Fiction Archive | 2/20/2009
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Black Crusade: Chapter 5
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.

Five

The first recorded escape from Perdition Hill occurred one night in early spring.

In the lands above, an especially harsh winter was loosening its grip. The last of the snows were melting away, the first bits of green emerging into forest and field. Within the Hill, however, the prisoners were as hot and as miserable as ever. They shuffled and staggered into the great hall, shielding their eyes from the relative brightness of the massive chandelier. Exhausted, injured, sullen, they dropped their sullied robes into the first basket and received their replacements from the second. The guards, equally captivated by the repetition of routine, handed out wooden bowls and performed the nightly headcount as they casually shoved prisoners into communal cells. The warm air grew heavy as the sweat of unwashed bodies and the unappetizing bouquet of the sludgy gruel wrestled for dominance. A normal evening, this, the latest in an endless cycle that had lasted years, and would last for many more.

At least, it started out that way.

One of the younger guards on duty, a burly fellow with wheat-blond hair and the fervor of youthful fanaticism, strode up as the last of the prisoners hobbled into the cells. As he had done dozens of times before, he shoved the bars shut with a resounding clang, removed an iron key from his belt, and thrust it into the heavy padlock.

Rather than the anticipated click and thump, the key made an ugly grinding sound as it struggled against tumblers which refused to turn.

After a few puzzled moments spent futilely fumbling with the key and staring dumbly at the lock, the young Redbreast waved for one of his superiors. The man harrumphed over, his armor clanking, and for several seconds they conversed.

With much irate grumbling, the guards ushered the inhabitants of the last cell back out into the hall, where they were ordered to line up against the far wall. Several soldiers stood careful watch over the impromptu assembly. After another brief discussion, the guards decided that the excess prisoners would be crammed into the other cells. It would be uncomfortable for all concerned, but who really cared for the comfort of the captives anyway? Tomorrow, the smiths would be put to work either repairing the lock or replacing it.

Decision made, the elder soldier ordered his subordinates to see to it. The first of the Redbreasts had taken a single step toward the prisoners when the basket full of soiled robes erupted in a column of flame.

Sparks and bits of burning cloth showered through the air like dandelion fluff. The nearby prisoners, a few singed and all thoroughly terrified by the sudden burst of fire, backed away, shouting and clamoring for help. Thick black smoke rolled up from the basket to spread, web-like, across the ceiling.

After an instant of shocked dismay, the soldiers leapt into action with true military precision. Several ran for buckets of water, stored in all the Hill's main rooms for exactly this purpose. A trio of guards moved to reinforce the pair already stationed at Perdition Hill's main entrance. This was little more than a formality. The great portal, bound in iron and opened only by a single key, could have stopped any escape attempt on its own. Nevertheless, the soldiers clustered before it, hands on weapons, alert for any attempt to take advantage of the chaos.

Several guards were left to watch over the milling prisoners, of course. But given the multiple distractions, "several" was simply not enough.

It would be some moments before the fire was extinguished, a few more before the prisoners were finally herded into the remaining cells. Since nobody had made a try for the main door, and each of Perdition Hill's supply rooms and armories had its own guard, the Redbreasts—worn out and frazzled by the sudden excitement—did not think to redo the head count for over an hour. And by then, by the time they finally discovered that they were three prisoners short, it was far too late.

It had simply never occurred to any of them that an escapee might flee downward. After all, there were no other exits from Perdition Hill.


The escape itself, though reliant on intricate timing and a fair share of luck, was simplicity itself compared to the efforts they'd put into preparing for it.

Violca had needed two full weeks, smuggling little bits out of the kitchen each night, to accumulate sufficient lantern oil and mutton grease. Another three nights passed before she had the opportunity to palm a bit of flint and steel from the kitchen supplies. Diederic's job was easier; he needed merely to sneak a few handfuls of gravel and powdered rock up from his daily mining. And before even that, Violca and Diederic had required three nights to convince Leona that they were not mad, that their chances of escaping the impenetrable Perdition Hill outweighed the consequences of failure, horrific as they might be.

