They passed more blockades as they went, winding through tumbled walls and burnt-out buildings to avoid them – groups of terrified or numb-looking rebels alongside blood-stained undead, all armed with rifles they barely knew how to hold. There was no immediate sign of other Necromancers, but Knell knew they had to be out there, in the dark. Lurking in nearby buildings. Seeing through the eyes of their puppets. Flames billowed from a guard post at the edge of the Temple mezzanine, bodies were strewn around as if hurled by a giant, and a huge spotlight had been pointed at the doors. Cerro whistled under his breath.
“Adding blasphemy to injury,” he said.
“No light allowed in the Temple of Night?”
“I suppose a rebellion is going to be personal.”
“No, no,” he said, as they huddled behind a broken messenger blimp. “In any other revolution against a theocrat, outright blasphemy is unheard of. Heresy, yes, but they’re nearly always an effort at reform.”
“And the new boss, typically, is as bad as the old one.”
Knell stared at him with raised brow.
“I can’t read when I’m not screwing?” He said, with a hint of irritation, and Knell looked away. He didn’t know where she’d come from, but the captain was so narrow in her views sometimes he had to believe she was born in a repressive commune, or one of the Spires that never quite adjusted to the end of feudalism.
“Everyone’s dead,” she said. “Or at least… controlled.” Knell pointed at a couple of corpses that still twitched and moved, their bones and backs too broken to support them.
“Have you ever seen the Venerable Guard, on a visit here, Knell?”
She chewed her lip. “Huge, never allowed out of their armour, big guns…”
“That’s the gist. Savaan so badly wounded they’re basically entombed in their armour.” He pointed to a foot-long spike of bone impaling one of the undead to a wall. “The rebels probably aren’t getting in.”
Knell nodded, ripped off a part of her slightly stained white undershirt, and tied it to a stick torn from the blimp’s shattered frame. She halted. “They can see colour, can’t they?”
Cerro sighed. “Yes, and they take Imperus’ ‘suggestions’ pretty seriously. They’ll accept a flag of surrender.”
Knell raised the flag and stepped, with a slight tremble, into the light to approach the vast maw of the Temple. In spite of the light being shined on it, it was still cloaked in darkness. Some powerful sorcery laid upon the place, she surmised.
“We seek shelter!” She cried. Then, louder; “Please, we seek asylum!”
There was no response. She looked back to Cerro, who shrugged. Knell drew her gun, held it up – then turned to fire on the spotlight.
Not magical, she was pleased to see, shattering in a rain of sparks and glass, plunging the mezzanine into darkness. Something rumbled behind her, and Cerro ran forward to her side. The doors had opened, and within, only shades of black.
Red, glowing eyes opened – the owner was taller than Knell, but she’d gotten used to that happening in any port with a majority non-human population. Taloned fingers emerged from the darkness – or the shadows flowed away to reveal them – and beckoned them forward.
“Are you sure about this?” Cerro asked. “I know they take their honour seriously, but that’s the second time I’ve had claws like that pointed at me today.”
“No,” Knell grinned, and gently yet firmly dragged him forward into the Temple.
The doors closed behind them. It was impossible to get a real sense of space, here where no light was permitted, and they clung to each other and leaned against the heavy iron-bound doors. Knell recoiled as something touched her forehead like a pinprick, felt Cerro do the same. A terrible itching sensation flared in her eyes,, followed by a headache. She tried to reach for her weapon, but the pain intensified and her limbs didn’t seem in her control anymore. She separated from Cerro, half-falling towards an austere statue of a woman before catching her balance on a decorative pedestal around the same time the pain stopped. She could see, clear as day. The first place she looked was back towards Cerro, but he was examining the room – a huge circular chamber, with statues at regular intervals around the walls, polished stone walls, a high, domed ceiling, and in the centre a thick pillar banded in silver.
The floor was a mosaic depicting the alleged history of the Cult; Knell was standing on the part where Vasnok became a night-creature, protecting her chosen by inspiring terror in and assassinating their enemies.
He was entranced, and Knell left him to it so she could search for their benefactors.
As if on cue, they stepped from behind the Pillar, one to the left and one to the right.
“Our gift has opened your eyes,” one said, in heavily accented Tradestongue. She was tall, and eerily thin – no room in that torso for organs of any kind, only gentle slopes and curves that made her barely wider than Knell’s thigh at her widest point. Her eyes were red, her hands taloned, and Knell was only guessing about her sex, but she was less obviously masculine than the other. Where her features were soft, his were hard, his chin tipped with curling spurs of bone, his brow ridged and heavy, his body like hers but broader at the shoulder.
Both were dressed in silver chains and piercings, swatches of dark fabric, but they had nothing to hide.
“Can you yet speak?” The other asked, with a marginally more natural accent and deeper voice.
“We can, holiness,” Cerro said, before Knell could open her mouth.
“This one has manners,” the woman smiled, showing fangs.
“And yet not among our flock,” the other said.
“A stranger in a strange land, and yet sincere.”
“No, not yet.”
“I’m hardly a socialite,” Knell said, carefully pronouncing the unfamiliar Spire term Cerro had taught her, “but I think talking about someone like they aren’t there is bad manners.”
“It is,” said the woman.
“The perks of nobility,” said the man.
Knell frowned. “Where are your bodyguards?”
The man chuckled, a low sound that was almost a growl.
“The little pirate means to ransom us, Sheva.”
“Ridiculous, Akkad,” the woman replied. “We have no need of bodyguards, Captain Blackhand. They are abroad in the city, quelling the rebellion.”
