Tybald tan Throg had never been far into the Domain of the Sorcerer of Night. It was an empire of strange customs: the sanguine tax, where citizens were required to tithe their blood as well as their riches; the corpse days, where no work was done and all citizens stayed inside with holy herbs around their doors; the un-naming of the dead, which made speaking about one who had passed away a taboo; and the curfew. No sensible citizen of those lands strayed outside after dark.
The lord’s son had travelled before. He’d ventured with his father into Lord Ruin’s Cimmerian holdings, where weapons were currency and expressing compassion was a mortal insult, and to Nuachis where status was accorded by how well one rode a war-horse or piloted a grav-skimmer. Those rough chaotic places were very different to the ordered repressed civilisation of Elysium.
“Everybody here is so polite,” Tybald had commented to Aria and Blackthorn. “Nobody shouts. Nobody argues.”
“Like docile sheep waiting to be sheared,” the princess muttered.
Blackthorn hadn’t been comfortable either. “It’s like one of those old European horror movies,” he’d said cryptically. “Transylvanian villages with superstitious peasants, Victorian houses with gas-lighting, horse-drawn carriages, girls in long skirts and milkmaid aprons. I expect Lon Chaney to jump out on me any minute.”
The Sorcerer of Night’s domain stretched far, from the desert borders of Tyrrhenna and the vast forests of Utopia to the permanent ice-fields of the Phelgra mountains, but if his realm had a centre it was surely Elysium. Hyblaos was the nearest seaport to the Palace of Whispers itself, a grey shingle town rising steeply from the harbour wharfs to tree-shrouded cliff heights. Rich high-gabled houses above overlooked the ramshackle row homes of the poor by the waterside. Stone-linteled windows were of thick narrow lead-glass (which, like salt-mixed mortar, prevented the passage of ghosts, Aria said). Screeching black gulls wheeled everywhere.
Hyblaos was also a city of churches. In addition to the official temples to the Sorcerer of Night, where dutiful citizens reported to render their blood , a dozen places of worship to the various other gods of Mars were tolerated in the lower town. Commanding a central place on the highest peak above the bay basin was the Cathedral of the Sisters of Silence, the most powerful and pervasive of the holy orders that ran Lord Erebus’s empire.
Blackthorn scouted the Cathedral by the simple expedient of walking in with the pilgrim masses. Aria and Tybald accompanied him, heads covered in the white prayer shawls that could be bought for the tiniest scruple of silver from one of the maimed beggars at the foregate.
The building was massive and rambling. Beyond the main temple of reflection were the tithe-rooms, where Silent Sisters bled worshippers of one glass chalice-ful of blood before sending them on their way with their master’s blessings. The richer families maintained private chapels. The poor used a common crematorium stack that rendered the dead to sacred ashes so they could never return. Beyond that, the domain of the Silent Sisters alone included libraries, laboratories, contemplation cloisters, ordeal halls, and a range of closed ceremonial chambers. The whole was built over a maze-like complex of catacombs and ossuaries; no-one could say how deep they went.
Tybald stared at the Cathedral’s interior. He was not alone in doing so. Many citizens made a lifetime’s journey to see and marvel.
The lord’s son could see why. This place was surely a wonder of Mars. The white-stone architecture was detailed and gothic, every panel carved with faces, thorn-branches, spiked leaves, sacred geometry. The roof culminated in a glass dome that tinted the entire interior; depending on the angle of the sun it was sometimes red, sometimes purple.
Nobody spoke. Silence was enforced.
When he’d seen enough Blackthorn gestured for the others to follow him outside. Oglok was waiting anxiously beyond the outer gate. The superstitious Mock-Man had not wanted to venture into the Cathedral precinct.
“So, what did we learn?” asked the General when they’d moved away from the entrance and settled in the privacy of one of the graveyard terraces.
“It’s beautiful!” Tybald had to admit. “Beautiful and terrible.”
Aria was less impressed. She had seen the rainbow towers of the City of Joy and the white glory of the Crystal Dome. “It’s a statement of power. It’s meant to impress. It says ‘This is all greater than you. You are nothing compared to this eternal majesty’. Or at least it’s meant to.”
Blackthorn had to admit the Silent Sister’s mother-house had made an impression. “I was hoping for more practical analysis. Aria, what magics were on the place?”
The princess let out a long breath. “What magics weren’t on it? In its own way that structure is as well protected as the Forges of Cryse, almost as well as the Bastion of the Black Fortress. The spells are so interknitted that I couldn’t hope to untangle all of them with a passive scan. But for starters, the walls will resist force, phasing, shadow-walking, displacement, energy breaches and scrying.”
Oglok growled that it was almost like these people didn’t want to be attacked.
“You know how Fatal Laughter’s mobile stronghold has an anti-magic field that prevents all spells but his own from operating?” Aria went on. “The Cathedral’s got an anti-tech field that does much the same for machinery. Tybald’s vibra-blade won’t work in there, for example, nor anything much more sophisticated than a chemical percussion slug-thrower. Forget electronics all together.”
“The Sword of Power?” Blackthorn checked.
