Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue
Czestadt’s trail was difficult to follow, but not impossible. The dark passages were infrequently used, but often enough that very little dust or grime was left behind. The way that the Driheli knight went was distinguishable only by the fact that it was slightly freer of the muck than the rest of the passages. There were hardly any boot scuffs or tracks to see, but Nemgas was not going to let him get away now.
His fellow Magyars were all there, each of them nervous but ready to take vengeance for what had been done to them on the Steppe and in the Vysehrad mountains. Many thought of the boy Hanalko who had been pushed over a precipice by one of the Driheli knights and killed by the sharp rocks below. For Nemgas, the only thought on his mind was of his boy Pelurji, struck a mortal blow by the evil that came from this man, Bishop Jothay. If Nemgas could not destroy this evil, then Pelurji would never again wake; soon he would die.
Sir Petriz and Father Akaleth of the Questioners stayed in the middle of the group. Petriz’s face was that of a child who had just learned of his father’s death. It was painful to see him so distraught. But his dedication to their cause did not appear to waver. He would see this through to the end. He needed to believe in an Ecclesia that did Eli’s will. Corrupt Bishops and complacent knights were not a part of the world he’d grown up believing existed.
For Akaleth, his face was intent as he watched the passage, hoping for some glimmer of memory. The cold determination in his eyes was uncanny, and almost frightening to see. His wounds from when he’d been tortured were not completely healed, but he walked with such stiff reserve that none of the Magyars could discern if he felt any pain from them or not.
Nemgas paused when they came to an intersection. A quick scan showed him that they were continuing downwards. He gripped the torch more tightly in one hand and his axe in the other. The two swords rested reassuringly on his hips. But with each step down that staircase, he could feel a strange throbbing in his head. It began in the back of his mind like a subtle ostinato, before building louder and louder. He felt the two blades at his side begin to pulse and reply in otherworldly counterpoint. Somewhere below there was a terrible lancing agony that yearned to reach up and pierce him. He hadn’t been hurt by it yet, but it tore at his mind like a butcher’s blade.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, he had to pass the torch to Berkon who was at his side. He rested one hand upon Caur-Merripen, stroking the black and silver blade to calm whatever had upset it. To his surprise, a familiar voice spoke from the darkness in the passage ahead. “It can feel what lies below, can’t it?” The language was of the Southlands, and the timbre unmistakable.
“Czestadt!” Nemgas snapped, stepping forward into the passage. Berkon leaned the torch in further, and they could see the faint outlines of the man slumped against one wall. One hand rubbed at his face as if to rid himself of a headache. The pink scar in his flesh was bleeding slowly in a few places.
Nemgas raised the axe high, and behind him Pelgan and Gamran drew out their knives. Berkon handed the torch to Akaleth and unslung his bow. Gelel spat and clenched his fists. All eyes were aimed at the shadowy figure, who continued to massage his temple slowly. Czestadt’s words were soft and distracted. “I knew you would come. I could feel them. You knew I would.”
“Get out of my way,” Nemgas replied in the Driheli’s native tongue. “You know what I am here to do.”
“Yes,” Czestadt replied. Slowly, he turned his head and stared with bloodshot eyes at the Magyars who were ready to cut him down should he dare reach for a weapon. Czestadt’s sword remained buckled to his belt, but neither hand reached for the hilt. The knight’s eye fell upon Petriz who stared back at him with an agonized expression. “Petriz...”
Sir Petriz nodded and pushed his way forward past the Magyars. He came open handed, his head shaking. “Sir Czestadt, please! Jothay is evil! You must see it. Please don’t fight us. I know you are better than that!”
Czestadt’s lip curled back, “You side with these men against the Driheli?”
Petriz shook his head firmly. “Never! I side with them against an evil Bishop who is corrupting the Driheli! You once told me that a knight’s duty is to be the blade of Eli, striking down the wicked and defending the righteous, no matter who they might be. You told me that only one who has prayer in his heart can understand the difference. Jothay is twisting you because he is evil and wants to destroy all that we have fought for. Please, don’t do this!”
Nemgas knew they did not have time to waste, but he also knew it would be better to let this play out. The scarred knight stood quivering against the wall, his hands trembling from some horrible pain. He did not seem able to answer Petriz’s question. Petriz’s face was white with agony as he stared at the man he had faithfully served for so many years. Nemgas could see the love of a son to a father in his eyes, and that only made it hurt worse.
“How could you?” Petriz asked, his voice quieter, a hushed whisper, almost bitten through his lips. “How could you hurt the priest?”
Czestadt gasped and lowered his face. “I can only feel the swords. The swords. And... that thing... that thing that pretends to be a sword. Oh Eli!” He swallowed and then opened his eyes fully. With only the torchlight, they looked like deep black pits into his skull. “I need to touch it. It is the only way I can be free.” His words were choked, as if somebody had wrapped their hands around his neck and begun to squeeze.
“Touch what?” Petriz asked.
Czestadt lifted one palsied hand and pointed at the golden blade that hung from Nemgas’s hip. “That. Let me touch it.”
Petriz and Nemgas glanced warily at each other, but the Magyar finally took a tentative step forward. In one hand he gripped the axe tightly, ready to swing should this prove an act. With the other he drew the Sathmoran blade, and held it out, point first towards the Driheli knight. Czestadt’s hand reached out, blood vessels showing through the strain of his muscles.
Nemgas felt his head begin to pound even harder as the Driheli drew nearer. The lancing in his mind intensified, and it was all he could do to keep his mouth shut tight so the cry of agony would not burst from his lips as it so yearned to do. He narrowed his eyes, gripping the Sathmoran blade tightly, even as it pulsed against his palm, sending ripples of perspiration rolling across his skin.
And then Czestadt touched the blade.