The stench of the filthy workers and acrid bite of the lye had covered the fumes of the oil and grease in which Leona soaked a number of the robes, letting them marinate beneath an ever-growing stack of laundered garments. It was difficult to transfer them to the basket of soiled robes that night, but not impossible; the guards had no real cause to pay close attention to the transfer of clothes. Similarly, it had required nothing more than a feigned stumble for Diederic to catch himself on the cell door and, in the process, cram a handful of rock into the padlock's mechanism.

After that, it was only a matter of edging through the crowd of waiting prisoners, slinking near enough to the laundry for the spark of the flint and steel to ignite the soaked robes and the fumes rising from them. In the chaos to follow, with the eyes of the soldiers drawn in half a dozen directions at once, the trio had slipped away down the nearest passage.

Now, however, things were growing complex once again.

Diederic, Leona, and Violca moved softly down the corridor, their path lit by a single dancing torch the knight had pried loose from a sconce on the wall. They leaped at every shadow—even the battle-hardened Diederic—eyes and ears straining for any hint of movement. They progressed at a snail's pace, more afraid of noise than of delay. They did not speak; they barely even breathed. The only consistent sound was the faint rustling of their robes. Each wore two, one over the other, for reasons that Diederic insisted were vital but had not explained.

After what he guessed was roughly twenty minutes, he finally uttered a gruff whisper. "We're far enough from the great hall. Which way?"

Leona glanced nervously at Violca. "Diederic, are you certain? I still do not think—"

"We agreed, Leona," Violca said, equally softly. "We need supplies. Every armory, every storage room, has guards. There we can get much that we need, or at least improvise it."

"I know, I know." Despite her words, Leona was far from convinced. Her eyes were wide, and her lower lip trembled. "But to go back to that room, deliberately…."

The Vistana laid a hand on her shoulder, dirt-encrusted yet comforting. "We've all suffered there, Leona. If you can face it once more, none of us ever need do so again."

Leona offered a feeble smile, and nodded.

"If that's done," Diederic interjected sharply, "we should keep moving. Leona?"

With a deep breath, the woman set off once more, Diederic and Violca in tow. Down and across they felt their way. The heat only grew as they moved deeper, and all felt the hairs on their necks stand, their stomachs churn, as a glimpse of an intersection, or a scent scarcely noticed, brought to the surface unpleasant memories that might better have remained buried.

An endless descent that nonetheless was over far too soon brought them to the doorway, beneath the inscription that read "Malosians 8:6." And they stared, unmoving, into the chamber that was arguably the bloody beating heart of Perdition Hill. The workshop of the Inquisition's Truth Seekers.

The chamber of tortures.

In the dim light of the torch, the machinery was somehow more frightening even than when one was strapped inside it. The devices appeared to move, to stretch out across the room in search of new innocents to devour. Chains became tendrils, manacles claws, gears teeth.

The fugitives stood in the doorway, their breath rasping in their throats, each trapped briefly in a private hell.

Finally, shaking themselves loose, Diederic and Leona moved into the room. She nodded once, stiffly, to his hissed "Do you remember what we need?" and immediately moved to a water-filled basin, and the framework and fulcrum that stood beside it. Diederic himself strode to the rack and ducked beneath it, his hands working the ropes and pulleys.

He straightened abruptly as a chill breeze wafted over him. Completely foreign to the slow-baking furnace that was the entirety of Perdition Hill, it offered no relief from the heat, instead only rendered the flesh even more susceptible. Looking around in search of a source, Diederic's eyes fell instead upon the Vistana, who remained, motionless, in the entryway.

"Violca? Were you intending to help us any time soon?"

Still she stood, unheeding, unfocused. Violca felt a strange flicker in her vision. She could best describe it as the opening of an eyelid, though both her eyes were already wide and unblinking. It was not unlike the sensation she experienced when allowing herself to slip into a trance, or when practicing the lessons of the tarokka taught to her by Madam Tsura. Something in this terrible room reached out to her, touched her, on a level beyond those of mortal senses. The cold breeze washed over her once more, and Violca let herself slip sideways, permitting herself to See.

She wished to all the gods in all the domains that she had not.

