huddled in the smoldering grass.

A dozen cries combined into one as the gathered worshippers surged forward once more. Ignoring the pain of their burns, Diederic and Violca swept burning brands from the edge of the fire and stepped up to meet them. They were hurt, tired, outnumbered six to one.

Then again, their attackers were neither trained warriors, driven by unrelenting obsession, nor the victims of persecution across a dozen domains, finally offered the opportunity for some small amount of payback. Branches landed with jarring force. Flickering embers disoriented staring eyes, burned exposed and bruised flesh. Four men struck the earth, clutching broken bones and singed extremities… five… more. A quartet of men and women fled shrieking into the forest, leaving Diederic and Violca free to approach the tower.

There, at the entrance from which the door had long since rotted and fallen, they found the coven's ritual supplies, and with them their own confiscated possessions. Diederic hefted the axe from the pile, lamenting that he hadn't time to don his armor. With Violca beside him, blade in hand, he slipped inside the tower.

The air within was musty, the heavy perfume of neglect. Diederic's gaze took in the shaky stairs that spiraled upward, the layers of leaves scattered across the floor, and he could not help but shake his head. First the farmhouse by the orchard, now this? Was everything in this godforsaken domain decrepit and run down?

Dust sifted from betwixt the bricks as the staircase shifted beneath their weight—shifted but held. It seemed that nothing but the tower's own weight and sheer stubbornness held it together, for in numerous spots no mortar remained between the stones, and many strands of ivy wormed their way through from outside. Scanning the winding steps ahead, Diederic noted that while the wall itself might be crumbling, the bolts that held the stairs to it were relatively new.

Moonlight illuminated the landing from which Bellustaire had guided her heathens in ceremony. It was empty now, as they had expected it would be. Yet in the scuffle below, neither had seen the witch or her attendants step through the door. Assuming no use of magic far greater than even Violca had ever seen, they must remain within the rickety structure.

Higher they climbed, and Diederic noted the arrow slits carved into the walls at every floor. Once, when it stood strong and whole, this had been a structure meant for war.

"Who built this thing?" he breathed to Violca as they completed another circuit along the stair. Even though his voice was soft, as silent as their careful tread, he was overheard.

"Why, the royal architects." The reply filtered down from above, from the light-haired woman in brown and gray. As before, the two kilted men, bodyguards perhaps, waited behind her. "From days long gone, when Malosia still had a noble caste. Before your precious Empyrean Church usurped it all."

"Hardly my Church!" Diederic began as he lunged up the stairs, but he completed neither sentence nor step before something wrapped about his waist and tugged him fiercely back. From the wall behind him, the vines that had violated the stone writhed in the air. Like hungry serpents, or perhaps the tendrils of some horrific predator of the deepest seas, they quested, testing the air around them. They wrapped tight about the waist, the legs, the wrist, the throat, and for every one hacked away by a lucky twist of the axe or the knife, two more sprouted, hydralike, in their place.

Diederic and Violca stood, struggling but immobile, scarce able to breathe, as Bellustaire and her associates descended the steps until they stood no more than ten feet distant.

"You silly fools. I have served the demons of the wood, sacrificed hundreds in their names, spread wide the teachings of the Grimoire—as did my mother, her father before her, his mother before him—and all within the shadow of Caercaelum itself! How, then, could two clowns such as yourselves possibly have taken from me that which is most precious?"

Though the pressure on his throat was so great the effort nearly choked him, Diederic could not help but laugh. "There is nothing mystical about your avoidance of the Inquisition. From this tower, you can see every road that comes anywhere near Parsimol, and I imagine the stones in the clearing are easily moved. Let a patrol of Redbreasts draw near, and I'll wager you hide like frightened rats!"

The witch clenched her fist, and Diederic groaned, the vines jerking tight about his waist and stomach. He gurgled once, then retched down the front of his tunic as his last meal was physically wrung from him.

Still he would not stop. "The villagers," he gasped, spitting to clear the foul taste from his mouth. "That's why they seem so worn, is it not?"

"The price they pay for serving two masters. Let them mouth their empty words in their false churches during the day, for the sake of passersby. They know where their true duty lies, come the night."

"They seemed to fare rather poorly with those duties tonight," he taunted around a sickly grin.

"Bah. I've dozens more where they came from. Perhaps you've done me a favor after all, refusing to be put to the flame. You can serve as more than a sacrifice to my masters. You can be a lesson, an example of the power that perhaps I've not shown my followers in far too long." Again she squeezed her fist, and again the vines tightened their grip, until Diederic's bones creaked and his face reddened.

Even through his blurred vision, he saw the witch's robe drop away, revealing parchment-like flesh, shrunken and wrinkled. Sores across her body oozed a thick and viscous pus, always in pairs, like the bites of some terrible predator. As it leaked, the drops grew long, until they were not pus at all but white worms writhing across her skin. From beneath her blindfold, bloody tears trickled down her face, and where they landed upon the filthy steps, maggots rose and squirmed determinedly toward him, ready to feast upon his flesh, lacking the patience to wait for him to die.

