Once we’d passed through the gateway, the men atop the portal released their hold on the door’s winch, letting it spin freely, the counterweights slamming the doors shut with a resounding crash that alerted all who could hear to our entry into this forsaken place. Now, I couldn’t help but throw a glance rearward, if only to confirm what I already knew—we were trapped inside. The men who’d opened the gate scuttled back down the ladder as quickly as they could manage, eager to be away from whatever danger the Close contained.
Our scarves did little to purify the air around us, heavy with decay and death. The ruins of the buildings caught within the wall silently testified to the ravages of time, all crumbling to one degree or another, some entirely collapsed in on themselves, others partial husks of their original multi-story glory, the rubble that had sloughed off of them forming rough ramps to the upper stories.
Vines and overgrown weeds penetrated stone and plaster alike wherever they could find purchase. If you squinted, and focused more on the blue sky overhead than the crumbling state of the buildings, you might even be able to imagine yourself in a quiet garden. But where foliage had not taken hold was the demesne of molds and mildew, sickly greens and rust browns tinting the once-ivory plaster sides of the former homes. In many places, thick mushrooms ascended the large wood beams of the buildings, like handholds for some creature of the Otherworld. Dirt and mud covered those places that had once been flagstone streets, now only scarce gray survivors poking up through the muck.
A thick quiet pervaded everything, heavy and tense with possibility, none of it hopeful. Each of scanned in all directions, expecting sudden attack from some unexpected quarter. We’d all heard the stories, of Maw-driven victims, cadaver-thin, covered from chin to toes in slick maroon, glossy wet in some places, crusty and drying in others. I single victim in the grip of the Maw’s true terror could be easily managed by our group—provided we were not successfully ambushed. But there had been nineteen lost to the latest resurgence of the virulence, plenty to overwhelm us if their hunger drove them to us in force.
A sudden movement of shadows down a sidestreet caught everyone’s attention; as one we turned to face the threat, weapons readying and several of us raising cries of alarm. My pistols had sprung into my hands and pointed in the direction of the disturbance before I realized—along with my brothers and sister in arms—what had startled us. A single scavenger rat, coming close to investigate what we might have brought with us into the Close that it might eat. Our abrupt movements had scared it off, of course, our bodies responding faster than our minds with the excitement coursing through our veins.
We collectively chuckled at ourselves, nervously. Most of us, at least. “What the fuck was all that?” Gamven asked in a commanding whisper. “If we’re attacked and we all turn the same way, who’s watching our backs and sides? Get that shit out of your systems now and let’s have a soldier’s response to the next fright, eh?” The doctor turned his oversized head to look at me; I imagined that, like me, he was wondering if that command had been intended for his two followers or for all of us. I couldn’t tell his true intent, hidden as it was behind the thick glass lenses that covered his eyes, all expressions hidden by the mask and distorted by the hooked beak protruding from under those reflective portals.
Not long after we recovered ourselves, we encountered a grim marker of the history of the Close: a skeleton, all of the skin stripped from its bones, still wearing the tattered and rotting remains of a pair of leather boots, slumped against one of the ruined walls as if it had been casually waiting for our arrival, the skull even turned toward us as if in a slight nod of greeting.
“See, there’s more here to fear than the Maw. Old corpses like that are frequent abodes for pestilence. Good thing we brought masks,” Endan said, tapping his long leather nose.
“Should we?” Barro asked.
“Maybe later,” I said, “That one’s old. It would’ve manifested as a spirit a long time back if the poor soul hadn’t walked the Path already.
Gamven waited for no further talk before moving ahead again.
The silence settling heavy around us again, we pushed onward. “What is it that we’re doing exactly?” Edanu whispered, turning to look at me. We’d jockeyed for position for a short while until it became clear that I’d not oblige his standing behind me and, shrugging in feigned carelessness, he finally moved in front of me in the group, leaving me at the rear. Maybe I should’ve let him play rearguard in hopes that some slavering once-human would snatch him into the shadows and I’d never have to see him or hear his voice again, but I feared him more than I feared the monsters the Maw had made, so we found ourselves thus arranged.
