For all the bravado I’d shown to Aryden, I didn’t look forward to running headlong into a place likely inhabited by the flesh-hungry victims of the Red Maw. Anyone who looks forward to risking his life is a fool; I pride myself on not being a fool, at least when I can avoid it. On the other hand, anyone who won’t risk his life when necessity demands is coward, and I also pride myself on not being a coward. When I can avoid it.
The night had proved mostly sleepless despite my fatigue, as I tossed and turned in my bed with that mix of excitement and dread that precedes such days. Before the suns had risen, I had abandoned the bed altogether, more tired of laying awake but inactive than of wakefulness itself. I busied myself with what preparations I could, checking that my sword and dagger remained sharp (they did), that I’d packed the pouches of my belt with all of the arcane tools I might need (I had), determining whether my belt needed further adjustment in preparedness for danger (it, of course, did not).
Satisfied with these things, I unlocked again the chest at the foot of the bed, this time retrieving not the backpack with my occult belongings but the saddlebags next to them. From these I produced two pistols, or at least devices that had the basic form of pistols.
Each was a slightly curved piece of good wood, shaped into a wider ball on one end to form the edge of a grip from which my hands were unlikely to slip. The curve of each piece, however, was subtler than might be expected in a traditional weapon. These were not traditional. A barrel had been set into each, of a normal length and bore, simple and unadorned by well-made. Each had a priming pan with a swinging cover, secured by strong springs so that it was unlikely to move from the open or closed positions within an intentional push. But neither had a lock or trigger affixed to it, for I needed none. Instead, the angle of the grips allowed me to place my index finger—one had been created for my right hand and one for my left—directly at the priming pan. With a quick sorcery, the kind so mundane and humble in scope as to require little effort and minimal risk of unwanted side effects or Flux, I could generate a spark at the tip of my finger to ignite the powder within and fire the shot at will. A more reliable system than a matchlock weapon to be sure, and one that didn’t require a lit fuse to maintain in preparation for use. More reliable even than the clockwork pistols favored by the wealthy—which I couldn’t afford anyway and which required the use of a spanner to reload. Simple tools, and effective.
Along with them I took a pouch containing shot and wadding as well as a set of six wooden apostles hung from a long string and two loose ones, each having been filled with the exact amount of powder to load and prime a pistol for a single shot. Taking my time, for there was no reason to do otherwise, I used the loose apostles to load the pistols, taking shot and cloth from the pouch. I traded the loose wooden tubes for a deep red sash; this I tied around my waist tightly just above my belt, sticking the pistols, pans closed and protected under it where they’d be held securely but over my belt where they’d not cause the latter to sag once removed. I threw the stringed apostles over my head and my left arm so that each wooden cylinder hung diagonally across my body, highest below my right shoulder and lowest near by left hip, where it rested between the hilt of my sword and my body.
I have never fought in a battle, but I spent as much of my time as I could while at university with a dueling master—a factor that ultimately contributed to my inability to conclude my education—and I’d fought a few single combats. With the sword, I was comfortable. While I’d practiced with the pistol on a few occasions (it proved difficult to find a place to practice without drawing unwanted attention in the City, and those places where no attention was paid to stray reports of a firearm were far more dangerous, for the expected reasons). These weapons, of my own design (though not manufacture, of course), had not been tested in the heat of true conflict. But, as I’d mentioned, a good gun is often a better option than combat sorcery, and I figured I’d have to learn to use them under duress at some point anyway.
By the time I’d concluded all of this, and then checked my equipment for a second time, the suns had still not revealed themselves over the far crest of the Avar. My stomach rumbled, providing another excellent distraction from the imminent task. I made my way downstairs to the kitchens, where servants were already well underway in preparing for breakfast. Knowing me for the thaumaturge, and seeing me so heavily armed as well, they avoided me as best they could, averting even their gaze whenever they could do so without threatening to bump into me. This provided me ample opportunity to graze as I desired, pouring myself some small beer, grabbing a piece of rough bread and smearing it with butter, and taking a whole sausage fresh from the fire to satisfy my appetites.
Before long, Gamven had joined me. He’d come better armed even than I, well-oiled breastplate and faulds over chest and thighs, bastard sword on his hip and barbute and pollaxe carried in the crook of his left arm. He wore it easily, as if a second skin, and I little doubted that long use had indeed made it so. He ate greedily, smiling at me the whole time, undisturbed by our impending doom. Enlivened by it, even.