For a single moment, all of the throbbing ceased and both Nemgas and he were able to think clearly again. And then, from deep below, something seethed and hissed like cold water thrown upon hot steel. Nemgas felt the ostinato rhythm begin again in his mind, but this time, it felt like a wall surrounding him instead of a drum beat against his skull. This time, it was reassuring.
Czestadt let go of the blade and collapsed against the wall, his mouth open wide and his flesh trembling again. Petriz stepped forward and helped him back to his feet. Czestadt gripped Petriz’s shoulder firmly, his eyes staring for a moment around, as if seeing the passage for the first time. The blood stopped flowing from his wound, and all his skin began to still. He took several long breaths, and then lowered his head. “Thank you.”
“Knight Templar?” Sir Petriz asked in a quiet voice. “Are you well?”
Czestadt nodded slowly, closing his eyes and catching his breath. “Yes, I am.” He drew himself up and extended his hand in friendship towards Nemgas. “I was wrong to hunt you. You are right, Jothay is evil. I could do nothing before because of... because of what Jothay possesses. It held my mind like a vise. But I am ready to make them both pay for it.”
Nemgas nodded, sheathed the Sathmoran blade and shook Czestadt’s hand. The soft thrumming seemed to resound around them. The other Magyars stared in confusion. It was time they understood. “Let us speak in the tongue of Galendor,” Nemgas replied, “We hath little time, and must know what awaits us below.”
“Why woudlst thou touch that man!” Gelel said, his eyes alight with unsatiated thirst. “Why wouldst thee e’er forgive him? How couldst thee?” For a moment, the young Magyar’s voice choked with the remembered agony of seeing his lifelong friend Hanalko pushed over the side of a cliff by the Driheli.
“Whether or not me you forgive, no time we to argue have,” Czestadt replied in the tongue the Magyars knew. His voice was empty, almost resigned. “Jothay for us will not wait.”
Nemgas grimaced but slowly nodded. “Czestadt doth speak the truth. We can debate forgiveness with him when this hast been achieved. For now, we must hurry to the altar.”
Gelel looked like he wished to say more. Nemgas narrowed his eyes and asked, “Dost thee wish to remain behind?”
“Nay!” Gelel hissed in horror at the suggestion. “I wilt fight. I wilt do as thee asks, Nemgas.”
“Good, then thou wilt put thy anger behind thee for now.” Nemgas turned back to the Driheli. “How much further must we journey?”
“A few more minutes of walking before the altar remains,” Czestadt replied. He was slowly regaining his composure. “There Jothay is, and also Zagrosek is.”
“Zagrosek?” Nemgas asked, feeling his heart beat in sudden excitement. “The Sondecki who slew Patriarch Akabaieth.”
“Be wary,” Nemgas said. A flash of Kashin’s memory came to him, of that assassin flinging shadow at the two Yeshuel. It had cost Kashin his arm, and Iosef his life. “For Zagrosek canst control the very shadows. He shouldst ne’er be allowed to enter any.”
“He won’t.” All their eyes turned on the black robed Questioner. His dark eyes held both a measure of fear, but also of defiance. “There will be no shadow.”
“How?” Nemgas asked him, eyeing the priest curiously.
Akaleth seemed to flinch. He licked his lips and nodded, but not to any of them. It was as if he were talking to himself. “There will be no shadow. Trust me. That is not what you should worry about. Instead, we should worry about the Blood Bound.”
“The Blood Bound?” Gamran asked as he nimbly spun one of his knives between his fingers. “What be they?”
“They were once men,” Akaleth replied, his countenance once more the grim mask of the Questioner. “Somehow, Jothay uses the blade of Yajakali to turn them into his slaves. I saw at least a dozen or more of them when I was held captive. They are not men anymore. Kill them and you will release their souls from torment. You will be doing Eli’s will and He will reward you in Heaven for it.”
“Did thou see these Blood Bound?” Nemgas asked the Driheli knight.
“Aye,” Czestadt replied. “Foul beings they are. Around them comfortable I never felt.”
Nemgas sucked in his breath and then looked over his fellow Magyars. “I want thee to kill the Blood Bound. Leave not a one of them alive. Jothay must be stopped, and I wilt do it.”
“To me Zagrosek leave,” Czestadt said with a dangerous edge to his voice. “Sondeckis killed I have.”
Nemgas frowned but nodded. “Very well. We must go. We hath no more time to waste.”
The Driheli pointed over his shoulder. “Me follow.”
“Show the way,” Nemgas ordered, and the Driheli knight nodded. He turned down the passage, which led to another staircase descending further beneath the city. Nemgas stayed close to Czestadt, and right behind him Berkon kept his finger on his bowstring. He wanted to believe that the knight had changed sides, but it would take more than words to convince him of that. A quick sidelong glance at Berkon showed him that his fellow Magyar felt the same way.
The staircase was short and led into a round room with exits in every direction. Czestadt did not hesitate but walked straight to the one just a little to the left. It led to another descending staircase. He held up one hand and turned back to face them. “Jothay me expects. In first I should go.”
“Nay,” Nemgas replied. “I wilt go in beside thee.”
Czestadt frowned but could only nod. “Your weapons draw. At the bottom of this stair Jothay waits.”
The others did as he suggested. Some of the Magyars swallowed heavily, each of them ready to finally bring an end to the madness that had swept them up. In his mind Nemgas could feel the ostinato intensify. It was a familiar cacophony, one that he had not heard echo so strongly inside of him in a very long time. As he started down the last steps before the altar, he could not help but feel as if he were climbing Mount Cenziga again. That mysterious mount that should not be in the midst of the Flatlands occupied his thoughts. Was it like his dream in the desert? Would he watch his friends all be slaughtered by whatever evil laid waiting below?