The room grew dark beneath her Sight, filled with spectral shadows impervious to the light of the torch. The implements of torture twitched and writhed, moaning in ecstasy over the torment they had inflicted, and would soon inflict again. Wood creaked, ropes stretched, like fingers yearning for a well-loved toy.

And then she saw it.

It appeared between her and the rack, yet somehow seemed to stand at a great distance, far greater than the length of the room. It was human in form, but there was nothing left of humanity in its broken shape or gaping features. Its posture changed second by second: first doubled over in agony, one arm outstretched, fingers broken and curled into arthritic claws; then standing upright, head thrown back, left leg bent sideways at the shattered knee; then down on all fours, dragging itself forward like a crippled spider. Violca could see no movement between these forms. It flickered one to the next with the dancing of the torch, as though it was simply a series of images in a book through which she rapidly flipped. With each shift in posture, with each flicker, it came one pace nearer, drawn toward her in its motionless advance.

Its mouth gaped open in an endless scream, its voice the sound of breaking bone, tearing flesh, and crackling flame. Behind it followed a second, and a third, and an uncountable throng beyond. And all of them, all of them, screamed.

Did they not exist during the day? Or was it the faith of the guards and the Truth Seekers—honestly felt, however vile their behavior in its name—that kept the spirits at bay? Violca could not begin to guess. She knew only that they were here now, and that nothing of sympathy or kindness or mercy survived within them.

Violca screamed, her voice torn from her throat, as the first of the flickering, jagged forms drew even with her companions. Diederic and Leona stared at her, astonished, even as dead and deathly hands reached out to touch them.

Leona gasped, her face grown pale, as a sodden, dripping handprint appeared upon her forearm. Water gushed down her sleeve, flattening the cloth to her skin. Even as she flailed, wild eyes searching for her unseen attacker, a second wet palm-print appeared on her left arm. Held in an unbreakable grip, the young woman was bent double, and her head plunged beneath the waters of the basin beside which she stood.

Diederic screamed as the flesh of his wrists and ankles suddenly paled and then chafed away, exposing the moist reddened meat beneath. His body jerked straight, his ankles and wrists pulled in opposing directions, strained by unseen rope. His joins and tendons creaked as they threatened, quivering, to burst from their sockets.

And as Leona slowly began to drown, and Diederic's body seemed on its way toward tearing itself apart, Violca….

Fled.


She ran as though the Mists themselves pursued her with murderous intent. Her feet, toughened by months of walking on harsh stone, slapped against the ground with such force that they threatened to split. Her lungs, filled with the musk of her own fear, burned harder with every step. A bend in the passage separated her from the light of the torch, and still she ran until her memories of the tunnel finally failed her. One hand along the wall to feel her way, the other outstretched before her, she continued more slowly.

Despite the terror that sat in her gut like molten lead, it was not blind panic that drove her headlong flight. She had in mind a destination, and she knew that her companions would not likely survive even the briefest delay.

The passage seemed to continue forever, and Violca grew ever more nervous. Was she lost? Had she overlooked a turn in the dark? The room she sought was close to the torture chamber, she knew it, but if she'd gotten lost, or it wasn't close enough….

Violca spotted the dancing luminescence of another torch ahead. Gasping in relief, she broke into another run, practically flying around the turn, and ran headlong into an inquisitor on patrol.

With a pained grunt, the two figures staggered back from one another. The torch dropped from the startled soldier's hand to gutter on the floor; Violca clutched her left side, where impact with the man's hauberk had bruised a rib.

For all his training, the guard was far more startled to find a prisoner, alone and unaccounted for in the depths of Perdition Hill, than Violca was to run into a guard. And in that brief moment of hesitation, the guard sacrificed his one chance at survival.

With an animal shout, Violca grabbed for the thick-bladed short sword that hung at the Redbreast's side. The guard made a desperate swipe, but urgent need offered a newfound haste to Violca's movements. The guard received a nasty cut for his troubles, only partly absorbed by the leather gauntlet, as his hand closed not on her wrist, but on the edge of the blade. Startled by the pain, the soldier yanked his arm back, granting Violca the opportunity to shove the sword, clutched in an awkward two-handed grip, up and into his chin. A loud clang followed an equally noisy crunch, and the Redbreast's helm popped from his head like a child's jack-in-the-box. It spun across the stone, coming to rest only when the dead man's hand landed across it as he fell.

