“Did you find anything?” Catherine asked, calling down from the top of the cliff as they made their way out of the ship.
“Not sure,” Tebryn called back before anyone else could answer. “Tell you when we get up there.”
Keith was first up the rope, scrambling up the rocks to the grassy top in what seemed the blink of an eye to Max. Tebryn was a bit slower, but finished his ascent with a showly flip, leaving Max to struggle up behind them in chainmail, after he refused an offer to haul him up on the rope.
“…know where that is, yes,” Catherine was saying when he reached the top, red faced and sweating. “It’s in the middle of the island though, closer to the Marque’s manor than the village really.”
“So we go tomorrow then,” Tebryn said, looking up into the grey sky. “It’s about mid afternoon now and I don’t fancy running around a ruin in the black of night.”
Catherine nodded. “All right. I’ll see you at my place after breakfast then.”
“After an early breakfast,” Max said, coiling the rope up.
The sun was low on the horizon and the fields of cabbages, turnips and potatoes were visible in the distance when Keith held up a hand.
“Shh!” Keith’s reply was both soft and sharp and cut Max off mid query.
The big man drew his blades and turned just as the first darkling attacked.
They were human—or had once been. They moved with a swift economy of motion that was human in form but inhumane in the way it completely disregarded the safety of the mover. The first one crashed out of a thorny gorse thicket, covered in scratches from the needle sharp thorns, some deep enough to bleed painfully. Or should have been deep enough to cause painful bleeding. Only the darkling didn’t bleed blood at all. Ichor the colour of midnight dripped from their wounds, dissolving into the air in trailing streams of darkness. Still, Max was sure that these had once been people, sunken eyesockets, jet black eyes and hollow cheeks included. They moved forward deliberately and without vocalisation, the only noise of their approach their footfalls and the whip slap of springy gorse branches being pushed out of their way. Their long, blackened fingernails were more akin to talons than fingernails, and they closed in with hands raised, ready to strike.
Keith dodged the first attack, spinning out of the way and sending the darkling crashing off the road with a well placed kick to its behind, and struck out at the a second, but it pulled away, only a tiny line of of dark ichor on its torso any indication that it had been hit at all.
Damn, these things were fast.
In the background, he heard Catherine scream and saw Tebryn hesitate a second before drawing out a large, oriental fan. A fan. Thinking back, he hadn’t actually seen the man use any blade larger than a belt knife, or pick up anything resembling a weapon. Gritting his teeth, Max drew his shortsword from his belt, his shield from where it rested on his back, and squared off against the third darkling. This one had been a woman once, if her tattered garb was anything to go by. Now her lank black hair hung in thick matted snarls, most of them plastered to her face and neck. She stared at him without any trace of recognition or acknowledgement as another human being. It wasn’t a look he’d really seen before. Well, maybe once when his patrol had come up against a den of mushroom juicers, the brain fogging combination of blackcap mushroom powder and strong spirits had turned a normally placid, drugged out juicer den into a cave of blood thirsty maniacs.
Two of his squad had died that night.
The first blow came from his left and Max barely got the shield up in time. The force of the blow was as hard as his captain’s back home, and was being delivered by a five foot something, wiry darkling that had once been an inoffensive peasant woman. His own over shield blow missed its mark, and it seemed that Keith wasn’t faring much better. The normally nimble warrior was having to fend of too of the creatures, and his blades were being turned toward defence and misdirection of attacks rather than landing killing blows themselves.
Suddenly, a small rock hit the side of the woman’s head, and it turned to glare balefully in Tebryn’s direction, only to be hit up the side of the head with the butt of the trickster’s fan. The thud of metal on flesh mixed with the crack of bone and Max took advantage of the distraction to run the woman through, his blade slipping between her ribs to her heart. Black mist bubbled out of ther mouth and blew away in the sea breeze as her body collapsed to the ground, nearly yanking Max’s blade from his grip. Stepping over the corpse, he thrust at the second of the darklings attacking Keith. Drawing its attention allowed the Kushistani to go on the offence, cutting down the third creature in a hail of blows that left its head detached from the rest of its body. Max himself wasn’t as fortunate, trading fruitless attacks with his opponent when a twisted root caused him to stumble backwards, his guard dropping momentarily as he was pushed backwards into the prickly gorse.
Tensing in anticipation the guardsman prayed his armour would prevent any serious damage, but instead of an opportunistic blow there was a slick grating sound and a burst of cold air blasted past his face. Looking up he saw a lithe young woman, dressed in leather leggings and a jerkin covered by a sunshine yellow dress. She was holding two heavy daggers, which were currently jammed to the hilt into the eye sockets of the final darkling, the once stocky man’s body now lying twitching in the grass. Wrenching her weapons free the girl cleaned her blades on the rags the darkling still wore, and then sheathed them in a harness on her back.
“Hi,” the girl said, pushing her hair back from her face. “I’m Allette. Are you the new people I’ve been told about?”
