The Exorcist's Tale: I

Known by way of rumor to many but actually seen by very few, even among the august Order of the Crimson Blades, the Aula or Great Hall of St. Seraph was a marvel of gold mosaic and gleaming marble. It was here that a Cardinal was elected; here that the most sensitive matters of Church governance were discussed and debated; and it was from here that the very first Crusade was launched by St. Iocus himself nearly two millennia ago. Once the last refuge of a Kildean sorcerer and his minions, it was now the gilded heart of the Order and pulsed with the usual intrigue that surrounded the affairs of God.

Dom Ignacio contemplated such details as he quickly passed beneath the looming archway that opened into the Hall. Five checkpoints at five massive oaken doors beyond a postern gate had reinforced the aspect of dread secrecy -- if the visitor had any doubts beyond the gloominess of the corridor and the occasional gendarme who watched silently from the black maw of his death's head sallet.

The Dom slipped into the Great Hall, dutifully crossed himself and was quietly greeted by a bishop's attendant who gestured towards the center of the room. Ignacio squinted at the vast interior of hall. It was illuminated only by a few small braziers -- and by three candelabra which rested on an imposing table, behind which were seated three shadowy figures. Making his way across the span of intricate patterns of lapis lazuli and granite, Ignacio remarked the Kildean glyphs woven into the smooth surface of the floor, until eventually he was close enough to see if his summoners might be identified. One thing was certain: two of these men were bishops -- for, exactly three paces behind their chairs stood an hastatus, or pike-bearer, supporting this ceremonial instrument symbolic of the episcopal office. Upon his consecration each bishop selects his motto and arms; and these are afterwards worked into the heraldic contours of the pike blade he is to carry.

One of the men seated there was clearly Archbishop Jean Paringaux, then. There was no mistaking his standard -- its most prominent feature being a spike-collared bear. Ignacio's eyes strained as they struggled to focus upon the second standard -- was it Bishop Rodolfo's, perhaps? No... Rodolfo was a lean man, while this individual on the other hand had obviously not observed a fast in many a year...

Thus preoccupied, Dom Ignacio almost failed to notice the fact that he had arrived at the respectful distance a Blade must observe when called before his superiors. Catching himself, he stopped short and genuflected -- even as he privately thanked God that the darkness of the room would conceal his obvious annoyance at the anonymity of his summoners.

With his head reverently lowered, Ignacio remained kneeling for what seemed like several minutes that were permeated only by a few coughs, the rustling of parchment, and one or two whispered exchanges. At length, one of the men spoke.

"Rise, Dom Ignacio Lemaire." Ignacio recognize the voice immediately, and his heart sank. Bishop Annibale Bugnini. His presence here did not auger well. Bugnini's son had also been an exorcist, and was in Ignacio's class both at the Academy and later in the seminary. Sadly, Pietro Bugnini was a distracted student; and it was not long before the Dark had devoured him and drove the poor priest to madness. The duty had fallen to Ignacio to deal with Pietro's compromised state -- this was according to the sacred Canons of the Church. Even so, Bishop Bugnini harbored a deep resentment against Ignacio ever since, and vocally dismissed him in conversation at any opportunity. It was good for Ignacio that as an exorcist and virtual eremite he had absolutely no political plans to move up in the rank of his Order -- for Bugnini would have struck him down long ago.

"You took part in the investigation of the Lea Monde incident, and the murder of Duke Bardorba five years ago -- is this correct?"

Bishop Bugnini spoke tersely, without looking up from the folios of parchment in front of him.

"Yes, Your Excellency," Ignacio replied. "Specifically, I was charged with determining the guilt or innocence of the Inquisitor, Callo Merlose, who had been an alleged accessory in Duke Bardorba's murder on the word of a single witness. I determined the evidence was circumstantial..."

Bugnini raised his hand. "Enough. Yes, we know the outcome.

Bardorba's fall was regrettable, but hardly surprising considering the fact that he was a cultist and surrounded himself with rogues and thieves. At any rate, the murder investigation is not what brought you here this morning."

Ignacio was silent as he tried to divine where this inquiry was going. Archbishop Paringaux spoke next.