“We’re going to recover the bodies of the recently-taken, give them their last rites, and burn them as should be done,” I told him. Though I’d let my arms drop to my sides, each hand still clutched one of the pistols; no use putting them back now.
“Of course,” Edanu said, searching the area to our right as we slowly moved. “But we’ll have to kill them a second time first, won’t we?”
“It’s likely,” I admitted.
Gamven stopped and motioned for us to do the same. He pointed to the building on our left, a crumbling hulk bereft of any wall on our side, its crumbled floor sloping downward into darkness, the remains of long-forgotten cellars. “Could be one down there,” the master-of arms posited. “I’ll check it out,” he continued.
“Perhaps you should not go alone?” Errys questioned.
“It’ll be too cramped for me to get ganged up on down there; I’ll be fine. Besides, I’ll keep a cooler head if I know all of you are watching my back, keeping my escape route clear. Give me your lamp.”
Errys and Medryn lit her lantern, she holding it up with the door open, Medryn using his lit match to ignite the oil within. She exchanged the lantern for Gamven’s pollaxe. The veteran drew his sword, holding the lantern high in his off hand, and cautiously descending what remained of an old staircase, the light quickly enveloped by the darkness below until we could see no sign of it.
“Eyes up!” Errys said, noticing that we were all focused on the same place again. The command proved enough to shake us from our inattention, and just in time. At the other end of an alleyway, obscured in the shadow of overhanging upper stories, something almost human moved. Not quickly, but some smoothly and determinedly that it flashed in and out of sight in a blink. Merdyn readied his arquebus, thin tendrils of smoke dancing upward from the burning match. He waited, eyes focused to pierce the obscuring shadows in hopes of a target. I turned to watch over one of the other streets, wanting to return my attention to where I knew there had been movement, but trusting Medryn to do his own part.
“Hold fast,” said Errys, scanning one of the other open routes, holding the pollaxe in the same stance Gamven had only moments before.
We waited like that, each of us looking for the first attack. This was the worst part, when imagination took hold and played out myriad scenarios of what might happen next. Once the violence started, things would be easier. Not easy, but easier. The fight was a matter of action and reaction, of certainties more than possibilities. Someone—or, hopefully, some things—would die, and injuries would be shared all around.
The tension heightened with every passing moment without action, like a rope being pulled ever more taut until the first few cords snap free and you being to wonder when the whole line will burst apart. But no climactic event, no monster running free and headlong toward us in the light, broke that final thread. We stayed tense like that until we could no more, breaths becoming deep, the fatigue of holding ourselves ready beginning to take a toll.
“Are they supposed to do that?” Errys whispered to me.
“That. Play tricks. Bide their time. Scare us until they find us unready.”
“I don’t know that they’re supposed to do anything. Not the commonest topic of study given the danger of the exercise. Most of the writing about the Red Maw is speculations about its origin, its causes, methods for prevention, techniques for containing an outbreak. Descriptions of the symptoms until the victim seems to die, not much about what happens after. That’s the stuff of hunters and slayers, and they don’t tend to write their secrets down. Bad for business to give them away to your competitors.”
“You think Gamven’s okay?” Endan asked, his voice muffled by his mask, even more than ours were by our scarves.
“Give him a few more minutes,” I said, trying not to reveal the doubt already chewing away at my stomach. They did, and we spent another short, silent eternity scanning for former citizens of Vaina who might be stalking us.
“Maybe they all got lucky,” Edanu mused. “Maybe none of them came back and we’re worrying ourselves over nothing. How long can they survive without sustenance anyway?”
“They have all the sustenance they need,” I returned. “You saw the rat, right?”
“Alright you bastard!” Medryn said, and I heard him move forward several steps, planting his feet. There came the click as the trigger released the cam on his arquebus’s action, the hot match plunging into the flash pan with a dull thud. Just a second later came the reverberating ssschkoom! of the weapon’s bark, hot projectile spit violently from the muzzle.
