Black Gate Online Fiction: “Vestments of Pestilence”
By John C. Hocking
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of John C. Hocking and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
It was almost midnight, my feet hurt, my robes were crusted with desert grit, and the guards wouldn’t let us into the city.
It’s never easy to enter the city of Frekore after dark, but even after I’d identified myself, and Lucella had rubbed the dirt off her insignia to prove she was an officer of the legion, the wiry old captain with bug-eyes kept the lot of us waiting in guard tower number 47.
We sat on cracked old benches by the light of a smoky torch and muttered weary complaints until the captain of the guard finally returned, blinked his bulging eyes at us, and told everyone in the party they could go. Everyone except Lucella and me.
“This is pointless,” I said.
“It’s not pointless,” said the guardsman. He pointed a long forefinger at his temple. “Do you think I’m mad?”
“Look,” I said, too tired to even be annoyed. “There’s no point in this. Haven’t we proven who we are?”
“You have,” he said, “and that is why you are to speak with this gentleman.” He gestured to the doorway that led into the tower’s inner chambers and, as a tall man came in through it, the old soldier left the same way, pulling the door shut behind him.
The newcomer was bareheaded and wore a long gray cloak of elegant design. He let it fall open as he approached and we saw he wore the cuirass of an officer in the royal guard of the house of Flavius. His hair was black and cropped close to his narrow skull, his face high cheek-boned and stern, with darkly probing eyes. He looked like someone well used to telling others what to do and I had the dismal feeling he was about to live up to his appearance.
He called us both by name, and when we agreed that we were ourselves, he stood before me and thrust a finger at my breast, as if I might become confused and forget whom he was addressing.
“You are the archivist sent on behalf of the Grand Archives to hunt Old Southron scrolls in the outback?”
“Yes, but I’ve only just returned. And since we lost our horses, we have been walking for six days, four days in the desert itself. I am exhausted and in dire need of a bath. The Archives will get a full report from me tomorrow.”
“We have need of you tonight.”
“We?” asked Lucella, the slightest edge in her voice. She passed a hand over her hair, which was tied back and dusty but still like tarnished gold.
“You’re the legionnaire who commanded the expedition and this citizen.” He gestured at me. “Both of you are now in my charge.”
“The hell you say,” I said with the sudden and ill-advised anger of one weary half to death. “Am I a horse that you can pass my reins to and fro? Who are you and why should I accompany you anywhere?”
“I am Sevron Glauco, and I serve the imperial house of Flavius.” His tone indicated that he found my unwillingness to do exactly what he wanted a nigh unendurable demonstration of arrogance. He flipped a corner of his gray cloak back over one shoulder to reveal a fine shortsword at his belt, and a purple velvet band about his upper right arm. This last was the sign of a messenger on personal business of the royal house. Wearing one without permission was punishable by slow evisceration.
“You are both to come with me,” he said with finality.
“All right,” I said, unable to think of further objections.
“As a soldier of the Legion, I ask the name of my commander,” said Lucella formally.
Sevron Glauco eyed her with apparent skepticism, taking in her even gaze and military bearing.
“Her highness, Eurythenia Flavius,” he said at last. “Yours is a high honor tonight, but you are hereby charged with secrecy on pain of death.”
“Understood,” said Lucella with a curt nod.
“All right,” I said again. There seemed little else to say.
Sevron Glauco paid me no heed. He turned with a swirl of his fine cloak, and we followed him out of guard tower 47 into the nighted city of Frekore, wondering where we were going and what a daughter of the Royal House wanted with two such as us.
The only thing moving in the streets was a warm, dry wind. Sevron Glauco stalked along silently, several paces ahead, his manner indicating plainly that he wished neither to walk beside nor converse with us. This was fine by me.
“Eurythenia Flavius?” I whispered to Lucella.
“What? You don’t know of her?” When Lucella smiled the effect was usually pleasing, but this time there was too much mockery in it. “Can it be that the archivist is uninformed about the royal family?”
“I’ve studied many things,” I began, then stopped, irritated by both her jibes and my own defensive tone. “Gossip about the royals bores me.”
We passed through streets lined with darkened shops and came into a neighborhood of once pleasant houses, now looking rather seedy and deserted. The warm wind rattled a shutter somewhere. Moonlight glimmered through the dust coating Lucella’s grey and gold armor.
“Eurythenia is the King’s third child and first daughter,” she said. “Generally low profile, but she had a falling out with old King Flavius a few weeks back. Some sort of argument with a brother that resulted in her being placed under house arrest.”
“Wait,” I said, “wait, we are going to see a princess of the blood who is currently under arrest?”
“Better still,” grinned Lucella, “her home is on the far side of Lake Sulla, all the way across the city. And, unless I miss my guess, we are going to meet her in that house right over there.”
Sevron Glauco turned up the walkway to an unlit mansion as if to prove her right. We followed because there was nothing else to do.
“She’s broken house arrest in defiance of the King,” I said softly.
“Yes,” said Lucella, sounding unaccountably cheerful, “which makes us her accomplices in treason.”
“Gods and demons,” I swore. “What is it with you?”
“The more time I spend with you, the worse trouble I find myself in.”
“Odd,” said Lucella, “I was just thinking the same thing about you.”
I raised a forefinger, pointed at my temple, and tried to bulge my eyes at her. “Do you think I’m mad?” I got to see her laugh.
We didn’t enter the house, but passed along a walkway beside it into an overgrown garden in the rear. Weeds thrust thickly between the flagstones of the path and shadows clustered in the humped undergrowth. Black vines wrapped a sagging trellis encircling a small courtyard. I could see several men lurking back in the darkness around the clearing’s rim, furtive shadows the moon couldn’t touch. A woman stood in the center of the courtyard, tall and imposing and silent. Sevron Glauco led us to her, then stepped away and seemed to fade from sight.
Eurythenia Flavius was taller than either Lucella or I, and stood as straight as a spear in her dark robes. Her hair was very short and shone silver in the moonlight. There were lines on her brow and around her mouth, but her eyes were sharply alert. They were focused on me.
