Duma of St. Ashleigh of The Henge ultimately confronted the banshee in a grove of storm blasted willows that shadowed an otherwise idyllic bend of creek. The wailing spirit beleaguered the remote village of Troutend from St. Murphy’s Day through the following fortnight, claiming three lives (the resident vicar, included) and rendering a quarter of the population blind and deaf. By the time Duma arrived, it had retreated to the hills, exhausted by its unchecked rage.
Droning noises—even liturgical canting—gave Duma a headache that pinched the sides of his crown, and the banshee’s keening only worsened his generally exasperated mood. But by the time he fought his way past cluster after cluster of the scourging shrubs, and tromped through innumerable mosquito-infested tarns, Duma was incensed like a crow in a fisherman’s net. In short, the priest probably used more salt than needed to dissolve and dispel the angry, moaning thing.
Returning to the center of his parish in Hanover, he sat in Ferri’s Tea House on a back bench in the corner of the room and fiddled with the blue wooden hand knotted onto the leather cord he wore around his neck, brooding over a cooling tumbler of heavy tea.
“Piss off,” he said. At first, he addressed a lonely apparition that shimmered beside him on the bench. He could dismiss the life echo easily enough; it did him no harm aside from ruining his drink. But then Duma repeated himself with more authority, this time to the man in hooded leathers who stood before him, wiping foam from his pencil moustache.
“Tell me of your orders, curate.” The man sat down, pushing a lock of black hair back under his hood.
“Again and again, in the Great and Friendly Name of Osgood, I command you to piss off.” Duma held the Pendact to the man so the eye in the center of the blue hand was directed just above his head. Lucky thing for the rogue he was not undead, else the eye would have smote him.
“Come on, Duma, it’s been…three…four years, what?”
“It’s been seven hundred and nineteen days,” Duma clarified.
“I see. Well, what about forgive and forget?”
“Forgetting is part of no order, Quillton.”
“It’s part of my order,” the rogue declared.
Duma pursed his lips with contempt.
“My personal code, at least. But listen,” Quillton leaned in, “I have acquired curious knowledge and offer you a proposition.”
Duma downed his cold tea, shivering with the condensed alcohol, and attempted to stand. “Another time, another day. I’ve just returned from the hinterlands and could use a respite in the choir loft, if you don’t mind.”
“Let me get you another, Friend, so I can tell you this proposition.” Quillton waved over the tea girl.
“I won’t do another healer’s job,” Duma said, settling back down irritably. “Not again. Not ever. I won’t.”
“I know,” Quillton confided.
There was always a proposition, in tea houses and churchyards, libraries and brothels. Quillton and Duma, and others of their habits, met in these quiet places to receive a proposition, a scheme that could never be avoided, as if they were created for it. Nevertheless, these proposals were not without their great rewards. For Quillton, these prospects subsidized a lifestyle too comfortable to be met by the day-to-day misdemeanors of his trade. Duma, a holy man, certainly didn’t need the money, or the occasional glory—and uncommon for a holy man of his stature, he didn’t want them. What Duma wanted, aside from eternal salvation, was a good and holy death. The chance for such a reward was always high with these propositions. Of course, drinking cup after cup of heavy tea was easier.
The tea girl brought her cart around and Quillton chose a refill of the bitter style with the wormwood foam that numbs the lips. Duma selected something lighter, as he had been at the tea house most of the day, accompanied by a dry mouth and a dull headache.
“There we go, curate. Satiate yourself.” Duma looked at the tea, then to the ghost still at his side. “Rebuke,” he said, and the ghost went away, huddling beside some other warm body.
They wordlessly sipped their drinks, but giddiness began to leak from the bandit, and although they had a history of partnerships, the cleric had never seen the bandit behave so. “Well, you can hardly sit still. Let me have it.”
“Gastar,” Quillton said, his voice barely audible under the room’s din.
Duma went pallid. He scanned the patrons behind Quillton with measured eyes. He stroked his sunken and smooth face in anxious contemplation, glancing at his sides. None of the other tea drinkers blinked or stirred. Even the ghost across the room was unmoved. It was a small relief. To the common folk, Gastar, the name and notion, were blasphemous, only to be discoursed and interpreted by the holy philosophers. “Is it safe?” Duma murmured.
“I believe not, but would you have accepted a written invitation from me?” The thief allowed the tea foam to linger.