Knell’s frown deepened. “How do you know my name?”
The woman grinned widely. “Shipping records.”
Well, Knell thought. At least they can’t read my mind.
“Holiness, we seek shelter and safe passage to a ship,” Cerro said. “I am but a courtesan and have no wish to fight, my companion is-”
“A mercenary. We know, Cerro Kisk.” The man said. “Which means you have our protection, and she… will demand recompense for any aid we ask.”
“Hard to do my job without my ship and crew,” Knell said. “Holiness.”
“If you don’t mean it,” the woman said, palm to her cheek, talon tapping near her temple. Rather than hair, her skull had been stretched up into an elaborate crest that Knell had mistaken for a headdress. She let the statement hang, and Knell caught it.
“Can you get me back to my ship?”
“We can. If you eliminate the source of this problem for us.”
“I thought your henchmen were doing that?”
The man waved a claw, dismissive.
“They will control the rebels, but they are forbidden to kill them where possible. This makes efficiently removing the ringleaders difficult.” He said.
“We believe there is a lynchpin to this arrangement; a Necromancer of singular might coordinating their efforts.”
“Can you go after them?” Knell said.
The man spread his talons. “Contrary to appearances, I am a scholar, not a warrior.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then you aren’t stupid.” He said, with a feral smile. “I have other matters which require my attention. We both do. Where did you fly today?”
Knell’s blood froze.
“I… had a job. Kidnapping. A spy who’d been found out, but they didn’t want anyone to know who’d fingered ‘em. We were to bring them here to be interrogated, take our money, and leave.”
“And you succeeded?” The one called Sheva asked.
“We did,” Knell swallowed. “We brought in a Spriggan and his partner.”
“Describe him,” Akkad said, curtly.
“Spriggan-y?” Knell offered, then spoke in a rush. “Burned up half of his body, missing foliage, um… Yew. That’s unusual, isn’t it? Yew Spriggan.”
The Vampires exchanged a look.
“Feidhlim of the Black Gate,” Cerro said, softly.
Knell turned her head fast enough to hurt, staring wide-eyed at Cerro.
“Therein lies our problem.” Sheva said.
“Someone please explain,” Knell said, clenching her fists.
“Crantiré Magi are rarer than other peoples’, in a way, and for them to be born imprinted with any but a couple of Patterns is rarer still,” Akkad said. “This one was born a Necromancer. We don’t know why he left the Wood, but we do know he spent almost a century terrorizing the eastern powers. It was believed Olimak Rama killed him, but evidently not.”
“What does he want?” Knell asked.
“Who knows? Crantiré are alien to us. His usual method is to sink a place entirely into the World Without Sun – he must be stopped, therefore, lest our whole city be sunk with everyone on it.”
“Better get to it, then.” Knell said.
“Yes, you should.”
“How am I supposed to deal with him? Crantiré don’t care about bullets.”
“You have a more effective weapon,” Akkad said, pointing to Knell’s shadowy arm.
Knell frowned. “If I can get close to him, I suppose.”
“We will send help.” Sheva said.
“I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“If you don’t stop him, you lose your ship, crew… and will be trapped in the World Without Sun.”
Knell struggled to keep her expression flat.
“Right. Where is he?”
“Where did you last see him?”
“The abandoned temple in the southeastern Sprawl.”
“Not likely to have gone far, if he has not since been seen.”
Knell leaned against the wall.
“So all I need to do is sneak through the blockades, creep up on an ancient Necromancer, and rip his memories out.” She said. “Simple.”
“We will send aid.”
“Why the fuck can’t you do it?”
Cerro froze, staring at Knell, unwilling to read the expressions the Vampires might now wear. Knell looked from Sheva to Akkad and felt sweat trickling down her back.
“You cannot understand,” Sheva said. “It would take hours to even begin to enlighten you.”
“As you wish. We will ensure you are not alone. Be grateful for this much.” Akkad said, with a warning tone.
Knell walked to Cerro’s side and took his hand.
“We’ll go, then. Fine. Fix what you did to our eyes.”
Sheva shook her head, chains jingling softly. “It was a temporary improvement. It should wear off by morning – but now it is too useful to simply remove.”
“Fine.” Knell said, again, and huffed. “We’ll go.”
“The Hunter will watch over you,” Sheva said.
“As you wish,” Knell sneered, and shoved the door open.
Cerro almost shoved her out, grabbing her by the shoulders when they were clear, and the door sealed.
“You can’t talk back to the fucking hierophants, Knell!”
She shook him loose and took a step back.
“We’re still alive. They’re in no position to demand I scrape and beg, if they need me so badly.”
“It’s ill-will that’ll follow you…”
“Fuck off. We’re moving out to the ‘Sea after this.”
Cerro went quiet.
“Why the fuck not? I’ll look after you, and if you want to keep up your line of work I’m sure there’s somewhere nice in Moonbend or Port Scaffle…”
“This is my home, Knell.” He said, softly.
Knell stood stock still, but inside her heart was pounding, her fingernails biting into her hand, her teeth grinding.
“Fucking stay, then.” She said, turning away so he couldn’t see the tears she didn’t trust not to fall.
“Find a place to hide and wait for this to blow over.”
“Knell…” He reached out for her.
“Fucking stay!” She snarled, swatting his hand away, half-turning to him. “You’ll only slow me down or get hurt or something. Let me do this.”
He nodded, glumly, and sat on an upturned barbeque cart. “I’ll find you, later.”
“Good luck,” she muttered, and walked off into the night.