The sound echoed off of every nearby building, deafening me except for a high-pitched whine that seemed to come from within my head. Unable to hear the aftermath of that shot, I turned to look, just in time to see Medryn fumbling his way through a reload, the shambling cadaver of a former citizen of Vaina moving toward him faster than it had any right to. Having first packed the powder into the weapon’s barrel, the ball rolled from Medryn’s fingers just as he tried to slip it into the muzzle. All the while, the ghoul-thing continued its charge, slavering spittle in long trails behind it like a proud battle-flag.
I swung my head back and forth to shake away the tunnel vision that accompanied the sudden rush of energy. Errys, Edanu, Endan and Barro searched for additional attackers as well. I left them to their task, stepping in front of Medryn and emptying both barrels of my pistols into the fiend at less than an arm’s length.
Smoke filled the street, mingling with the fog of the previous arquebus blast to form a dense cloud of grayish, sulfur-smelling air, a scent like demons. I stepped back from that haze, lowering my weapons and breathing a sigh of relief. At that range, there was little chance of missing, even with my lack of practice, and I had confidence that the two shots would have shattered bone and torn what flesh remained from those sinews that held it fast. Had the assailant been a true monster, a child of one of the fallen Firstborn or a chimeric creation of experimenting magi, I’d have expected the thing to prove resilient to such an attack. But this had been a man, and one ravaged by disease unto death, such frailty would not stand against modern weapons.
All of this confidence fell away when a rotting hand pushed through the smokecloud and grabbed my vest, pulling me close the the cadaver’s face. One of its eyes hung freely from the socket by a brownish-pink bundle of nerves; stinking breath—the air of the grave itself—spilt from between teeth that seemed uncannily pointed. Dried blood covered the entire surrounds of its mouth, thickly coating its chin.
“Red Maw” is no mere metaphor or euphemism; it is a description of the most terrifying aspect of the affliction. Those who succumb to the disease die after a few days of intense agony and malaise—or at least seem to. Not long after that, the corpses (whether or not bereft of soul is a matter of debate, with conflicting reports from the use of the Sight, which I had no desire to employ here) rise again, hungry for flesh, no longer contagious by general miasma but carrying infection in their blood-stained mouths.
The corpse’s neck trembled as it expelled a heavy wave of air at me: what I suspected was a shriek of some sort but had no way to confirm with the lingering ringing in my ears, now extended by the discharge of my own pieces. It began to pull me closer to those teeth.
I dropped my pistols to the mud and, shouting myself, enacted a sharp and sudden sorcery, a blast of wind that threw the unliving creature backward and away from me, with the bonus of dispersing the thick sulfur-tinged cloud of gunsmoke. I drew my sword and dropped into a duelist’s stance.
Something rushed behind me, brushing against me as it lifted Medryn off of his feet and into the ruins of a bordering building. Another one of them!
While the first one struggled back to its feet after hitting the hard-packed avar, I checked our situation. I couldn’t see far enough into the building to determine where Medryn had ended up, and I couldn’t abandon my own position and leave the rest of my companions with an open flank already tested by one of the enemy.
I caught a glimpse of Edanu deftly slamming another cartridge into his Artificial crossbow, racking the next bolt into place as Errys swung the pollaxe into the skull of one of the creatures, its own blood—or whatever dark ichor now motivated it—arcing up into the air in a graceful line. Unable to free it from its resting place, she let it go and drew the longsword from its sheath.
Endan and Barro fended off another, the creature full of fury but unsure which of them to assault as they taunted it with tentative blows and alternating yells (or at least the appearance of yells).
Gamven emerged from the passage below, his sword sheathed and the corpse of another of the flesheaters dragged behind him, its head separated from its body and hanging from his belt.
I turned back to the one who had first attacked Medryn; it had pulled itself back to its feet and flailed at me viciously, fingers curved into makeshift claws. Behind me, my hearing finally recovering, I could hear Gamven yelling, “The head! The head!”