I’d said before that those willing to run headlong into danger threatening death are fools. Every rule has its exceptions, though, and there are those rare individuals who only truly step into the fullness of themselves when defying death, who are most alive only when dancing at the edge of the fire, if not inside it. They are made differently from the rest of us. For them, the dullness of everyday life free from danger is uncomfortable and awkward, a heavy haze over them from which they unceasingly wish to wake. Gamven was one of these. “A good day to die, eh?” he said.
“I’ve not found one of those yet,” I offered.
He laughed, hearty, mirthful, and strangely reassuring. “The truth is: one’s as good as another.”
Seeing the look on my face, he laughed again, clapping me on the shoulder with a fist full of sausage, grease splashing onto the shoulder of my vest. “You look like you know to comport yourself well enough when it comes to it,” he continued, “It’s the priest and the doctor I’m worried about. Sure we need them?”
“I am. The priest at least. We’ll see how much use the doctor proves.”
“Indeed, we will! There’s much of a man you can’t learn except by seeing him fight for his life.”
“And much of that need never be known at all.”
“Hah, a philosopher are you?”
That’s not what I’d have called it, but before I had to give answer, Gamven’s two guardsmen joined us. I recognized the easy confidence of the first of them immediately: Errys, who’d greeted me upon my first arrival. “So I’m expendable, is it?” she said to Gamven as she approached, smiling wide.
“Oh dear,” her commander responded in the voice of an old maid who’d unintentionally offended, “did no one tell you?” They both laughed and clutched forearms in greeting, and I had a momentary sense that they were friends more than leader and subservient soldier.
She’d apparently traded her halberd for a well-made longsword that she’d leaned against the wall next to the kitchen’s door upon entering. The blade’s deep brown leather sheath, wrapped over a wood core, had been tooled with exquisite detail matching the carefully shaped hilt, bowed somewhat in the middle to give additional purchase between the hands. A fish scale pommel and “V”-shaped quillons, simpler in detail but bright and sturdy, completed all that I could see of the weapon. She spied me looking at it and said, “the Lord amn Vaina’s, lent me for the purpose,” her eyes full of pride, those tiny creases of happiness forming at the edges.
“It’s the closest he gets to come, poor bastard,” Gamven said. “If the leg weren’t bad enough, the Lady would kill him for going as soon as he’d returned.”
“Were she able,” said the third man, gaunt-faced and stoic, the tone of his voice matter-of-fact.
Gamven shot him a sidelong glance. “Aye, were she able,” he repeated, a grumble like chewing loose gravel as much as words.
The three of them looked at me; it took me a moment to realize they were waiting for something. Expecting something from me. “If our Wyrgeas is good, she’ll be more than able by the time we get back,” I managed.
“We’ll soon find out,” Gamven said, chugging the remainder of his mug and slamming it on the nearby table, causing the other assorted foodstuffs to jump momentarily. There was a collective protest from the other side of the room and only then did I notice the collected servants huddled in the corner like mice waiting for the dogs to wonder away, biding time until they could repair the damage we’d done and get on with their tasks. Gamven was already pushing the man whose name I hadn’t yet caught toward the exit. Errys fell in behind the two of them, gracefully plucking her longsword from the wall as she did. I pulled up the rear.
In the great hall, Barro caught my eye first. He’d donned a hauberk of riveted mail, metallic hood hanging over a skull cap, rings nearly to his eyes. The shirt hung almost to his knees and, overall, gave the impression of a poorly-fitted nightshirt. His expression could only be described as “dog that angered his master forced to lay out in the rain.” A flanged mace dangled from a leather lanyard around his right wrist, swaying lazily as he moved his hand, gesticulating along with a conversation with Lord amn Vaina I couldn’t quite make out. A round shield with a steel boss, just bigger than a buckler, lay on the stone floor next to the priest, still bleeding off some of the force of its fall with slow rotation. Barro must have forgotten he was holding it and simply let it slip from his hand.
Behind Barro and the Lord stood Edanu, slender sword on his hip and an Artificial crossbow, one of those repeaters so favored by the soldiers of the Artificer Houses, in his hands. Slung across his chest so that it hung on his right, a canvas bag held bolts for the weapon, loaded into slim square boxes that could be slammed into the crossbow in place of the previous one whenever it ran dry. Not so accurate nor powerful as a mundane crossbow, but it made up for this with its impressive rate of fire, something only the most talented of traditional archers with a lightly-strung bow could hope to compete with.
While the Artificer Houses bought favor with gifts at many occasions, they seldom traded away their arms and armor, lest the one great equalizer they had against the superior numbers they typically faced when committed to war—though no one ever called it war, no. Officially, the peace that settled the Artificer War remained in full effect and had never been breached, lest the agreements within the treaty that established that peace need revisiting, to the loss of all involved. That would be detrimental to business.