The rhythm beat louder, and he could no longer hear the sound of his own heart or his own breath. All he could do was take each step one at a time, as quietly as possible. On either leg, the two swords he bore pounded in that same rhythm, as if called to life by the refrain in his mind. Nemgas gripped his axe more tightly. He would cleave Jothay’s head in half with this.
And then, before he quite realized it, they reached the bottom of the staircase and passed into a large domed room. Along the circular walls stood nine pillars that bent along the ceiling until they met in the centre. Engraved in black basalt in each pillar was a strange symbol, each growing more convoluted than the last. Lines of fulgurite led from each pillar through the floor towards a black altar before which stood Jothay. His arms were upraised and he was singing in a voice that did not carry beyond the doorway. Standing before each pillar was a trio of red cloaked figures, their faces hidden beneath their cowls. To one side watched the black-clad Sondecki. His face was empty of expression and his hands were tucked into his sleeves.
Jothay lowered his arms and then turned about. In his right hand he gripped the pommel of a great golden sword. Nemgas felt sick to his stomach as he saw that blade, and he felt as if the metal were trying to wedge itself into his mind. He lifted the axe before him and began to walk towards the Bishop.
Jothay’s eyes were livid, and there was nothing but hatred within them. His nostrils flared and he slowly lifted the blade, levelling the tip towards Czestadt. “You betrayed me you worm. I will sacrifice you instead. Come and kiss this blade, you necrophagous maggot. And you, Zagrosek, when this is all over I’m going to feast on your entrails on general principles!” He lifted his left arm to his face and hungrily buried his teeth into his forearm. Blood spurted from the wound, coating his face. His insane eyes burned lividly through the mask of red. Jothay’s left arm fell limply to his side, the blood streaming down his chin and over his alb.
“Kill them all,” Jothay ordered, lifting the sword over his head. “You’ll feast well tonight!”
The robed figures leaped from each pillar, converging rapidly on the Magyars. Nemgas stood defensively, while Czestadt began to advance upon Zagrosek. The Sondecki watched everything with a detached unconcern. He didn’t even reach for a weapon, but let the Blood Bound surge past him towards the interlopers. He stepped back into a long shadow that occupied that half of the chamber.
“Akaleth,” Nemgas snapped, “He hast gone into shadow!”
The Questioner stepped into their midst and spread forth his arms. “Lux!” he cried, his voice ragged and agonized. Suddenly, a surge of energy seemed to come from the priest, and the entire room was bathed in warm brilliance. The light came from every corner of the chamber, eradicating every single shadow. They could not even cast their own. Nemgas, the Magyars, and the two knights all blinked at the sudden light.
Petriz gaped openly at the Questioner, but then drew his knives and cried out in righteous fury. “For the Driheli!!” He drove one knife into the face of a Blood Bound that had been stunned by the light. It struck with a sickening crunch, and a burbling cry, like gas bubbling up from a swamp. The creature then wrapped its arms around Sir Petriz’s, and tried to claw at his forearm. Kaspel sent an arrow through its head knocking it back. It fell to the ground, the dagger still rooted to its skull. A second later, it got back up again.
“Quick, while they art distracted!” Nemgas shouted, pointing at the Sondecki who for the first time looked alarmed. Czestadt nodded and drew his sword. He spun in a circle and chopped the nearest Blood Bound in half as he raced towards the Sondecki. Nemgas turned back on Jothay and charged.
Jothay giggled hysterically, and one-handed swung the golden blade to meet Nemgas’s axe. Nemgas did not even feel the impact of the blow, for the Yajakali sword clove his axe through completely. The severed top half spun away, and the bottom half glowed hot from the cut. Nemgas stared at it in horror, and then up at the insane Bishop.
“Oh, it is such a lovely blade. It will cut through anything, even silly Yeshuel. Come here pretty Yeshuel!” Jothay swung the sword in a wide arc but Nemgas ducked and darted backwards, the blade tip missing him by inches. He fumbled at his side for one of his swords, but before he could pull one free, Jothay swung again. He scrambled backwards on hands and feet until he could get up again. Jothay was running after him now, grinning. With blood covering his flabby cheeks and teeth, he appeared as nothing so much as a demon.
Unable to grab his swords, Nemgas did the only thing he could. He ran.
The alarm in Zagrosek’s face passed as he waited for the knight to approach. Czestadt gripped one sword in hand, his focus firmly upon this evil man. In his own tongue he spat, “Sondecki! Assassin! You are the one who slew Patriarch Akabaieth, are you not?”
Zagrosek nodded slowly. “It is as you say.” His hands were still immersed in his sleeves. He made no move towards the Driheli. “I killed him.”
Czestadt reached out with his mind and snatched two swords from the hands of startled Blood Bound. They hovered in the air next to him, their points aimed directly for Zagrosek’s chest. The Sondecki noted them but still did not move. “I am here now, and you will die.”
A slow smile crept over the man’s lips. “I have heard those words before. Yet here I stand. What makes you think you will have any better luck than the Kankoran Battle Mage I defeated not long ago?”
Czestadt held his blade before him and whispered certainly, his confidence for the first time in months restored, “No blade can kill me.”
“That is good,” Zagrosek replied. “Because I do not use a blade.” Czestadt drove both swords through the air directly at the man’s unprotected chest. Zagrosek drew his arms out of his sleeves, and flicked open a Sondeshike. With a quick twirl and a dance to the side, he sent both swords spinning away.
Czestadt lunged and met that staff, laughing in delight. It had been a long time since he’d killed a Sondecki. This he would enjoy.
The Blood Bound converged on the cluster of Magyars as they shielded Akaleth who stood in their midst with his arms outstretched. Chamag used his axe to chop them to pieces, but every limb he severed continued to crawl towards them. Several times he and the other Magyars had to stomp on a clutching hand to shake it free from their ankles. While they were distracted, those Blood Bound still whole swung for their faces and chests. It was all they could do to keep those filthy creatures from touching them.
