Fiction Archive | 5/8/2009
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Black Crusade: Chapter 16
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 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!"

"Would you take the Grimoire from me, then, Vistana? Pass it on to your family, your Madam Tsura, for safekeeping, and assume Lambrecht's reach is too short to harm them? Shall I offer it to some complete stranger, neither knowing if he can be trusted, nor able to make him comprehend the danger? Leave it hidden and unattended, trusting that eyes that see through corpses and crows cannot find it?"

"But gods, Diederic! Bringing it to Caercaelum? Even if, by some miracle, Lambrecht does not wind up with both halves of the most potent occult tome I've ever seen, the repercussions of having them both so near, amongst so many people…. The magic wants to be free, Diederic!"

The knight could only shrug. "I neither know nor really care what that actually means, Violca."

"Diederic," she said, as serious as he'd ever heard her, "Lambrecht may be a bastard, but he at least knows what he's doing. He has control over his portion of the Grimoire. You do not.

"Would you find yourself again in a city of lunatics, slaughtering each other and themselves because of a book? Their blood would rest on your hands, Diederic."

"No! Not mine; Lambrecht's! It is he who forces me to do this, and he will pay for it!"

And that, in a word, was that. Violca could hardly stop him from hurling himself into the heart of the enemy's stronghold, nor could she permit him to go alone. So she traveled with him, the mere handful of days from Parsimol, and all the while she fretted. She needed no Sight to see that this could not end well.

Even the weather sensed that all was not right, and railed against the coming mortal storm. The days came over gray, as though sickened unto death. The skies held no visible clouds, simply a corpselike pallor that blurred into the horizon. Nighttime was little better, for the gray did not depart but merely settled. The Mists rose, heavy and hungry, so that little of—or on—the earth could be seen. But the moon and stars gleamed bright and eager. On the afternoon of the last day, as they neared the towering walls of Malosia's beating heart, the skies wept for what was to come. The rain fell, blinding, bruising… a veritable wall of water, save when the petulant winds gathered it up in huge fists and hurled it like a javelin at the miserable travelers, at the canvas and wooden walls that made up the peddlers' park.

Caercaelum's southernmost peddlers' park was a thriving community, nearly a town in its own right. Here the goods were of greater variety than in most of its sister markets, and far more expensive (albeit cheaper than within the city itself). Today, nobody was buying. Huddled deep within their cloaks, meager armor indeed against the stabbing rains, Diederic and Violca strode the highway, passing through the peddlers' park. They squinted, trying to peer their way through the deluge. One stubborn vendor, selling God-knew-what from his waterlogged stall, shouted at them to stop, to defy the weather by taking a gander at what goods he had to offer. His calls turned to curses as they passed him by, and a heavy rock hurtled past Diederic's head.

To his left, obscured by the pounding storm, a young couple huddled in the doorway of one of the park's few solid buildings. Even as Diederic glanced that way, he saw an old man, his feet and his walking stick slipping about in the mud, scuttle into the doorway for shelter, squeezing in beside the couple. And he saw the young man shove the old man out, while the girl yanked from him his cane and brought it down heavily upon his chest and head, again and again and….

Diederic turned his eyes back to the road and clenched his fist tight on the leather pouch containing the pages of the Grimoire. He said nothing to Violca.

The storm's fury was a child's tantrum: harsh but short-lived. It failed in the hour between the peddlers' park and Caercaelum's gates, sputtering, returning, then fading. Finally, nothing remained of a proper rain, though the air itself was soaking, pregnant with waters not yet shed, and smelling of further storms to come.

And now that he finally could do so, Diederic stared in wonder at Malosia's great Heavenly City.

The walls stood tall and proud, the weight of ages only adding to their imposing mass. Dull stone rose from the earth, twenty feet or more if it was an inch. Even during the terrible storm, men in the white tabards of Church regulars or the crimson of Inquisition soldiers remained at their posts, manning the watchtowers that protruded at regular intervals from the mighty bulwark. Now that the storm had passed, other soldiers emerged onto the wall itself, walking their patrols with careful steps, pikes and bows ever at the ready.