Violca was moving again before the body ceased to spasm. She held the soldier's torch before her as she ran (it would only occur to her later that Diederic might have liked the sword). And finally, finally, she found her destination.

It was just like every other chapel in Perdition Hill. The same inscription adorned the entryway. Long stone pews with bolts and manacles faced a lectern draped in red cloth that boasted the sixfold sun in gold. And just beside the door, the marble font that just might be her companions' only hope—if she had not taken too long already.

Violca tugged her clay mug from the tie on her belt and dipped it in the font. If this failed to work, she had no further ideas. But then, if this failed, they would all be dead before she had time to come up with any others.


Had the restless spirits wished solely to kill, Violca's efforts would have come too late. She had taken too long to find her way to the chapel, to overcome the guard.

But killing was not the only purpose motivating those dead, invisible hands. Their victims would suffer, as they had suffered; would die slow, as they had died. Leona nearly drowned half a dozen times, only to find her head painfully yanked from the water seconds before her lungs gave out. Diederic stretched a bit further every moment, tendons quivering and threatening to tear, but he remained in one piece. Only after long minutes of agony, when their victims could view death with as much longing as fear, would the ghosts complete their macabre task.

Diederic thrashed wildly, desperate for some means to escape, to fight back, but his struggles accomplished nothing. He could not see, or feel, his phantom attackers, though his ears just barely registered the sounds of low, harsh whispers, and he choked on a foreign miasma of sweat and excrement.

And then Violca stood in the doorway, a torch in one hand, her cup in the other. Diederic could scarcely see her, his eyes obscured by tears of agony and confused by the dancing of the two torches. But he thought he saw her lay the torch down, pry the leather covering off the top of the mug, and hurl its contents into the room.

The knight felt a few droplets splash across his arms and face, cold and wet, and had a brief instant to wonder what in God's name Violca thought she was doing before he was briefly deafened by a chorus of horrific screams. Something sizzled behind him—the sound was like bacon in a skillet—and he gagged on the revolting odor of decayed and bloated flesh put suddenly to the fire. The sensation of the unseen ropes vanished from his limbs, and he fell to the hard floor with a bruising thump, the breath knocked from his body. Across the room, Leona collapsed beside the dunking basin, weeping and coughing water from her throat and lungs.

They might have lain where they fell, gasping and unmoving, were it not for Violca's frantic calls. "I don't know how long they'll stay at bay! We must leave, quickly! Quickly!"

With a grunt, Diederic heaved himself onto his stomach and crawled for the door, one hand grabbing what few useful supplies he'd gathered before the spectral assault. Leona, coughing, did the same. Even as they reached the door, Violca dropped her torch, snagged them both by the collars and dragged them through. She kicked the door shut, just as the invisible chorus of shrieks and grinding bone rose once more.

For a long time, well after the echo of the slamming portal had faded away, the trio of fugitives sat propped against the far wall, watching the thick wood with heart-pounding dread. Nothing emerged; the spirits within seemed unable or unwilling to leave their place of torment. The hall was sanctuary to the prisoners—at least from the ghosts.

"What…" Leona's question died beneath another fit of coughing, and it was some moments before she could try again. "What was it…." Another cough. "… that you threw on us?"

"Holy water. I took it from a ceremonial font."

Diederic stared at the Vistana beside him. "How in God's name did you know that would work? What if the water had no effect? Or what if the priests were all show, and the water was nothing special?"

Violca shrugged. "I had no better ideas. Perhaps next time, you'll suggest one."

He stared a moment longer, and then returned to gingerly prodding at his chafed and bloody wrists.

Watching her companions slowly recover, Violca could not help but notice that neither of them had asked her what had actually happened in the torture chamber, what it was that dwelt within. Perhaps they already knew, she thought, or perhaps they did not wish to.