“What foul magic be this?” Pelgan snarled as he drove his daggers into the empty sockets of one, and then kicked its chest. The creature sprawled backwards, only to stagger to its feet a second later. Beside him Amile slashed one of the creatures in the neck and then jumped into the air. Her leg swung around and sent the creature’s head flying like a ball across the room. It rolled away and bounced against the distant wall. But the thing still tried to clutch at her with its arms.
“Just keep chopping!” Chamag shouted while driving his axe through one of the monstrosity’s chest. It fell in half, but not before Chamag drove the axe into each half another time. The fingers twitched, and the legs tried to stand, but they couldn’t manage either.
Sir Petriz was with them and he too was busy chopping and slashing. Under his breath he muttered Ecclesia prayers, his face beaded with sweat and his face white with fear. They all felt that same fear, even if they did not choose to pray to their gods. Magyars always got through the world by their own wits. To survive this night, they’d have to do the same.
“Look!” Gamran shouted as he gutted one of the monsters with a quick twist of his dagger. “Nemgas be in danger!”
“Berkon, quick!” Amile shouted, pointing with one finger at their fellow Magyar running form Jothay. “Shoot!”
The archer nodded and dropped his knife behind him, backing up a step to get a clear shot. He drew the string taut to his ear, shifted the point back and forth to find the way through the mass of lifeless corpses that threatened them. He let go a moment before bloodless desiccated hands grabbed his pants legs and yanked him off his feet.
“Help!” he screamed, as claws dug into his fabric, and hideous faces bent over his chest, mouths agape to tear him to pieces. Amile and Pelgan both jumped to his side, slashing as hard as they could with their daggers, while Gamran and Kaspel grabbed his arms and pulled. Chamag, Gelel and Petriz fell in behind them to cover them, and even Akaleth kicked a couple with his feet.
“Let go!” Amile cried as she drove her dagger repeatedly into the skull and shoulder of one that had sunken its teeth into Berkon’s leg. Berkon was crying in agony and frantically kicking his legs. Blood began to flow and smear the floor. The Blood Bound let out a wordless howl of pleasure as that crimson fluid fell upon its tongue.
Pelgan grabbed the being around the neck with one arm and flung it backwards against the two right behind him. They let go in shock, and the Magyars yanked hard, dragging Berkon backwards in their midst. “Akaleth, tend him!” Pelgan shouted before giving another of the foul beasts a kick to the head. He slashed with his knife while the other Magyars helped him fill the hole they’d made in their line.
Jothay swung the blade back and forth like a child with a wooden stick. He possessed no training with the weapon, and was far clumsier than many of the greenest teenage soldiers that Nemgas could ever recall seeing. Any Magyar who had demonstrated such a poor facility with a weapon would have been confined to the wagons with the old women lest any see him and mock the Magyars for having such a foolish mongrel amongst their troupe.
But Jothay didn’t need to be good with the weapon. Anything that Nemgas grabbed to fling in his way was immediately shorn in two with a single swipe of the sword. And there was not much to grab. He’d even shoved one of the Blood Bound who had tried to get in his way into that blade. The pitiful creature had been split asunder, only to have either half crumble to dust from that golden blade’s withering touch.
Nemgas never had a single moment to grab at his swords as they bounced against his hips. Jothay ran after him like a man possessed. That blade whisked mere inches from his back, and it nipped at his heels like an angry dog. And there was not much room to run anywhere. Just as soon as he picked up speed, he had to slow and turn to avoid running into a wall or one of the Blood Bound.
The sound of a sharp twang led Nemgas to pause a moment and glance back at the Bishop. His demented face quickly changed to one of surprise as from his neck blossomed a black arrowhead. He gasped and gurgled more blood as he lifted his wounded arm to fumble around at the shaft. Eyes contorted in anger as the fingers brushed across the metal tip. Nemgas grinned and took a few steps back, hands resting upon the sword hilts at either side. Without any further hesitation he drew them.
Jothay snarled and blood continued to flow from his lips, spilling across his white garments. The fingers curled around the arrow point and began to yank it through the rest of the way. He held the golden sword upright, blood trailing down his arm and across the metal, only to disappear into the blade’s surface. It took Jothay three tugs to pull the arrow free from his neck. Nemgas could only stare in horror as this man who should clearly be dead glanced down at the arrow in his hands, laughed, and then casually tossed it aside.
Nemgas lifted Caur-Merripen before him in his right hand. He clutched the Jewelled blade in his left. Step by step, he advanced on this thing that stared with eyes of hate through a fog of madness. Jothay slowly began to shake his head, waving Yajakali’s sword back and forth in his good arm. “Silly Yeshuel. No blade can stop Yajakali. He’s going to kill you now.”
Jothay swung in a heavy arc, meant to cleave Nemgas in two from top to bottom. He lifted Caur-Merripen to deflect the blow. His eyes watched as the golden blade descended, time itself seeming to catch its breath. Nemgas’s heart paused as the very air hissed. And then he felt the impact reverberate through his arm, and heard the metal squeal in hideous rage. The great black and silver blade Caur-Merripen held.
Jothay blinked in confusion, obviously very surprised that Yajakali’s sword could not cut through Nemgas’s blade. His eyes became furious and he hammered again and again at Nemgas. But the blade did not give and would not break. Nemgas tried to push back, but Jothay’s blows were still too strong. Slowly, he began to back up, feeling horrible heat every time the blades struck. The air would sizzle and the metal cry out in fury.
He smiled as Jothay’s robes stained red, his head sinking against his neck like melting candle wax. Nemgas swung hard as he stepped back, meeting each and every blow. All he needed was an opening. Just one. But those fiery eyes gave him no quarter, and Yajakali’s sword seemed to interpose itself between every part of Jothay’s body and Nemgas’s two swords.