"My son, what do you know about Inquisitor Merlose? Surely in the course of your investigation, you discovered that she had been doing reconnaissance for the VKP the very day our Blades took Duke Bardorba's residence from the Mullenkamp cultists. You may further know, as we do, that she was later seen in Lea Monde itself -- both in the presence of Sydney Losstarot's men, as well as with Ashley Riot, the Riskbreaker."

Ashley Riot -- the so-called "Vagrant" of popular legend. Ignacio knew little about the man (if any humanity remained in him), beyond the fact that this former VKP assassin had himself become a thrall of Mullenkamp -- and that, with the assistance of dozens of cultists, in the bowels of Lea Monde he had ambushed and killed Romeo Guildenstern along with several other Blades of high reputation for sanctity.

After a momentary pause, Ignacio managed to respond. "Yes, Your Grace. I had reviewed the accounts of those sightings. And Merlose openly admits to having befriended this villain, Riot; although she insists he is innocent of any crime."

Archbishop Paringaux shook his head slowly in resignation. "See how the Dark works its rot upon the mind and soul..." he muttered as to himself. "My dear son, you are about to learn why we have asked you here this morning, and why we have asked for your thoughts on the Inquisitor. But first I must administer the oath of secrecy, to which as a member of the Order of the Crimson Blade and a disciple of St. Iocus you are obliged to willingly submit."

Ignacio nodded, and prostrated himself on the floor before his summoners.

"Dost thou promise me reverence and obedience?" asked the Archbishop.

"I do promise."

"And to me, likewise, as your Superior?" This voice was that of Abbe Bancel.

"I do promise."

The Archbishop concluded, "Then rise; and take thee upon thy conscience the burden of a holy silence; so that whatsoever is spoken or written before thee now will remain in thy breast only, and never upon thy tongue, save to those before whom you stand. May Almighty God grant thee the discipline to fulfill this oath, or strike thee down in thy weakness. Amen."

Ignacio rose to his feet as a strange anxiety seemed to choke his breath and cloud his vision. His three summoners were no longer preoccupied with the dossiers and parchment before them; they now looked directly at the exorcist with a grave aspect. Bishop Bugnini was the first to speak.


The Exorcist's Tale: II

Bishop Annibale Bugnini leaned forward in his chair and scraped it closer to the table.

"The so-called 'Vagrant' has been spied in the West Country, Dom Ignacio. The evidence and reports we have received are credible enough to warrant action." Paging through what were evidently sworn testimonies of other ecclesiastics, he continued. "This sorcerer disrupts the palings; conjures fantastical beasts and monsters of every description; and even disturbs the mouldering corpses of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. All to harass the living -- as well as to feed the Dark."

Dom Ignacio was growing more uneasy with each flicker of the light.

He did not know if, or how, he was expected to respond. Ignacio glanced at Abbe Bancel, his Superior General, whose reassuring, paternal smile seemed darkly incongruous with a face that otherwise betokened dread.

"And of late, His Eminence Cardinal Batistum has been plagued with visions... nightmares, really... which suggest that the vessel of the Dark is soon to be broken and remade -- its powers magnified tenfold."

"Remade, my Lord?" inquired Dom Ignacio, momentarily forgetting his place.

Bugnini savored this opportunity to upbraid the young exorcist in front of both the Archbishop and Ignacio's Superior, but he paused too long, and the Abbe intervened.

"Ashley Riot is soon to meet with a well-deserved death, Ignacio -- if indeed what His Eminence has seen is prophecy. But he has selected an heir; one who will be far more powerful than himself.

The Cardinal fears lest Riot should foresee his own demise and name this successor, performing the diabolic rite of ascension before death has come and the infernal chain is forever broken."

"A successor...?" Ignacio wondered aloud. Then a name jumped to his lips almost instantaneously. "Joshua Bardorba. Where is the Duke's son?"

Abbe Bancel nodded gravely as Bishop Bugnini sat back in his chair and frowned.

