Posts Tagged ‘Loren Cooper’

The Monster Maker

by Loren Cooper

 

“…I bid my hideous progeny to go forth and prosper…it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words…”

— Mary Shelly

 

 

Three travelers rode through the gates of Setan in the clear light of a bright spring morning, but a pall hung over that place as if a cloud had passed across the face of the sun.

“Feel that?” Cyril asked.

The three of them rode unobstructed by traffic.  The few pedestrians on the streets walked in small, well-armed clusters.  Women or children were either not present or concealed well enough in the midst of the armed clusters as to not be evident.  People on foot gave the travelers covert glances, but no direct challenge or comment came to the armored riders.  The iron-shod hooves of the horses struck sparks from the flat Jodan paving stones as they rode into a landscape of privacy walls and towers.  Structures built of the perfectly fitted, apparently mortarless stonework that were the Jodan trademark rose around them.

“The governor has lost all control,” Rhea said grimly.  “It’s worse than Frederick indicated.  Worse than he must have known.”

“Janaki’s a politician.  He’s not equipped to deal with an incursion of the Children of Night,” Cyril responded, his head swinging as he scanned for possible threats.

“No one’s well equipped to deal with the Children,” Oslo said mildly.  “If that’s the problem.”

“Look around,” Cyril countered.  “Something’s turned this place from a center of commerce to a ghost town.  More than the plague explains.  People don’t carry weapons and group together for mutual protection against plague.  Fear of plague is one thing.  Whatever this is, it’s more than fear of plague.  It has the flavor of a more tangible menace.”

“Something has happened here,” Oslo admitted.  “Or is happening here.  Let’s wait until we know more before we jump to a conclusion.”

Cyril snorted, but said nothing after a sharp glance from Rhea.

“How often have you encountered the Children?” Rhea asked Oslo.

Oslo looked up at the rising white towers of the old Jodan fortress where Governor Janaki kept his household.  He led them deeper into the ancient city, using the high towers as his guide.  “I’ve met them face to face twice.  The second time occurred when I found and burned out a nest.  This feels different from what I’ve seen, and from all I’ve researched.  But I don’t have sufficient information to draw any certain conclusions at this point.  All I have are my instincts.”

Rhea smiled at Cyril, but the slight mockery in her face never touched her voice. “Two more encounters than either of us.  That makes you the resident expert.”

“I hope not,” Oslo said thoughtfully.  “I hope Yousib is still here. I’d value his perspective.”

“A friend of yours? Another hunter?”  Cyril’s tone brightened perceptibly at the prospect of another knowledgeable hunter who could provide reinforcements.

“Not exactly,” Oslo said as he pulled up before the open gates in the outer wall of the governor’s residence.  “Yousib is more of a scholar than a hunter.  But few know more about all the ancient arts than Yousib.”

“Ah,” said Cyril, distaste and discontent evident in his voice.  “Sounds like a charming dinner companion.”

“We’re not here for wine and dancing,” Rhea said tartly as Oslo dismounted and approached the gate guard.

“Maybe not, but a little wine and dancing wouldn’t hurt,” Cyril grumbled under his breath as Oslo introduced the party.

The guard in turn rang a silver bell to announce the visitors. Shortly after grooms had taken the horses into the care of the governor’s stables, they crossed through the inner courtyard and followed a young page into the depths of the residence, the incongruous echoes of the bell lingering in the silence of the empty entrance hall.

 

***

 

“First the plague, and now this damned infestation.” Governor Janaki set his fork down by his plate with an elaborate gesture of disgust.  A fleshy man, the governor had the stylish clothes, neatly trimmed nails, hair, beard, and mannerisms of a courtier.  “The plague hit us lightly.  Many people, including myself, give Yousib credit for that.  He worked tirelessly in the early days, only withdrawing into his estate after the worst of it had passed.  The effort wore him out, I suppose.  You know him, I understand?”

Oslo nodded.

The governor turned his wineglass in his hand, watching the play of light on the crystal.  The jewels in the rings on that hand glittered more brightly than the crystal.  “The people were coming back into the city.  The markets were opening again.  The plague had fallen away.  Then rumors started circulating.  Desecrations in the graveyards. Rituals in empty houses.  People started disappearing.  You couldn’t be sure who ran out of fear, and who had been taken, but enough signs remained that we knew some were being taken.  It became more than rumors at that point.  People began barricading their houses at night.  Arming themselves.  Leaving the city.  More than had even during the plague.  Now the harbor is empty, and the marketplace is the unchallenged domain of rats and ravens.”

“The disappearances began after the plague, not before?  And you said there were signs?” Rhea asked.

“It was noticed after the plague had died down.  It could have started before that.  Who would have known?  But certainly no one saw anything on the scale of what we’ve seen this last month.  Barricades have been smashed down, entire families gone, the inside of the houses covered in blood and worse.  I’ve had hysterical reports of everything from shapeshifters to walking corpses.  My men are so infected with fear as to be virtually useless.  To be truthful, I don’t know what’s happening, but I mentioned the Children in the report I sent to Frederick, knowing that would get his attention.  Though Frederick speaks highly of you in his message, to be frank I had hoped for more.  I confess that I would have been happier to have seen a column of troops at your back.”

“Men are in short supply,” Oslo said. “You don’t need soldiers.  You need to understand the problem.  Once you understand the problem, then you can find the right solution.  Has Yousib advanced any theories?”

“I don’t know.” Janaki shifted in his chair uncomfortably and refused to meet Oslo’s eye. “No one’s heard from him since he shut himself up in his house.  After the plague, no one breaks into an empty house.  No one except for these mystery raiders.”

“Even Yousib would have had limited resources against the plague,” Oslo said thoughtfully.  “The plague was strong, the cures difficult, and every struggle against the sickness consumes a man’s strength, even a man as wise in lore as Yousib.  I can understand his need for isolation.  I am concerned that no one’s heard from him, though.”

“He might have gone away in the late days of the plague,” the governor admitted. “There was so much chaos.  And he had sent Kara away.  He might have followed her.”

“Kara?”

“You didn’t know?  Yousib married shortly before the plague struck.  A beautiful young thing.  He was besotted with her.”