Unable to do more, Nemgas did his best to hold his ground and wait for the next opportunity to strike.
Czestadt swung hard, and pushed the Sondekci back a pace with the force of his blow. Zagrosek spun his Sondeshike in his hands quickly, the ends of the battle staff a blur of light. The two swords he held in the air drove in from the back, but the black-clad warrior spun on his heels, and with one crack of the staff, sent both swords careening wildly away.
And so it continued, both men beating at the other, each striking hard blows to knock the other back a few paces, only to find themselves driven back a moment later. Czestadt could feel his skin pulsing with strain as he strove to find some opening in this man’s defence. Zagrosek was also sweating, his black hair plastered to the top of his head as if it were a fungal growth from his skin. Small cuts dotted his sides and arms and even one on his cheek, but they were small and did not seem to bother him. Czestadt felt a few bruises along his arms where the Sondeshike briefly grazed his leather greaves.
It had been a long time since the Volka wei Stuth had been in such an even fight. Not even the Magyar who called himself Nemgas had been as skilled as this. But this time, there would be no phantom blade to strike him low. This time, Czestadt would never think himself the victor until his sword sprouted from the back of Zagrosek’s skull.
Zagrosek danced to one side, dropping low beneath a swipe from one of the two airborne swords. He twirled The Sondeshike around the outside of one of the blades, and Czestadt angled it in for a crippling blow against the Sondecki’s sternum. But Zagrosek, managed to briefly let go of his staff and smack the bottom of the blade between his wrists. Czestadt grunted as he felt his mental connection with the blade disappear while the sword shattered into rusted fragments.
An unfortunate side-effect of his control, it inevitably destroyed any sword he used that way. Czestadt lunged with the blade he carried, sliding it beneath the edge of the luminous disk of force the Sondeshike created with its twirling. But Zagrosek regained his grip impossibly fast. Czestadt had to jump backwards to avoid the ferrules that nearly smacked him beneath his chin. It was not a total loss, for even as the knight darted backwards, he managed to draw the side of his blade across the assassin’s leg. Blood welled there and began to stain his robes.
Zagrosek grunted, but spun the Sondeshike behind him to stop the other sword from striking his back. He then jumped high and kicked with his good leg at the knight’s shoulder. Czestadt turned from the blow but it still landed, spinning him around. The room flashed around him so quickly, but his eyes noted every detail. Upon one side the Blood Bound were falling slowly to the determined heroism of Sir Petriz and the Magyars. The Questioner Akaleth knelt over one of them his hands pressing against the man’s chest, blood gurgling up between his sun-darkened fingers. Nemgas and Jothay were trading sword blows, with the Yeshuel turned Magyar obviously losing to a man who should already be dead.
When he came back around he had only enough time to raise his sword to block the blow to his head. Zagrosek then turned the other part of the staff down, moving so quickly that Czestadt couldn’t block in time. He tried instead to send the air-held sword through the Sondecki’s unprotected back.
A resounding crack accompanied the shattering of his upper leg bone. Czestadt grunted and smacked his blade forward. Zagrosek spun and sent the sword behind him scattering away. He then came back and struck the knight just below his other knee. Czestadt could do nothing else but buckle, falling to his knees and lifting his sword to stop the next blow. Zagrosek’s face lit up with fiendish delight, his smile exultant, like a demon claiming the soul of a damned man.
He drove the Sondeshike down with such force that Czestadt felt his whole arm shake. He clenched his teeth tight, not willing to show this man any of the pain he felt. His whole body ached, his shoulder screamed in agony from the kick it suffered only a second ago. Both his legs writhed from wounds that they knew he could not magically heal himself from. Zagrosek had been right; these were not sword wounds and he would die from them all very soon.
With his next blow, Zagrosek knocked the sword from Czestadt’s hand. The Sondeshike lifted up once more, but the knight could not even gather the energy he needed to command either of his two blades to defend him. He stared at his killer with defiance. He was Kankoran. He was Driheli. He would die without shame, and with his honour intact. He waited but a trembling of his heart for the death blow to begin its descent.
And then blood splashed into his eyes and a strangled cry escaped the Sondecki’s throat as the point of a dagger blossomed from his belly.
Sir Petriz grinned as he managed to slice the Blood Bound before him into several smaller pieces. The limbs would still try to attack, but a few well-placed kicks were all it took to spare them for the moment.
Slowly, piece by hacking piece, he and the Magyars were gaining the upper hand over these nauseating zombies. Behind him he could hear Akaleth’s softly spoken prayers as he tried to stop Berkon’s bleeding. The Magyar archer was trembling feverishly, but he didn’t sound as if he was slipping away at least. That was good. Though he still resented being taken captive by the nomads, he had no hate for them. They were his friends too now.
Another of the Blood Bound rose to take its companion’s place. Petriz stabbed it in the side of the neck, easily dodging the swipe of its skeletal hands. He twisted the blade even as he drove his other through the creature’s midsection. With a garbled cry, the head fell to one side, dangling limply over a shoulder. The mouth and tongue continued to move, trying to cry out some wordless scream.
Petriz lifted one foot and kicked the creature back, slicing his dagger the other way. The creature toppled in half, legs and arms flailing helplessly as it landed on its own half-severed head. The smile on his lips died though as he saw what transpired behind it. There, his knight, Sir Czestadt, the one who had taken him as a squire from out of a sea of faces and rescued him from a lowly potter’s life, had just been crippled by the black-clad Sondecki. He saw the Sondeshike go down on his mentor’s leg and destroy the bone.