Max blinked and hauled himself to his feet. “I’m Max, that’s Tebryn and the big guy’s Keith. And you could say we’re new around these parts.”
“And…” Allette looked over to where Catherine was kneeling by one of the fallen darklings.
“That’s Catherine,” Tebryn said softly, ushering Allette away from the woman. “She’s a local. How’d you get here?”
“I woke up in a tree,” Allette said. “With a note pinned to my dress saying ‘Sorry for the inconvenience, but I’m running out of time’. You?”
“Went so sleep in Archangel, woke up here,” Max said. “Keith and Tebryn were on a crashing airship—”
“You crashed here?” Allette asked, turning to Tebryn.
“No,” the trickster said. “There was a sorcerer, everything went dark and we were here.”
“That was…kind of him,” Allette said.
“How do you figure that?” Tebryn asked.
“You didn’t crash and die?” Allette suggested.
Tebryn sniffed. “I suppose. But given that I think he was the cause of the crash, I’m not sure how much of a mercy that was.”
Over by the bodies, Keith was squatting down beside Catharine. “Are you all right?”
“I knew him,” Catherine said, one slender hand resting on the shoulder of the darkling Allette had stabbed in the eyes. “Edward was a farmer. He was the first one who vanished and everyone thought he’d gone…lost at sea.”
“Come. We should leave,” Keith said, offering her his hand.
Catherine accepted his hand and rose gracefully to her feet. “Yes. And I need to get you all to the ruins of the old cathedral. Cavalcanti won’t get away with this any longer.”
“You didn’t really just say that, did you?” Tebryn asked. “Nothing good ever happens after someone says that.”
“Um…who’s Cavalwhatsit?” Allette asked raising her hand.
“The Marque of the island,” Max said.
“A demon,” Catherine replied. “He feeds on your fears and turns you into…those,” she added, turning away from the darkling corpses.
“Well, in that case, maybe you shouldn’t be telling people that he feeds on fear, because—”
“He gets into your nightmares,” Tebryn said. “Or gives them to you. Or if not him something. He’s just our best suspect right now.”
“That sounds a bit…supernatural.”
“Very,” Tebryn agreed. “But don’t take our word for it—see how you feel after you get a bad night’s sleep tonight.”
“Also, if you don’t defeat him, you’ll never get off the island,” Catherine said. “We’ll never get off the island.”
Allette paused. “But Goodie Wallace said that a merchant ship is due in port any day?”
“That ship’s been due any day for several years,” Catharine said.
A rumble startled them all and Allette blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t eat lunch. Fill me in over dinner?”
“That’s her story?” Captain Melville asked, looking over to where the youth sat on the deck, wrapped in a thick blanket and leaning back against the mast.
“Appeared out of nowhere, saved my life and nearly got killed in the process,” Tebryn said. “Truth be told, she threw her lot in with us without so much as a second thought, and not a lot of evidence to go by.”
“Lucky for us,” Max said. “Not so much for her.”
“Perhaps,” Tebryn said. “But she’s alive, and that’s more than we all might have been if we hadn’t confronted the Marque.”
The Cathedral was in a coniferous forest in the central area of the island, deeper into the forest than the villagers ventured with their axes. It stood tall and mostly intact—the last building remaining from what must have been a much older settlement of thick hewn stone—far older than the brick and thatch cottages of the town.
“Erabus,” Tebryn said, running his fingers over the faded chisel marks on a stone marker. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Catherine said. “Father Scott didn’t know who built it or how old it is.”
“It’s massive,” Tebryn said quietly.
And indeed it was. It was easily three stories high with a belltower that must have held a bell taller than Max himself, one which surely had been claimed by rust. It had a familiar cross shape, or near cross shape, with a still standing stone wall that enclosed what must have once been a graveyard or garden of some nature. The yellow-grey stones were covered in green mosses and lichen, and vines had grown up about a third of the way up the walls. The doors were easily nine feet tall and held together with black, wrought iron bands.
“You’d think there’d be rust,” Tebryn said, from where he was inspecting the hinges. “I don’t even think this will squeak when you push it open.”
“We push it open?” Allette asked.
“Well, mostly Keith,” Tebryn said with a shrug.
Allette rolled her eyes. “Come on big guy,” she said, striding forward.
The doors did indeed slide forward noiselessly on smooth hinges, revealing a scene of remarkable preservation. Max wasn’t sure if the place had always been this austere, or if the people who abandoned the dwellings had managed to take all their soft furnishings with them, but the two lines of stone pews were still intact, an aisle between them leading up to a large round column that reached up into the stone dome that was visible from the outside, and curiously devoid of ornamentation. There was no pulpit, and only the stone altar remained at the far end, only empty wall where Max would have expected a wooden cross. Where he would have expected seats for the choir on the left was an archway, a blue-white light shining steadily out from it. To the right was empty space, with just a small, plain door in the corner. Piles of rubble from a partially collapsed wall rose some eight feet high along the right hand side of the cathedral, and the grey light of the sun still cast colourful patterns through the stained glass windows which showed scenes from the War of the Cross.
The central column was…odd. It looked far too big to be there, and as Max stared up into the vaulted ceiling above, it looked like it wasn’t supporting anything. At the front of the columns were three vertical lines of tiles. Or tumblers, as Max found upon closer inspection, each tile rotating around through a series of letters and numbers, although at the moment they were all blank.
“Three names, huh?” Tebryn said, twiddling with the tiles. “Seems straightforward enough—just have to find them.”
“Okay,” Allette said. “Where do we start?”
“Ah,” Tebryn said. “The not straightforward part.”
The glowing light turned out to be coming from a granite sphere that scintillated with a white glow, despite not appearing to be cut with facets. It lit the walls with hundreds of bright white dots, that danced in random patterns and swirls. Max paused in the doorway, only to have Tebryn push past him, reaching out to lay his hand on the rock.
It was hard to explain, but it almost seemed like the lights were drawn to Tebryn’s skin, causing the palm of his hands to light up, fleshy and red, while the top of his hand remained dark in the shadows. Tebryn looked up at Max, his eyes wide.
“Yeah,” Max said. “I know.”
“What? It’s just a rock,” Allette said.
“A glowy rock,” Tebryn said, picking it up. It was about as large as the man’s chest and he needed two hands to carry it. “Do you think we can take it?”
“You can try,” Keith said with a shrug.
Grinning at Max, Tebryn carefully carried the rock over to the door, but once he stepped over the threshold, the lights that had lit its surface faded, and the feeling of power faded. Frowning, he stepped back into the alcove, and the stone lit up again, or at least, one half did. The side outside of the room remained dark and dead.
“Can’t take it out of the room,” Max said.
“Yeah,” Tebryn agreed. “Oh well, we know it’s here if we need it,” he said and carried it back to the plinth and set it down gingerly. “Pity,” he added.
“You can get another pet rock somewhere else,” Allette said as they headed towards the door on the other side of the room.
“But it won’t be as good as that one,” Tebryn said with a sigh. “Never mind.”
It was nice to know he wasn’t the only magically gifted person around, but he hadn’t seen the juggler do anything remotely magical so far. To be fair, he’d done nothing magical since meeting Tebryn and Keith, so perhaps the other man was just being cautious.
The far door led out into a cloister, or what would once have been a cloister, if the forest hadn’t reclaimed the grassy garden. Most of the covered walkways had collapsed under the ministration of the elements, but the stone paths were still there, and the group trekked right around the trees, hugging the cathedral wall. Through another door they found a long corridor that seemed to run alongside the inner wall, although it seemed superfluous from Max’s perspective. Maybe it was a storage area. It certainly seemed like the equivalent of a cathedral shed, although it didn’t hold much bar a few moth-eaten scraps of fabric and sacking and the rusted remains of of gardening tools. At the end there was a number of carved busts, although of who exactly Max didn’t know.
“These have been moved,” Tebryn said. “Look at the discolouration on the stone.”
Looking down Max saw the square print on the stone that was lighter than dirty discoloured areas around it. “They were blocking the end of the room.”
“Let’s see what’s behind it, shall we?” Tebryn asked, raising his lantern as he led the way between the statues.
“Marble,” Keith muttered as he followed after the juggler. “Heavy.”
“And empty,” Tebryn said. “Well, except for this.”
Following the others between the heavy statues of religious icons long forgotten, Max found Tebryn looking up at an engraving in the wall. “A puzzle,” he said flatly. “I hate puzzles.”
“One puzzle, three names.” Tebryn said.
“And numbers around the outside of the letter square,” Max said. “Wonderful.”
The big man shrugged and leaned up against the wall. “You’re the thinker, you figure it out.”
“Hey look, Erebus. Isn’t that what was on the sign out front of the cathedral?” Allette asked.
“Aye,” Tebryn agreed. “And it was on the documents we found at the shipwreck.”
“There was a shipwreck?” Allette asked.
“Didn’t we cover that over dinner?”
“Mostly you talked about potatoes. And how much you never want to eat one again.”
“Oh, right.” Reaching into his backpack, Tebryn drew out the oilskin wrapped parcel of documents out of his backpack and handed it to her as he stared at the numbers. “Here you go.”
“Could it be the numbers pointing towards letters?” Tebryn muttered, half to himself. “Each set of numbers provides a letter?”
“That doesn’t provide anything resembling names and doesn’t give us Erebus at all.”
“And how would the zero come into things?” Allette asked.
“Hey look, Abaddon,” Max said. “Would that be one of the names?”
“If we’re just picking names, there’s Julia, Jedah and Maria if you go backwards,” Allette pointed out.
“Erebus, Jedah and Meseguis,” Tebryn said.
“Meseguis? That’s not a name!” Max objected.
“Maybe not, but it’s all eight letters in that column,” Tebryn said.
Max stared at the square of letters for a moment longer. “Oh,” he said.
Keith straighted up from where he had slouched against the wall. “All right. Let’s go do this then.”