“I’d like to talk to him, if he’s still here,” Oslo said.  “And I’d like to see the most recent abduction scene.”

“I’ll have one of my men escort you to the Captain of my household guard,” Janaki said. “He’s investigating a scene from last night.  He’s been trying to run this down since the first rumors surfaced.  He knows more about this than anyone.”

“Will he resent our presence?” Rhea asked.

“He’s the one who suggested I call for outside help,” Janaki replied, his gaze lingering on her.  “He’ll be glad to have the benefit of your expertise.”

Oslo pushed his chair back from the table.  “We should get started as soon as possible then.”

Cyril drained his wineglass, wiping his mouth as Rhea and Oslo rose to their feet.

“I would have sent you earlier had I thought it would make a difference,” the governor said defensively.  “But perhaps you have the right of it.”

The governor clapped his hands.  The young page who had guided them through the grounds stepped through a hanging curtain and stopped at Janaki’s elbow.  “Abdah, take the hunters to Captain Ismail.”

The travelers trailed Abdah out of the dining room with the governor’s reassurance following after them, “I’m sure that Ismail will be duly grateful for all of the assistance you can provide.”

 

***

 

Ismail couldn’t keep the evident disgust from his face, not that he appeared to be exerting much effort to do so.  “Three of you are worse than useless.  You’re an insult.  I need soldiers, not noble dilettantes.”

Oslo had to tilt his head back to look directly into the swarthy face of the massive captain.  “I sympathize,” he said mildly.  “But we’re all the help the Young Dux has been able to send.  Don’t make this a wasted trip.  Let us take a look.”

Ismail glared down at the smaller man.  His sharp gaze tallied the scale mail Oslo wore under his silk surcoat, the twin long knives that crossed at the small of his back, the Jodan script visible on mail and the hilts of the knives, and the unflinching calm that met his angry glare.

“Fine,” Ismail said at last.  “Go in.  Tour the site. Perhaps what you find there will convince you to send back to the Young Dux for the troops we need.”

Oslo inclined his head, then walked past the captain and the brace of sentries to the shattered remains of a heavy iron-bound door.  Fragments of wood still hung from the iron straps.  Broken lengths of plank three inches thick and eight inches wide lay in the doorway.  A stench of rot rose from the shadows of the door into the soft, slanting afternoon light.

Cyril covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief.

Oslo drew one of the long knives at his back, held the blade to his lips, and whispered a single word.

Ismail and the sentries flinched as the blade lit with an inner glow strong enough to be visible in the light of day.  They watched Oslo kneel carefully in the doorway and run a gloved fingertip across the fragments of the door.  Rubbing thumb and forefinger together, Oslo raised the glove to his nose and sniffed cautiously.  Then he rose to his feet and crossed the threshold, Rhea at his heels.  Cyril took up the rear, the handkerchief still clamped across his mouth and nose.

Light from Oslo’s blade banished the darkness.  The entry hall of the house became a mélange of harsh shadows in the unforgiving light.  Dark stains spattered walls and floor. A shelf hung awry; another had been cast to the tile floor and shattered.  Fragments of pottery mixed with the remains of the door.  The gleam of metal caught Oslo’s eye.  He paused at two small, polished jade figures.

“Hanish luck figurines,” Rhea said.

“Not lucky enough,” Cyril remarked dryly.

“We can rule out robbery,” Oslo said. “If we still had any doubts.  One of those would be worth a season’s wages to a working man.  I’m almost surprised that none of the soldiers picked them up.”

“Almost?” Cyril asked.

“Would you want anything out of this house after you had been inside?”

“No,” Cyril said.  “But I know those who wouldn’t give it a second thought.”

“Perhaps,” Oslo conceded.  “But most of those would have quit the city before now. Or been careless and succumbed to the plague. Why do you think Janaki and Ismail have manpower problems?”

Oslo didn’t wait for a response.  He made his way deeper into the house, Cyril and Rhea close behind him.  Rich wood paneling (broken and split in places), paintings (for the most part untouched by destruction), and the intricately patterned floor tiles (stained in spattering black) spoke of the house’s former inhabitants’ wealth and taste.  Oslo paused at every trace of destruction, each stain, each mark in the paneling.

The living area and kitchen were almost pristine—unmarked by obvious signs of violence.  The shutters on every window had been nailed closed and barred from the inside.  Stocks of food in the kitchen lay as they had been stored, untouched.  Knives hung in racks from the walls.  More knives lay on the floor, under empty hooks.  In the back of the house, two of the three bedrooms had the appearance of hasty desertion, but were otherwise unmarked.

The stench in the house thickened at the shattered doorway of the third and largest bedroom.  Torn and spattered velvet bedclothes were strewn across the floor, furniture had been smashed to kindling, and black stains covered floor, walls, and ceiling in long ribbons of darkness.

Cyril coughed and gagged even with the cloth covering his mouth.  “For once I wish I didn’t think perfumed handkerchiefs effeminate.”

“They made their stand here,” Rhea said softly.  “They heard the pounding at the door, so the family retreated here.  And when the bedroom door had been broken down…”

“They fought,” Oslo finished for her.  “They fought and lost.”  He pointed out a cleaver from the kitchen lying in a thick pool of black fluid.  The pieces of a makeshift club lay nearby.  Not far from that he paused and brought the light close to a black lump.  Drawing his other long knife, he bent and flipped the lump over with the tip.  Wrinkled skin and pale, clenched fingers lay bared to the light.

Cyril took a startled step back.  “A hand?”

Rhea pulled a necklace from under her shirt, kissed the stone, murmured a Jodan phrase, and let the necklace settle to the outside of her clothing as the stone began to glow.  She vanished through the bedroom door.  Oslo examined the hand closely, prying at the fingers with the blade of his knife, prodding the skin with the tip.  He looked up when Rhea came back into the room holding a small leather sack.

“From the kitchen,” she said.  “We’ll want to examine it further.”

“Speak for yourself,” Cyril said in a strangled voice.

“Yousib should see it at least,” Oslo said, ignoring Cyril.  Sliding the tip of the knife between palm and clenched fingers, he tipped the hand into Rhea’s sack.  Rhea drew the string at the mouth of the sack tight, and they retreated out into the light of day.