“You returned at a most opportune time,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”
“I had little choice in the matter,” I heard myself say. “I’ve been on my feet for the better part of six days after fighting for my life in the desert, and the instant I return home I find myself ordered to your side and charged with secrecy on pain of death.”
“Well,” said Eurythenia Flavius slowly. Her voice was surprisingly deep. “That shouldn’t have been necessary.”
“How may we be of service, milady?” said Lucella, rather louder than necessary.
“Fine,” I said. “Lucella is of the Legion and sworn to the service of the city and its rulers. As a free citizen in theory I have some rights, and if I am expected to obey royalty, I should also expect better than threats and coercion from them.”
“Enough,” said Eurythenia Flavius, and I fell silent although she didn’t raise her voice. “I have need of your services tonight and I will have them. The legionnaire is bound to my house as you say. But you are in my debt.” She called me by my full name, which I hear but rarely.
“Aside from dwelling in the city ruled by your father, how am I in your debt?” Lucella was staring at me and I half expected her to give me a kick.
“You are familiar with the Ahdraston bequest?”
“The fund that supports the Great Archives of Frekore, finest archives in the Triad.”
“I am the Ahdraston bequest.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You two have acquired some small reputation of late.”
“We have?” I said. The fact that the woman before me was prime benefactor of the Archives had all but emptied my brain.
She smiled faintly, though it could not be heard in her level voice. “You two exposed Vettius Karabonde’s dealings in lethal joy potions and sent him fleeing to Anparar. You dealt with Astrid Taranova’s attempt to empower herself with Old Southron sorcery.”
This was accurate as far as it went, but hearing it spoken thus made the deeds sound well planned and executed instead of the awkward tangles of desperate confusion they were in truth.
“You,” she pointed at me, “have become known as something of an expert on the Old Southron civilization.”
I wanted to protest that not even the mesa people, modern descendants of the Old Southrons, knew very much about them, but I was finally at a loss for words.
“Tonight I need your expertise,” Eurythenia Flavius said, and stepped suddenly toward the garden’s gate. “Now come along. Let us make haste for there is much to do tonight.”
We moved into the street with her at the center of a cluster of six silent men including Sevron Glauco. The others wore dark armor, as much leather as steel, and moved with quiet precision. In her long dark robes, Eurythenia Flavius seemed to float along ahead of me, her silver hair burnished by the moon.
After a time I noticed that we had come into the slums fringing the university’s student housing. There was torchlight far down the street, and a gust of dry breeze carried the distant sound of festive music. My legs ached with weariness and my eyes felt raw, but I discovered that what tired me most was walking behind someone like a pet hound.
“Excuse me, milady,” I said. The daughter of the king turned to look at me. I think I was about to tell her how grateful I was for the Adraston bequest, when suddenly everybody stopped walking.
We were in a dim street surrounded by lightless tenements that looked to be in worse repair than the one I lived in. Overhead, the moon seemed to emit silver vapor from behind blotchings of cloud.
On the right side of the street, shadows were moving, spreading out from where they had clustered beside a dilapidated wooden fence. The cluster expanded, became a long row of dark figures stretched across the street before us.
Sevron Glauco immediately caught Eurythenia Flavius by the arm and drew her into the deep shade of a little cluster of palms. The rest of the party faded back as well, flanking their mistress. This left Lucella and me alone in the middle of the road.
The centermost figure stepped forward and began to gently twirl what appeared to be a knife on the end of a slim length of chain.
“You are trespassing in the territory of the Red Revenants.” His voice sounded so youthful I could scarcely believe he was serious.
“Indeed?” said Lucella. None among Eurythenia’s guards said anything, but I could hear the sound of weapons being unlimbered. I touched the hilt of the dagger sheathed at the small of my back.
“Yes,” said the youth with the twirling chain, “and you are badly outnumbered. It is customary to pay a toll. We’ll take all that you have.”
I felt Lucella stiffen beside me and, in defiance of the warm wind, an unpleasant chill fell over my shoulders.
“My name is Lucella Esteriak,” she said, “and I am fond of wagers.”
She did not reach for her weapons, but stood very straight with her hands at her sides. Her eyes were wide and reflected the moon with a flat gleam. I had seen her like this before. She was already in battle.
“I wagered that I could drive Vettius Karabonde out of the city and I did,” said Lucella. “I wagered that I could hold Beltor’s Bridge against the rogue legion of Thracius Gavond and I did. I wagered that I could kill Volonte and Rindos Sollima and I did.”
She seemed suspended in a prolonged moment of cold expectation, a focused and serene anticipation of terrible, premeditated violence, and she was relishing it like a glass of wine.
“My friends and I wish to pass through your territory, taking nothing and leaving nothing behind. You’ll not see us again. But if you try to stop us I’ll wager that we can kill every single one of you.”
Then she drew her sword and stood, poised in the middle of the dark road with me standing stupidly silent at her side. Moonlight was cold on her blade.
There was a shuffle and a mutter, as soft as a nighthawk taking wing, and then we were looking down an empty street. The Red Revenants had decided not to accept Lucella’s wager.
Sevron Glauco all but sprang out of the shadows.
“That was a commendable performance,” he said. His voice was thick and I had the impression he didn’t say things like that very often. Lucella swiveled to face him and her eyes were still wide, still hard as polished glass. She hadn’t sheathed her sword.
“And what were you doing?” she said hoarsely. “Hiding behind your mistress?”
“Easy Lucella,” I said, but she didn’t seem to hear me.
“I am a royal guard and I…” began Sevron Glauco indignantly, “…I needn’t explain myself to such as you.”
Eurythenia Flavius emerged from the darkness behind him, her silent bodyguards hovering close.
“That was well addressed,” she said to Lucella, “but we must continue.” The princess kept moving, but Lucella stayed in place, staring at Sevron Glauco, who was all but boiling over.
“Come on,” I said to her, and Lucella relaxed just a little, sighed, and sheathed her sword.
“So I understand why her ladyship wants you.” Glauco jabbed a forefinger into my chest. “But not you.” He turned back to Lucella, but did not venture to jab her with his finger.
“She knows we’ve worked well together,” I said.
“Maybe I’m his bodyguard,” said Lucella.
“An archivist needs a bodyguard?”