He lacked even the energy to blink away the hallucination, though he recognized them now; for he knew the truth was scarcely more pleasant.

But even as Diederic had taunted their captor, drawing her attention, Violca had cast her eyes downward, forced her lungs to pump calmly, steadily, despite the unnatural grip crushing down upon her, and the fear that beat mercilessly at the inside of her skull. Inhale… exhale… be calm. Be calm.

Gradually, oh so gradually, Violca raised her head to gaze upon the witch who held their lives, literally, in the palm of her hand. And she Saw.

Saw how a blind woman could sense her foes to work her magics upon them, Saw the occult ties that bound her to her two large associates, Saw the channel that permitted Bellustaire to view the world through their eyes.

As she had done months ago, when she sent her Vision forth to scour the newly discovered domain of Malosia, Violca extended her senses, extended her Sight, until it seemed she stood directly before the witch.

And as she had hoped, the Sights grew tangled and twisted about one another. She briefly saw herself from atop the stairs, seeing through the witch's own magic. Then, for a single precious instant, both magics went dark.

Bellustaire screamed, the cry of a hopeless child, as the world around her blackened. The clinging vines whipped about, thrashing wildly, and though the larger bruised bones, and the smaller bloodied the flesh like a lash, their grip on the captives went slack. Her kilt-clad companions stared about in confusion, uncertain what had just occurred.

With a strained shout, Violca yanked herself free of the loosened bonds, a confused and disoriented Diederic an instant behind. She spared a single breath for his befuddled look, gesturing vaguely with her blade. "They are her eyes!"

And then, with the crushing blow of an axe to one side, the murderous slash of a knife to the other, those eyes were forever shut.

Her commanding tones reduced to a whimper, Bellustaire retreated upward, shuffling her feet to find the edge of each step before progressing. The hand she waved before her might have been simply to detect an approaching foe; the words she opened her mouth to utter might have been mundane. But Diederic was unwilling to chance that she might cast some new invocation. In two bounds he was before her. His backhanded fist was furious, punishing. It spun the witch about, sent her plummeting over the railing to land on the next flight below. The entire stairway shuddered at the impact, sending a tiny avalanche of loose rock and dust cascading down the walls.

Diederic noticed none of it, staring instead at the woman who lay perhaps fifteen feet beneath him. Her limbs were splayed, one leg clearly broken, and her blindfold had been knocked loose by the blow.

Her eyes looked inward.

Between wide-open lids, Diederic saw only a thin layer of reddish pink. A bloody bundle of flesh and nerves protruded from the center of each eye, folding back upon itself to slide under the lower eyelid, leaving an obscene bulge in the skin, as it wound its way back toward the witch's brain.

He thought he might be hallucinating once more, but a glance at the sickly pallor that had come over Violca's face was enough to convince him otherwise. Too shaken to simply vault the railing, Diederic proceeded swiftly down the stairs until he stood over Bellustaire.

"Where is it?" he asked, his voice gruff.

The witch laughed, a horrible wracking noise that spattered blood across her lips and chin. "It will do you no good. Our teachings have spread far—too far to be reined in."

"That's nice. I cannot tell you how much I don't care. Where is it?"

Her smile fell, her unseeing, unnatural eyes growing wide. "You cannot. You cannot give it up to the Church! You've no idea what they could do with it, the doors it could open for them…."

"Listen, witch. I've told you already, I hold no allegiance to the Church. Now I'm going to ask you exactly one more time: Where is the Grimoire?"

Her answer came in phrases unknown, words that Diederic could not interpret. Some he recognized as ancient Greek, others were so utterly foreign he could not begin to imagine them as a language at all.

With an inward sigh, he brought down his axe on Bellustaire's chest, and the witch spoke no more.

A scowl plastered across his face, dried vomit flaking at the corners of his mouth, Diederic turned to rejoin his companion. She was no longer there. He heard noises up above, and raced to the landing to find her triumphantly pulling a scroll from the sporran of one of the dead men.

"I knew she'd not let it far from her side," the Vistana told him with a smile.

His hands shaking, Diederic reached for it. The pages had been reordered, carefully stitched together to form a single length of parchment, and wrapped about a wooden spindle, but still he recognized them. Truly, these were kin to the pages Lambrecht had wielded against him deep beneath the Holy City. And they represented what that bastard wanted most in all the worlds.

But even as he rolled the crackling parchment through his hands, exposing the ancient words to the air, Violca recoiled with a shudder, a low moan escaping her lips. Curious, he turned toward her.

"Please be careful with that, Diederic," she whispered, unable to tear her gaze from it.

"Relax, Violca. I know how dangerous it is. And I'm no witch, no magician. I've no intention of using—"

"No! No, you don't understand." She swallowed hard, straightening herself with great effort. "The Grimoire… I think it… the incantations within don't just allow a sorcerer to command their power; they bind it! They hold it back.

"I can See the Grimoire, Diederic, and it is no mere book. It is a—a bandage, binding a terrible wound in the world. And like any deep wound, it seeps.

"The powers bound in that book, Diederic, do not care about your intentions. They want to be freed!"