Ismail met them at the doorway, eyeing the sack suspiciously.  “What did you learn?”

“Tell me something,” Oslo said.  “Do all of the attacks take place at night?”

“So far as we know,” Ismail replied.

“Any witnesses?”

Ismail shook his head.

“Tracks?”

“A few,” Ismail admitted.  “They fade quickly, despite all the blood.  Whoever they are, they take pains not to be found.”

“Any center to the attacks?  One side of town or another?”

“No,” Ismail said grudgingly. “We thought of that, but the attacks are distributed across neighborhoods. All in the core of the city, though.  Inside the walls.”

“And no one saw anything,” Cyril commented, disbelief evident in his voice.

“The Children of Night are said to be able to cloud minds,” Ismail said defiantly.  “But remember, people here were barricading their doors against strangers when the plague ran through town.  That practice only became more common after the abductions started.  There were early tales, but none were helpful.  Few were credible.”

“Given what you have here, the range for the credible should be wide, I would think,” Oslo said mildly.  “And the Children of Night can cloud minds.  But I doubt that the Children are at the bottom of this.”

“Oh?” Ismail’s tone dripped skepticism.  “What’s at the bottom of this if not the Children, then?”

“Something different.” Oslo said thoughtfully.

Ismail gave Oslo a sharp look, as if he thought the hunter were mocking him.

Oslo didn’t appear to notice.  He squinted at the late afternoon sun and said, “Shouldn’t we see if we can find Yousib and ask his opinion?”

Ismail sighed.  “Why not?  I don’t expect any success, though.  I don’t believe he’s there to be found, or he would have come to us by now.”

Ismail himself led the way to Yousib’s manor, after first taking the time to have the guard detail seal the site.

“Would you scry to discover the details of what happened at one of the scenes?” Ismail asked with grudging deference.  His original hostile opposition had faded to silence as they walked through the nearly empty streets of Setan.  Evidently the exercise of Jodan runecraft by at least one of the party had given him new insight into the nature of the aid the Young Dux had made available.  A sanctioned practitioner of the mostly lost Jodan arts was considerably more rare and difficult to find than even a small army of troops.

“I’ll scry if I must,” Oslo replied.  “Bending the stream of time is an arduous task at best.  The knowledge I could gain of a single attack might well not be worth the days of preparation and recovery.  If I had a better idea of where to look and when to look to obtain truly key information, and I had exhausted all other alternatives, then I might attempt to scry.  At the moment the cost is too high, the possible benefit too low.”

“Have you known Yousib long?” Ismail asked.

“We met a long time ago,” Oslo said.  “He came to the Fane to access their library.  I was a student there at the time.  We shared some of the same passions for history of the Empire.  And we were sanctioned as lore masters by the Church at the same time.  I haven’t seen him for years.”

They walked for a moment in silence, continuing toward the outline of two squat towers that had begun to grow in prominence on the horizon.  The streets had emptied of traffic as the sun continued to sink toward the horizon, until it seemed as if they walked through a city devoid of population.  If much more time passed without a solution to the abductions, Oslo reflected, that appearance would become reality as the people continued to flee.

“Those towers mark Yousib’s residence,” Ismail said.

“Jodan work,” Althea commented.

Yousib nodded. “Like the governor’s residence, and like most of the structures in the city. With his interest in all things Jodan, Yousib could hardly resist the lure of Setan, with the many old Imperial residences available in the city.  A high cost acquisition before the plague, since his manor still had intact connections to the old aqueducts and sewers.  Such a place is much easier to find, these days.”

A wall encircled the manor, crystals at the surface of the white stone glittering in the evening sun.  Black iron gates loomed to half again the height of a tall man.  Loops of black chain coiled around the center of the gates.  A large bronze bell hung from the wall at the left side of the gate.  Oslo considered the chain, then proceeded to ring the bell with furious enthusiasm while Cyril and Ismail cast nervous glances up and down the empty street.  The manor remained obstinately quiet.  The visible window locations had been covered by the simple expedient of storm shutters nailed over the openings.  Beams crossed the front door, evidently nailed in place from the outside.

“He’s dead or gone,” Ismail told Oslo. “We’ve assumed that for some time.  He answered none of our messages these last few weeks.  So many went missing during the plague.  Even a man of Yousib’s prominence can vanish unremarked in the chaos of the plague.”

“We need to know what happened to him.  I distrust this vanishing.”

“What do you have in mind?” Rhea asked, her eyes alight with sudden anticipation.

“Nothing firm,” Oslo said. “But Ismail and Janaki should have heard from him before this.  Unless he did fall victim to the plague.  It can happen, if he expended his strength trying to stem the tide of sickness.”

“He did help, early on,” Ismail conceded.  “But he was only one man.  His strength only went so far.  And the plague was not so easy to cure.  It could have happened that way.  Indeed, if any of us spared a thought for him during that time, it is what we thought.  Many tried to help against the plague.  Many died in the attempt.  After a while, people began to look to their own.”

Oslo tested the chain and the lock securing the gate and frowned.  He studied the house, then grasped one iron upright and set a foot in a lower crossbar.  He swarmed up the gate with surprising ease for a man wearing mail.  Ismail, Rhea and Cyril watched as Oslo dropped to the other side, then walked up the overgrown path to the main house.

No tracks were visible in the dust and leaves that had begun to encroach on the neat pavestones of the path.  At the front door, he could find no more sign of visitors than he had seen on the approach.  Fading on the wood of the door marked a weather line behind the beam that indicated it had not been moved for some time—probably since it had been nailed across the jamb.

As he looked closely at the door, Oslo caught a hint of musky decay at the hinges.  The sound of a step behind him interrupted his thoughts, and he whirled, one hand dropping to a weapon hilt.

Rhea smiled at him.  “Jumpy today.”

Oslo looked past her to see Cyril and Ismail standing on the other side of the gate, equally unhappy expressions on their faces.  “Cyril decided to stay?”

“I told him to stay.  If we’re going to split, better to have someone watching your back.  It’s getting late.”

Oslo glanced up, watching the bottom arc of the sun touch a distant rooftop.  “Let’s make a quick circuit.”

Rhea followed as Oslo made his way around the grounds, examining the shutters on the windows.  He found no signs of a forced entry, but twice more caught a faint whiff of decay.

“We’d best be getting back,” Rhea said finally.  “We shouldn’t be out on the streets after the sun sets.  Not without more preparation.”

“I know.”  Oslo’s voice was slow, thick, distracted.

They turned back toward the gate.  “I’d like to find the men Yousib hired to seal his house, but I doubt they’d be able to tell us anything.”

“What are you thinking?”  Rhea asked.

Oslo made a saddle of his hands, and boosted her to the top, then swarmed up after her.  He didn’t answer until he had dropped to the ground.  “I’m thinking we need to go in that house.  And I’m thinking I’d like to ask the captain to spare us a small squad for support.”

Ismail stared as Oslo climbed over the gate.  He considered Oslo’s comment, and shrugged expressively.  “Why not?  We’ll come back in the morning and lay the issue of Yousib to rest once and for all.  Then perhaps you can send a messenger to the Young Dux and have him send some troops.”

Oslo paused to examine the manor through the bars of the gate before turning to follow the Captain back toward the governor’s residence.

“Ready to send for more troops?”  Cyril asked lightly.

“Depending on what we find tomorrow, more troops might not be a sufficient answer,” Oslo said mildly.

Ismail’s head whipped around.  “What do you know that you aren’t telling us?”

“I don’t know anything yet,” Oslo said.  “I have suspicions.  Hopefully tomorrow will confirm one or more of those suspicions.  I can tell you this, though.  I don’t believe you have a problem with the Children of the Night.  I do believe that you might well have a problem that’s much worse.”

Ismail didn’t appear to have an answer for that.  The remainder of the journey passed in silence as they raced the setting sun to the relative safety of the governor’s residence.

 

***

 

“What makes you think it’s not the Children of the Night?”  Governor Janaki’s dark gaze darted around the room, settling nowhere, assiduously avoiding the severed hand Oslo had pinned to a low table for examination.  Oslo had carefully and patiently peeled back flaps of skin to expose muscle and tendon.

“The Children are psychic parasites.”  Oslo looked up from the hand but could not catch the governor’s nervous eye.  “They rarely kill in their feeding.  They kill only when they raise a new Child, or for amusement.  Otherwise, they feed on hopes and dreams.  Communities where the Children feed have a high death rate—from suicide.  The Children have never been known to smash down doors and take whole families by force.”

“What does behave in such a way?”  Ismail spoke without the obvious impatience of the governor.  He had been avidly following Oslo’s examination of the hand.  “You said earlier that this hand you found came from nothing human.”

“True,” Oslo said.  “But only partially true.  The hand once belonged to someone as human as you or I.  But that person had become something else.  The flesh and skin and bone have a higher density than a man’s flesh and skin and bone.  Had the owner of the hand been struck by anything but a heavy meat cleaver, probably wielded with the hysterical strength of someone in fear for their life, I doubt the hand would have been severed.  And the hand is almost empty of fluid, as if it had been desiccated.  When a man’s limb is severed, the blood settles in the veins.  Without the heart to provide pressure, the blood has no force to impel it from its natural channels.  This hand was virtually empty of blood before it was severed.”

Oslo paused, noticing that the governor’s face had taken on a greenish cast.

“So?”  Ismail prompted.

“So it’s been through a change.  Do you remember the stains and stench all over the house today?”

“I’m not likely to forget any time soon.”

“It wasn’t blood,” Oslo said.  “At least most of it wasn’t.  The rot.  The decay.  Too soon for human blood.  The smell is different with day-old blood.  And you told me this had happened in the night.  The outside of the door was covered with this black ichor.  As if whatever smashed the door in was covered with it.  Or was secreting it.”

Janaki flinched as Oslo tapped the hand for emphasis.  “That’s inconsistent with the hand.”

“More than one kind of monster,” Rhea said quietly.

“Perhaps,” Oslo admitted.  “I’ve been leaning that direction.  But it’s too early for a conclusion.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  I’ve never read of anything quite like this.  I wish I could have talked to Yousib.”

“You don’t think we’ll find him tomorrow,” Cyril said bluntly.

“I don’t think we’ll find him alive.”

That effectively killed the conversation.  Shortly after the last of them left, Oslo turned back to the hand, considering the process of death, and the nature of man.

 

***

 

Later, long after the shadows had swallowed the streets, Oslo took advantage of the governor’s hospitality to bathe in hot water and change into clean clothing.  Then he made his way toward the heights of the governor’s towers.  Guards patrolled the halls restlessly, and lights burned both inside the residence as well as at the tops of the walls. Janaki wanted to present as formidable a target as possible.  And to the governor’s credit, Oslo had seen signs that the governor had taken in refugees to provide what protection he could.  Oslo thought about what would happen when the last of the city dwellers had gone.  If Janaki had not pulled out of Setan by then, his fortress would become a trap.

Oslo stepped out onto a high balcony overlooking the city.  The lights of the guards were distant.  The city had become a playground of geometrical shadows and soft light.  He looked up into a sky of deep velvet, the starts diamond pinpricks in the tapestry of night.  A touch of light perfume, a nearly soundless tread, and Rhea joined him on the balcony.  Oslo didn’t look away from the stars as she leaned on the balustrade beside him.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  “How many in the city will notice, do you think?  Besides us?”

“A few.  Those who haven’t been mastered by their fear.”

“You give them credit,” Rhea said.  “Even without the vanishings, how does the love of everyday beauty survive the death of innocence?”

“You’re too hard on them,” Oslo said, smiling.  “Innocence survives, though it may be lost for a while.  The child lives on in the man or the woman.  Oh, the burdens of life have a way of lulling the child inside to sleep.  I’ll grant you that.  But it’s there to be awakened.  Look at lovers.  Why do we smile when we listen to a fool in love?  Because the child in that fool is awake again.  All adult caution is cast to the wind.  The adult, for a moment, surrenders to the child.  Fear can fade to wonder when the shadows lift.  The world is big enough for both.”

Rhea laughed, caught his hand in hers, and squeezed.  Oslo’s smile faded as she stepped closer, her grip on his hand tightening.  Rhea was a tall woman.  Oslo didn’t have to bend to kiss her lightly on the corner of her mouth.  Regret touched his face as he pulled away.

Rhea kept her grip on his hand.  “Why do you keep running from me?”

Oslo freed his hand carefully, traced a line from her cheekbone to the corner of her mouth with a gentle finger, and sighed.  “Ah, love.  I’ve never been any good at surrendering.”

He cast a glance out into the deeps of the darkness and took a cautious step back. “We should get some sleep.  It’ll be a hard day tomorrow.”

Rhea turned away from him without a word, vanishing into the depths of the tower.  Oslo followed slowly after.  In his room, Oslo stared mindlessly at the patterned tapestries covering the stone walls, and thought about all those things he would never know, understand, or master.  He considered the nature of his own particular frailties, and he was ashamed.

Shaking himself loose from creeping paralysis, he dug into his pack and produced a small box of thin wafers of unleavened bread.  Fighting melancholy with deliberate intent and focus, he worked into the small hours of the night, carefully scribing symbols of protective power on a double handful of wafers.

When Oslo and Rhea joined Cyril in the courtyard at first light, Cyril looked from one to the other and visibly decided to say nothing.  That silence hanging over them like a pall, they met Ismail and a squad of six men at the gate.  As they set off toward Yousib’s manor, the two common elements dominating the group were a fervent desire to come to grips with a tangible enemy, and fear.

 

 

 

 

***

 

The black chain securing Yousib’s gate resisted all frontal attacks, but the hinges of the gates could not resist the coordinated effort of ten determined and well-equipped invaders.  Oslo led the way to the front door, which also succumbed to the careful application of overwhelming force.

Old rot and decay breathed out of the depths of the house as the door came down.  Ismail and his men shifted uneasily at the associations those odors brought to the surface of their minds.  Oslo ran an approving eye over the heavy axes and heavier armor that Ismail and his men had brought.  The Captain had obviously decided to take no chances after the conversation about the hand.  Cyril and Rhea both wore armor and carried the broadswords both habitually used, but Cyril carried a small shield as well as the dueling dagger he more generally used, displaying unusual caution.

Oslo stepped into the house.  He turned to face the rest of the group still standing around the door.  “Before we begin,” he said, “I’d like to offer any and all here a few words of advice as well as something more tangible.  Fire and light are our chief allies against something which moves only in darkness, but in these enclosed spaces, fire is as much our enemy as whatever we might face.  If we come to grips with a tangible enemy, try to avoid as much direct contact as possible.  The fluids in that house we looked at yesterday carried a taint of death more virulent than the blood of a man dead with the plague.  I’ll give you a protection against this virulence, but do not try its potency.  If you touch anything, wear gloves.  Keep your gloves away from your mouth if you have touched anything.  Touch as little as you can.”

“This protection,” a burly man at the back of the squad said nervously.  “It’s from the Church?”

“Jodan,” Oslo said flatly.  “My own work.  Sanctioned by the Church.  If any wish to refuse I understand.  But I would not ask you to follow where we may lead without offering some protection.”

Faces paled; expressions tightened; feet shifted.  In the end, none of them refused as Oslo opened the small box containing the wafers he had worked on in the small hours of the night.  Even Ismail opened his mouth to receive a wafer on his tongue.

Oslo felt the hot touch of each man’s life as his power embraced them.  Rhea took the protection last.  He felt her power, half-trained as it was, join his own in a jolt of sudden intensity.  His eyes widened at the unexpected strength of the bond, and for an instant he paused, caught outside himself, Rhea’s surprise and fear and pleasure mingling with his own.

Then he closed down the connection, tore his gaze from hers, and turned back to the dark hallway.  He could feel her smiling behind him, and he swore silently at himself, knowing better than to allow any distraction in his focus when working with the power.

“Are we ready?” Cyril asked dryly.  “I’m all stressed up with no one to choke.”

The men laughed, even Ismail was smiling as Oslo glanced back at them.  Then Oslo drew a knife, whispered to the blade, and brought forth white light.  Rhea called light from the blades of both her knife and sword, which she held unsheathed and ready. Everyone else lit small lanterns and hung them from their belts, comforting themselves with the touch of their weapons.  The squad brightened perceptibly at the signs of friendly power in the hands of their allies, though in no way could they be described as cheerful as they followed Oslo into the entry hall of Yousib’s manor.

Boot heels clicked on the stone floor of the ancient Jodan residence.  The roof of the entry hall soared above them.  The walls opened out into a space that swallowed the small group.  The door stood wide open behind them.  A current of warm air flowed past them out the door.  The scent of decay rode the current.  Oslo heard gagging behind him.  Ignoring it, as he ignored his own instinctive response to the odor, he waited and watched and listened as the men quieted down.

He heard nothing stir in the darkness.  The men continued to settle, the small sounds of their breathing, the gentle rasp of mail that accompanied each small movement, the breeze toying idly with dried leaves in the entryway behind them, all faded into a tapestry of sound for the hunter.  Beyond that, the house rewarded the hunter’s patience with nothing but more silence.

At last Oslo led the way forward, his step light, slow and cautious.  Burnished hardwood inlay glowed richly in the light, providing a backdrop for patterns of Jodan sigil tiles.  Varying in width from the palm of a woman’s hand to the length of a man’s forearm, the angular tiles held a variety of symbols traced in flowing Jodan script.  Oslo paused, studying the patterns structured on the walls.

“A collector?  Not a surprise given his background,” Cyril commented.

“A creator,” Oslo corrected gently.  “These are new.  He was experimenting with the relationship between the tiles, locking each element into a greater whole, treating each tile and bound element of power like a colored stone in a mosaic.”

“To what end?” Ismail asked.

“Privacy.  Yousib appears to be keenly interested in his privacy.”

“These tiles provide protection against scrying, you mean?” Ismail asked. “For the house?  How solid a defense?”

“The power that Yousib has assembled here would probably interfere with scrying over the entire city.  I know of little that could break past the barrier.”  Oslo didn’t sound particularly happy as he said this.

As the implications hit, most of the expressions grew more grim.

“So you think Yousib…” One of the men in the back began.

Oslo cut him off.  “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he said roughly.  His mouth had tightened to a thin, hard line.  “But be ready.”

He turned and led them deeper into the ancient house, the echoes of their footsteps loud in the silence.  The entry hall opened out into a great room.  Other halls opened out from it.  Above, the ceiling rose to vaulting, open beams.  Long tables stood at the sides of the open space, decorative crystal glittering in the light, holding withered bunches of dying flowers.  Another table stood in the center of the room.  High walls of close-fitted stone rose into the shadows, the gleaming squares of sigil tiles locked into careful patterns that filled all the empty space.  Black trails crisscrossed the floor.  The faint sweet perfume of the flowers gave the heavier sent of decay a cloying mask.

Oslo heard retching behind him as he eased into the room.  He had smelled worse in his day, but the deliberation of the flowers chilled him.  He studied the unfamiliar patterns of the tiles that stretched across the walls.

“How much privacy can one man need?” Cyril asked dryly.

Oslo grinned in spite of himself and glanced at Cyril as Rhea answered.  “These aren’t a protection against scrying.”

“This is what Yousib was trying to hide,” Oslo said.

“This is where he made them,” Rhea said.

Oslo’s grin had faded.  “Something isn’t right,” he said as he studied the tiles.

It came on them in a rush, bowling out of the darkness of an empty hall.  Oslo’s words died in his throat as he drew his other blade with his free hand and turned to meet the threat.  Some of the men standing behind Oslo froze, but two went out to meet the threat, while two more turned to watch the other corridors warily.

It moved in a crouching run, hands occasionally assisting its progress against the stones of the floor.  A black, shriveled figure, the distorted outlines of its flesh looked like clotted lumps melting from a wax doll left too long in the sun.  In spite of joints grotesquely swollen to the size of gourds, the thing’s lunge was faster and more powerful than a man’s could have been.  Its mouth opened and closed mindlessly on the jagged stumps of shattered teeth as it moved.  Its flexing hands were gnarled and twisted like the grasping roots of ancient trees.  Tendons stood out from its flesh like the ropes of a terrible machine.  It reared up as it neared the group, and Ismail swatted it to the floor with his axe.  It flopped back.  As it hit the floor, a second man stepped in and took a two-handed swing.  The heavy blade bit into the figure’s chest with a solid sound, as if the axe had struck hardwood.

Oslo ran forward as it struck out from the ground, swinging its arm in a horizontal arc, knocking the feet of the second man out from under him.  As he fell with a crash of mail and a hiss of expelled breath, Ismail stepped close and took the creature’s arm off with his axe.  Dark fluid fanned out across the floor, spurting out of the cut and then subsiding.  A smell of rot mushroomed in the room. Ismail stumbled back, gagging.

The thing rolled away from Ismail and rose to its feet.  Oslo sheathed his weapon and spoke a word in Jodan.  The black figure stopped, turning its head toward Oslo.  Oslo shouted a phrase in Jodan, his voice rolling through the great room, growing beyond natural volumes as the tiles amplified his voice.  Multicolored sparks of light flared to life and rolled in waves across the face of the sigil tiles on the wall at his back.

The thing bent its legs and launched itself at Oslo.  Cyril met the flying attack with a body block that drove it off target and back to the floor.  His sword fell across its head and shoulders like a whip as it tried to rise, using its single arm to lever itself up from the floor.  It ignored Cyril’s blows, though the white of bone showed through several deep gashes.  It rose to its feet as Oslo’s voice reached a crescendo.

For an instant, the entire room incandesced in a massive burst of light.  Everyone turned instinctively from the intensity of the light.  Then with a roar of protest, every tile in the room shattered.  Darkness swept over the small band, covering even the light of the lanterns and Rhea and Oslo’s less natural lights.  When the darkness lifted, only Ismail, Oslo, Cyril, Rhea, and one lone guardsman remained in the room with the fragments of hundreds of sigil tiles and the huddled black shape of their attacker.  Fading shouts and the falling echo of men in full armor sprinting for their lives announced where the others had gone.

Oslo sagged to his knees.  He cradled his head in his hands and breathed with the deep, irregular rhythm of a distance runner at the end of his resources.  Cyril stepped closer to the unmoving form of the attacker as Rhea approached Oslo.  Cyril prodded the body with the tip of his sword, watching for the slightest sign of movement.

“You did it,” Ismail said disbelievingly.

Oslo looked up at Ismail, his eyes sunk into deep hollows, but he said nothing.

Rhea pulled off a gauntlet and laid a hand across his mouth.  “Shh. Rest.”  She looked up at Ismail.  “We should pull back.”

Oslo caught Rhea by the wrist and gently pulled her hand from his mouth.  “No,” he said.  “We can’t.  We have to push forward, find the center.”

“I don’t…” Ismail stopped in mid-sentence, turning toward the footstep they had all heard from the largest passageway at the end of the hall.  A tall, thin figure strode into the room.  He wore a loose white robe of fine silk, but enough could be seen of the wasted figure beneath the gown to indicate the emaciation of the body that wore it.  A gaunt man, his body seemed to have been purged of all excess flesh.

When he spoke, the skin of his cheeks drew tight against the teeth underneath.  “Oslo. It is good that you have come.  The master hopes you will join him below.”  His voice was a weak, arid breeze.

Oslo rose wearily to his feet.  Cyril was edging closer to the newcomer, his weapons still at the ready.

Ismail raised his axe and started in that direction as well.  He glanced at his remaining man before looking back at the newcomer.  “Othre, back me up.  What kind of man would live in this house of death?”

Othre nodded, and took up a position to Ismail’s left.

“Look at his eyes,” Oslo advised softly.  “This is no man.”

The newcomer kept his unblinking gaze on Oslo as the hunter approached, apparently unaffected by the light still shining from Rhea’s weapons.  Cyril cursed aloud as the light revealed gray, withered balls in the man’s eye sockets.

“I am my master’s herald,” the newcomer said.  “My days as a mortal man have ended.”

Rhea pulled her gauntlet back on as she walked beside Oslo, but her eyes never left the face of the dead man in front of her.

“Who is your master?” Oslo asked.

The herald cocked his head.  “You must know.  Why else would you be here, in the Master’s house?”

Ismail’s hands flexed on the haft of his axe, but he looked back at Oslo.  “What do we do?”

“We follow,” Oslo said.  “The herald proves this isn’t over yet.”

The messenger turned and led them deeper into the house, to a dry cistern.  In the bottom of the cistern, a hole gaped where the drain had once been.  A passage led down into the earth below the cistern, sloped away into the darkness until rough-hewn stone opened out into a large passageway of the familiar mortarless Jodan stonework.

“The sewers,” Ismail said with a curse.  “That’s how they could move unseen.”

No one answered him.  Everyone was busy watching the movement at the edges of the shadows created by their lights.  The messenger guided them along narrow walkways over the streams of sewage, through long passageways and up stairs cut into the stone bedrock.  Cyril nudged Othre, pointing to black forms as they passed, floating in the sewage or lying at the edges of walkways, apparently having dropped in mid step.  “They failed when Oslo shattered the tiles.”

“Sure,” Othre said.  “But what about our friend up front?  How many like him does his Master have?”

“Did you expect Oslo to do all of the work?” Cyril asked mildly.  “We’ll have the opportunity to earn our keep yet.”

If Othre or Ismail met this pronouncement with any enthusiasm, they concealed it well.

The messenger led them up until they came out into a vast chamber, ringed with torches.  Oslo stopped, scanning the chamber, noting the runes carved carefully into each stone.  The pattern of the power in the rooms shadowed the patterns in the room above. Oslo studied the arrangement, roughly estimating at least ten times the number of runes and a corresponding power an order of magnitude beyond what he’d seen above in the house.

The edges of the light flicked across shivering ripples of disturbed water without ever revealing the source of the disturbance as the messenger led them down a long central walkway toward a large raised platform at the back of the room. Given the size of the room, the torches hid as much as they illuminated, bathing the room in a half-light of shadows everywhere but where the lights of the group banished the darkness.  They came to the platform.  The messenger stepped smoothly aside.  Oslo spotted an old throne in a recess in the back of the chamber, behind a long low table or altar that had been covered in black silk.  He stepped up on the platform.

A figure stirred in the shadows lying across the throne.  “Oslo.  I’m glad you’ve come.  I need your help.  I’m close, but I’m still missing the key.”

“Yousib,” Oslo said, his voice flat with pain.  “What have you done?”

“Learned much.  But not enough.  Not yet.”  The voice rising out of the darkness rustled like autumn leaves.  Yousib did not so much sound like an old man, as he did not truly sound like a man at all.  Had a dry, cold wind been given a voice, that voice would have been indistinguishable from Yousib’s.

A splash and sloshing displacement of water echoed through the chamber, then died away to the murmuring stillness of the sewers.  Oslo drew one of his knives, spoke a word, and held the glowing blade high.  The shadows around the throne stubbornly refused to flee.  Yousib’s face continued to wear a mask of darkness.  “Why did you make them, Yousib? Why have you done what you have done?”

“I needed to learn.  I didn’t know enough.  I was afraid.  I spent so much of my strength on them during the plague.  I saved lives.  Surely I could take a few back when I needed.  And I needed them so badly.  I needed to know.”

“You were a great man,” Oslo said. “A scholar.  Why would you pervert your knowledge this way?”

“Perversion?  My work here is no perversion.  Call it rather an extension.  Death itself falls before the light of knowledge.  I know that to be true.”

The sounds of more movement in the water ran through the chamber. Oslo paused as the echoes faded.  “Where is Kara?”

The figure sprawling on the throne said nothing.

“She didn’t go away, did she?”

“She went away,” said the voice out of the darkness sheltering the throne.  “But she came back too early.  I was weak.  Too weak to help her when the sickness came.  I tried.  Forgive me, but I tried everything.  And she went away again.  But I’ll bring her back.  Once I know enough, I’ll bring her back.”

“You know as well as I that the Jodan themselves never conquered death.  Let her go, Yousib.”

“No!”  The vice became a howling wind.  Echoes rippled back and forth through the chamber.  “Look at the Children of Night,” Yousib continued in his dry voice once the echoes died to murmurs.  “They came out of that time.  They conquer death.  Save when you hunt them.”

“They feed on the innocent to sustain themselves,” Oslo said.  “What kind of life is that?  Are they truly alive?  What rises is only a shell of the person that fell, a mask of memories over a shadow of death.  They are not what they once were, Yousib.  You know that.  Would you make Kara a monster?”

After a moment of silence, broken only by the drip of water, the voice came again out of the shadows.  “I will succeed where the Jodan failed.  I’ll learn from their mistakes and my own.  The process will be perfect before I bring her back.  I would never harm her.  I love her.  I can’t live without her.  I won’t.”

“Yousib…”

“No.”  The figure on the throne jerked upright to its feet, like a puppet pulled by strings.  “I had hoped you would help me, Oslo.  But I can see that your mind is closed to me.  I’ve learned much.  I can’t let you interfere.  Walk away.  Don’t make me hurt you.”

Cyril poked Oslo in the back.  Oslo felt the poke even through his armor.  He didn’t take his eyes from Yousib.  “What?”

“We have company.”

Oslo could hear them without looking around.  The murmuring of the water had increased as more of Yousib’s creations made their way into the chamber.  If he looked around, he knew he would see pale, withered faces, expressions avid with a hunger for the life that had been denied them, edging into the light.

Oslo walked steadily toward the throne.  Rhea and Cyril followed.  Yousib paced slowly toward them.  Behind them they could hear the sounds of the circle tightening.  Ismail and Othre turned to look back at the gathering dead, their weapons at the ready.

The shadows fled at last from Yousib’s face.  Oslo flinched at the black eyes, and the pale, gaunt features.  “What have you done to yourself?” he asked.

“You know,” Yousib told him mockingly.  “I tested the processes first on the dead, as I developed them.  Doing no harm.  But I needed fresher and fresher dead as I perfected the process.  I needed to know, you understand?  How could they grudge me their dead when I had spent my strength protecting as many of them as I could?  And in the end, when I felt myself weakening, and I had the process so nearly in hand, I knew that I had to take the final step.  I had to learn on the living.  And so I did.  Did I cost them more than I gave them?  At last, I knew I had to assure myself the only way possible that the process would work.  Then once I had conquered death, I realized that I still had more to learn.”

One claw-like hand pulled the silk covering back from the altar before the throne, revealing a glass-topped coffin.  Through the glass Oslo saw the pale features of a beautiful woman, just past adolescence.  She could almost have been sleeping.

Yousib’s hand caressed the glass over the woman’s face.  The long nails clicked against the transparent surface.  “You see how I have preserved her.  But still, the process must be perfect.  I cannot sacrifice her beauty.  It is all that sustains me.”

Oslo lunged in that moment, but fast as he was, Yousib caught him by the wrist, holding him effortlessly.  His face empty of expression, Oslo drew the other blade from the back of his belt and struck underhand.  Yousib’s free hand caught him by the wrist in a grip like a band of iron.

“You see?” Yousib asked, his voice pitiless.  “I am more than human, not less.  I am not bound by the same laws that bind you.”

Oslo felt the grip tighten on his wrists and closed his eyes.  He spoke a single word in Jodan.  The blades of both knives, which had been burning with a bright light, incandesced and burst into white, searing flame.  Yousib flinched.  In that moment Oslo broke his opponent’s grasp and struck, plunging one blade up, under Yousib’s ribs and into where his heart once beat, and thrusting the other blade into his throat.

Yousib opened his mouth to scream.  White flame vomited forth.  His eyes burned from within.  White flame ran down his cheeks like tears.

Oslo swept Yousib’s feet out from under him as he convulsed under the cleansing flame.  He knelt on Yousib’s body, holding him down as he writhed and twisted and the flame devoured him from within.  Behind Oslo, Rhea and Cyril held against a rush of Yousib’s creations.  Rhea shouted Jodan words into the darkness, and a brilliant light rose like the sun in that dark place.  The creatures drew back, hands raised to block the searing light, but the stopped where the light faded, prowling through the shadows.

“They’re still moving,” Cyril shouted.  “Would have been nice if his creations fell with him!”

Oslo rose from a dark outline that had burnt into the white stone of the platform.  The blades of his knives had faded to their former glow.  Soot blackened his armored shins and thighs.

Oslo looked at the wall, studying the power framed through the structure of runes.  He knew he didn’t have the strength to use brute force to overload the runes as he had in the lesser room above.  Even Yousib would have found it difficult to focus the power held in that room.  “He must have bound his power into a keystone,” Oslo said slowly, thinking out loud.

He measured the movement in the shadows.  After a moment, he turned his attention to the coffin.  One hand trailed streamers of light across the glass top, and the light spread, blossoming in intricate patterns.  Oslo studied the patterns in silence.

“Oslo?”

Oslo blinked, shook himself, then looked down at Rhea’s concerned expression. “It’s beautiful,” he said softly.  “I didn’t expect that.”

“Is it the key?”

Without answering, Oslo reached down to the patterns crawling with illuminated traces of power.  The patterns shifted under his hand, blending with the runes scribed on the transparent surface of the coffin.  Beads of sweat appeared on Oslo’s forehead, though his expression remained serene.  The patterns continued to shift, though they moved ever more slowly.  Lines of light became visible, stretching out to the stones and to the prowling undead in a vast glowing web.

At last the patterns ceased to move.  A trembling pulse came into the light, like a faltering heartbeat.  Oslo looked through the glass at the perfect features held at the moment of death, then one gauntleted fist smashed through the glass and the runes of light that covered it.  The light flashed.  A thin wail could be heard as the light snapped out of existence.  In the silence that followed the bodies of the undead could be heard dropping into the water like so many loads of rotting meat.

Rhea murmured in Jodan.  The light burning from her weapons faded to more tolerable levels.

Cyril sighed and began cleaning his blade.

Oslo drew the silk covering back over the shattered coffin lid and the empty shell that waited inside.  “We’ll need to come back,” he said.  “The runes here must be eliminated, the stones broken, the power erased, lest someone else find this place and take up Yousib’s work.  But not now.  We need to rest.  I need to rest.”

Ismail led the way toward the light.  No one in the party stepped lightly among the fallen bodies.  No one looked too closely at the cost of one man’s obsession.

“I’m not sure I want to meet any more old friends of yours, Oslo,” Cyril said as they began the long climb back toward the city.

“He was a great man,” Rhea said.  “He spent his strength trying to save people from the plague, and lost the one he loved because of it.  When do you think he became a monster?”

“I think it was when he stopped loving Kara,” Oslo said thoughtfully.

“But he loved her even after she died,” Cyril protested.  “You could see that he did what he did because he loved her.”

“He wanted her,” Oslo disagreed.  “Maybe he always did, and mistook the wanting for love.  He wanted to possess her, to own her beauty.  He stopped loving her when he began to see her not as a person to be loved, but rather as a thing to be possessed.  Love became greed.  Greed became fear of loss.  It was a natural progression from seeing her as a thing to be owned to seeing everyone else as things to be used.  He became a monster the day his love died, and his fear of losing his prized possession possessed him in turn.”

Cyril didn’t have anything to say to that, and Rhea seemed lost in her own thoughts, so they climbed on in silence, back through the empty house, until at last they came into the street.

When the three of them stepped into the sunlight, tired and filthy from their descent and return, they saw soldiers ranking themselves into lines of battle on the grounds of the manor.  Some or all of Ismail’s deserting squad had evidently contacted Janaki.  Janaki had responded.  He met the group at the doorway, incongruously clad in chain mail and carrying an axe.

He stopped Oslo with a hand on his shoulder.  “Is it done?” he asked gently.

“The worst of it is over,” Oslo said.  “But post a guard.  We’ll need to cleanse what lies below, and that won’t be a short or easy task.”

Janaki nodded.  Ismail began detailing men to guard the manor.  After what the city had been through, Oslo doubted that many would want to descend into such a place any time soon, but he believed in taking no chances.

As Janaki and the rest of his men escorted them back through the city streets, Rhea caught Oslo’s left hand, removed his gauntlet, took off her own glove as they walked, and twined her fingers through his.  Oslo did not resist.

That night, the city slept behind doors still barred against the unknown horrors of the night, but when the morning light came, everyone in that place could feel the difference. The shadow had lifted, and the city knew freedom from the taste of fear again, if only for the moment.

And for the moment, it was enough.