“This one does,” said Lucella. “Go straighten your mistress’s robes.”
“Don’t think too much of yourself,” said Sevron Glauco, and marched after the princess. “We would have handled those scum even if you hadn’t been here to show off.”
Sevron Glauco moved swiftly ahead, perhaps to widen the distance between himself and Lucella, but then drew up short beside the battered wooden fence that had sheltered the so-called Red Revenants. He gestured at the fence and we saw, painted upon it in letters that glistened in the moonlight, the word ‘PLAGUE’.
Mutters rose from Eurythenia’s bodyguards, the first real conversation I’d heard among them.
“Plague? Can this be?” asked the princess. “I’ve heard nothing of it.”
“There’s been no plague in Frekore since my mother was a girl,” said Lucella.
“It seems unlikely,” I said, and bent to examine the shining letters. They were wet and on the ground beside them was a small pot of paint. “This sign is fresh. The Indigo Idiots must have been painting it when we walked up.”
“Who?” said Sevron Glauco.
“Those bandits-in-training that Lucella frightened off. Why would they paint a plague warning?”
“Just to be lawless,” said Glauco.
It made little sense, so we continued into the student ghetto. I stayed beside Lucella for a time, but from the way she walked in silence and stared at the ground I divined that she wished to be alone, so I pushed my way to the front of our little group.
“So,” I said to Eurythenia Flavius, “what do you imagine my alleged expertise can do for you?” Although Sevron Glauco glowered at me past her robed shoulder, the princess smiled and spoke.
“I’m going to examine an Old Southron relic, an apparently unique item that has been offered to me. I want you to authenticate it.”
“You collect Southron antiquities?” I was amazed and couldn’t hide it.
“No, but if I did you might be to blame. Much royal attention has been paid to the collection and examination of Southron relics since your encounter with Lady Taranova. Few understood the strange power of Southron sorcery before this. The King collects relics now.”
“Then you’re thinking about buying this relic for your father?”
“Yes.” Her voice hardened and I wondered why I so often spoke my mind. “An attempt to curry some favor, I confess. You’re aware I’m under house arrest?”
“One might never guess,” I said.
“I made too much trouble for my little brother Domitian. Father doesn’t mind us arguing, but disapproved when it seemed I might produce evidence that would cast Domitian in irons. A royal stipend is inadequate for my brother, so he feels he must supplement it with profits from the sale of illegal joy potions.”
“There’s bad blood between yourself and Prince Domitian?”
She laughed, a full throated, deep-toned laugh, as if I had said something clever.
“He drew his sword on me, and I took a cut at him with a dagger. I missed, alas.”
“Gods and demons! Two of the royal family came to blows?”
“Yes, it’s really all very amusing. Father is so concerned about appearances that he decreed that if either of us died by violence the other would be put to death the same way.”
This ran in such outrageous defiance of my understanding of the ways of the royals that I fear I simply gaped at her. Her smile broadened, deepening the lines around her mouth.
“I trust I needn’t remind you of your obligation of silence?”
“Of course not.”
We were deep in the student ghetto now and passed a tavern lit by many torches and loud with pipes and lute, a rundown boarding house with a half score sodden party-goers sprawled on its porch, and a solitary poet at the base of a huge palm, holding a candle while loudly declaiming verse so dreadful that I was tempted to break into song just to drown him out. We also passed two walls defaced with still-wet plague warnings.
On the far side of a small park surrounding a city cistern, we found our destination. Within an uneven wall of adobe brick was a sprawling old villa, weather beaten and decrepit. The first floor had shuttered windows and a huge, sealed front door, and was constructed of both worn adobe and wood covered with peeling strips of green paint. The second floor was of unpainted wood, with lights glimmering in several windows. Lifting high above the villa, also of wood, was an astonishingly ramshackle tower. An open stairway spiraled around the unsteady looking minaret, leading up to a flat platform that blocked a neat black square out of the star-speckled night sky.
“Why, this must be the home of Trankus the Astrographer,” I exclaimed. “I’ve long wanted to see his observatory platform. Gods, it’s as flimsy as they say!” I was so delighted to recognize the home of the eccentric scholar that I fear I spoke somewhat loudly, and had the unhappy experience of being shushed by the King’s daughter.
We waited in the wall’s shadow while Sevron Glauco approached the massive door and rapped. The portal opened almost instantly and Glauco leaned within to converse urgently with someone I couldn’t see.
Lucella caught my arm and drew me along the wall.
“So Archivist, were you making friends with the princess?”
“Hardly. Spoke with her, though. I might have been missing more than I thought by turning a deaf ear to royal gossip.”
“So there are still a few things for an archivist to learn, eh?”
“What kind of thing is that to say? My knowledge is a pitiful pittance compared to what there is to be known! Should you ever catch me saying that I’ve become so knowledgeable that I’m down to a mere few things left to learn, please be so good as to draw your sword and lop off my head.”
“Okay, okay,” said Lucella, shaking her head. “Did you learn anything about our work this evening?”
“We are to examine an Old Southron relic that Eurythenia means to buy as a gift for her father, the King, in hopes he will forgive her for trying to stick a dagger into her younger brother Domitian, who makes pocket money backing some illegal activities of which she disapproves.”
“Joy potions,” said Lucella. “Right?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised by her vehemence.
“So the rumors are true. His filth has unspooled the minds of too many legionnaires to count. That silver-eared bastard.”
“Silver-eared?” I thought I’d misheard.
“Domitian lost an ear in an unsanctioned duel with a princeling of Freehold. He wears a silver one in its place.”
I scarcely knew what to make of that, but it was apparent that I had in truth missed a great deal in paying so little attention to gossip about the royals. Sevron Glauco’s impatient voice called to us, and we saw that the rest of our party had passed through the big doorway. We trotted across the courtyard of bare earth and followed them in.
In a broad, comfortably appointed antechamber well lit by oil lamps, Trankus the Astrographer was speaking to Eurythenia Flavis in unctuous tones. Trankus was a little taller than I but it seemed possible that he might weigh three times as much. He wore loose robes of spotless white draping his massive form. His face was broad, with a great curving chin and eyes as brightly blue as Lucella’s. His cluster of black curls was shiny with pomade. I’d last seen him the previous summer, when he’d visited the archives. He hadn’t looked as dapper then.