Beyond the walls, and the imposing gates of oak and bronze, Caercaelum languished like an aging queen upon her divan. Where the watchtowers of the bulwark were squared and simple, the heights of the city reached skyward with cylindrical fingers and rounded minarets, whitewashed and gilded. The roofs of the faithful sloped together, creating waves and crests of clay and shingles.

And in the midst of it all, the crown on Malosia's head: Scions Mount, on which sat the sprawling Basilica of the Empyrean Church. Dozens of buildings in one, linked by covered passageways, the Basilica boasted a larger population than many towns. In the center rose a golden dome, unimaginably large—an earthbound second sun to reflect the glory of the one that rose above.

Long did Diederic stare, wiping from his eyes the water that dripped from his sodden hair. It was Jerusalem, and Rome, and more besides.

And Diederic hated every stone.

Though the great gate stood open, wide enough to admit two large wagons trundling abreast, it was far from inviting. The gleaming tips of the heavy portcullis above, and the pikes and swords of the soldiers posted below, seemed to Diederic to be little more than teeth in the city's gaping maw. Even in this horrid weather, the wide gates were full of travelers and merchants moving in and out—hundreds, if not thousands, per day. The sentinels gave each one a cursory glance, as if foul intentions might somehow register on a person's face, and waved everyone through. Their eyes downcast, as though with the fatigue of travel and the chill of the rain, Diederic and Violca took their place in the swift-moving queue.

"Is this entirely wise?" she whispered to him while several paces from the guards. "If Lambrecht holds the authority he claims, could he not just order us arrested as we enter?" "He'll not take the chance." Diederic sounded confident, though his hand never strayed far from his axe. "A struggle here, and we might escape out into the countryside. Doubtless he's ordered the guards to report the entrance of anyone matching our descriptions, that he might deal with us within."

"Hmm." Violca grinned suddenly, though Diederic mistrusted the rather nasty quirk to her lips. "Perhaps we ought not give them what they're looking for." So saying, she delivered a sharp, swift kick to Diederic's ankle. He knelt with a shout, unheard in the tumult of voices, impatient horses, and creaking wagons, and tried to massage out the worst of the pain. When he glanced up angrily, Violca was gone.

Grumbling, he rose and moved with the crowd, now limping notably. Over the heads of those before him, he caught a quick flash of dark hair and a white tunic. Unnoticed in the press of humanity, Violca attached herself to the rear of a merchant's entourage, adding what looked, to Diederic, a blatantly unnatural sway to her hips, smoothing out her soaking tunic so that it clung, revealing the bulk of what it was intended to hide.

Then Diederic understood, and despite the pain in each step, he chuckled.

And so they passed separately into great Caercaelum. Where the guards might have looked for the grizzled knight and the young Vistana traveling together, they scarcely noticed the sellsword limping on what was doubtless an old war wound; while they likely did take note of the traveling merchant's strumpet, odds were strong that they paid little attention to her face.

"Watch it!" The shout came from behind, within the gate. "You just about rolled over my foot, you damned idiot!"

"What did you say to me? You dare speak to me?"

The voices rose in pitch, the words devolving into meaningless shrieks. The sounds of leather gauntlets tightening on pikes, swords sliding from scabbards, punctuated the growing din.

Diederic hunched his shoulders and refused to look back.

She waited for him a block down, a few paces into a smaller side street between what looked to be a cobbler's shop and one of half a dozen taverns.

"You might at least have warned me," he complained, though the pain had already begun to fade.

"And yet."

"Hmph." Then, after a moment, "This is the heart of the Empyrean Church. Were you so certain that the guards would not object to your presence?"

"And are your holy cities back home so holy that no whores walk their streets?"

"Hmph," again. Then, for lack of anything else to say, Diederic stepped from the side street and began pushing through the crowd.