I sidestepped the creature’s lunge, bringing my blade down upon it in a diagonal from above my right shoulder. But my angle was off, and I only managed to mangle its arm at the shoulder, leaving it dangling, fingers still twitching and grasping for whatever it might seize. It rotated to face me again, close and bending its legs to spring for me with all the strength it could muster. As it began its leap, I recovered from my strike and aimed a thrust, my sword arm across my body and twisted at the elbow to bring my hand up to my eye level, knuckles upward and blade pointed forward. A slightly awkward position for a thrust with a single-handed sword, but plenty effective. The acute point of my thin blade met the creature’s face mid-leap, the edge severing that dangling eye and causing it to roll away as the sword pierced the front of the skull and burst through the back, brains, blood and bits of bone spewing forth.
The weight of the body, now gone slack with lack of animation, pulled itself free from my sword, and I again scanned our small battlefield for additional foes. The rest of those nineteen victims now gathered in, clambering on all fours over the broken ruins or running full tilt down open streets, shrieking with a call that curdled the blood and raised every hair on the back of my neck.
I hesitated, unsure whether to keep my place and hold the line or to go to Medryn’s assistance. With the building through which he’d crashed closer than any other enemy, I chose the latter. My free hand allowed me some purchase as I surmounted the broken rubble into an almost-enclosed room on the ruin’s lower floor. Shadow ruled here and the contrast from the burning sunlight, the one salubrious element of this One-forsaken place, caused me to pause as my eyes adjusted. They did so just in time to see the animated corpse bearing down hard on Medryn, who held both the creature’s wrists in his own hands but struggled to keep the thing’s mouth away from his exposed neck.
My slash at the thing went amiss as it squirmed just when the blade would have met with its neck, steel instead biting into its shoulder and lodging against the collarbone. In the blink of an eye it turned on me, grabbing my knees to push me to the ground and clambering up me until its face came even with mine. Now I held it back by its arms with all of my might as it slobbered and worked its jaw in anticipating of tasting flesh. As we fought, I craned my neck to the side in hopes of seeing Medryn now coming to my aid, but he lay there on the floor moaning, unrecovered from his own assault.
With no hope of assistance, I began to think of a means of escape. My sword lay lodged in the creature’s back, its point often coming dangerously close to cutting me as we struggled. I dared not grip its blade for fear of cutting myself and allowing the dark ichor that seeped forth as a viscous black sludge to mix with my own blood. I couldn’t free a hand to grab my dagger; in the short time I left the thing unopposed by the full force of my strength it would sink its teeth into me and that would be the end.
I focused my will, drawing upon my fear and anger as I did—not a wise choice as a practitioner, but desperation often drives poor decisions. Those dark emotions coursed through me, pleasurable sensations, righteous. After all, this thing should not be, destroying it would be a service to The One, my companions, and all the Avar. My mouth opened, spilling unintelligible syllables. My sorcery lacked the complexity of a thaumaturgy, where incantation might help me to form the working’s manifestation in the world. No, this was raw will, exerted upon the Avar with petulant force and stubborn expectation.
The creature’s eyes widened, as if its unliving brain understood that something injurious was about to happen but couldn’t sort the details. With a piercing shriek, its head burst into flame, filling the room with the putrid scent of burning flesh. As soon as its struggles weakened, I pushed it from me and rolled out of the way as the fire spread to its entire body. It rebounded from the wall, the jarring force against my sword’s hilt sending it clattering across the floor; I stopped it with my foot and recovered it to its sheath, waited a brief moment to make sure the undead thing would not be rising again, and went to Medryn, finding a pool of crimson expanding slowly outward from under him.
I rolled him slightly to find a thin beam of rotting wood jutting from his back; it must have pierced him when the ghoul first pushed him into the building.
“You’re bleeding,” he said.
It took me a moment to understand that he wasn’t speaking gibberish; feeling something warm and coppery drip into my lips, I put my gloved hand to my face and it came back touched with dark blood. A side effect of the sorcery—there’s no time with such a quick working to draw power from anywhere but within yourself. If you’re lucky, or good, you won’t even feel the effects of a sporadic or limited working, but with the pressure of circumstances preventing the cleanest performance of the working, fatigue, aches, pains and injury are not unlikely.
He sputtered, drawing me back to the present, a red spatter leaving small droplet on his face. “Go,” he said, “help the others.”
