Previous: Episode 1
Duma crept into the circular nave, brandishing an oil lamp like a flail. The lamps in the chapel were trimmed, and burned with a clean but low light. It must have been the sexton’s final task before his head was caved in.
Scattered in the front pews were a trio of elderly nuns celebrating midnight’s psalms; not one of them—to the best of Duma’s knowledge—strong enough to raise their own woolen habits, let alone a hammer or mace.
Whoever killed Paris was gone—the crime an added mystery. With certainty, he believed the murderer was a cleric, but no individual came to mind. In the moment, he couldn’t conceive of an ecclesiastical office that might be responsible, either. What motive would any reasonable mortal have to kill Paris? Although it was early, too early he thought, Duma couldn’t deny the intuitive sense this was related to the investigation he and Quillton were about to embark—the examination and interpretation of possible signals of the late hours. Like the jackal defiling his churchyard, this was an ill message.
Duma went back to his quarters, hung the lamp in its alcove and tended to Paris. There was so little time to prep a corpse, especially a murder victim, to keep it from reanimating in one way or another. Duma covered the dead sexton’s face with an embroidered cloth; his eyes protruded from his sockets, the force of the blow was so great. A sprinkling of holy water and oil, and a dried rosehip under the tongue would still the body and soul long enough to be ritually cremated.
Automatically, his first thought was to ask Paris to retrieve the necessary things. It wouldn’t be the only time he’d have the thought over the remaining hours before sunrise.
The items were common enough, conveniently close-by in the narthex. With a separate cloth, Duma sopped up as much blood as he could and gathered into it the scatterings of brain and bone to be incinerated in the charcoal font. Then he cleansed the area with holy water and oil. Finally, he anointed the body. But when he uncovered the face, the eyes were gone. They had escaped in the short time Duma left the body unattended, collecting his implements. “Brazen,” he exclaimed. He could see their wet trail lead out to the churchyard, but from there, they would be lost in the darkness. He couldn’t worry about them—Gastar, or whatever they were truly seeking, was a much greater responsibility.
As for the sexton himself, Duma cradled the body and carried it to the chapel crematorium, sealing it in one of the unused ovens where its chance to cause havoc was minimal.
Back in the church, Duma stepped quickly across the stone chancel to the sanctuary behind, greeting the nuns with, “Blessed night.” Two of the ladies snored in conflicting rhythms, their heads drooping forward or to the side.
“Is that dog still outside, Duma?” The wakeful nun paused him right at the high door.
“It wasn’t a dog, my dear,” Duma answered, a hand pressed to the gold filigree. “Now, if I may…”
“No shit, deacon. But is it gone? Did you banish it?”
The cleric turned around. “It’s gone, ma’am. Did it disturb you and your sisters?”
“Only in my dreams.”
“I see. And Paris? Was he about tonight?”
“My sext…Listen, was anyone else in the chapel tonight?”
“No, deacon. Not a single living soul.” The nun began to shake the sister next to her awake and Duma continued through the gilded door.
Above the alter and embedded in the sanctuary wall of every chapel and church was a reliquary containing some material possession—or scrap therein—of the saint it was consecrated under. Secured in place by a wooden pole, the sanctuary of Duma’s chapel held the cotton heel of St. Ashleigh of The Henge’s left stocking. Even more exquisite was what he kept hidden behind the reliquary.
Duma unlatched the pole, set it against the wall, and pulled out the plain stone box with its shred of fabric sealed inside. Kissing the cold rock, he set it aside and reached into the wall, pulling out an ornate sandalwood casket, inlaid with silver. Inside the box were a set of blue and silver vestments and black kalim hat; a copy of Osgood’s Book encased in an ornate silver cover; a censer and pouches of incense, cruets of oil, salt and holy brine; and a flabellum emblazoned with the Pendact. He took the flabellum out and affixed it to the pole.
Before it vanished from his mind, he scrawled a list instructions for the nuns to take back to their convent regarding the care of St. Ashleigh’s in his unexpected absence—and loss of his assistant. But the nuns had ambled into the night by the time he dressed and armed himself.
Duma posted his notes to the chapel’s outer door and stepped backward. He looked to the figures in the darkened stained glass windows, and even the black bell tower, seeking some minute direction. He frowned and shrugged, then trotted at a quick clip to the riverway.
The curfews had been lifted almost a generation ago, but by tradition, the streets during the small hours were completely empty. But to the skilled, the avenues and alleys of Hanover were lively with a handful lurkers. Duma walked with purpose down the center of the lanes; in his vestments, he was only visible to those he wished to be seen by.