"Lambrecht will assume that I'll head pretty directly toward the Basilica," he explained to Violca, barely audible over the throng. "Not too directly, mind. He knows I'm no fool. But he'll expect me to want to learn the layout of the area as swiftly as possible."

"And?"

"And normally he'd be right, but I'd as soon twist him up a bit. Since that's where he'll have the bulk of his eyes watching, I suggest we find somewhere to wait in the poorer districts, away from the towers and the Redbreasts. We can take our time, survey from there."

Nor did it prove terribly difficult to find their way. Much as it had been in Jerusalem, Diederic found that while the main roads of Caercaelum were cobbled or paved—providing solid footing from gates to markets to Scions Mount, and stable ground for the merchants' carts and the nobles' carriages—the lesser quarters of the city had to make do with roads of packed earth.

As they progressed along those roads, now made serpentine trails of muck by the recent downpour, Diederic found himself lost in unpleasant reverie. The mud clinging to his boots, the fights breaking out around him, minor and contained so far but sure to spread…. He found himself wondering if the past months had mattered at all, or if he was damned to find himself fighting the same battles, and the same chaos, time and again, without end.

Only slowly, as the reality surrounding him penetrated the fog of memory, did Diederic come to realize that Caercaelum was truly a city gilded, not one of gold. Invisible from beyond the walls, hidden away from the main cobbled streets by blocks of buildings, the common folk of Malosia finally reared their heads. Here the homes did not stand tall, but were modest hovels of wood or rough and inexpensive stone. No shingles of clay protected their roofs, only simple thatch. Windows were oiled paper at best, gaping wide more commonly; and leather curtains served frequently as cheap doors. Men and women went about their daily lives in drab and colorless clothing, patched and mended a dozen times over, and a dozen times again. Theirs was the poverty, not of homelessness and starvation, but of daily exhaustion—a life that ground down the fingers and the feet and the soul with endless, thankless labor.

Here, in the shadow of the Church's greatest pride, blinded by the light reflected from the golden domes and minarets, the forgotten majority of Caercaelum had the temerity to be poor.

"Vistani!"

The call came as they traversed the center of a market, one far different than the rich and bustling public spectacles found just inside the city's every gate. Here, the vendors sold gamey meats, slightly stale pastries, and tin utensils from the backs of wooden carts or rickety structures that served as both shop and home. The neighborhood was redolent with sweat and smoked fish, so pungent that even the recent downpour had scarcely sweetened it.

Violca rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed deeply. Diederic frowned at her.

"Do you know this fellow?"

"I might as well."

Pushing through the bustle came a heavyset man, his head and face surrounded by a mane of brown hair that would have been right at home on a lion—assuming the lion cared little for hygiene. He wore a butcher's apron, and idly scratched at his back with a heavy cleaver.

"This is precisely what I was talking about," Violca muttered to Diederic, shaking her head. "He'll accuse me of theft, or my family of taking his child, or perhaps cheating his grandmother out of some heirloom. You'll probably have to hurt him."

"Vistani!" he called again as he neared, pointing with his other hand, his finger as round and rubbery as the sausages doubtless hanging in his wagon.

One hand hanging casually near her blade, she finally turned. "That's Vistana, giorgio. Or are you so drunk you see two of me?"

For a moment, separated from them by perhaps a dozen feet, the man came to a halt. He blinked twice, scuffed his feet a bit in the dirt. Then….

"Sorry, miss. I'm not terribly familiar with your language."

In the face of all the terrors they'd seen, the nightmares of the passages in and beneath Perdition Hill, the grotesqueries of Bellustaire both living and dead, Diederic had never seen Violca quite so thoroughly stunned as she was at that moment.

"I—That is… did you just apologize to me?"

"Yes, miss. Had some of your people come through a while back, and they seemed quite taken with a particular meat pie of mine. Said it reminded them of a traditional dish, though I'll confess I couldn't recall the name if you paid me. Business has been wretched, and I thought you might be good for a sale."

Diederic scratched vigorously at his cheeks and chin, hoping to hide his desperate struggle not to laugh.