“What the hell is he doing here?” I asked, not thinking before speaking.
The priest and Lord Aryden broke from their conversation to face me, the soldiers I’d entered with exercising the better part of valor and making themselves scarce. Face stern and uncompromising, Aryden said, “He’s going with you.”
“Why?” I asked, incredulous.
“Because he wants to,” the lord said in that tone of his that brooks no argument.
“Besides, it makes you seven, good Wyrgeas.”
“Don’t worry, lord thaumaturge; I’ll make sure no ill fate befalls you,” Edanu smirked.
“I’m sure. Where’s the doctor?”
“Here, my lords, here!” Endan waddled in, weighed down by his clothing. He’d donned the full garb of a doctor treating plague, thick black canvas and leather covering him from head to toe and leaving only his face exposed. For this, he held a large black hooded mask in his left hand, bulging eyes and long leather beak giving the thing the appearance of a crow—a fitting companion for the dead. In his right hand he held a number of linen scarves; the kind you might find covering a bandit’s face during a daylight raid were it not for the bright colors.
“The Maw spreads mostly by blood and bite and scratch,” I said.
“True enough, my lord thaumaturge, but it must also have some form of miasmal component. Otherwise, how would it first appear where there have been no signs for decades?” Endan told me, face apologetic. “I find that this suit will protect me all the same, and why take unnecessary risks?”
I couldn’t—didn’t argue as he passed out the scarves. Receiving one, a soft shade of blue commonly associated with Qosh, I wrapped it around my neck so that I could easily pull it over my mouth and nose. The others had done the same, so that we looked like a band of brigands.
“Your weapons?” Gamven asked the physician.
Pulling back a fold of his heavy robes revealed a thick single-edged blade, the kind that folk in the Tatters affectionately referred to as “big knives” or “warknives.” The doctor patted the hilt as if it were an old friend.
Gamven smiled wide. “I’d not have guessed, old man!”
Endan frowned at the epithet. “I served in one of the mercenary companies for a time in my younger days. A good way for a physician to learn the barber-surgeon’s craft.”
“Indeed,” the master-of-arms replied, placing his barbute atop his head and moving the pollaxe into his right hand. “We are gathered. Are we ready?”
“As we’ll be,” I uttered.
“C’mon, Iaren, chin up. It’ll be fun,” Edanu snarked, racking the action on his crossbow to load the first bolt into the recessed slot from which it would be fired, short fletchings just visible in the narrow window in the uppermost part of the weapon that ran atop both bolt and string, partially enclosing them.
“There are guards there already to open the gate for us. And Daedys has raised some of the militia to stand watch, just in case.”
“Let’s go,” Aryden confirmed, already taking the first steps toward the hall’s great doors. Everyone followed, at first in somber silence. By the time we’d reached the gatehouse to the old town, the chatter started up, simply to fill the silence and the nerves that accompanied it, I suppose.
I learned that the third man with Errys and Gamven was named Medryn; his family came from the new town but he’d early chosen a life of arms over farming. He’d spent a few years abroad with one of the Ilessin companies, much as Endan had; they traded a few war stories and had us all laughing.
“Is it true that the Maw was made by a magus, lord thaumaturge? As a weapon?” It was Errys’ question. She must have been waiting for a time to ask it, for she’d hardly waited for the last bout of laughter to die down before springing it.
“That’s what is written about it,” I told her. “And it stands to reason; I know of no other plague that turns its victims into weapons against those who don’t succumb at first.”
“The Aenyr made it?” This from Gamven.
“No. I don’t think so. The first mentions of the pestilence are after they’d left. Those who’d stolen the secrets of the Art from them turned on each other soon after they’d driven off their masters, and those struggles lasted for centuries. Dark times, and we’ve few reliable records. It’s likely some practitioner-king created it then to make war on his enemies. The rumors and legends tell of many dark deeds by the first practitioners after the Aenyr. Their use of the Art corrupted them faster and more fully than it ever had any Aen. Those men and women engaged in many practices long-since forbidden, forbidden with good cause.”
“And no one since has been able to get rid of it?” Errys again.
“The nature of the Maw is a curse. Curses require sacrifice to create and sacrifice to break. The sacrifice made to bring the Maw into existence must have been great indeed—on a magnitude no person should be willing to make. If anyone has found a way to undo the curse, they’ve found the sacrifice necessary to do so far too great to pay.”
“So if you’re willing to pay a higher price than another practitioner, they won’t be able to undo what you’ve done?”