After a few moments of recuperation, Diederic gathered their meager supplies into a pile between them. It was dishearteningly small, consisting of a few lengths of rope from the rack, less than fifteen feet in total; a metal bar, roughly two feet in length, that had served as an axle for the dunking fulcrum; a length of leg irons. Diederic thought he might be able to use the latter as a makeshift flail, but it would be awkward at best.

"Still," he told the others, as much to raise his own spirits as theirs, "it should be enough to make do." Resting his weight tentatively on his inflamed ankles, he rose and extended a hand, assisting Leona to do the same. Violca, uninjured save for the bruises she had acquired in her headlong dash, was upright before either of them.

They continued their slow progress, drawing ever nearer the lowest depths of Perdition Hill. Diederic's breath was fast and shallow; Leona's eyes watered from the strain of staring about her in all directions. They started at every shadow, froze at every sound. When Diederic, alarmed by a flicker of torchlight in the corner of his eyes, whirled about and slammed the leg irons into the wall, sending chips and powder cascading around him, Violca placed a gentle hand on his bicep.

"You have never seen a spirit before, have you, Diederic." It was not a question, despite her phrasing.

The knight smiled grimly. "I have killed many men, Violca. My sleep is often haunted, my dreams filled with their faces. But to see one when I am awake? To feel its touch? No. No, there are many who believe in such things where I am from, but I have never met a man who could honestly claim an experience like ours. Not any man I would call sane, anyway.

"I take it… am I to understand, then, that such things are common here?"

"Common? No." Violca shook her head. "But very, very real. In the domains of the Mists, Diederic, the dead speak with a voice as loud as yours or mine. The trick is to learn when it is best to listen, and when it is best to flee."

As if on cue, a smattering of voices did indeed filter through the labyrinthine passageways to dance, just barely noticed, beside the fugitives' ears. These were no spectral screams or ghostly chants, however; though the words were made unintelligible by the great distance they had traveled, the tones were very clearly mortal, and they were not well pleased.

All three of them froze, staring back the way they had come. "The hourglass is running," Violca commented darkly.

"Do you think they discovered we were missing?" Leona ventured.

"That, or they found the body."

The Vistana actually felt the weight of her companions' stares landing upon her shoulders. She offered a simple, half-hearted shrug. "I ran into a Redbreast, quite literally, on the way to the chapel."

"And when, pray tell, were you planning to speak of this?" Diederic demanded.

Another shrug. "When I felt it mattered. Now it matters."

Diederic grunted once, unconvinced. "We should keep moving. I'd like to be out of here before the guards start searching the lower levels." Their pathway now lighted by two torches, the trio broke into a steady, distance-eating jog. At several points along the way, they snagged additional unlit brands from sconces along the walls. There was no telling how long their light would need to last them.

"Violca?" Diederic asked between breaths.

"Yes?"

"Couldn't you have at least kept his sword?"

"I knew you were going to ask me that."

They were by now beyond any point to which Diederic or Violca had ever traveled, reliant solely on Leona's memories of a chamber she had visited only rarely. Where recall might fail her, however, her ears did not. She knew that the room they sought could not lie far from the laundry pool, and the faintest trickle of running water was enough to guide her.

Like the tree whose twisting root system the hallways resembled, Perdition Hill survived only thanks to the availability of water. Fed by an underground spring, a small stream wound its way through the complex's lower levels. It emerged first in the fountain chamber, source of drinking water for guards and prisoners alike, and guarded at all hours by a quartet of Redbreasts. From there it trickled through hand-carved drainage tunnels until it reached the washing basin with which Leona was all too familiar. There it accumulated into a constantly-refreshing pool, before carrying away the dirt and residue of lye into the last of the three chambers. It was to this final point of access, before the stream disappeared down a rusty iron grate, that the fugitives now made their way.

They knew they were close before they actually entered the room. Their noses, and the rising gorge at the back of their throats, were warning enough.

The stench struck hard, hammer-like, with such force that they actually staggered from the impact. Their eyes watered, and their lungs burned.