Duma swirled the remains of his drink, watching the leaves settle into meaningless arrangements. “Very well. If you can’t speak of anything here, to the guildhouse?”
“Black carded, I’m afraid. Rather, my room at the hostel?”
Duma sipped the very last drops from the tumbler. “If you have food, that will do.”
“I have a sausage. Bear, I think. You aren’t fasting, are you?”
“I wasn’t. But, I’ll have to hear your proposition first.”
“Too bad,” the thief said with a dangerous grin. “You look hungry, but then I’m sure you always do.”
The thief and cleric arrived at the hostel just before the bells of dusk began to ring.
Strolling the lanes of Hanover, they behaved more intoxicated then they were; a classic disguise. To those along their path who might have been paying attention, it looked as though the thief was on the verge of swindling the cleric, or possibly the other way around. For the most part, Hanover was free of violent crime—partially due to ladies and gentlemen like Quillton—so if they were noticed, no one would go out of their way to intervene.
Behind the locked door of Quillton’s private room, Duma spread a layer of horseradish onto a hunk of bread. Quillton had already sliced a few coins from the sausage and ate a couple quickly so as not to waste it, but still be hospitable to his guest.
“Eat, if you wish,” Duma said.
“No, Friend, I have more than just respect for you.” Quillton poured them both a glass of beer from a corked bottle and joined Duma at the small table. Men ran up and down the hallway beyond the door, singing and laughing. With the exception of the laughter, it reminded Duma of the old chapter house in Leighton. The memory wasn’t particularly warm, then again, few memories of Osgood’s clergy were.
“Are you comfortable? Make yourself at ease.” Quillton made a choking gesture, critical of the cleric’s tight collar; then he removed his jacket, harness and belt, tossing them in the corner so they jingled with knives and other tools.
Duma ate his bread. “So, Gastar,” he said, face flushed, either the horseradish or the utterance.
“Yes, well, I wouldn’t expect news from the coast to be much of any news at all to Hanover, but had you heard Commodore Eastman had fallen?”
“Lost his hold on the entire ocean, did he? That’s surprising. Colonial armada finally get an upper hand?”
“Whale, don’t you know. The beast reserved a single injured cutter to report the account.” Quillton pulled back his hood, brushing his hair over his shoulders.
“Certainly,” Duma said. “Osgood’s Book is more than just a children’s etiquette guide.”
“Indeed. Even Gastar is in Osgood’s Book.”
Duma sniffed back the lasting horseradish and drank the glass of black beer empty. “And how does this whale, no doubt an admiral of the colonial fleet by now, pertain to the Great Consumer?”
“It was a black whale. Blacker than the unquiet tomb.”
“Blasphemy, that is, and quite repulsive.” The cleric floundered for the beer bottle. “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?”
“Of the crew who still speak semi-coherently, some claim it was an island that ran them aground. Others said it was a colossal sea slug. And those who called it a serpent, well they drowned on their own urine. You see, none of the salt mates actually used the word whale. Whale is how Grand Admiral Hrios described it in his official report.”
“Heretical mythology, I’m afraid.” Duma uncorked the beer bottle and drank straight from it.
“Wouldn’t you like to see for yourself?”
“You’ve booked the charter, I presume.”
“Jolly old, Duma! There’s the spirit.”
“I haven’t signed on, rake. I’m analyzing.”
“Ecclesiastical analysis. Intriguing.”
“Instead of insulting me, why don’t you share how you acquired this sacrilegious nonsense?”
“Not three months after our last crusade, six-hundred some days ago by your impeccable account, I was black carded. It was long overdue, considering my transgressions against the guild. Is there an opposite of transgression?”
“Virtue,” Duma offered.
“My virtues against the guild? Yes, that sounds right. I had become so virtuous that I departed Hanover lucky to have my right hand still attached to my wrist. As is my custom, I charmed my way into the cabs of a few delicate and silver-lined men all the way to the coast. At the water’s edge, I flipped a coin to decide if I continue up coast or down, and down will out.
“I ended at the great harbor of Herald’s Cross. Either my feet were sore or something else. I wandered the docks for half a day, not seeking anything, really, when a gangway man offered me a security post and a room in the barracks. On my look, he says. Over the next few months, I built a clean reputation as an honest and strict watch, and because of my good nature, I was elevated to gangway man within the year.