Back in the streets, I found chaos. A handful of bodies—our attackers’—littered the ground, but the fight had become a general melee. Nearby an arm cut off by some wayward strike inched along in attempt to return to its erstwhile owner, fingers moving like oversized caterpillars as a motive force. I stepped on it, feeling a satisfying crunch of fingerbones, as I drew my sword and moved in to aid the other five.
Barro and Endan continued to work as a team, using each other as distractions to maim opponents until they could fight no more, Endan’s cleaver severing tendons and muscles while Barro’s mace split and splintered bone, crippling the ghouls limb by limb until a finishing blow could be administered. Edanu had changed his crossbow for his own sword, but several of the creatures had been peppered with his short, fat bolts.
Unfortunately, none of them had struck a face or head, leaving the cadavers porcupine-like but still able to fight. Edanu now fought bravely against the two that had closed the distance with him.
The majority of the group—I hadn’t time or presence of mind to count—were being held back by the combined efforts of Gamven and Errys. I could tell by the the sluggishness of their strikes that they were tiring from the effort, though their work accounted for the majority of the cadavers that had been returned to true corpsehood.
I closed into them, far enough away that we had no danger of striking each other with careless blows but close enough that I could draw some of the assailants from the press against the two. Two of the creatures broke off from the pack that Aryden’s soldiers had kept at bay and shambled toward me. They moved well enough to dodge several of my blows and to force me to resort to desperate footwork to keep one of them from circling to my rear. The maintained a distance to prevent me from striking them without extending myself, and each time I tried, the other would lunge for me in counterattack, giving us what might have seemed the appearance of schoolboys playing a game of touch. But this was not amusing, not to me, at least, and I doubted the hungry dead felt much of anything at all, though I did marvel somewhat at their low cunning.
Our dance brought us to a positioning that I could see Gamven and Errys fighting behind my own assailants; I tried not to let their own fights distract me, but when one of the creatures caught Errys by the wrist as she readied a swing, I could not help myself.
The other two victims of the Maw piled in, pushing her to the ground and swarming on top of her. I screamed and tried to move to help, but the two ghouls attacking me prevented it. One made a mistep, though, and I caught it between head and shoulders with my blade. The strike stopped at the spine, opening up an oozing flap of skin that the cadaver made no sign of noticing. In the short second I had, I struck again, completing the blow and sending the head rolling off across the dirt and cobblestones, trailing its black ichor.
After that, dispatching the second thing took only short work and a small chase—it dodged my blows until I backed it into a wall and cut it to pieces.
I turned in time to see Errys pick herself up from the ground, two of the ghouls rolling off of her and the third clinging to her back, teeth clench around the side of her throat. This one she grabbed by the back of the head, holding it close as she drew a short dagger with her left hand and plunged it into the creature’s skull with a sickening crunch splat of shattering skull and leaking brains. It fell away from her, lifeless, revealing two long gouges in her neck, deep chasms of torn flesh. But these oozed rather than sprayed, it had missed her vital arteries. Uncaring, her face scrunched—not with the rage that might be expected but with the cold determination of a warrior who refuses to die until her mission is complete—she recovered her longsword in time to skewer one of the recovering undead walkers through the chest, easily withdrawing the blade and turning to strike full force at the other, the sword biting clean through its chest almost to the naval. Neither of these blows stopped the creatures, but she followed with a flurry of strikes, fast and hard, with the precision of a master swordswoman, until all that remained of her attackers were carved-up bodies with severed heads. The fight complete, she collapsed.
I moved to support Gamven now but he called me off with a below to check on Errys. He’d shifted his grip on his sword, holding it with both gloved hands by the blade. We swung the straight quillons into a cadaver’s skull with another wet crunch, dropping it. One remained before him as he returned the weapon to a true grip, nimbly stepping aside as it lunged at him, taking its head with a sweeping blow from behind.