Being in the comfortable room triggered a wave of weariness, and I looked for a chair to fall into. I tried to remember the last time I’d slept in a bed.
“…an archivist from the Great Archives,” Eurythenia Flavius was saying. I blinked at her, and realized that I was being introduced by royalty. I stopped looking for a place to sit down and nodded at the astrographer.
“I did some work for Trankus last summer,” I said. “I hope my research was helpful.”
“Did you?” said the scholar vaguely, squinting at me. “I’m sure it was very helpful. Now if you’ll come this way, milady, we can all examine the item you’ve gone to such trouble to see.” He turned and walked deliberately through a broad doorway.
I followed with the rest, though I doubt any were thinking as uncharitably of Trankus the Astrographer as I was at that moment. He had requested the astronomical writings of Thar the Pen, which required a great deal of diligent work to produce, as that phenomenally prolific author did not write a separate treatise on the skies, but rather incorporated his astronomical observations into the body of his voluminous journal. For Trankus I had winnowed dozens of small essays out of the greater texts in which they were imbedded, and this was my thanks. I had a number of unkind thoughts, including wondering if, as rumors claimed, Trankus needed the better part of an hour to ascend his observation tower to its summit.
We passed through an inner courtyard dominated by the tower’s base. Up close the stairway looked almost as rickety as it did from a distance; the uneven steps didn’t even have a rail. Another sealed door led us up a broad inner stair to the second floor and into a large room with books on the walls and an imposing circular table at its center. There were a number of chairs on the side of the table closest the door and, while he moved around to the opposite side of the table, Trankus told us to be seated. Eurythenia and I sat, but Lucella and the princess’s bodyguards stayed on their feet.
On the table was an object the size of a wine amphora, concealed beneath a loose swath of yellow fabric. Trankus put his hand on it, and I noticed that the hand was trembling. With a little hiss of breath, he pulled the cloth away.
Beneath was a box of stone, ocher-hued and worn, its carven surface pitted almost to the point of crumbling. It reeked of age, of a strange antiquity as out of place in that comfortable room as an earthworm in your wine cup.
“Well, what does the archivist say?” I heard a hint of amusement in the princess’s voice, then noticed rather belatedly that I had come to my feet and was leaning well over the table in order to get a better look at the stone cask.
“That’s Southron, “I said. “Very worn, but clearly their work.”
“Oh, but this isn’t the relic,” said Trankus with a smile, “merely its container.” His thick hands gripped the square lid atop the cask, and pulled it up and off with a grating of stone on stone. He reached into the vessel with both hands and brought out a wonder.
It was heavy urn made of what appeared to be deep green ceramic and mirror-polished steel. The sides were of the green substance, creamy smooth and of a remarkably uniform color. Bands of shiny metal framed these panels, and formed the urn’s bright base and large cap. The cap had a peculiar shape, almost like a face or mask.
The urn was exceptionally beautiful and looked like nothing I had ever seen before. The only thing I could say about the thing with any certainty was that it was not Southron.
I said as much, which resulted in a good deal of confusion.
“I assure you that this relic was found, in this stone cask, in a Southron ruin near the Redstar Mesa,“ said Trankus. “Look inside the cask and you will see that it was made to hold the urn.”
“That’s as may be,” I said, “but this thing shows a level of craftsmanship far beyond anything ever associated with the Old Southron Empire.”
“Look within the cask, princess. You will see,” said Trankus.
Eurythenia Flavius rose from her chair and began to move around the table to his side.
The scholar’s hands fastened on the urn’s strange cap and pulled it off. It truly was a mask of mirror, with a long, featureless face and two empty eye sockets. Trankus put it on.
“Milady,” said Lucella harshly.
Trankus shuddered and slapped both hands to his wide chest. Beside him, a thin stream of yellow smoke erupted from the urn.
Lucella dove across a pair of empty chairs and seized Eurythenia Flavius by the shoulders. Her ladyship’s guard rushed forward, a long step behind Lucella as she dragged the princess forcibly away from Trankus and the relic.
A tall figure of yellow vapor now stood swaying upon the table. Dense, saffron-colored smoke coursed and billowed wildly within the sharply defined confines of a strangely elongated human form. It advanced toward Eurythenia Flavius soundlessly. Horror slammed through me like a spear-head, but I could only stand and stare.
The phantom moved weightlessly, stepping down from the table, as two of the princess’s bodyguard leapt to engage it. The first soldier made unsheathing his shortsword and striking into a single fluid motion that should have beheaded the thing. But the blade met no resistance as it passed through the ghost’s neck, not even disturbing the seething smoke that gave it form.
Close now, the yellow figure reached out to its attacker and its smoke-hand passed easily into his chest. The warrior gave a choking cry, staggered and fell with such terrible, limp finality that I had no doubt he was dead. As quick as an adder, the phantom slid sideways to dispatch the second bodyguard, and I saw that Lucella was beating on the chamber door, now unaccountably closed and refusing to open.
The princess, wide of eye and pallid of face, had her back to the wall beside the door while her bodyguards pushed forward with useless weapons to interpose themselves between their mistress and the demon-thing that meant to kill her. Trankus writhed and twitched in his chair, face obscured by the shining mask.
I stood to one side, gaping in useless amazement, and then an idea struck me like a chastening slap. I drew my dagger from its sheath at the small of my back, cocked my arm back and made ready to cast the knife at Trankus. There was no time. The scholar sat up rigidly, tore at his breast with desperate fingers, then fell beneath the table with a crash of upset chairs.
I spun to see what the yellow phantom was doing and it was gone.
“Gods!” My oath seemed thunderous in the suddenly silent room. The four remaining bodyguards, weapons bristling, clustered around the princess, who leaned on the wall as if to keep from falling. Lucella came forward and stood over the bodies of the two soldiers slain by the smoke-demon.
“Dead and they couldn’t even strike a blow. Couldn’t even fight back for all their courage.” Her voice was choked.