He could not wait to watch anymore. Zagrosek had his back to Petriz. He turned the dagger in his hand and threw with all his might, praying to Eli that his aim was sure. The dagger turned end over end, even as the Sondecki brought his staff against Czestadt’s other leg. Twice more he drove his weapon against his mentor’s sword. The second time Czestadt’s blade went spinning away, leaving him defenceless. Petriz felt his heart hold still, his breath caught in his chest as his dagger drew near, near, and nearer to that man’s back.
Zagrosek lifted the Sondeshike for the final blow, all of time pausing to watch this one moment to see which would land first. No sound came to his ears but for the whistling of that blade through the air, and the whoosh of the Sondeshike as it stared down to kill his father amongst knights. Petriz prayed again, his hand reaching after the dagger as if to guide it home.
And then, Zagrosek arched his back, the dagger piercing through his cloak up to the hilt. Time suddenly slammed into Petriz and he felt an agony in his chest as he sucked in his next breath. The Sondeckis fell backwards, one hand gripping the Sondeshike tightly, the other trying to reach back and pull out the dagger.
“Czestadt!” Petriz cried, rushing towards his mentor. He leapt over the fallen Blood Bound, even as Czestadt held out his arms, eyes burning with the scent of triumph. The two swords flew into the air, their points aiming at the struggling Sondeckis.
“No!” Zagrosek shouted, his eyes wild. He looked around frantically, and then dived to the ground, pulling his cloak over his body. Every bit of him was covered and protected from the light that somehow the priest Akaleth had summoned.
Petriz ran as fast as he could, but the two swords were faster, sailing like bolts of lightning through the air to pierce through the cloak so forcefully that it tore the fabric in two. But there was nothing at all beneath the cloak but the dagger and a smear of blood.
“Damn it!” Petriz swore. Somehow, he knew that the Sondecki had found a way to make a shadow for himself. He didn’t understand it, but he knew the man was gone. He fumed but wasted no time in rushing the rest of the way to check on his knight. “Sir Czestadt! Are you all right?”
Czestadt lifted one hand as he struggled to hide the pain he felt. “I’ll live. Thank you, Sir Petriz.. Now go help Nemgas. I’ll be fine here.”
Petriz nodded and smiled fondly at his master. It felt so good to be fighting side by side with him again. All that time in the Inn’s cellar he had been forced to wonder if Czestadt was really so willing to follow an evil man. Now all his doubts were erased.
He picked up his dagger from the ground and then turned to look for Jothay and Nemgas. But just as his eyes scanned past the empty altar, a titanic detonation sounded in his mind, and a force of air knocked him to the ground. Something reverberated in his mind, something that sounded vaguely like a name roared from the top of a mountain by a dragon. For a brief instant, nothing else existed but that undying paean.
The pounding in his mind grew stronger with each clash of swords. Jothay was giggling and spitting blood with each swing of the Underworld blade, He did not seem to care that Nemgas could deflect those blows with either Caur-Merripen or the Sathmoran blade that had once slain Patriarch Akabaieth. Nemgas wished he could do more than push the Bishop back a few paces with his own attacks. Some evil power gave strength to Jothay, a strength he could never hope to match.
At some point they had migrated their fight to the far side of the altar. The stone table stood between them and the Magyars. Nemgas did his best to keep Jothay from pinning him against it, but every time he turned, he found his back to that loathsome slab. Perhaps there was a way he could use it to his advantage? He began to ponder several ideas as he kept that golden blade at bay. But there was a subtle change in Jothay’s expression that sent a shiver up his spine and ended all such wondering.
He was beginning to smile again.
Nemgas danced back a bit, trying to turn away from the altar when he felt something grip him tightly around the ankle. Instinctively, he glanced downwards, his eyes straining from the sudden drumbeat that yearned to scape his skull. Wrapped about his foot was the severed forearm of a Blood Bound. Its lifeless fingers dug into his heel, darkened nails trying to tear through his soft Magyar’s boot.
Nemgas snarled and jumped on his left foot while giving it a kick with his right. The arm let go and sailed through the air to land with a muffled whump a good twenty feet away. His attention returned only a moment too late to see Jothay’s blood-red eyes blazing with hate. The sword of Yajakali drove downwards for his head.
The whole world then came to a pause. Nemgas was no longer in control of his body. That strange rhythm – the one that he had heard before a long time ago on that mountain that should not be – it was that rhythm that guided his feet. His arms stretched out, swords held tightly in either hand, as his feet moved one step to the left. Nemgas watched as the golden blade slipped past his head, the drumbeat building rapidly in an overwhelming crescendo.
And then, as the blade connected with his right arm, a brilliant light erupted from the wound, coruscating in a blue haze like a million shattered mirrors thrown into a still, clear lake. Nemgas felt the edge of the blade like a spike in his mind, driving it into two. All the world drew taut like string, and then snapped, in one final exclamation of that pervasive ostinato. A name he had not heard trumpeted in a long time sounded, its ululation final and exultant.
The light was gone and he was laying on his back. Jothay had been blown against the far pillar and was struggling to his feet, the golden blade still clutched in his right hand. Nemgas turned and stared at his right arm. It had been shorn through just above the elbow. Like before, before he’d been to the mountain. Only then, it had been his left. No, Kashin’s left that had been a stump.
He let his eyes trail further to his right. Sitting in stupefication and wearing the black tunic and breeches of one in mourning was a very familiar man. His left arm was a stump just above the elbow. In his right hand he clutched the jewelled Sathmoran blade. His black hair was marred by a single lock of white which even then dangled before his eyes.
Nemgas’s mirror stared back at him, his mouth opening into a strange sort of smile. “Nemgas,” he said, and he knew it immediately.
“Kashin,” Nemgas replied, staring at the man whose memories he had carried ever since the mountain. In his left hand was the jewelled blade’s duplicate, and he lifted it firmly. Behind him somewhere lay Caur-Merripen, waiting for another to claim it. There was no time to ponder what had just happened, for Jothay would give them none.