A dropped to my knees next to Errys’ unmoving body. The bite on her neck might have been the deepest, but it had companions, many of them, little paired crescents of craggy flesh ragged at the edges on her arms, hands, and even the backs of her legs. For a moment, I thought about preparing a working to heal her. It’s not my forte by any means, but I have some proficiency in the healing arts. I had some confidence that, if I could prepare a ritual in time, bring together the proper correspondences, I could draw in enough power to close those wounds again. There’d be scars, nasty ones, but some hope existed that I might prevent her from exsanguinating.
I quickly realized that thought for the foolhardy dream it was. Even if I could pull off the arcane binding of so many wounds, I would remain powerless to do anything about the curse that caused the Maw in the first place. Leaving the university had allowed me to broaden my studies into the Art at the expense of the depth I might have enjoyed in particular foci while learning from the masters of those practices. I lacked the background and resources to make any serious study into the Maw’s origins and first causes; what arrogance I bear doesn’t extend to thought that I might prevail in such a regard where more learned scholars had failed. Even if I’d had all the time in the world, which I did not.
I could potentially patch up the wounds, yes. But the fever would still take her. She’d cough up blood like other victims of the Red Maw before succumbing to the grip of the disease. And then she would rise again, one of these flesh-craving creatures of only low cunning, doomed to perpetually hunt the living and yet never feel sated. So I did what I could. I pulled her unconscious body to rest on the cadavers she’d killed, thankful that she’d kept her hair clear of her neck. I raised my blade, took what purchase I could on the short hilt with my second hand, and brought it down fast and hard as I could, the sword’s arc passing thankfully cleanly through both flesh and bone. Her head dropped to the ground with the same force that something unseen dropped into the pit of my stomach. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. As I wiped the blade clean on her cloak, careful to remove every last drop of tainted blood, Falla’s words appeared unbidden in my mind and I wondered if she really did have some divinatory gift.
“What the fuck have you done? By The One and all the Firstborn! By Ashaera on the Tree. What the fuck are you thinking?” Gamven yelled from behind me, armor clinking slightly as he took a few steps toward me. The rest of our attackers had been felled and all of our party left standing had watched me kill her.
I turned and dropped my sword, holding my hands up to him. Trying to keep my voice calm, despite trembling in the aftermath of the danger and excitement, I spoke softly. “Gamven, you saw what happened to her. She wouldn’t have survived. We could have waited for her to turn, let her be a threat to the rest of us. But she wouldn’t have wanted that, would she?”
“Damn it all,” he said, his voice quiet with the realization that I spoke the truth. “God damn it,” he repeated. After a pause, “Where’s Medryn?”
“Dead, but not like Errys. He caught a bit of a wood frame when one of the monsters pushed him into the ruins over there. He’s bled out by now.”
“Was there nothing you could do, lord thaumaturge?” the words dripped with accusation, and I understood that he expected miracles. Those who don’t spend much time with the Art usually do; they don’t understand that it is never without cost and that it is limited by circumstance as with all mortal endeavors.
“I could have tried to help him or I could have returned to try to help you. Chances weren’t good with him, and I hoped to prevent someone else from falling as well.”
“Then you failed twice, Iaren,” he said contemptuously.
Endan had removed the long-beaked mask from his head, probably in hopes of getting some clean air after sweating and suffocating in that voluntary prison all through the fight. A splatter of dark ichor, smeared in the attempt to wipe it off, covered one of the mask’s lenses. Better there than in a place where it might have infected the doctor. “He may be a worker of the subtle science,” Endan began, “But he is not The One, Gamven, nor one of the Firstborn. He cannot control everything.”
“Two people have died to save one life,” the master-at-arms muttered.
“And that is the way of the world, my friend,” Edanu returned. “Not all lives are of equal weight, unfortunately. These two have carried out their duty well in service to their lord, and that loyalty deserves honor and our respect. But that does not mean we attempt to change The One’s cosmic mathematics.”
I couldn’t tell whether the House ambassador meant to rub in the fact or actually thought he was helping. It felt like watering the seed of discontent the day had planted in Gamven; I didn’t want to see what blossomed from such an endeavor.
“What now?” Edanu continued.
“We collect the bodies, Barro gives them their rites, and we burn them,” I said.
“Then what?” Endan asked.
“Then we hope that this concludes the matter.”