"The VKP has heard these reports; and marry, they have even discovered the tenor of the Cardinal's visions," Bugnini seethed. "And now we have reason to believe that LeSait means to find Ashley Riot and shield him from God's justice -- as if such a foul endeavor can be imagined! But a will to frustrate justice perfectly befits one so highly born and so enamored of nobility.

Hear and understand the sickness which is the downfall of Valendia, Dom Ignacio. The corrupt noblemen; the Parliament; and even these pretended guardians, these 'Knights of the Peace,' are become the slavish errand-men of arcane sorcery."

Archbishop Paringaux concurred in a much more reserved tone. "It is true, my son," he sighed as he regarded Dom Ignacio with an expression that seemed a mixture of despondency and resolve. "Now that we have confirmation of the VKP's designs in apprehending this Ashley Riot for themselves, I fear our suspicions of have been confirmed. With a vessel of the Dark under their direct protection and guidance, Parliament would be prepared for a major upheaval -- one which the Church of St. Iocus would not be permitted to survive.

Even as we speak, the Academy at Gariland rises as from a blackened sea of sell-swords and war machines. Think you this is by chance?"

Dom Ignacio shook his head slowly in disbelief. A swarm of questions began to crowd his mind -- but one question most prominently. "My Lords, what has any of this to do with me?"

"More than you might wish," his Abbe replied. "Quite simply, Dom Ignacio, the Church has urgent need of your talents. Through an intermediary, we have arranged for you to accompany the VKP mission into the Western Provinces. If this vessel be found, you are to frustrate the VKP's designs -- and shatter it."

Ignacio was rendered speechless. Bishop Bugnini continued.

"You are a Crimson Blade, Dom Ignacio; like us, you were ordained to fight and die for the Church at the Cardinal's good pleasure. But you are also an exorcist -- and the Vagrant cannot be felled by mere steel. This is where I own LeSait has gravely miscalculated. He sends the Inquisitor, Callo Merlose, and a Riskbreaker by the name of..." Bugnini held a slip of parchment up to the light. "Morven Verstraeten. A Riskbreaker! Would that it were possible to subdue the Dark by mere force of arms -- however efficient. But it is well for us that the VKP entertains such delusions."

"We would feign send you on so dangerous an assignment without helps, however," noted Abbe Bancel, "if only to prevent the Knights from apprehending Riot when the time comes. The distinguished Commander Neesa Delacroix, already known to you for some time, and Captain Simone Montegue will be part of your company -- along with a number of our more doughty Blades."

"But should I destroy the vessel, " Ignacio uttered, hardly believing he was able to form the words, "should I unmake the vessel of the Dark, then I become his heir; I inherit his sin, and the bloody mark of desolation. What is to become of me then?"

"You will be brought back here," the Archbishop answered hesitatingly, "where... there is much good that can be done, before you fall asleep in the Lord and the line is peacefully sundered for all time."

"Forgive me, Your Grace, but I do not understand." Dom Ignacio lied, wishing he had not heard what was just said. But Paringaux pressed on.

"You will not be a slave to the Dark like all the others, Ignacio.

Your soul will be its warden; and the holy fortress that is your mind will be its gaol."

"Few exorcists in recent memory have survived the Dark as you have, Ignacio," Abbe Bancel reminded him. "Yet you walk into the very furnace and are not even singed. Please understand that I was obliged by the sacred oaths of this Order to recommend you to His Grace as the only candidate worthy of this assignment. And I beg forgiveness, my son, for now as your lawful Superior I must put this assignment to you as an obedience. You may refuse... but know you the penalty."

"You would be hanged, until you should die the death; and your corpse dismembered and thrown to the dogs," Bugnini pointed out through an unsettling smile.

"I do not fear death," Ignacio calmly replied, "but rather do I fear men of ambition."

Bugnini thundered, "And have you no fear of dishonor? Are you not afraid to break the oaths you have freely made before God and man?

Speak!"

Dom Ignacio could manage no response.

"If we are ambitious, my son, it is only for the cleansing of this realm from the corruption that so encumbers it," Paringaux said at length. "It is as my brother in God, Bishop Bugnini, has said -- the nobility, the Parliament, the Knights, and yea, even the Church and this sacred Order must be purged. Is it treason to be desirous of so holy a counsel? We seek not to hand Valendia over to her enemies -- but to consecrate her, unblemished, to Almighty God."

These words found their way into Dom Ignacio's heart. Did he not pray daily for the reestablishment of the Iocian religion? Would it be better that this people be sacrificed to the Dark in the name of a false "liberty"? And indeed, what would become of us all should the VKP preside over a political solution that surely would make the destruction of the Church one of its first priorities? His summoners were right. There seemed to be no other course of action than the one they had proposed -- as unbelievable as it was.

The exorcist reflected upon these things; then sighed heavily and sunk to one knee. "I will accept this obedience; and I ask for your blessing. The demoniac called Ashley Riot shall die by my hand. Jube Domne, benedicere."


The Exorcist's Tale: III

It was four AM when Dom Ignacio stumbled carelessly from the postern gate and back into the unrelenting cold. A barely-perceptible slip of the heel against flagstone roused his senses too late that an icy mist was in the air and beneath his tired legs.

Moments later, as he lay sprawled on his back where he fell, Ignacio drew a deep breath and contemplated the fresh bump on his crown -- and how much happier he would have been had he never been called from Matins over an hour ago. A spirit of melancholy set upon the hapless cleric, even as he decided to resume the daily round of prayers which usually provided consolation. Sore, chilled, and soon to be soaked through, the Dom cut a sorry image as he lay upon the stone floor of the cloister, softly chanting the Divine Office (or what could be recalled from it at the moment) to the open air until some vigor might return to his limbs.

Squinting against the light rain, Ignacio watched the menacing storm clouds roll and turn across the winter sky like drops of ink in a jar of water -- until a deafening clap of thunder finally motivated him to seek shelter. Before he could steady himself on his hands and knees, a strong, unseen figure emerged from the shadow of the ambulatory, grabbed him by the cowl, and dragged him to relative safety.

"Time affords us not the practice of mortifications and unheard prayers, exorcist. You will not tarry me a second time." Commander Neesa had mistaken the priest's attitude upon the snow as some pious act of self-denial. Clearly she had just arrived a few moments ago and had missed the tumble that had put him there. Nevertheless, Dom Ignacio knew better than to attempt a correction. He nodded solemnly.

Their footfalls echoing across the cloister, Neesa Delacroix and Dom Ignacio hurried along the ambulatory, past the calefactorium and down the low passageway that opened into the courtyard. With practiced skill, Neesa mounted her waiting palfrey in a single, fluid motion -- then waited with obvious annoyance as a befuddled Ignacio hesitated to take his own place.

"Forgive me, My Lady," he stammered, shivering, "but I was only informed of this assignment not an hour ago. I have had no time to make any preparations..." It was then he spied a coat bundled against the back of his palfrey's saddle. "Ah," he nodded; then having donned his coat and mounted the saddle, he pulled up alongside the Commander just as a steady rain began to fall.

"I don't suppose we'll be riding these gentle beasts all the way to the Academy?" Ignacio shouted above the din. Neesa's features, indeed her entire form, were completely concealed now by her heavy riding cloak, and with her mount she momentarily took on the aspect of a equestrian statue altogether unconcerned with weather or destinations.

"Our chargers and provisions await at the preceptory house," Neesa shouted back in reply, referring to the guest hostel at the foot of Mt. Kyrion where most visitors to the abbey were required to check their weapons. Its modest keep was also used by those few Blades (like Dom Ignacio) whose daily routine did not usually require the conspicuous display or parlay of arms.

As the two companions began the slow descent, Dom Ignacio had more than enough time to gather his thoughts. He drew the hood of his coat back and leaned forward a few moments to allow the cool winter rain soothe the ache that pounded at the back of his skull -- and while doing so, he cast a glance sideways at Commander Neesa.

She looked abject, forlorn -- lost in her thoughts, and lost to the world. Ignacio sat upright and frowned as he pulled the hood back over his brow. This was not the Commander Delacroix that Archbishop Paringaux and the others thought they knew: a soldier revered among the Blades -- and feared by the Cardinal's enemies. The priest shook his head and gazed into the rain-swept path that disappeared into the mists before them. He had seen that face before... about five years ago.

Dom Ignacio had been one of a handful of Crimson Blades assigned to investigate Duke Bardorba's assassination. One line of inquiry had led Ignacio to Neesa Delacroix, who along with Commander Tieger had actually met then-agent Ashley Riot in Lea Monde and valiantly stood her ground before being forced to withdraw. Ignacio was merely gathering evidence -- perhaps comments made by Riot, something to the effect of harboring some kind of grudge against the Duke, etc. But Neesa maintained that Agent Riot said naught during the brief encounter.

This is where his duty as an investigator would have ended -- and did, in fact end. As an investigator of a murder. But as a priest, and an exorcist in training, Dom Ignacio had recognized the claw- marks which the Dark had deeply imprinted upon Neesa's soul, and he took pity upon this poor creature in spite of himself. He would secretly follow her into the remains of Lea Monde as often as he could manage; there, Neesa would wander listlessly until the twilight hours, when she would sit among the ruins, in a different spot each day, and wait for night to cast its shroud over the city.

Then, to his extreme wonderment, Neesa would move from place to place, ruin to ruin, casting stones aside while she wept and called out a name: Tieger. The routine went on for some time; at first, day to day, then week to week, then finally once a month until, after one year had passed, Neesa sought her former companion no more -- as far as Dom Ignacio knew.

What had alarmed the priest then, as much as it haunted him still, was the fact that on these morbid errands Neesa carried no weapon or shield. Had she been prepared, then, to grant Tieger his final rest -- or to join him in the endless wand'ring? The question now had come again to the fore. Could this creature be a trusted ally against the Dark? or had her soul been emptied, and now merely waits to receive the Dark's foul embrace?

Ignacio shuddered, and quietly resumed his prayers.


The Exorcist's Tale: IV

The ancient bell tolled sonorously from somewhere behind and above the courtyard where Dom Ignacio was concluding morning prayer. With a final look upon Mt. Kyrion, the priest rose and put off his ceremonial maniple and stole. A distinct clank of armor plate brought him quickly round with a bodkin half-drawn from his sleeve -- only to discover Faendos and Lamkin, two saecular knights, rising from where they had knelt for a time unbeknownst to the priest.

"Forgive us, brother -- we did not mean to startle you," offered Lamkin quietly.

Ignacio smiled and slid the dagger back into his sleeve. "It is only your evident devotion that took me by surprise, Lamkin. But it is always good to find Knights of our venerable Order engaged in spiritual combat. Would that such a sight were more common beyond the shadow of the holy mountain..." He shook his head.

"Ever the preacher, Dom Ignacio," Faendos laughed. "Yet I pray you to spare us the sermon until after breakfast. I fear all this piety may be wasted on an empty stomach."

Lamkin nodded in agreement and genuflected before the priest. "Aye, brother, your blessing if you please, before that unfortunate wretch loses his soul for want of a meal. Jube, domne, benedicere."

Ignacio rolled his eyes but pronounced the traditional blessing. The three Knights thereupon began to make their way to the refectory at a leisurely pace.

Dom Ignacio was quickly lost to his troubled thoughts, and he walked mutely between the more talkative saeculars who flanked him on either side like bookends. At length Faendos and Lamkin also lapsed into silence; and as the company passed one of the low entrances leading down to the necropolis, Lamkin tapped the priest's shoulder and made the signal to follow. Faendos had grabbed a nearby torch, and with a quick glance up and down the hall the Knights carefully took the stairs.

An ancient crypt set off from the second landing appeared to be as good a place to conspire as any.

"Now tell us, brother, what sort of errand this be -- and disabuse yourself of any folly that we may be deceived." Faendos looked at the priest evenly.

Dom Ignacio sighed. "And yet you have already deceived yourself, brother, if you bethought a priest of our Order might be moved to break an oath -- even under pain of torture or death. Know you that the silentium has already been administered, and I therefore have no secrets to tell you."

Lamkin shot a knowing glance at Faendos and grumbled something indecipherable.

"It would seem, " Ignacio continued, "that you two have your own theories anyway. Entertain them if you list. But so long as we are upon the Cardinal's business, we will hear only what must be heard -- and what we hear, we shall repeat to no one. Come, come, this is hardly the place to relearn the sacred canons."

Struggling to maintain his composure at this upbraiding, Faendos released his grip on the monk's cowl. "For-... Forgive us, Dom Ignacio. But my friend and I would feign go so ignorantly to our deaths, even if it be the Cardinal's wish. Yea, we would yet go and die -- by the jawbone of St. Bryor, I swear it -- but we would not be led as sheep to slaughter. We are Knights -- not sheep, by God."

"Knights, are ye?" Ignacio frowned and gestured at the gauntleted fist that had threatened him moments ago. "Then tell me, sir Knight, when was the habit of our Order changed so radically to allow such vanities?"

Faendos blushed. "This... is a scry-"

"A scrying ring, aye. Think you an exorcist has never seen one? But I have, brother -- upon the hands of those pitiable souls devoured by the Dark. Countless trinkets, baubles, and talismans have I seen. Scrolls and grimoires, even in our seminaries, if such a thing is even imaginable."

"Accuse me not so harshly, exorcist. I have bespied a ring very much like this one upon the Cardinal's own hand. Would you then accuse His Eminence of dabbling in diablerie?"

Dom Ignacio closed his eyes and stifled his immediate reply.

"My brothers," he sighed at length, "I understand that you trained under Fr. Grissom. Grissom was a good priest, but his sense of discipline was tragically wanting. He suffered his charges to use whatever weapons were at their disposal -- even weapons of the Dark, incantations and machinery driven by shadows. But St. Iocus would not have it so. In his time, the Blades wore white, and their tunics were crimsoned with their own blood -- becoming martyrs who welcomed death before they would so much as look upon a grimoire. I therefore pray you to put aside these things, for so long as ye keep them ye are beholden to the Dark, and are not entirely in command of your own souls."

The crypt rang with a scornful laughter, and Lamkin began his way back up the stairs shaking his head. Faendos watched him leave, then turned back to the priest.

"Then you may hear my confession and absolve me once we have finished this errand. Until then, whatever device I must use is my business. But come -- we have wasted enough time, I think. For now I prefer breakfast to information. But know this: I have sources of my own, some who are privvy to news even our bishops haven't heard. I know we are headed to the Citadel to join the other members of our party, some of whom are Knights of the Peace..."

He spat upon the ground.

"...and I know that the apostate Verstraeten will be there, along with the Inquisitor Callo Merlose. And my brother in the Free Corps sends most interesting news..."

Dom Ignacio interrupted. "Our breakfast awaits, Faendos. Unless you want Captain Montegue or Commander Delacroix to come looking for the stragglers, then I suggest we make haste to join them in the refectory at once. As for your contacts -- it would matter not if the Cardinal himself were your bondsman; still I could tell you nothing that I have foresworn to withhold."

Faendos scowled and charged up the stairs, leaving Ignacio to stumble in the darkness.


The Arrival

"What see you, brother?"

Faendos was transfixed, gazing intently into the black cabochon set into the ring upon his hand.

Cledwyn smirked with the satisfaction that these parlor-tricks had now been revealed for what they were. He sopped up the rest of his meagre porridge with a crust of stale bread and rose to leave.

"Look at him," he laughed. "A Knight of the Crimson Blade who would cheat us like a Gallionnais street performer. But you'll get not a single crown from me, Faendos!"

"They have arrived."

"Eh?" Cledwyn seemed startled at the words. "What is he mumbling?"

"The assassin and the Inquisitor," answered Faendos, calmly. "They approach the gate." With that, he immediately rose and left the refectory, with Lamkin not far behind.

Cledwyn laughed and shook his head -- and at that precise moment, one of the Blades who had been standing idly by the window coughed on some breadcrumbs. "He spake true, brother. I have just spied the carriage from here."

"Then our Faendos has the ears of an owl, that is all," Cledwyn snorted. "But I have the nose of a bloodhound, and I tell ye that I could smell the perfumed handkerchiefs of the nobility's cot-queans a quarter of an hour ago. So let Faendos and Lamkin go and greet these visitors. They be fit company for each other."


The Arrival: II

On their way out into the courtyard, Faendos and Lamkin met Captain Montegue and Dom Ignacio on the narrow stairs leading up to the refectory.

"The Inquisitor Merlose has arrived, Captain," Faendos said flatly.

"Along with her companion," added Lamkin.

Dom Ignacio blushed. "I would charge you to speak not his name, Lamkin. Not within these hallowed walls."

Lamkin nodded, as much as he disliked taking orders from a priest.

The four Knights immediately made for the small keep that lies just inside the gate, where according to custom the visitors would be required to check all but the most carefully concealed weapons.

Captain Montegue suddenly inquired about Commander Neesa; and he was rather unsettled to discover that no one had seen her at breakfast.

"I may know where she is," sighed Ignacio, and he glanced back over his shoulder. "Say the word, Captain, and I will see if my powers of divination are accurate."


Encounter in the Necropolis

The torch in Dom Ignacio's hand sputtered and shook before the icy draft that seemed to be pushing him further and further down the narrow steps leading to the necropolis. As he passed beneath the arch that lead to the antechamber, he cleared his throat softly and whispered a customary blessing.

"Pax dormientibus," he began. "Peace to those who sleep in this holy place." Watching the shadows now stretch and shift ominously across the ancient surfaces of the antechamber, he quickly followed this blessing with a prayer of protection in a slightly more audible tone.

Ignacio paced across the vaulted antechamber slowly... listening. He soon perceived voices, seeming at once both distant and close; a whispered exchange, but modulated almost like... an incantation.

He froze.

Ignacio was about six footpaces from the door which led to the first section of the necropolis. His eyes fixated upon the rustic depiction of some nameless saint whose form bent within the sides of the tympanum above the doorway. Most of the colors had long ago flaked from the wall; and even the scriptural setting was no longer recognizable; but the eyes -- the eyes of the figure seemed mystically deep and as resonant as the day they were fashioned...

The exorcist was awakened by some inner alarm. "No," he growled. "I say to whomever be working these magicks, ye shall see heaven before ye can conjure sleep from my brain." To his surprise, Ignacio suddenly noticed that he was on his knees, as if in a recovered stupor. Rising, he moved quickly to the door, lifted the latch, and threw his weight upon the blackened oak.

The sharp creak of the door's hinges rang throughout the necropolis like a trumpet blast. Ignacio lit the torches on either side of the entrance and cast his own light into the brazier in the center of the hall. As the brazier crackled to life, an eerie dawn seemed to creep over the sepulchers that were crowded together and stacked about the great hall -- their miniature spires casting shadows that lined the walls like a thousand serrated fangs. But Dom Ignatio's attention was soon drawn to a particular crypt at the far end of the hall, to the right of the opposite doorway; there, behind a veil of rusted iron latticework, the soft glow of candlelight was flickering, inexplicably.

"Commander Delacroix!" the priest boomed. He raced down the hall and vaulted onto the roof an adjacent crypt that had been elaborately worked to resemble the Basilica of St. Cyr. Ignacio steadied his footing on the pitched surface, and then carefully scaled the facade of the neighboring crypt -- until after several minutes he clung to the immoveable iron lattice that guarded its entrance.

Ignacio tried to rattle the bars loose, perhaps just enough to let him pass through the side -- but they would not budge. "How in God's name did she...?" he muttered to himself. Peering through the rusted acanthus scrolls that wove between the latticework, he could see the candle flame... and beyond it... the back of a female figure... and someone else...

"Commander Delacroix! I charge you in the Cardinal's name to open this gate at once!" There was no reply -- although the spectral voices resumed, coming from all directions and none, filling the priest's heart with a strange despair. His mouth went dry and acrid as if it had been stuffed with sawdust; and a tremor took hold of his limbs.

Ignacio closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as he prepared to expel whatever manner of demon had been summoned here. But when he opened his eyes, to his amazement the latticework to which he was clinging had completely disappeared -- along with the candle and the shadowy figure. Not even the taste of sulfur was upon the air.

Ignacio cautiously stepped into the gaping maw of the crypt -- only to be struck between the shoulder blades by an unseen gauntlet. The force of the blow was enough to send him sprawling across the mildewed floor. As he rolled over and began to draw the bodkin secured in his sleeve, Commander Delacroix stepped on his arm.

"Is it not enough that my dreams are haunted with faces of the dead, that the living should haunt me in my waking hours?"

"Your Ladyship," Ignacio coughed as he struggled to his feet. "It is your conscience that haunts you. You would forsake the sacraments for sorcery -- here, in this sacred place! I am ashamed to even say such a thing."

"My lack of piety or belief concerns you not, exorcist, " Neesa coldly replied.

"I trow it were otherwise. Indeed, that very lack of piety and belief could bring a Knight to disgrace and reversal of arms -- to say nothing of the stain of dishonor it casts upon our venerable Order. Momento vota: be thou mindful of thy vows, Commander Del-"

Out of the corner of his eye, Ignacio suddenly perceived the mysterious form of a mailed arm that emerged from the ether, like the jeweled threads of a spider web glinting momentarily in the sun. Immediately, the disembodied hand was at his throat, and the full form of a lich now towered before the priest. Ignacio choked a curse as the lich lifted him from the floor.

"I have done with your sermons, Dom Ignacio. In truth I have little use for you at all; but His Eminence thinks you to be an indispensable member of our company, so it would seem that we shall have to tolerate each other."

Ignacio strained at the hand around his throat. It was as immovable as granite.

"Do not think I am heartless, Ignacio. You of all people should know how I came to this. But mark well my resolve -- and do not test me again, or your pietistic meddling may bring you to a most unhappy end."

Neesa nodded at the lich, who then released Ignacio and let him fall hard against the stone.

"A ma-" he struggled, "A mage...!"

"Would you excommunicate me on the spot?" Neesa laughed. "Nay, you will remember none of this. Now let us go join the rest of our party at the gate."

Neesa bent over Dom Ignacio's pained expression and whispered a few words that were barely audible. Then she stood and brought her fingertips before her lips.

"Delta-ecksis!"


Myranda Sarro wrote:

Merlose reached into one of the side pouches sewn into her cloak, extracted a box of lucifer matches, and lit the tiny,

oil-fed lamp bracketed to the wall between them. "If you don't mind, Dom Ignacio... Perhaps we could discuss the

situation a bit before we arrive in Baen Town? I've not been in this direction in some time, and I'm certain your experience

in these issues outstrips mine by quite a large amount."

The exorcist blinked momentarily in the sputtering light of the carriage lamp. "Only an Inquistor could busy herself with questions so early on such a dreadful morning," he smiled good-naturedly.

Ignacio had been trying to meditate, but the unpredictable jolting motion of the carriage had made quiet recitation of the Office all but impossible. So conversation it would be.

He sighed.

"I was summoned to Baen years ago, being little more than a shaveling exorcist... I found the village itself unremarkable, save for the so- called 'standing stones' to the North..."

Ignacio seemed like he was almost prepared to continue with this report -- but then he stopped conspicuously, is if suddenly reminding himself of present company.

"...and I found the townsfolk to be generally simple minded and sympathetic to the Mullenkamp cultists. Superstition was rife; and many people had given themselves over to sorcery and that execrable carnality typically associated with Kildean rites. The Dark had seeped into every corner of this place."

The Dom was silent for a space before he continued.

"These people were beyond the grace of God."

"Before I had arrived, my confrere... a fellow exorcist, who had summoned me here... was surrounded by a group of cultists before dawn, as he prayed his Mattins... they did him a mischief... and I discovered his savaged corse near those accursed stones."

Ignacio closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, his breath visible in the chill morning air.

At length he looked across at his companion with the same millpond expression as before. "As to other details of my experience here, Inquisitor -- I'm afraid there is not much that would interest you among those things which I am at liberty to relate." He smiled again, this time unconvincingly.

"The Cardinal's business, you understand."

Here endeth the story... - Joe