“It can be a little more complicated than that. A working isn’t simply a matter of will, it must be shaped and formed. Those with greater skill in the shaping of a working can make their will do more with less. But, fundamentally, all workings are acts of will, and sacrifice is one of the greatest acts of will there is, so when we’re talking about workings that involve sacrifice, what you’ve said is often true.”
“What kind of sacrifices are we talking about,” Endan asked. “Life? Blood?”
“Those are powerful things to sacrifice, but nothing in the Art is simple. The effect of the sacrifice is dependent upon the meaning of the sacrifice to the practitioner drawing upon it. You can kill a stranger and draw power from that death to use in a working, to be sure. But in that case, the power is coming more from the escaping lifeforce of your victim—Creation itself leaving the body—than it is about any sacrifice. Many sacrifices can be used—an oath to refrain from some pleasurable activity, the destruction of a dear possession, the willing loss of one’s own blood or life.”
“That’s why a practitioner’s death curse is so powerful,” Edanu added.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “In part. When a practitioner is nearing his final act upon the Avar, there is great power in the meaning of that act, coming from many places: leaning into one’s death as a sacrifice to power the curse, the cosmic significance of a death—any death, the ability to draw upon power without regard to what doing so might wreak on the practitioner’s body. Powerful indeed, but it must still be shaped before the practitioner expires or it amounts to nothing.”
“This is why you never let a practitioner see it coming,” Edanu said, coldly.
We had arrived at the gates to Crimson Close, sparing me the need to answer the unveiled threat. Nevertheless, it left me unnerved about what might befall us in the Close, and not just from the Maw itself.
As Gamven had told us, a block of militia men, without uniforms and armed with munitions breastplates and helmets, holding spears and shields, stood at the ready, the Constable Daedys pacing back and forth before them, himself arrayed in a dark three-quarters plate more ceremonial than effective. He wore no helmet—the easier for his men to identify him—and looked at his men only occasionally through sidelong glances, as if playing a game in which he might suddenly find them slacking in the rigor of their presentation.
Closer to the gate, four of Aryden’s liveried men waited, nervous eyes settled on the wooden door. A tall ladder had been leaned against the wall to the Close to the right of the gate, and two more uniformed soldiers stood atop the gate, ready to turn the winch that held the doors fast. These two kept looking nervously into the interior of the close below them, searching for signs of movement or threats from the Maw’s victims, but the Close had been a large area when it was first walled off, several blocks of Vaina town, and the ruins of dilapidated and rotting buildings blocked their sightlines.
Aryden walked to the front of our small band and turned to look at us. I nodded to him and pulled the scarf up over my mouth and nose, my compatriots following suit. He nodded in return and rotated to face the men atop the wall. “Open it up,” he shouted. The winch began to turn.
The liveried men before the door readied their weapons, and the spearmen of the militia lowered their arms as if preparing for attack—the constable moved to their side and then behind them, just in case.
The doors pulled open painfully slowly in rhythmic lurches as the men on the winch completed each rotation of the knobbed wheels controlling its operation. I cleared the lump in my throat, quietly as I could manage, and fought to keep my hands from the grips of my pistols. It remained far too premature to draw weapons, and the last thing I wanted to do was to put my fellow adventurers on edge.
Not that it mattered. Errys had strapped the longsword to her side during the walk to the Close but rested her left hand on the sheath and her right on the sword’s grip. Gamven held the pollaxe before him as if adopting a ready stance for a duel. Endan pulled the massive hook-nosed mask over his head and again pushed his robe aside to free his warknife. Edanu rested his crossbow jauntily on his shoulder, as if waiting for a military parade to begin. Barro lightly tapped an open palm with the head of his mace, doing his best to portray himself as resolved and threatening. Medryn used a flint and steel to light a matchcord and unslung his arquebus from his shoulder to fit it.
Finally, the doors swung wide, rebounded softly from their fullest extent. A stench of death and decay moved through the open portal like some foul northern wind, and I silently thanked The One that Endan had thought to procure the scarves.
Gamven took the first step forward, but Aryden held a hand out for him to wait.
“Torches? You need torches and oil. To light the bodies.”
“It’s covered,” I said.
The Lord amn Vaina nodded and stepped aside, Gamven again taking the lead with his pollaxe held before him as if he expected an ambush at any moment. He did, and with good cause. The remaining six of us formed up just behind him, keeping slow pace as we moved in. It took a great deal of focus to keep myself from looking back behind me as we passed under the archway into the Close. My hands trembled slightly with both fear and excitement. There’d be no turning back now, and that fact lessened some of the fear with the uncertainty it removed.