I scrambled over the table, slid off beside Trankus. He was on his side, hands still pressed to his breast, face still obscured by the shining, featureless mask. I bent to remove it and found I had to tug. The mask adhered gently to his lifeless face, for Trankus was dead, too. The mask came free and I peeked quickly into the urn, half expecting to find the yellow phantom coiled within. It was empty, so I replaced the cap.
“Put the urn back into its box. We’re taking it with us.” The instructions were clipped and quick, and it took me a moment to realize that they proceeded from Eurythenia Flavius to me. I did as she asked, noting that the vase of emerald and chrome did indeed fit quite precisely into the worn stone box.
At a word from the princess the surviving bodyguards, among them Sevron Glauco, attacked the hinges of the sealed doors. Above the noise of their prying and hacking I could hear Lucella.
She’d pulled the helm off of one of the fallen, and revealed a bloody-eyed gray countenance blotched with black carbuncles. She stepped away and dropped the helmet.
“Don’t touch them,” said Eurythenia Flavius needlessly. “We are leaving now.”
The doors, locked from outside by some lackey of Trankus, finally gave way. The halls were empty and we made haste to be away. The stone box wasn’t as heavy as it looked, but it was far from light. I carried it, balancing the weight against my body while my mind whirled with the thought that we had been attacked by a form of sorcery unlike any in the annals. Who could summon a demon that, at a touch, could kill with plague? Whence had the creature come, and what was its nature?
Dry wind struck my face as we emerged into the inner courtyard and I woke from my reverie. I stopped at the base of the observatory platform and set the stone box down on the stairs.
“Hold on,” I said, “I’m going to climb up the tower a bit and have a look around.”
“We’ve little time,” said Eurythenia Flavius.
“I’m not sightseeing, milady,” I said. “I have an idea.”
She nodded and I took off before Lucella or Glauco could tell me to stop or offer to accompany me.
The stairs were wide at the base, but narrowed quickly as they rose. At close range the tower was little better than a framework of lumber with the stairway wrapped around it, though the structure felt solid enough underfoot. I took steps two at a time until I was above the level of the roof.
The view was marvelous; the only thing obscuring the celestial dome was the remainder of the tower at my back. A few clouds coasted like ragged kites around the moon and against a vast curtain of stars. Jagged and irregular rooftops, awash in silver moonlight, lay spread out all around the villa.
Movement caught my gaze and drew it. There was a man on a roof, crouching half obscured in the shadow of a cornice. I turned, and to my amazement saw there were men scattered on the rooftops at all sides. There was a cluster of dark figures atop the lightless tavern across from the villa’s front door. Among this group was a robed figure, who drew back into the shadow of the huge fellow standing beside him. His attempted withdrawal only made me seek to see him better, and as I stared the moon gleamed mirror-bright off one side of his otherwise dark head. He wasn’t wearing a helm. Silver, I thought. A silver ear.
A number of the other men appeared to be carrying slender sticks and, as I looked on, they lifted them to their faces and seemed to point at me.
Something hissed past my own ear, as swift and invisible as a nocturnal insect. I started back down the stairs quickly, and as I moved below the level of the roof more hisses sliced the night air above my head.
“See anything interesting, Archivist?” asked Lucella.
“It appears we are surrounded,” I told my companions. “There are men on the roofs all around.”
Eurythenia Flavius pushed through the door into the main body of the villa, her guard following close behind. “We were followed here then. As I suspected.”
“And more than that,” I called after her. “Milady!” She was moving with an indignant haste and my cry was inadequate to arrest her determined stride. I picked up the stone box again and had to hurry to catch up. We were in the room lit by oil lamps, right at the front door, before I could capture her full attention.
“Lady, I believe I saw your brother on the roof opposite this door. The moon caught on his silver ear.” That finally stopped her.
“Then this is an attempt to lure me out of house arrest and cut me off from father’s favor entirely. Domitian must have been behind this entire transaction.”
Lucella looked from the princess’s face to mine, then quickly moved to stand beside the outer door.
“Milady, do not go out that door,” I said. “This is nothing less than an assassination attempt. I don’t believe Trankus released that thing from the Southron cask by accident; I think he was to use the relic as a sorcerous weapon to kill you.”
Eurythenia Flavius shook her head slowly. “No, that makes no sense if this is Dom’s doing, he would never kill me. Father said…”
“He said if one of you died by violence the other would be put to death the same way. But this would have been an assassination by plague. It would have looked as if you had perished of natural causes.”
“But it killed Trankus, too.” Her voice was softer than I’d heard it yet.
“He wasn’t slain by the plague. I think his heart gave out as he used the relic. You were to die of a sickness. Terrible, but not murder.” She was looking at the ground now. “They even had those young bandits paint plague signs to make it seem as if the disease was afoot again.”
There was a heavy silence and I hoped that my words were strong enough to be understood yet not hurtful enough to get me beheaded. Lucella was still standing beside the door, uneasily shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
Eurythenia Flavius’s head snapped up and her dark eyes lit with resolve.
“I’ll have a word with Dom, then. Come.” She turned and shoved the outer door wide open. The dutiful courtesy of one of her bodyguards led the man to lunge forward to get the door for her, so that he was first out the doorway and into the open, moonlit courtyard.
I heard a whispery hiss.
The man cried out softly and slapped a hand to his cheek. A pale feather or bit of fluff clung there. A strange choking sound came from the man’s throat. He fell back into the room as Lucella snatched Eurythenia Flavius’s arm and hurled her bodily to the floor. Lucella ducked, grabbing for the door handle. A dozen scattered bits of bright fluff appeared all over the door. She slammed it.
Sevron Glauco dropped to his knees beside his fallen comrade, but the man’s body arched in a terrible rictus and then flopped loosely on the floor.
“Dead,” said Glauco in disbelief. “What is this?” His hand went to the little clump of fluff on his comrade’s cheek.
“Don’t touch it,” said Lucella. “It’s an envenomed dart.”
“Yes,” I said. “Fired from a kind of tube. I saw some of them from the tower.”
“I heard of such when I served the legion on the caravan road to Anparar. Some Southron tribe back in the salt marshes was supposed to use them,” said Lucella.
“Well,” I said, “this proves both that Prince Domitian is resourceful in hiring assassins and that he is no longer much concerned with killing the princess in an unobtrusive fashion.”