Images of Jerusalem, of chaos and bloodshed and madness unexplainable, assailed him. And he thought, perhaps, he understood the truth of Violca's words.

And yet….

"We should hurry," she said, unable to repress a shudder of revulsion, "and deliver this to my people as swiftly as possible. With luck, Madam Tsura can read its connections to your world without calling on the book itself. You could be back home in mere weeks!"

"No."

"What do you mean, no?"

"Violca, if I return home, what of Lambrecht? Will he travel with me?"

"I couldn't say for—"

"The truth, Violca."

The Vistana sighed, though her face had grown pale. "No. He will remain here, with his portion of the Grimoire. Two halves of the book, bound to two worlds, and to two travelers. Only with both would we have even a chance of forcing him back with you."

"Then I cannot leave until we have both, can I?"

"Damn it, Diederic! You've spared your world any more of Lambrecht's evil! And he will be forever trapped here! Surely that must be justice enough!"

"It is not! Lambrecht must not escape me, Violca! I have to see him pay for what he's done!"

Violca's head dropped. "Then I must go with you."

"Not at all. I would appreciate your assistance, assuredly, but if you wish to leave—"

"I must. The Vistani must learn what becomes of Lambrecht and of this strange land without a lord. Our understanding of the Mists is already shaken; we cannot leave in ignorance."

"Then I am pleased to have you beside me." Slowly, pain and fear of the unstable stairs slowing their steps, they proceeded downward, their footfalls echoing in the silent tower.

"Diederic!" Violca clasped his arm and pointed. "Look!"

In one of the wall's gaping holes, a black crow calmly perched, staring at them with glossy, mirrored eyes.

No, not just a crow. Even without his companion's Sight, Diederic knew it to be the same one he had seen on the road to Parsimol, and undoubtedly one of the many that had flocked to the trees above their wicker cage.

In its beak it held one of Bellusaire's terrible backwards eyes, a few liquid strands all that remained to connect it to the socket from whence it came. The crow bit down, hard, and the orb burst like an overripe grape. The bird tossed back its head, shook itself, and slurped down its foul repast.

Horrified beyond rational measure, Diederic drew his axe once more, determined to cut the crow from its perch. Before he took a single step, the feathered creature hopped from the breach to land beside the witch's broken leg. It disappeared beneath her gown, a simple bulge in the cloth that grew nearer and nearer the corpse draped within.

And then, with the wet sound of stretching and tearing skin, and a new trickle of dead blood staining the robe, the bulge moved inside the body itself. Higher it slithered, flesh and cloth protruding and subsiding: a living hernia that slouched from groin to chest before finally subsiding into one of the body's empty cavities.

Dead lids blinked rapidly over a pair of empty sockets, for the crow had consumed the first of the witch's eyes before the witnesses arrived. Lungs ruptured by the fall of Diederic's axe pumped once more, sending foaming blood up through the fatal injury, not in order to sustain life, but purely to empower the dead thing to speak.

Slowly, it rolled over, propped itself up on extended arms, and smiled. "Salutations, Sir Knight."

The voice was Bellustaire's, but the accent, the tone… those belonged to another.

"Lambrecht…." Diederic's own voice was hoarse, barely more than a whisper, so tightly did his jaw clench. The veins stood out on his neck.

"In the flesh, Sir Diederic. Or someone's flesh, as it were."

"What in God's name have you done, you bastard! How could even you have stooped to—to this!"

"What have I done?" The corpse smiled, smiled so wide the bones of its jaw shifted and creaked. "Only what I always swore to do, Sir Diederic. I have led the Church into her glory days, her days of victory against the heathens and the heretics. The witches."

"You cannot!" Diederic limped forward, so that the corpse had to all but break its neck and back to look up at him. "You cannot have grown so powerful so swiftly!"

"Can I not? Perhaps some day I'll show you my quarters in the Basilica, if you ever feel inclined to visit."

Diederic scowled, his fingers clenched so tightly on his axe that they ached. "And if you've so much authority, why have you not sent anyone to retrieve the remnants of the Grimoire for yourself?"

"Oh, but I have, Sir Diederic. Why… I sent you!"

Shrieking his rage to the heavens, Diederic brought the axe down on the neck of the laughing corpse. The head rolled aside, thumping its way down a handful of stairs to land on the floor beneath. It landed upright, its empty eye sockets piercing Diederic's soul, its mouth stuffed with glossy black feathers.

And still it laughed.


Next Week: Chapter Sixteen...

"You’re a lunatic, you are! A madman and a fool!"

Diederic merely sighed. "What would you have me do, Violca?"

"You’re giving him precisely what he wants, giorgio! He’s told you what it is, and that he’s manipulated you into it, and still you plan to do it!"

About the Author

Ari Marmell was born in New York, moved to Houston when he was a year old, moved to Austin when he was 27, but has spent most of his life living in other worlds through a combination of writing and roleplaying games. He has been writing more or less constantly for the last dozen years, though he has only been paid for it the past five. He is the author of multiple roleplaying game supplements including work on Dungeons & Dragons. Ari lives in Austin with his wife, George, and two cats.

Look for Agents of Artifice, the new novel from Ari Marmell -- out now!

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