“It is over, Jothay,” Kashin said, his voice steady. He pointed the Sathmoran blade at the Bishop. “You cannot expect to defeat us both.”
“You were...” Jothay spluttered, his fury mingled by what sounded for the first time like fear. “You went... you...” His face screwed up in rage, and he opened his mouth in a feral scream. “Die!!!” He rushed for them, Magyar and Yeshuel, Yajakali’s blade swinging effortlessly back and forth as he charged.
Nemgas and Kashin both danced to the side and spiralled around the demented Bishop. Jothay met their blades so quickly that they were sure his arm must have been dislocated. He spun the golden blade over his head and continued to scream. Blood flecked from his lips, but it spun through the air until it found its way onto the golden blade’s surface. The blade hissed as it drank the blood.
They saw Sir Petriz rush towards them. The knight sheathed his daggers and bent down to grab Caur-Merripen where it had fallen. The black and silver sword effortlessly lifted into his grasp, and reflected the warm radiance that Akaleth had given them. He stalked Jothay from behind, and then lunged.
Jothay could not have seen Petriz’s approach, but Yajakali’s blade did. It yanked Jothay’s arm back over his head to halt the blow, and then twisted, forcing Petriz to drop Caur-Merripen or lose his hand. The knight jumped backwards, shouting a foul curse.
Nemgas swung his left arm, and Kashin his right. Their missing limbs did not feel peculiar. In some sense, they had been born without them and had always been meant to live that way. Though their minds were split, they acted in concert, each of their blades aiming for a different part of Jothay’s chest.
But Jothay brought his arm back over his head, and smacked down their blow. Kashin anticipated this, and withdrew his blade quickly before thrusting it forward again. Their hilts locked Yajakali’s sword between them, and the Bishop’s scream grew so shrill their ears began to hurt. He tugged and shoved the blade from side to side, but he could not escape the prison they had made for it.
Petriz leapt forward, wrapping his arm around Jothay’s throat, and tugged him backwards. Jothay tried to reach over his shoulder with his broken left arm, but Petriz pulled away. He turned his head to one side when he bumped his leg against the altar. The knight, sweat covering his brow and the Bishop’s blood soaking his tunic, rolled to one side. In that moment, Nemgas and Kashin slipped free their blades.
Jothay rolled onto the altar, Yajakali’s blade sliding out from beneath him. Nemgas drove the Sathmoran blade into the Bishop’s gullet, piercing the very stone with a hard crack. Jothay fell back, cracking his head on the granite. His right arm then spun in a circle, and all three of them fell back, as the golden blade began to whistle in the air.
“You bastards think you’ve won,” Jothay spluttered, blood gushing from his lips. “Idiots! Fools! You cannot defeat Yajakali!” Something came over his eyes, even as he lifted Yajakali’s blade high. The tip began to bend downwards. Jothay kept the hilt pointed directly up, but the blade’s tip had turned, like an eel, and it was pulling straight down towards the altar. None of them could move as they watched. Jothay’s eyes were wild, beseeching. “Eli! Please! No! No!!”
His hand faltered, and the blade thundered into his flesh. The stone altar cracked with a thunderclap, and Jothay’s body buckled under the blow, his ribcage shattering. Dead eyes rolled back in his head, and the body began to shrivel moments later. The Sathmoran blade was flung out of the altar and scattered across the floor. The concussion sent Kashin, Nemgas, and Petriz to the ground.
“What the?” Nemgas said as he climbed to his feet, the jewelled blade once more in hand. He stared at the altar. Jothay’s body was but a husk, all of his flesh sucked into the tiny bit of metal left visible above the altar’s surface. The nine-sided hilt and the barest whisper of blade was all that they could see, the rest had imbedded itself in the stone.
The Blood Bound let out a hideous wail, and then their bodies turned to dust, a cold wind gathering that dust and drawing it also towards the sword. The Magyars stood confused as their enemies disappeared in front of them.
“Get back over here!” Akaleth shouted. The Questioner stood up, his face white. “It is not over. I can feel something coming.”
Petriz rushed to assist Czestadt, while Kaspel, Gelel and Gamran hoisted Berkon to take him to safety. Nemgas and Kashin rushed to the Magyar’s side, and watched as the dust collected before the sword. It began to collect together, laying atop all that remained of Jothay. Something black seemed to be giving it form. And it all slithered up out of the crack in the altar.
“‘Tis something worse,” Pelgan said, wiping a bit of blood from his cheek. He held his knives tight. “What dost come?”
Akaleth opened his mouth to speak, but he shut it just as quicky. His eyes were locked upon the vaguely humanoid thing that was crawling up from the golden sword. It stood four feet tall, black as night, with lanky arms and legs. Its skeletal frame was topped by a narrow head whose only feature seemed to be a gaping wide mouth. It opened those lips and shrieked.
All but Akaleth clapped their hands over their ears at that sound. The Questioner stared in horror at the creature, even as all the light in the room began to fade. Akaleth swallowed tightly, his mind rocked by that horrible scream. It was even worse than anything he had seen yet. His mind was filled with memories of Bishop Morean having his life sucked into that sword. And then there was his father lifting high the whip to score Akaleth’s back. And Akaleth returning the favour years later. His father’s smug countenance was there – unrepentant and unforgiving.
And then there was this thing, standing atop the altar like the demon lord himself come to claim their souls. This vile thing, this Shrieker, raised its arms, legs bunching to strike. All the light in the chamber continued to go out, absorbed by this nefarious being.
It had long been a curse to him, something that Akaleth could do but did not dare admit. His father had whipped him for it, and he’d become convinced that it was just one more way in which Eli tested his faith. Yet he had used it to escape from bondage, blinding Zagrosek with a trick of his mirror. And he had used it again to cripple that same man, though Zagrosek had made his own shadow to escape. And now, here was the third miracle. The third time when Eli had presented him with only one choice.