“Around that time, rumors of Commodore Eastman’s demise began to surface. Quite literally. They were only rumors, mind you. Of course, who would have thought it strangely suspicious that ships and their cargo were actually reaching their ports of destination? There was such a backlog of manifests, the harbor master’s office couldn’t reconcile them all. We gangway men were given stacks to process at night. Hard labor, paperwork is. Should go to criminals, I propose.”
“What of Gastar, Quillton?”
“Yes. Well, as the dice would have it, I was responsible for processing the previously lost manifests for the customs office. These were loads generally attributed to being pilfered by Eastman’s fleet. I discovered, bundled in some of these documents, the fragments of a colonial marine’s journal.”
“Someone was hiding them. Hiding the eye-witness accounts of those mad profiteers. Why not just destroy them?”
“Yes, Duma. Why?” Quillton shrugged. “We are in the late hours, are we not?” He popped—unconsciously—the last piece of sausage into his mouth.
“In more ways than one, this matter is not safe. And yet, it’s a blessing Osgood’s Holy Navy has long been decommissioned and dismantled. We must make haste.”
“Get your things, then, and meet me at the barge after daybreak.” Quillton began to undress.
Duma considered tearing another piece of bread for himself, but didn’t. Before he left the room he said, “Quillton, this is all well and fine, but if I don’t die this time, I can’t imagine how you’ll ever repay your debt to me.”
Duma intended to pray the entire trek across Hanover to the Chapel of St. Ashleigh where he made his abode, but what was he to pray for? He found himself at an eschatological crossroads, the directions laid before him disarranged—unwritten, in fact. The concept of Gastar, in any physical incarnation, was absurd.
Gastar, the Feaster of Creation.
In the final testament of Osgood’s Book, it is written that Osgood made the world irresistibly perfect: beautiful and delicious. The world was so perfect, it tempted the Void, and from the Void came Gastar. So Osgood scarred his creation with imperfections; earthquakes and tidal waves, pestilence and famine, war and greed. The flaws only increased Gastar’s appetite. To protect his beloved creation, Osgood went to the ends of the Void and began again, perfecting perfection, then ruining it, over and over, building countless worlds to entice the Consumer away from the Prime Creation.
Duma looked up to the stars in the sky. The lights that moved he knew were those other worlds Osgood made to feed Gastar’s unending hunger. Why were they still there if Gastar were here?
If he were the sort of man to laugh, Duma would have at least smiled at the question in his mind. How childish to think of Gastar, as though it was a goblin or elf or any other legendary beast from a nursery rhyme. That Quillton was luring him to the ocean to investigate what was certainly a natural but undocumented creature of Osgood’s…
Approaching the churchyard gate, Duma detected a gloom slinking through the shadows of the cenotaphs. His Pendact projected no aura, so if the thing was dead, at least it was benign. He placed no stock in anzus or griffons. There were natural beasts in the world dangerous enough—not least of all, man.
The cleric stood motionless at the gate, the greys of his vision separating from the blacks, his eyes adjusting to the murk. No mistaking, it was not human, nor fantastic. The creature lifted its head to read Duma’s scent. It was animal he recognized, a scavenger far from its natural habitat. “You’ll find no morsels here,” he told the dark, sleek jackal. It snarled low, baring its teeth which shone in the chapel’s light. “Go, I said! We do not bury our dead, mute fiend.” He raised his arms, the sleeves of his cassock opening like a giant predator’s wings, but the jackal was unimpressed. It lifted one of its gangly legs and urinated. Somewhere in the far dark, his mate called to him. Yowling his answer, he scampered away though the back of the iron fence.
“This is poor news,” Duma spoke aloud. He hurried to his chamber door at the opposite side of the chapel. Curiously at first, it was barred from inside; he didn’t need to recite a prayer of detection to know a lifeless body was blocking the door. Likewise, he did not need to call forth holy strength to budge the corpse enough to squeeze into the antechamber.
The victim was Paris, his sexton. He’d been deftly crowned, the crater of his head as close to a clean indentation as any outcome of blunt force trauma could be. With certainty, the violence was inflicted by another cleric, one easily possessing as great a catalogue of worldly experiences as Duma.
The antechamber appeared undisturbed, but Duma was unarmed and nearly defenseless against a mortal adversary, if the presumed villain remained present. He brandished an oil lamp he unhooked from the wall. His private rooms were unmolested, sealed behind Osgood’s mark, and the door between the antechamber and the chapel nave was closed, as usual. Cautiously, he entered the holy house.
Next Episode: November 4