They stepped through the archway, and their footsteps began to crunch, as beetles, roaches, and centipedes—living and dead—flattened like snow beneath their bare feet. From every direction they came: crawling, slithering, fluttering, skittering. They alighted on hair, writhed across toes, and tasted the fugitives' terrified breaths on the air.

Yet the vermin were not here for them; the prisoners had simply stumbled into the greatest feeding ground for miles around. This was the disposal chamber of the Hill, where rotten scraps of food, garments bloodied beyond washing, and chamber pots stained and filmed with human waste were dumped into an iron grate, to be washed away by the flowing waters.

The waters performed—to put it mildly—an insufficient job.

The room was redolent of decaying meats, and the sides of the tiny stream were deep in a yellow film of excrement. And all of it moved, as flies descended upon it, beetles chewed on the edges, and maggots writhed within. For the first time, Diederic truly understood why waste duty was considered a punishment nearly on a par with a visit to the Truth Seekers. He hawked and spat, trying to clear the vile taste from his mouth, but even his saliva had picked up the wretched taint.

"God and Scions!" Leona's quavering voice was muffled by the sleeve she held clutched to her face. "What—what…."

"Why are we here, Diederic?" The Vistana was far more composed than Leona, but even she held a hand over her mouth and nose, hunching her shoulders against the constant blizzard of vermin. "You said we had to come here before we found our way out. Now we are here."

Diederic took a deep breath (regretting it instantly), and squared his shoulders. He gestured to the scum-encrusted grate with the metal bar taken from the torture chamber. "This is our way out."

Leona fell to her knees and retched, her entire body shaking. Even Violca looked pale, and her eyes were wide. "You're mad, giorgio! You've dragged us down here for nothing! We cannot possibly—"

"We can, and we will! This is why I chose not to tell you in advance. But it must be done!"

"How…." Leona looked up from the ground, shaking her hand to dislodge some flattened insects. "How do you know it goes anywhere?"

"I told you: there are tunnels beneath these, tunnels the Redbreasts seem not to use. Perhaps they do not even know of them. The waste must funnel into one of those."

"And if none of these tunnels provide an exit, Diederic?" Violca asked harshly.

"Then we fail. None of us entered into this with any illusions, Violca. Now I am doing what I must to get out of here. I believe you should do the same."

Leona bent double as her stomach heaved once more, then she straightened slowly, painfully, and nodded. "I want to go home," she said simply.

Another moment, then two, and Violca's shoulders slumped. "You are correct. I would never have agreed to this, and you should have given us the chance to consider some other option. But we are here now, and I have no intention of returning to the tender mercies of the Inquisition.

"How do you suggest we proceed, giorgio?"

Neither much cared for it when he told them, but again, they were forced to admit that little choice remained. Handing the bulk of the equipment to Leona, Diederic stepped gingerly through the writhing mass of insects and the foul sludge on which they fed, wincing with each squelching footfall. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he gulped for air, and his face took on a distinctively greenish cast. Finally, his legs quivering and his jaw clenched tight against the bile attempting to climb his throat, he stood beside the grate itself.

It was a simple affair: a rusted and pitted iron framework with a series of bars spaced roughly six inches apart, laid in the floor. The entire contraption was bolted to the stone and slick with years upon years of refuse and waste.

Diederic slid the metal bar between the framework itself and the rightmost of the bars. Folding up the sleeve of his robe for cushioning, he placed both hands on the bar, and heaved downward with all his prodigious strength.

Nothing happened.

Diederic shifted his grip, tightened his fingers. A simple groan turned into a shout of exertion. His entire body shook, and the sickly green in his cheeks and neck gave way to a breathless red. His eyes squeezed shut, hiding from Violca and Leona the fact that the left orb had suddenly gone bloodshot as the knight's incredible strain burst a vessel within.

Finally—finally—he was rewarded with the pained shriek of metal stressed beyond its capacity. The bar on which he leaned slid free, sending Diederic stumbling face-first into the slime-covered wall behind the grate. He huffed once in pain and surprise, placed the back of his hand to his nose, and stared for a moment at the blood pooling there. Then, shrugging it off—in this room, the last thing he really wanted was a working nose anyway—he turned to examine his handiwork.