Maybe it had not been a curse after all.
Akaleth held out his hands, pouring what energy he had in to them. “Go back to darkness!” he shouted, as light erupted from his finger tips. Bright rays struck the black thing, and it howled in fury as it tried to push its way past the altar. Akaleth strained, forcing more and more energy into that white stream. The light was blinding, but he could see that dark silhouette still struggling to push back.
His knees were weakening, and his whole body crying out in agony. He strove to drive the brilliance to shame the sun, forcing each beat of his heart to give into that flow. His hands burned with the energy that left his finger tips, and he felt certain his skin was on fire. Yet still the beast shrieked its deafening cry.
“By Eli, you will go back!” Akaleth shouted. He strained as the light held that creature in place. He lifted one foot, and took a step forward. It took him a full ten seconds, but he managed. He felt what he thought was Nemgas at his back, helping him along. His mirror image joined him on the other side, and Akaleth pushed forward, the light straining and bending around that black hole of being.
Akaleth stretched, his voice barely audible over that thing’s shrieks, “In Yahshua’s name! Begone!” He thrust his arms forward, taking step by step with those two men at his back to hold him up. The creature faltered, and its cry grew less. The light boiled across its simmering flesh. Akaleth felt the agony in his arms relent, but he did not. He made more and more light, as much as his spirit was able. Every time he thought he had exhausted what reservoir he possessed, he found that he still had more.
“Begone!” Akaleth shouted, now only a couple of steps from the altar. The creature rumpled, bending back over the sword. And then, with one last hideous wail, it vanished entirely. Akaleth spread his arms, bringing the chamber back into warm illumination. Apart from them, and a few of his old things still collected in one corner, the place was empty. Before him was the altar with demonic sword embedded. All was quiet.
“What that was?” Petriz asked as he carried Czestadt on his shoulder. His eyes were wide with fright.
Akaleth looked down at his hands, but found no burning flesh. In fact, his skin seemed free of several blemishes and blisters he’d suffered over the years. With a bemused smile, he turned back to the knight and shook his head. “I don’t know. But it is gone now.” He turned to the twins. “I do not know what has happened with you, but you know better than any of us, what is to be done with the sword?”
The one that was missing his left arm opened his mouth to speak when the whole room began to shake. Dust rained down on them from above, and a horrid grinding noise erupted all around. Akaleth and a few of the Magyars stumbled on their feet.
“The door!” Gamran shouted from the stairs beyond. “‘Tis closing!!”
They turned and saw that the stairwell seemed to be sliding upwards against the chamber. The Magyars rushed to get through. Chamag paused long enough to help Sir Petriz pass the injured Czestadt through. “No time for it now!” the right-armed twin said. “Run!” He pushed at Akaleth’s back, and the trio of them made for the rapidly diminishing doorway.
Akaleth cast one glance over at the pile of belongings that for many long years he had carried with him. Chief of all that he sought was the whip. It lay in a small bundle, and he could almost hear the comforting weapon ask him to snatch it up before it was too late. His hand lifted, arm stretching out to claim what had for so long had a home between his fingers.
“Akaleth!” the left-handed Nemgas shouted. The moment was broken, and the Questioner scrambled up into the opening. He pushed hard, one hand gripping the edge of his robe to keep it from being caught in the sliding of stone against stone. With one last kick of his feet, he slid upon the trembling stairs.
He turned his eyes back towards the altar. The hilt of the golden blade shimmered with malevolent radiance, and then it was eclipsed by the arch of the doorway pressing into the stone. The entire chamber was gone.
For several long seconds none of them spoke. They stared at the blank wall of clay before them, breaths ragged from the fight. Berkon was wheezing, but no longer sounded in danger of dying from his wound. The Driheli Templar made no sound at all.
It was Amile who finally spoke, her voice the barest of whispers. “What dost we do now?”
Akaleth turned back to the Steppeborn girl and then over the others, Magyar and knight alike. “We rest and recover. We’ll need to find Father Kehthaek and tell him what has happened. But first we need to see to our wounds and find a place to rest.” He rubbed at his arms. The whip he’d held all his life around his wrist was gone, but now that it was lost forever, he did not feel as naked as he thought he might.
“Tomorrow,” the Questioner continued, “tomorrow we will talk and ask questions. But first, there is one question I must ask. Who are you?” He looked at the men that bore a striking resemblance to the Magyar Nemgas. Each of them had only one arm.
“I hight Nemgas,” the left-armed man said, even as he slid the Sathmoran blade into its sheath.
“And I am Kashin,” the right-armed replied. “The explanation for what has happened between us tonight is far too complicated to explain now. Tomorrow when we are rested I will tell it, or Nemgas. He knows it as well as I.”
“Kashin?” Czestadt asked, grunting and sitting up where he lay. He looked to say more, but then closed his eyes again.
“I know a place where we will be safe for the night,” Kashin said, sheathing his sword too. “But we have many stairs still to climb. Chamag, Pelgan, Kaspel, Gelel, I trust you can manage with Berkon. Sir Petriz, Nemgas, and I will carry Czestadt. Gamran, Amile, Akaleth, keep an eye open for any other interlopers. Now let us hurry. I want to be out of this place.”
None argued with the Yeshuel. Step by step, they carried the two injured men up the stairs, and out of the catacombs. An hour of walk and many more of sleep stood between them and the answers they all sought. For Kashin and Nemgas, two men who had an hour before been one, the questions would never cease.
Quietly, the most unlikely of allies, Magyars, Driheli knights, a Questioner and a Yeshuel, made their way to the promised safe place. Slowly, the questions in their minds died away and all they sought was the comfort of a well-earned rest.
All else could wait for tomorrow.
Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue