Monday, November 19, 2007

Chapter 10d: Calling all the Faithful

Piet Lithor looked out the window, at the crowd of people gathered outside the temple. Hundreds of blank eyes stared back. Hundreds of arms grasped out, as though they could reach through the yards of empty air, past the invisible line they couldn’t cross. Hundreds of mouths opened their hungry maws at the few remaining men and women trapped within the temple. “Look at all the people gathered around the temple, brother Cylus. It reminds me of the days when Piet Pearson preached the gospel. Oh, but he could draw a crowd.”

Brother Cylus looked out the window. “Yes, Piet Lithor. Piet Pearson did have a way with the masses.”

A baby cried from among the pews while a mother rocked it back and forth, calming the child.

“Yeah, you got a hell of a crowd out there, Piet.” The angry voice belonged to Lurok Bos Spielter, a local merchant mariner and owner of almost a dozen ships. His tithes had payed for many of Piet Lithor’s excesses. Now he looked as though he planned to make Piet Lithor earn the money.

Brother Cylus bristled and opened his mouth, ready to give Bos Spielter a lesson in manners, but Piet Lithor halted the angry priest with a wave of his hand.

Bos Spielter twisted the end of his bushy mustache, his eyes shifting from the old priest to Piet Lithor as if the old man was of no consequence. “I don’t mean to sound rude or speak heresy here, Piet, but exactly what have my tithes bought me? Year after year I dumped coins in your lap in the hopes of gaining some favor from the almighty Vaspar, but I got up this morning to find that your god left me with nothing. Got any answers, priest?”

Just a day ago, Piet Lithor would have ruined the man for saying such things. The words still infuriated the Piet, and he wanted nothing more than to throw the arrogant merchant out of the temple and into the ghastly crowd. But in the man’s ranting heresy, he saw a reflection of himself. An example of how others must see him. It made him feel disgusted more at his own tainted soul than at Bos Spielter. None of that showed as he looked the merchant in the eye. His voice rolled with more authority than he felt. “You are still alive Lurok. Maybe those tithes bought you a fate that is better than those out there. Maybe all those coins bought you salvation from a fate that is worse than death.”

“Yeah, Piet? Well, I look out there, into that crowd, and I see a bunch of faces. Some faces I even recognize. I look out there, and I see that we’re a little school of minnows surrounded by sharks. So, you will have to forgive me if I miss the blessings that the almighty Vaspar has bestowed upon me.”

“He has made the ground holy, Bos Spielter! He has given us sanctuary.” Brother Cylus spoke up, an angry quiver in his voice.

Bos Spielter waved his hand in the air, brushing the comment away. “He’s given us a beautiful tomb, priest; a place where we can starve to death in the holiness of his presence. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel all that fortunate right now.”

Before Brother Cylus could argue the point any further, a loud gong reverberated through the temple. All the men cringed at the unexpected noise, and the baby began wailing from among the pews with renewed vigor.

“The bell of Saint Renando. Someone is ringing the bell.” Brother Cylus' voice shook with fear. The temple bell gonged again.

Bos Spielter twisted his mustache all the harder and growled. “Someone better get up there and stop whatever idiot is pulling that cord, or we’re gonna have everyone in the city waiting outside this temple to get it. Though I’m not really sure if it matters at this point.”

The three men rushed to the stairs leading to the bell tower, Piet Lithor leading as the bell chimed once again.

He had run only halfway up the stairs, sweat shining on his face, air heaving in and out of his lungs, when he halted and yelled, “Stop ringing the bell! You’re calling them all down on us! Stop ringing the bell!”

An exited voice, the voice of a young man, called down to him. “Piet Lithor! There are men moving around on the walls of the castle. Guards, I think.”

The youth continued to chatter as Piet Lithor climbed the rest of the stairs to the open bell tower. It rose above the trees, giving a bird’s eye view of the entire city. A young man stood with the bell tower rope in his hand, held taut, and pointed toward the castle. Though his eyes lacked the strength they once held, Piet Lithor looked across and saw guards rushing along the top of the outer castle wall.

“Is that rope they are carrying?”

Piet Lithor had no idea how the merchant could see such details through the haze of drizzle that thickened the air between the temple and the castle. Not that it mattered. What did matter was that men still occupied the castle, and guards at that. They still stood a chance of rescue if only someone would notice their presence.

He turned back to the young man. “What is your name, my son?”

The boy smiled, “Tollis Mayer, son of Royce Mayer.”

Piet Lithor gave the young man an equally wide smile and replied, “Well Tollis, keep pulling that rope until someone spots us.”

He turned back to watch the guards on the castle wall and said, “You may have just saved all our lives.”

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Chapter 10c: Running Blind

A faint tinkling, the sound of a muffled bell , drifted through the air. The noise repeated again and again, getting louder with each recurrence. Shannai frowned at her brother, who shrugged and looked into the distance, toward the odd sound.

As the sound increased, Marchas stepped forward and notched an arrow into his bow, nodding to Shannai to do the same.

With arrows notched and pointed at the ground, they stood and waited as shapes took form in the misty rain. The outline of the damned stumbled forward, becoming clearer as the group marched toward Shannai and her brother. A dozen pale bodies shuffled forward. The bell noise became obvious as an indentured servant, scarred with the shoulder branding of a slave, shuffled with the crowd. A length of chain shackled to his leg dragging behind him.

Marchas raised his bow, then lowered it. He grabbed his sister by the elbow and pulled her away from the slow-moving crowd. “There’s got to be a better way than this! I’m not shooting anybody till I have to. We run. We run till we don’t have a choice, then we’ll do what we have to.”

Shannai nodded, fear filling her with anxious energy and tears clouding her vision.

Her memories became a blur of rain, running, and terror as her brother led her through the city, always forced to move deeper into the metropolis, towards the Barclave Mountain and Castle Renier. Her brain blocked out everything around her, turning her into a sleepwaker with one thing in mind; following Marchas. She could ignore the corrupted humanity around her. She could pretend the city wasn’t a lair for the damned. She could just continue to follow her brother and everything would be all right. Marchas would take care of her. He always did.

“Don’t just sit there. Run!” The noise burst through her half conscious mind with explosive force, breaking her out of her melancholy. Her brother screamed at a woman as he notched another arrow.

Tears streamed down her face as she raised her own bow and released an arrow into the crowd. She didn’t look to see whom she hit, if she even hit anyone. As soon as the shaft left her bow her gaze focused on the weapon and she notched another arrow.

Suddenly everything changed. A scream. A burst of blue light. Her brother flying through the air.

How did you do that? She asked herself as she stared at the sleeping woman.

The wizard had come in and saved the day. Just when she thought they were about to be initiated into the ranks of the dead, the wizard had shown up, clearing a path through the crowd with bursts of fire. He had picked up the witch, while Shannai helped her brother stand. Then they raced to the front gate of the castle and safety.

The door opened to the small room, breaking her thoughts. She straightened as Wellan walked through. He looked down at the sleeping woman, then at Shannai. A smile crossed his face as he waved her into the corridor. She pushed herself from the wall and followed.

“How is your brother?”

She shrugged, “A little sore, but he’ll live.”

Shannai looked down at her feet, not sure what she should say to the wizard. Finally she mumbled, “Thanks for saving us out there.”

He gave her a fatherly grin. “Think nothing of it. I felt Madame Rachelle’s burst of power and couldn’t help but follow it to its source. It looks like we were both at the right place at the right time.”


His grin melted, replaced by a more serious expression. “What are you doing in Madame Rachelle’s room?”

She didn’t look up from the floor, watching her booted toe make short arcs on the tiles. “Nothing…I just…I was wondering why she did that to Marchas. Why she slung him against that tree like that…and how.”

His comforting smile returned, “I’m here to ask the same question. To at least find out how she did it. As far as why…did you see the child, the one she fell on top of when she feinted?”

“No. I was too busy helping my brother.” Tears blurred her vision as she asked the question. A question she feared she already knew the answer to. “Who was she?”

His smile fell again, replaced by a sad frown. “I will have to ask her to know for sure, but I believe it was her daughter.”

He held up a small pendant on a gold chain. “I found this around the child’s neck. It is Madame Rachelle’s symbol.”

A tear rolled down Shannai’s cheek. She brought her eyes up to face the wizard and whispered, “I don’t think I need to speak to Madame Rachelle when she wakes up.”

She turned and strode down the corridor, not looking back as she said, “I’m gonna check on my brother now.”

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Chapter 10b: Into the Streets

When they had gathered their things, they raced back down the stairs and opened the front door. Marchas stopped in the doorway.

Shannai adjusted the straps on her pack and asked, “What’s wrong? Why are you stopping?”

“There’s nobody on the streets.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

He shook his head; eyes never leaving the silent road. “Yeah, normally it would be, but something just doesn’t seem right about this.” With a shrug, he stepped into the street. She followed close behind, looking from side to side, but seeing no one.

Other than the wind whipping through the empty road and the drip of water from the drizzle, the city stood eerily silent. Their boots clicked against the wet stone as they traveled through the streets, walking close to the buildings and under the eaves; staying out sight and the weather. As they crossed an alleyway, Shannai glanced between the buildings. A black cloud of smoke rose in the distance, deep within the forest of buildings. She stopped her brother and pointed. He looked at it and shrugged. Not our problem.

A splash drew their attention. The gray form of a man stumbled across the road, staggering in their direction. He approached another ten feet before Marchas stepped back, pulling Shannai behind him. The man’s throat glistened red with blood around a hole where his Adam’s apple had once been. His mouth hung open and his eyes stared at them, their moist shine coated in a dull film. His movements reminded Shannai of Bos Talle.

Marchas kept his focus on the stranger as he reached back and grasped her arm, his grip painfully tight. He pulled her with him as he raced under the eaves, away from the grisly sight. The man followed, but his wobbly gait couldn’t keep up. Within moments he became a faint shadow within the drizzle.

After a few blocks Shannai stopped. “What’s going on, Marchas?”

He shook his head, running his fingers through his damp hair. “I don’t know, but something is seriously wrong.” His gaze traveled from her to the door of the shop they had stopped in front of. Carved into the door was the symbol of a bow and knife, painted in red and black.

He put his hand on the handle and turned to her. “I think that this would be a good time to get some better weapons.”

Stopping didn’t seem like one of his better ideas, but she followed him into the store anyway. He paused in the doorway, causing her to run into his back. Her mouth opened to grumble a complaint and froze as she looked around his shoulder.

A thin man slumped over the counter, his face lying in a pool of blood. She put her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.

Marchas pulled her through the door and pushed it shut. “Stay right there,” he said, striding to the counter.

He placed the back of his hand in front of the man’s mouth. “He’s dead. It looks like he almost turned himself inside out with his vomiting.”

She still had her hand over her mouth as she looked up at the ceiling, trying not to look at the bloody site; trying not to be sick.

Shannai looked back at her brother as he moved away from the body. Several short bows hung from the wall at the far end of the counter. He grabbed two of them, then ran to another wall and grasp two empty quivers, filling them from a barrel of arrows sitting next to the counter. He handed her one of the quivers and slung the other over his back, then he strung both bows and handed her one.

She didn’t say a word as he worked on the bows, and neither did he. His silence indicated that he was brooding about what needed to be done. Her brother was a kind and jovial man, but when stressed he would quickly become vicious with his comments. She decided to let him work instead of starting a fight.

On the way out, he stopped and grabbed a sword prominently displayed in a plaque on the wall.

The wet streets remained silent as they stepped out of the shop.

“We’ll go to the South Gate. It’s the closest one.” Marchas whispered over his shoulder as he walked south, staying near the buildings.

Shannai looked at the quite buildings and a nervous flutter crept up her spine, making her want to cower in the doorway of the arms shop. A noise made her look back, into the shop. The storekeeper stood, his face a blood-caked mess. Like a man waking from a dream, he looked around his shop. His eyes fixed on her. His mouth opened and his arms rose. He stumbled towards her.

She gasped, grabbing the door and slamming it shut with a thunderous bang.

Marchas twisted around. “What in the hell did you do that for?”

“The shopkeeper…he…he got up…he was coming for me…he…”

The anger in Marchas’ face melted away. His hand grasped hers with a reassuring squeezed as he turned around and pulled her behind him. They continued, hand in hand.

Something was wrong, seriously wrong. The fluttering in her stomach grew with every step, until she thought she would freeze with terror. She saw a ghoul in every shadow, a walking corpse in every alley, felt a cold hand grasp the back of her neck with each gust of wind. They needed to get out of the city as quickly as possible. She released her brother's hand. The reasuring gesture would only slow them down.

They had only gone a few blocks before a noise caught her attention. She stopped, causing Marchas to stop and turn. A what the hell’s wrong now look covered his face. She put her finger to her lips and cocked her head to the side, listening for the sound.

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