He heard the coin ring softly from a shadowed storefront archway—manicured fingernail on silver. He snatched it from the air, quickly checked its markings and went to the spot it came. He could instantly smell the sharp tang of blood.
“You fared well,” Quillton said.
“What happened?” Duma laid a hand on the thief’s wet, sticky forehead, radiating faint blue glow.
“Jumped in bed. Not the first time, you know.”
“We have work to do.”
“I should have known better, yes. And I did, you don’t have to reprimand me. I thought at least he and I could get on first before he tried to kill me.”
“Did you find out who sent him?”
“No clue, I’m afraid. We didn’t get very far before he smashed my face into the headboard. I broke his neck with my legs. Been a while since I’ve done that. In retrospect, I realized he checked in to the hostel same day I did. He was alone, but made fast friends. I ducked out the window, quick as I could. Hmm, haven’t done that in a while either. I’m either getting old or boring.”
Duma removed his hand. “How do you feel, now?”
“Marvelous,” Quillton replied. “You’re early. And geared up.”
“Yes. I had my own anonymous visitor. Didn’t’ catch him, though. Or see him, but it was priest, no doubt. He bashed in Paris’ head.”
“Mercy,” Quillton said, and then added with sincerity, “Is that what you say?”
Duma ignored the rogue as he so often had to. “Do we have any chance of reaching the barge without another assault?” He turned and looked at the vacant thoroughfare.
“There’s always a chance in anything, Duma.” Quillton massaged the priest’s taut shoulders.
“Let’s go, then,” Duma said. Quillton patted his back in admiration.
Duma continued in the middle of the street, while Quillton moved from shadow to shadow. Soon, they could hear the rush of the Sterling River ahead, so they merged.
Quillton inhaled, preparing an unnecessary remark, but Duma stifled him, frowning and shaking his head. Quillton winked, his eye glittering in the moonlight.
Suddenly, they were cast in an arc of bright light. “Fuck,” Duma said, blaming Quillton for the remark he wasn’t allowed to make.
Standing at the rim of the light were five figures, the pointed silhouettes of their heads denoting the caps of monks. A voice spoke from the group. “Depart from your errand, Friend.”
“I will not,” Duma answered.
The monks stepped into the light. They wore black cassocks and their faces were veiled. Each was armed with a crozier—the monk’s mace.
“This is going to be a problem,” Quillton mentioned.
Duma took a deep breath. “It doesn’t have to be.”
“Very well,” the thief complied, reluctantly. Then in half of a blink, he sprang behind the assailants, slicing easily through the heel bone tendon of one monk and disabling another’s arm so their crozier thumped to the pavement.
Duma slammed his staff to the ground, attempting to disorient the monks with a concussion, but the three lifted from the earth, the wave of holy force rippling below their feet.
The monk nearest Quillton took a swing at his head before she landed, slamming the curved bulb into the thief’s shoulder. Quillton rolled backward to avoid the second attack, then he was back on his feet, retching with the pain.
The other two monks drove at Duma. The sound of clanging metal accompanied the moans of the two disabled clerics. “Stand down,” Duma yelled. “In Osgood’s name!” But the monks were righteous.
“I don’t mind killing you,” Quillton said, circling his attacker.
“Don’t kill her,” Duma called.
“Do not seek what you will, Archpriest Duma, lest you be consumed.” They were relentless; if they fought with sword, Duma might have been nicked.
“It’s too late, Friend. The late hours are upon us.” With a stroke, Duma held the flabellum in one hand and the staff in the other. The three parried until Duma was able to strike one monk in the knees; he threw the flabellum at the other’s gut, toppling them both.
“I don’t need your help,” Quillton said a moment later, sheathing his blades.
Duma clasped the last monk in a choke hold. “The sun is about to break,” he said. “Why don’t you just take care of them?”
When all the monks were bound and gagged, Duma healed their wounds, and then once more relieved Quillton. Priest and thief both examined the faces beneath the veils, but they didn’t recognize any. It was pointless to interrogate them. They moved on without discussion.
A thin line of sunlight was on the horizon when they arrived at the riverwalk. “Let’s part here,” Quillton advised. “I’ll find you in the cabin.” Duma turned quietly to the water.
The three days on the barge passed without incident. Quillton spent much of the time honing his daggers and stilettos, while Duma prayed. The priest lay in his hammock, nearly a cocooned man, Osgood’s Book propped on his bent knees, his skin greying and his voice fragmented into whispers and harsh notes. Quillton asked him once, “Friend, can I bring you some water?” Duma held up a finger and continued reciting verse, lulling the bandit into a doze.
By the time the barge made its final landing on the delta adjacent to Herald’s Cross, Duma was gaunt, sallow, wholly corpse-like, his dry lips barely twitching words or breath. “I got you, Friend.” Quillton hung Duma over his shoulder and carried the priest’s accoutrements with his free arm.
They took a cab to Fairfield Jetty in Herald’s Cross, Duma slumped and groaning against Quillton. He had seen Duma pray into catatonic frenzy before, but not with such sustained ecstasy. “Watch him a moment, my dear,” Quillton instructed the driver. He took their equipment down the gangway to the boat he had hired.
“Good after, Captain Klein.” The man Quillton addressed appeared wiry beneath his long oilskin coat, but his hands were thick and knotted.
“Good after, Mr. Richards.” The Captain helped Quillton bring the equipment onboard.
The private boat was a sturdy cutter with a blue stripe painted along the hull: Captain Klein was a devout adherent of Osgood. “Are we on time, sir?” Quillton looked out at the predominantly empty berths along the section of wharf.
“On time,” replied the captain. “Shoving off, dead on the hour.”
“Outstanding.” The thief leapt from the gunwale. “Let me retrieve a few more provisions, and my companion. And we can shove off.”
Quillton paid and tipped the driver. Duma had not improved, yet maintained a sort of contortion that allowed him to stand. “With Osgood’s aid, Duma, move your fucking legs. Please.” Quillton dragged the priest beside him to a table outside a stew house, bent him into the seat, and went to the counter to order.
The sun was warm and the breeze cool and briny. Gulls cautiously strutted at Duma’s feet. They asked questions in their shrill language. “Go away,” he muttered. The brisk air bit into his closed eyes and tears trickled out.
“Here we are,” Quillton said, returning a few minutes later. He placed a small barrel on the table and walked away. Duma read the stamp burned into the wood and kissed his Pendact.
Quillton returned again with two bread bowls brimming with chowder, claws and tentacles reaching out from the steam, and two bottles of beer. Sitting down, he tapped the barrel with the bottles. “Same stuff in here.” Duma pulled from the beer until it was half gone and licked his lips. “Eat up,” Quillton said, sucking broth from a shell, “our captain is waiting.”
Duma struggled to spilt a crab claw, then let it plop back into the bowl. Licking his fingers, he said, “I’ve been recommended for exarch. Directly form the Hierophant himself.”
“Compliments?” Quillton said with a mouthful of fish.
“Reason I traveled to Trountend, actually. But a banshee…a banshee is not the thing to ease my pain.”
“Neither were those monks.” The thief dabbed his moustache.
“Not now, no. Especially not now. And to think I perceived our meeting at the tea house as innocuous as an owl at a premature birth.” Quillton clinked the edge of his bottle to Duma’s.
“If this thing is true,” Duma continued, “if our crusade is great and good, what does that mean? What does that really mean?”
“Why are you asking me? My gospel is Bagwell’s Locksmithing Annual.” Quillton was a friend of Osgood. Not a great friend, but he was baptized and anointed, and he believed what he could. He had experienced too many close calls and too many miracles to be a complete skeptic. The essential credo of Osgood was to do no harm, and that was easy enough to follow. Yet when it came to concepts like Gastar, belief was harder to hold. But it wasn’t even belief. Belief was the knowledge that when the dead failed to rest, Osgood’s Friends commanded the power to turn them, to abolish them, to sometimes comfort and release them. Belief in Gastar was outright faith, a choice to either believe or not believe because there was no proof either way. Until now. “Let me ask you, are you happy? Not only is the eternal devourer real, but it is most likely defeated, possibly dead.”
Duma frowned at the concept. “Happy? There is little happiness in the world. Osgood is not concerned with us being happy or not.” Duma tore a strip of bread from the rim and swirled it around the bowl. “I’d like to say I’m comforted by it. But I’m not. I’ve exorcised two-hundred and eleven spirits as a Friend of Osgood, every one I’ve considered to be a peaceful resolution. I’ve turned countless undead, smited countless score more. So, I’d like to say I have some sort of plan, some idea of how we are going to handle this exactly, but I’m not even sure how I’m going to eat this stew.”