Eurythenia Flavius got up off the floorboards and shook out her robes. If she ever said anything to Lucella about knocking her down I never heard it.
“So, since I can’t be slain in such a way that no guilt could possibly be assigned to my brother, I’m now to be slain by any means Dom finds convenient?” she said.
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “Even if I hadn’t seen him on the tavern’s roof, he’d have to know you’d see his hand in this by now.”
“He won’t kill me. He knows father will punish him.”
“You did slip out of house arrest, milady,” said Lucella. “Perhaps the prince now simply hopes to make you disappear. That’s what I would have done in the first place, had I been him.”
Eurythenia Flavius looked at Lucella sharply but said nothing. Sevron Glauco and his two surviving brothers-in-arms exchanged grim looks.
“What now, milady?” asked one of the bodyguards.
“We find another exit,” said Glauco tersely, “and slip away if we can, fight our way out if we can’t.”
“Open the door, perhaps I can parley,” said Eurythenia Flavius.
“Milady,” said Lucella as though speaking to a child. “These people are trying to kill you.”
“Can we either secure the door or withdraw?” said Sevron Glauco intently. I was about to agree with him when the door was hurled open and a giant burst into the room.
In truth it wasn’t exactly a giant, it was the huge warrior I’d seen beside Prince Domitian on the tavern roof. Now this formidable fellow crashed into our little group like a human avalanche. He was so tall that I doubt the top of my head reached his chin, wide as a potter’s wagon, and armored for war, with a legionnaire’s cuirass, a heavy helm, gauntlets, greaves, and a broad spearman’s shield. He swung his oversized sword in a whistling arc toward Sevron Glauco, his nearest foe. Glauco had barely enough time to whip his sword up in a block that caught the full force of the blow. It hoisted him off his feet and hurled him past his goggle-eyed employer to crash rolling on the floor.
“Gods!” I backpedaled. A blow like that would have cut me in two.
The warrior came on, roaring like a thunderclap and hoisting his sword for another great slash. The two bodyguards still on their feet fanned out defensively, putting themselves between the giant and their charge.
Lucella leapt toward the intruder on tiptoe, like a dancer going to meet a partner. She was inside his guard before his wide swing was half complete and her short vertical cut intercepted his blow, driving her edge into the forearm of his sword hand. Cut deeply and bleeding, but not crippled or even releasing his weapon, he roared louder and staggered backward.
Lucella moved with him, keeping in close and slamming the pommel of her shortsword into his bearded mouth before he could catch his balance. The giant was back in the doorway, spitting teeth, before he stopped reeling and decided to wrap his great arms around Lucella in an unfriendly hug. She dropped, fading like a wisp from his grasp, landed on one foot and one palm, and slashed her sword across both his knees right above the greaves.
His roar turned into a hoarse scream as the luckless warrior fell back out the door into the courtyard, where armed men now milled about. Lucella leapt to her feet, and seized the door handle.
“Come on!” screamed Lucella over the body of the writhing giant. Her voice was a raw howl of unfettered rage. “Send me more and I’ll feed them to the earth!”
She slammed the door again.
“Well, I’ll be a painted temple courtesan,” said Sevron Glauco in a strange new voice.
“That was unique,” said Eurythenia Flavius calmly.
“Not really,” I said. “She does that sort of thing with some regularity.”
Lucella drew back until she stood beside me. Her gaze was fixed on the shut door, eyes wide and shining. There was a thin line of wet crimson along the edge of her blade.
“Let’s go!” cried Sevron Glauco. “We can cut through the house and come out the other side. They can’t have enough men to completely surround us.”
“Yes,” said Eurythenia Flavius. “Let us go.”
Lucella stared fixedly at the door and seemed to hear none of this.
I spoke her name, softly.
“Let them come,” she said.
“Lucella, we have to go,” I said in a louder voice. “You can’t stand here peering at the door until those rogues kick it in.” She turned her head to look at me. “It doesn’t make any sense,” I concluded lamely.
She lifted a hand and pointed at her temple.
“Do you think I’m mad?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said promptly, “but I never met anyone of interest who wasn’t.”
She started to smile and there was a thump on the door. Then another. I caught the sharp, acrid smell of smoke. Glauco spoke aloud what we all instantly understood.
“Gods! They’ve torched the building!”
We fled through the villa in earnest and it occurred to me that Prince Domitian had hit upon a method of eliminating his sister that might well look like an accident, if it didn’t simply reduce her to ashes. A tang of wood smoke rode the breeze when we passed through the courtyard again. We went back in another door, blundered through empty rooms with the smell of smoke growing ever stronger.
I bounced off a doorjamb and came into a kitchen where Glauco and Lucella were already drawing the bolt on a heavy door. They threw the door open, then ducked back as a pair of torches sailed in. There were shouts of triumph from outside and I could tell the outer wall was burning.
“We’re trapped!” Eurythenia Flavius’s face was a stunned mask of disbelief.
“Stay behind us,” snarled Lucella, sword drawn, “we’ll cut our way out.”
Glauco and his two comrades shouted their agreement, and they surged as one toward the open doorway.
“No,” I shouted, “not yet!”
If Lucella hadn’t stopped I doubt any of them would have, but she did stop, and looked at me.
“There’s too many of them. You’ll be cut to ribbons. Give me three minutes, then try your breakout.”
“Where the hell are you going?” demanded Lucella.
“Three minutes! I’ve got an idea!”
“You and your thrice-damned ideas!”
But I was already gone, running again through the smoky mansion lugging my stone burden. I burst out into the courtyard and saw that the roof across from me was ablaze.
At the foot of the tower I stopped and stood panting for a mere moment, then hurled myself up the uneven steps. I drove up the spiral stair with a surge of effort that narrowed my focus to simply lifting one foot over the other again and again. The weariness which I’d held at bay for so long now threatened to simply overwhelm me and I finally had to stop to keep from blacking out. I went to one knee on the steps, gasping for breath and blinking sweat out of my eyes.
The villa was burning below me. Flickering orange flame capped with boiling black smoke rose from a dozen points in the doomed house of Trankus the Astrographer. How fast would it spread? I looked up and saw I was better then halfway up the tower.
Something soft and swift whispered past my head. I jerked around and saw, beyond a rising taper of smoke, men on a rooftop pointing long sticks at me. I stood and brought the cask back up against my chest as more whispers pierced the air about me. An envenomed dart clicked against the stone box and fell at my feet. I began to run up the steps.
There were more sinister whispers until I put the tower between myself and my attackers; then I had to come into their sight again as I ascended. A tiny spike, like a thorn adorned with a tuft of flax, appeared on a wooden beam before me. I kept going. They couldn’t hit me; the distance, smoke and heat of the fire must have ruined their aim.
Then I was atop the tower that Trankus built to survey the heavens. The wind rushed past me into a vast night in which I seemed suspended like a star. There was a chair, and some instruments to which I paid no heed. I went to the rim of the platform that faced the side of the villa where Lucella and three men fought to protect a princess of Frekore. I couldn’t see them, or even the street into which they’d shortly charge. Smoke obscured it all, and I wondered if that part of the villa was entirely afire.
The stone box thumped down on the platform and I slumped down beside it. The stone top came off and was discarded. My hands found the silvered cap and pulled it free.
I put the mask on my face and the mirror-metal seemed colder than it should have been, than it could have been. My hands pressed it into place and the mask sealed to my flesh.
I remember thinking the mask was too long, that I could see out through the eye sockets but that the ridge of the nose was too far down my face to be right. It occurred to me that the mask did not truly seem to have been made for human beings.
Then a granite fist closed about my heart and squeezed. I went blind and gasped at the pressure in my chest. Sightless, a plunging dizziness roared through me, so vertiginous I thought the tower was collapsing. My pulse beat in my ears like a temple drum and I clutched my chest as if to grasp my bursting heart. I knew this was what had slain Trankus, what had torn his overworked heart asunder, but I had to keep the mask on. I had to do what he could not. For the princess and for Lucella, I had to use the sorcerous relic and survive.
And then I could see again. The fire lit night had gone a sickly yellow, and I saw the world as if through a saffron glass. There was a man lying on his side at my feet, curled in on himself as though in pain. Even with my heart hammering so that I could barely breathe I felt a surge of pity for him, so thin and sickly looking in his stained and threadbare robes. Then I saw the throwing dagger belted at the small of his back and recognized it. I was looking at myself.
I thrust out an arm and a vaporous yellow appendage rose before me. I looked down upon the second body the Southron mask had lent me and saw it was all of a piece. I was the foggy yellow phantom that Trankus had summoned to kill Eurythenia Flavius. I was the plague demon. I wore its body like vestments of pestilence.
I had thought to spot Domitian again from this perch. To send the demon after him if I could make the Southron artifact work as it had for Trankus. Domitian’s warriors would be leaderless and horrified if he were struck down. And if they didn’t draw back after their prince was killed by a demon, I’d tell that demon to kill as many of them as needed until they let us alone.
But I was the demon now, and if Domitian was on any of the roofs below I couldn’t see him through the haze of smoke and flame.
I leapt down the stairs. A roaring wind surged around me, seemed to buoy me aloft as my spectral body flew weightlessly down and down the winding stairway. Each heartbeat seemed to toll like a deathly gong, yet as I moved with phantom ease to the base of the tower I felt the concerns of my fleshly body fade to a strange distance. That body was racked and gasping on a wooden platform high above a burning building. This body was soaring through the rooms of the villa with easy speed, prepared to confront and destroy the tiny fleshly beings that offended it.
Then I was in the kitchen where I’d left my comrades, and they were gone. The walls poured smoke into the room, but it did not choke me. I rushed across the floor and out the door like a wind gusting hot out of hell.
They were surrounded. Not ten paces from the door, Lucella, Sevron Glauco and one of his brothers-in-arms stood in a tight group around Eurythenia Flavius. The third bodyguard, whose name I never learned, lay still at their feet with a poison dart in his throat.
At least twenty soldiers in motley garb stood in a half ring around them, pinning them against the wall of the burning villa. I didn’t see Prince Domitian, but I saw a tall man in leathers lift a long tube to his lips and point it at Eurythenia Flavius.
I slid around my friends as if I was just another wisp of smoke, and as I bore down swiftly upon the man with the darts, I was seen.
All eyes fell upon me. All of the men felt my presence, felt the power I wielded, and was, right through their flesh. The man dropped his tube and stepped back but I was upon him and a mere brush of my hand strangled him and stopped his heart. He fell, and behind him was another. I passed from one to the next with a swift ease of motion that felt as simple and natural as drawing breath, and I forgot entirely the body I’d left behind on the tower.
They fled, clawing and trampling one another in their haste to escape me, so that when I looked up from another who fell at my touch there were none left to face me. On all sides their backs retreated into the night. They were so pathetic, so small and simple and easy to end. I took a step in pursuit, and then stopped. I needed a moment to remember why I didn’t need to chase them, why I wore the shape of plague, why I had to return to my true form.
I turned and saw Eurythenia Flavius still protected by my comrades. Their eyes were wide with terror as they stared unknowing at me, seeing only the murderous horror that I had become. I moved around them and Lucella, her teeth bared in a snarl of defiance, thrust her sword out as if the weapon might keep me at bay.
I stopped before her, raised a hand of saffron smoke to my head and pointed at my temple. Do you think I’m mad?
Though I was voiceless, her sword lowered and I fled past her, into the burning building beyond.
The closer I drew to my true body the more its weakness and distress were thrust upon me. My heart shuddered in my chest and it seemed no wonder that the heart of Trankus had burst while he wore the silver mask.
I stood over myself and suddenly wondered how I might shed this poisonous form. Attempting to get my forsaken body to remove the mask was useless; I had full use of the plague phantom I wore, but my true form was no longer under my control.
I knew the fire would climb the tower eventually and it occurred to me that I might shortly watch my own body burn. Since the relic-user’s body was beyond his influence, it seemed possible that the solution would lie in the urn. I knelt to examine it, thrust a smoky hand into its silver-lipped mouth and was drawn hurtling headfirst into darkness.
The planks of the platform were hard beneath my shoulder. I sat up and sucked in a painful breath. My limbs trembled as with a hard fever and I was sickened by what I had been and done. The Southron box sat beside me, and it was so repellent to my eyes that I lashed out with a foot and kicked it off the platform.
Once on my feet I swayed like a drunkard. I saw smoke billowing and heard the crackle of busy flames. The steps passed uncertainly beneath my feet. My body seemed new and unfamiliar, awkward and inadequately made to meet my needs, but it came to a halt well enough when the unwinding stairway led me into view of the fire climbing the tower.
Flames ate the stairs before me, blackening and bending the wood. I saw there was no way through and stared into the roaring blaze, hoping I might leap past it onto stairs yet untouched by fire. But the flames had taken all I could see of the tower below and I was trapped.
There was only one course of action, yet I couldn’t do it. I went to the edge of the stairs and looked down through the smoke and rippling heat-haze to the courtyard below. I was about even with the roof of the two story villa, although looking down made it seem much higher. In the firelight the ground looked smooth and hard as a sheet of stone. I felt the heat of the flames and tried to jump, but all that resulted was a tremor that jolted through me.
I’ll roll, I told myself, like I used to roll when thrown by my uncle’s horses. But I couldn’t jump, and perhaps I never would have except that the drop so fixated my attention that I forgot the swift-moving flames until they suddenly licked at my robes and scorched my face.
I leapt awkwardly into space, convinced I was aflame. There was a suspended moment of terror and regret. I bent as if to land and roll, but my body turned as I fell and I hit the ground on my right leg, which buckled beneath me.
I rolled, but struck hard enough to lose consciousness. I came to almost immediately, a tangled heap on the courtyard floor, aware only of the fact that I couldn’t breathe. The air had been hammered from my lungs and I felt I was drowning. I got my hands underneath myself and pushed my upper body up off the ground, aware in an abstract fashion that this proved my arms were intact. I drew a heaving breath and recalled that I was on fire. I twisted onto my side, felt an ugly grinding in my hip, and saw that I was not burning. My right foot, however, was pointing backwards at a most unnatural angle.
The pain came as soon as I saw that, and I clawed at the earth and ground my teeth together.
Above me, the tower was a ziggurat of flame. Great tapers of flaring red-orange lashed the night. There was a crack like a titanic whip and chunks of flaming lumber were thrown off the burning observation tower. Sparks rose in a roiling curtain of fire-shot smoke. Squinting upward, I saw the whole blazing structure slump a bit, then catch hold precariously.
It was going to collapse and bury me under a small mountain of burning wood.
I rolled over on my belly, cringed at the blaring pain in my leg, and tried to crawl. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to move far enough from the tower to save myself but this made no difference. I moved a few hand spans and felt myself losing consciousness again. I cursed the blackness welling up in my eyes.
“Carry him.” I blinked up at Eurythenia Flavius. Sevron Glauco bent to do her bidding, kneeling and grasping me beneath each arm.
“No,” said Lucella. “He’s broken. We’ll have to get a chair.”
“Go,” said Eurythenia Flavius. Lucella and Glauco disappeared. The princess looked down on me, her silver hair reddened by the firelight.
“It’s going to fall,” I croaked. She said nothing.
Lucella set a high-backed chair on the earth beside me and they pulled me onto it so that I sat with my shoulders against the seat with my legs laid out on the long back. When I was moved I clung to the chair and fought to remain conscious.
There was a series of earsplitting cracks from the observation tower and fiery bits of wood rained down around us. I was lifted on the chair and carried from the courtyard, biting my lips against the pain. We followed a different path through the interior of Trankus the Astrographer’s villa and were turned aside several times by the intruding flames, but we made our way through safely, came to a door and emerged not far from where I had slain men while wearing an aspect of plague. We moved past their fallen bodies and into the city unmolested.
Behind us, the tower was a great skeletal finger of flame pointed accusingly at the heavens.
Eurythenia Flavius walked beside me, tall and stately.
“The Southron relic?”
“Destroyed,” I whispered.
“A shame,” she said, “but perhaps for the best. Plague would be a difficult weapon to control.” She slowed her pace and looked back into the night. “I’ll send men to burn those corpses you left in the street. There will be no new plague in Frekore.”
I wanted to thank her for coming back into the villa to get me, but my voice had failed.
Lucella helped carry me, sharing the legs of the chair with Sevron Glauco. She leaned forward and spoke. “I like you better when you’re not made of yellow smoke.”
I tried to grin at her but it must have been a pretty sorry effort.
“You’ll be all right, Archivist,” she said. “Just hang on until we get you home.”
A great flare of light pulsed against the dark sky, as if a new sun rose within the city, and the observation tower of Trankus the Astrographer collapsed in blazing cinders. It fell in upon itself with a dull roar, brightened and died, sending a huge plume of sparks rolling and dying on the warm wind.
I watched it fade, and hung on until they got me home.
John Hocking lives in Michigan with his superhumanly tolerant wife, inspiring son, and an alarming quantity of books. John co-edited Detroit Noir (Akashic Boos, November 2007) and wrote Conan & the Emerald Lotus (Tor, November 1995).
John first appeared in Black Gate with his tales of Brand the Viking: “The Face in the Sea” (BG 13) and “The Bonestealer’s Mirror” (BG 14).
“Vestments of Pestilence” is the fifth tale of the Archivist and his friend Lucella. The first three appeared in Flashing Swords, edited by Howard Andrew Jones.
Sherwood Smith at SF Site had this to say about “A River Through Darkness and Light,” the fourth Archivist tale, when it appeared in Black Gate 15:
Lucella, a tough warrior woman, and the first-person narrator Archivist, have history together, as they travel in search of a hidden stash of ancient scrolls, accompanied by a scholar and an old soldier. Unfortunately, they are chased by bandits bent on vengeance… and then there’s the demon…
I think of Hocking’s stories as characteristic of Black Gate: a strong blend of the old sword and sorcery action and mood, but with modern attention to character development, especially of the women. Lucella, like Asdis in Hocking’s Norse tales, can hold her own in a world of heroes and demons. Dark and vivid, shot through with moments of humor, this story is a promising opening to the issue.
Photo by Cindy Hocking.
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