The attack Violca had anticipated, when it finally materialized, came not from the butcher before them, but from passersby on the street behind. The first was a short man in a filthy tunic, both hands wrapped around a rake. Voice high, nigh inarticulate, he screamed as he charged; the only intelligible words were "Vistani," "traitor," and "wrath of God." The butcher himself flattened the attacker with a heavy backhand, but by that point two others followed in the footsteps of the first.

Startled but undaunted, Diederic stepped in to meet them, tripping the first with a low kick, driving the second to the ground with a heavy punch to the gut. The man he had tripped stayed down, for Violca had stepped heavily on his throat. The butcher, face red and suddenly screaming with his own rage, rushed into the road like a maddened bull, fists and cleaver flailing at everyone in sight. Bodies fell, blood flew; men and women suddenly poured in from all sides, each shrieking his or her own imagined slight, and the brawl seemed ready to swell up and burst into a full-fledged riot.

Diederic's hand tightened painfully on his companion's wrist. "Time for us to be off!"

"But—that man…."

"Was surprisingly polite to you, yes. Is that worth being here when the soldiers arrive?" Violca's expression was sour enough to spoil fresh cream, but when Diederic dashed for the nearest alley, she willingly followed.

For a time, once the rising discord of the street had faded behind them, the only sounds were their labored breaths and the splattering of their boots in the muddy road. Only when they were quite certain they were well away did they stop for a moment, panting, in the doorway of what appeared to be an empty house.

"That was peculiar," Violca commented suspiciously between gasps.

Diederic shrugged. "As you said, lots of folk don't care for your people. Apparently, the poor man angered some of them by speaking with you."

Had he not been bent over, hands on his knees as he caught his breath, Violca would never have had the mass to overwhelm him. As he was, however, a simple shove was enough to send him face first into the mud. He thrashed wildly to his feet, spitting and sputtering.

"What in God's name…!"

"Do not lie to me, Diederic! Not about this! Don't you dare!" Her fists clenched, she stepped before him, glaring up into his filthy face. "It's the Grimoire, isn't it?"

From a mask of muck, he glared back, then sighed once and seemed to deflate. "Several times already. I thought it better not to bother you with it, since there's not a thing we can—"

"You idiot! How could you be so stupid!"

"Don't push me, Violca." His voice was harsh now, ragged, angry. "You couldn't have prevented—"

"I told you what that book is, Diederic! I told you!"

"You said the magic 'wants to be used.' I heard you the first time."

"The madness is the magic, Diederic, and you're the one leaking it! To anyone with even the simplest spell of Sight, you're glowing like a Scion-damned beacon! I can See it myself, now I know to look for it, bright as if you were on fire!"

Beneath the clinging brown, Diederic's face went white. "Then Lambrecht…."

"Can find us at any time, and all our efforts at stealth have been worth about as much as the mud you're wearing."

Suddenly Diederic saw spies in every shadow, the gleam of Lambrecht's watching eyes in every scavenging bird, every scurrying rodent.

"We'd best keep moving, try at least to keep his people from catching up with us."

Violca scowled. "We'll be damned lucky, giorgio, if it's people he sends to find us at all."


Whether due to their refusal to stay in one place, or for other reasons only Lambrecht himself might have explained, nothing untoward befell them the rest of the day. They moved briskly through poverty-stricken neighborhoods, occasionally stopping long enough to pore over the wares in some shop or other, so as not to stand out from other citizens. Time and again, they heard the growing sounds of a fray from the markets and streets they left behind, but Diederic could only give thanks that the chaos and carnage were sporadic and localized, not the citywide butchery that had swept Jerusalem. He remembered an entire city, stinking of blood and echoing with the shrieks of the murderous and the murdered, and he shuddered.

Night fell and the mists rose, each hurrying to meet the other halfway. The mists rose from the city's deepest wells, from the streams that trickled and gurgled nearby, from the gutters that ran along the main streets, even from the mud of the unpaved roads, leaving behind a surface cracked and dried as any arid wasteland. They wriggled and writhed their way skyward, reaching out to embrace the low-hanging clouds, to blot out the moon and obscure the stars, until nothing remained but gray.

They came with the fog, as Diederic had known in his heart that they must. Featureless shapes in the haze, visible at first only where they blotted out the diffuse light of nearby lanterns and torches, they shuffled and stumbled, slow, awkward, inevitable.

No accusations. No cries of anger. No maddened shrieks. No lunatic giggles.

"Well," Diederic offered through clenched teeth, "I believe we can rest assured that these folk, at least, are not mad."

"Why would you say that?"

"Because I'm fairly certain that they're dead."

They stood back to back in the soupy fog, struggling to see as the bodies neared. The stench reached them first: the miasma of new decay. These were freshly dead, or so it would seem. Diederic choked; Violca's stomach roiled. Both stood firm, but Diederic began to sweat.

Nothing, in all his years as a soldier, had taught him how to kill something already dead.

As the corpses solidified from the mists, they somehow frightened him more than even the phantoms beneath Perdition Hill. These? These were meat. Muscle and bone and humors and no soul—no life. Nothing to speak with, nothing of humanity, nothing to kill. They would keep coming and coming, and they would tear him down.

Lambrecht would win….

From behind, he heard Violca whisper, "How can we kill the dead?" And somehow, the question steadied him. As his own nightmarish fear, the bodies were unstoppable; as a tactical problem posed by another, it suddenly laid itself bare to answers.

"We don't!" he breathed, struck by sudden inspiration. He shifted to stand beside the Vistana, rather than behind her. "Violca, your staff! Just shove them away afterward!"

"After what?"

No time. The first of the shambling corpses was upon them. She looked almost normal, save for the formality of her gown, as did the old man behind her, and the younger fellow behind him. Their features were sallow and sunken, their eyes pale and dried. They approached with mouths agape and hands raised into tearing claws. The reek of the grave came with them.

Diederic, when he struck, aimed not for the head, nor the chest, but for the knee. Flesh tore, bone splintered, and the corpse began to fall.

And Violca understood. With a desperate thrust of her staff, she sent the unnatural thing toppling away.

Over and over they worked, so methodically that it became mechanical. The dead approached, mindless, unable to adapt. Diederic struck, Violca shoved. With each attack they retreated a step or two toward the nearest crossroads, leaving a trail of twitching bodies in their wake.

The dead did not give up. The fallen continued to advance, dragging themselves along the ground once their legs refused to support them. Most were too slow to catch the retreating pair, and those that were not found their arms gone the way of their knees. Diederic's axe acquired a patina of rotted, viscous blood, dulling it until it could barely cut flesh. Yet still it rose and fell, crushing where it could not slash.

To Diederic and Violca, retreating before them, they seemed an endless tide. In truth, it was the last of only about a dozen or so at which they hacked and thrust as they emerged into the larger street.

And into the gathering crowd.

Diederic feared for a moment that they were more of Lambrecht's legion of the dead, for he could see little but their general shapes in the mists. He was swiftly disabused of that notion, however, as he heard their whispers and their cries.

"What are they doing?"

"Dear Scions, they just killed that poor woman!"

"Get them!"

Worse, above it all, above the calls and the sudden running feet, they heard the faint jingle of harnesses and the clop-clop of hooves. From the fog they sounded: a patrol of soldiers, distant but drawing ever nearer.

Diederic and Violca backed away once more, their eyes wide as the crowd surged forward. "Can we run?" she asked desperately.

From both sides of the street they came, and Diederic shook his head, defeated. "The dead," Violca hissed. Diederic stared until comprehension dawned, then nodded once. They were off and running, mere steps ahead of the enraged crowd.

They ran back the way they had come, their eyes cast not ahead of them—for the curtain of fog made that useless at best—but downward. Lumps and protrusions in the road appeared from the mists, bodies and parts of bodies that heaved and slouched with unnatural life. Most they dashed around before the mutilated things could move to react; a few they hacked and beat as deathless grips closed about ankles or trailing cloaks. From behind came the first shrieks of dismayed horror as the pursuing throng encountered the crawling dead. It was, perhaps, a terrible thing to do to these citizens of Caercaelum, Diederic acknowledged; but it was Lambrecht, not himself, who had orchestrated it.

Besides, as the cries of fear rose in crescendo to inhuman screeches, and one man began to laugh hysterically over the sudden sounds of tearing flesh and chewing, Diederic knew that the people who pursued them were swiftly becoming worse than the walking dead themselves.

On they ran, avoiding the last of the moving bodies. The corpses and the crowds might slow the soldiers, but doubtless not for long. They needed a place to hide, but where could—?

"Sister! In here!"

He stood in a narrow doorway in a rickety wooden wall, one that sealed off an equally narrow alley between two dilapidated tenements. Had he not opened it just as they passed, neither Diederic nor Violca would have seen it. Even without the added concealment of the fog, it blended perfectly into the rest of the filthy and rotted wood behind heaps of broken lumber and old garbage. Although clad in the same dull tunic and trousers as half the other poor citizens of Caercaelum's shunned districts, his raven hair and moustache, and the swarthy hue of his skin, clearly marked him Vistani.

"Do you know him?" Diederic asked as they skidded to a halt.

"I don't believe so. Does it matter?"

"Not at the moment."

They squeezed through the doorway, Diederic offering a nod of thanks, and found themselves sandwiched between the two buildings. The alley was ankle-deep in refuse, thankfully old and dried enough neither to stain nor to stink. Carefully the Vistana clicked the portal shut and gestured for them to remain motionless as he placed an ear against the wood.

"Do not mention my family name," Violca whispered, her breath warm in Diederic's ear. "We've enmities and rivalries among the tribes of the Vistani, same as any other people. If we're to discover that this man is an enemy, I'd prefer to wait until after he's through helping us."

"I'm not certain it's wise to share our names at all," the knight hissed in reply.

For minutes they sat, hunkered down amidst the rubbish. The strange Vistana, truthfully, needn't have made such a production of listening. Even away from the doorway, Diederic and Violca could clearly hear the distant sounds of struggle, the cumbersome tromp of horseshoes and heavy boots.

Only when it was clear that the soldiers were not approaching the hidden alley did the stranger stand and usher the others to move along with one finger held to his lips. With every crunch and shift and thump of refuse he rolled his eyes or shook his head, but they had attracted no attention by the time they reached the alley's far end. Here he crouched beside another door and fiddled with a pair of slim wires and a rusty padlock until it popped open.

Beyond awaited a dusty storage chamber, replete with boxes and barrels that had doubtless admitted no curious eyes in years, coated in cobwebs that were the ancestral homes of a thousand generations of spiders come and gone. Bits of fuzzy black mildew spattered the walls in large spots and random patterns; Diederic couldn't help but feel it looked as though someone had detonated a cat in the room.

A single lantern, glowing dully atop one of the boxes, provided the room's only illumination. The strange Vistana stepped over to it, that his "guests" might see him clearly, and bowed.

"I am called Tobar," he said, his deep voice far more thickly accented than Violca's own.

"I am Violca," she replied, bending low but not quite matching his bow. "My companion would, I think, prefer to remain nameless for now."

Diederic nodded, then bowed more deeply. "I thank you for your assistance, friend."

"But not so thankful that you trust me with something so simple as your name?"

"Not yet, no."

"I see." He turned his gaze back on Violca, a smirk beginning to form at his lips. "Your companion, you said?"

Her eyes went dark. "I've had more than my fill of such assumptions from ignorant giorgios, Tobar. I need none from a cousin, however distant."

Another bow, this time in apology.

This close to Tobar, sheltered from the obscuring haze of the mists, Diederic could examine their rescuer more closely. He did not care for what he found. The Vistana had narrow, shifty eyes, and the smirk he'd directed at Violca never seemed entirely absent from the crook of his lips. He smelled unpleasantly of sweat and perfume, as though desperate to hide the filth he could not be bothered to wash off. Something of him engendered an immediate distrust deep in Diederic's gut, and if he was a more traditional Vistana than Violca herself, then for the first time the knight understood the common folks' dislike of their presence.

"We'd best go," Tobar demanded as he rose from his bow. "They've missed the alley for now, perhaps, but if they've patrolled this neighborhood before, one or another should remember it before long."

Waiting for no reply, he glided across the room to stand before a door not quite cater-corner to the one by which they'd entered. Like the first, it was locked with an old rusty mechanism; and like the first, the Vistana had picked it in a matter of moments.

It opened into a second alleyway, separated from the other by a rough brick wall. It was far wider in scope, a small road unto itself running between and among old buildings of questionable stability. Few windows overlooked it, and the garbage littering it, while fresher and more pungent than the refuse of their prior hiding spot, was minimal. A scrawny dog darted from their path, and Diederic, now ever suspicious, hurled a loose brick at a small gathering of crows that had alighted on some rotting scraps. They squawked indignantly as they scattered, but none seemed unusually eager to stay, or to watch.

"Not that I'm ungrateful," Diederic began as they scurried through the alley, hard on Tobar's heels, "but why exactly are you helping us?"

Again that ugly, self-satisfied smirk. "I am not aiding you, giorgio. I'm aiding her. I've seen what befalls those of my people who fall into the Church's hands, and I would spare her that. That my actions assist you as well is entirely your own fabulous good fortune, and no concern either way of mine."

With that, the Vistana broke into a light jog, not so fast as to make undue racket, but laborious enough that further conversation would prove difficult.

They slowed only when the detritus grew thick and threatened to turn an ankle, or for Tobar to burgle their way past additional doors. Storerooms and cellars, back alleys and abandoned shacks—these made up their highway as they fled from pursuit. It wasn't long at all before Diederic and Violca found themselves lost and turned about, utterly dependent on their new guide to lead the way.

Violca, now breathing heavily, tugged on Diederic's sleeve and pointed to the wall beside which they ran. Although it had long since faded, a few remaining traces of whitewashing had bravely survived the years-long struggle against dust and rain.

Only then did Diederic notice that the alleys had grown cleaner, the buildings taller and sturdier. Even the noise of the city had changed. Its voices were less strident, the sounds of footsteps now audible on cobbled main thoroughfares.

Tobar was slowly and circuitously leading them away from the poor quarters, and back toward the more opulent districts of Caercaelum. It was perhaps a wise idea in the short term, for the soldiers would not likely think to look here for the troublemakers, but Diederic didn't think it a safe place to spend much time.

At the knight's gesture to slow for a moment, however, the Vistana shook his head. "Just ahead," he said between gasps, pointing vaguely. "A cellar… We can rest there…. Talk freely."

His definition of "just" proved a bit looser than Diederic's own, for he kept them running another several minutes. At the end of the small street, however, he did indeed slow and turn. There, a pair of storm doors, their handles wrapped in an old chain, led downward. Tobar yanked the links aside with a dull clank and threw wide the doors.

"Swiftly now!" he breathed, glancing furtively over his shoulder. "This street is far more exposed than I would like!"

Violca and Diederic shuffled past, exchanging a knowing look as they set boot to wooden stair. They would, indeed, hurry below before anyone else spotted them, but once inside, they would go not one step further until Tobar had provided some answers.

The stairs wandered deep below the building. Halfway down, Diederic's nose and lungs were filled with the aroma of old, dry earth.

By the time he detected the scent of oiled steel beneath it, there was nothing he could do.


Next Week: Chapter Seventeen...

Instantly, they were surrounded. Redbreasts with pikes, with swords, with bows, emerged from every cor-ner of the spacious cellar. Two carried lanterns. The flickering light, glinting from their polished armor and crimson tabards, suggested a constantly shifting patina of blood.

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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