The rightmost bar had relented, bending upward and outward. It was a small deformity, barely more than an inch or two, but in bending outward, the bar had twisted the framework in which it was mounted. An aperture now gaped open where that frame had pulled away from the stone around it. It was small—oh, so small—but it was enough.

Diederic shoved the bar into this new opening, working it back and forth, wincing at the screech of metal on metal and metal on stone. In this effort, the surrounding sludge actually aided him, providing a little grease to lubricate the bar.

Again, he leaned heavily into the bar, his arms, legs, and fingers straining, and his breath rasping in his throat. And again, though it took almost more than he could bear, the old, corroded metal finally gave. With a resounding snap, one side of the grate popped loose to jut ceiling-ward, the bent metal still fastened by heavy bolts to the stone on the other end. It was jagged, it was ugly, but it was open.

Diederic dropped to his knees and vomited, no longer even cognizant of the terrible substances that coated his legs and the hem of his robe. His vision was blurred, his muscles shook, and the pain in his gut suggested that he might have herniated something. His numbed fingers could no longer retain their grip, and the metal bar, itself now bent forty-five degrees from true, dropped into the hole with a dull splash.

A gentle hand touched him. He looked to find Leona standing over him, offering him a sip from her mug. He accepted gladly. The water, though lukewarm and gritty, seemed the best he had ever tasted.

Violca stepped forward too, lashing a length of rope about the end of a torch. Straddling the grate, she lowered the flickering brand, taking care to prevent it from swinging, lest it twist about and burn through the hemp. Leona and Diederic, the latter limping with one hand pressed to his gut, staggered over beside her.

"You were right, Diederic," Violca said simply.

Beneath them, the falling water accumulated in a shallow, filthy pool centered in a floor of worn and cracked stone. Other than the dust and cobwebs, it could have been a chamber on any level of Perdition Hill. Two archways provided egress. The flowing water snaked from the room via the one to the left. More insects, thankfully in far lesser quantities than above, scattered from the alien light and heat of the torch.

Violca hauled in the rope and unwrapped the brand. "You first, Diederic."

"Absolutely not!" Diederic stared, red-faced, at the Vistana. "I need to anchor the rope for the two of you. You cannot—"

"I may not be the great, strapping warrior you are, giorgio," Violca said, "but I am no weakling. I can anchor the rope long enough for each of you to climb down it."

"You—"

"And in your current shape, Diederic, I have my doubts as to whether you could have lowered the torch, let alone Leona or myself."

"But—"

"Go. We haven't the time to argue."

Grumbling, Diederic took firm hold on the rope, wrapping one end about his forearm even as Violca threaded the other over and around her torso. They had barely ten feet of slack between them, but that would get Diederic close enough to jump the remainder. Leona, now holding both torches, tossed one down the hole, angling so as to avoid the pool. It struck the stone and guttered briefly, but continued to burn.

Ignoring the ache in his chest and stomach, and failing to ignore the squishy substances at the edge of the hole, Diederic pushed himself off the edge. It was a tight fit, and he found himself wiggling in order to pass his thighs and hips. Finally, with a faint pop, they were through.

And at that moment, the rope went slack.

Diederic felt himself starting to fall and lashed out blindly with both arms. They slapped the sludgy stone, slipped, skidded—and held. Already they began to ache with the strain of holding him. Between his exhaustion and the slippery surface, it was all he could do to keep his position; there was no way to pull himself up.

"Violca!" he hissed, his voice angry, scared. "What in God's name—"

He was interrupted by the sound of a balled fist striking flesh, and of flesh striking the floor, crushing a hundred vermin beneath it.

"Well. Well, well, well." The voice was masculine, unfamiliar, and terrifying in its implications. "What have we here?"


Next Week: Chapter Six...

Diederic swore under his breath. All he could see was the filthy wall and the bent grate sticking up before him. He lacked even the leverage to turn around.

"I'd wondered what the commotion was about," the voice continued, slowly drawing nearer. "I was just on my way to the main hall to find out. I ought to thank you for saving me the walk."

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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