“No idea. But don’t count on much of a recharge while you’re inside that complex. I think I also detected some bio-scans on the doors, set to pick up shapechangers and possession. I couldn’t be sure without being a bit more obvious. There are other defences beyond the public areas but I wasn’t able to get past those verger-guards to be close enough to really see.”
Tybald tried not to despair. It got harder and harder. “That place was massive. Even if we did get inside and could somehow pass the wards and all the guards, it would take days to search for Ysilde. She’s been there now for over a week. Anything could be happening to her and we have no way to find her, let alone save her!”
“Don’t worry,” Blackthorn assured him. “There’s always a way. I’m starting to get the knack of how to get past each First Man’s defences. It’s just a matter of spotting their weak points.”
The lord’s son gestured to the huge worship centre. “What weak points?”
Blackthorn smiled. “The Lord of Fatal Laughter always overcomplicates things. You get past his screens by pitting one against another. You turn his chaos against itself. Lord Ruin’s doors are easier still. You hammer on it and insult the guard’s mother till he opens up and comes out to stomp you.”
Tybald was interested despite his concern for his missing sister. “The Black Sorcerer?” he wondered.
“Ducts,” Aria answered promptly. “He’s a real traditionalist. There will always be ducts.”
“And the Sorcerer of Night…” Blackthorn considered, “This was one reason I wanted to do the journey the way we did it, to get a feel for the place, to get inside his head – I reckon Lord Erebus’s vulnerability is ceremony.”
“Ceremony? I don’t see…” Tybald admitted.
“It’s simple. Look how organised the worship is here. There’s ritual and schedule. Everything has to be done just right. Everything perfect, times and movements, the right incense, the right candle, all of that. I reckon ceremony is the key to bypassing the Silent Sisters’ security.”
“Am I going to regret asking what you’re planning, John Blackthorn?” asked Aria warily.
“I imagine so,” the General grinned. “Okay, here’s what we need. A better grasp of the internal layouts would be good, and especially some idea where potential Brides of Night get stowed and what’s done with them. Oglok, grab us an off-duty verger that we can take into a nice quiet tomb to chat with about all that. Aria, we’re going to need one of those spells of yours that fools other detections into thinking there’s nothing suspicious about us. I know they take time, so start working on that right away. Tybald, you’re with me. We’re going hunting.”
“Hunting?” the young lord puzzled. “Hunting what?”
“A laundry,” the Earthman told him.
“Ceremony. All those Silent Sisters dressed in white, all perfect and clean and ironed-seams for their sacred rituals? Somewhere in this town there’s a business that washes their linens. And delivers them back in time for the next big service. In hampers, possibly. Right past their wardens and vergers and guard-gargoyles and all the rest. Who bothers to scan the fresh napkins?”
Aria frowned. “You intend to raid the Cathedral of the Silent Sisters… using laundry.”
“Yeah, princess, I do. I really intend to clean up.”
The laundry cart was admitted through the postern gate at the terce bell. As usual it trotted under the guardian arches beneath the vigilant eyes of the gargoyle sentinels. It rumbled to a halt outside the steward door. The driver dismounted and supervised his assistants unshipping the six wicker baskets of clean linen until the steward arrived.
Usual procedure followed. The wheeled hampers were trundled through the service corridors towards each of the main vestment chambers. The master of the surplices was summoned to sign off on the laundry’s work order.
It was only then, deep in the ancillary support cellars of the great Cathedral, that the master of the surplices discovered an unauthorised Mock-Man hiding under the altar linens.
Oglok silenced the functionary with an efficiency that must surely have impressed the Sisters themselves had any been aware of the intrusion. Blackthorn stunned the sub-steward at the same moment. Both fitted well into the hamper that had previously smuggled the Mock-Man.
“And we’re in,” Blackthorn declared. “Okay Aria, time to cassock up.”
While the Princess pulled on one of the flowing gowns of the Silent Sisterhood, Blackthorn and Tybald borrowed the dull grey robes of the temple functionaries. Oglok spent the time dislodging the security grill in the vestment room’s big chimney.
“Be careful, buddy,” Blackthorn warned the beastling. “First sign of trouble, try not to be yourself.”
Oglok snarled some reply that only Blackthorn could understand, then turned to unpack the explosive satchels from the other trolleys. All of them contained home-made chemicals that used nothing that would be out of place in a house of worship; cleaning fluids mostly. Blackthorn hoped they would not trigger a weapons scan. The Mock-man himself had the best magic-detection-warding spell Aria could devise. It would hopefully allow him to climb the flue and plant the clockwork-timed explosives without being found.
Tybald had a last quick glance at the scribbled map that Blackthorn and Oglok had convinced a captured verger to make them during that earlier off-site interview. The unfortunate informant was trussed next to the regular laundry staff at a cleaner’s shop that had closed early for the day due to family problems.
“We need to be in the west wing,” the lord’s son noted. “There should be a spiral service stair along that corridor. Then we need to cross a cloister, skirt the ambry, and go left at the pardoner’s landing.”
He and Blackthorn both scooped up armfuls of linen to dutifully carry as they walked behind Silent Sister Aria. “You know the best thing about this mission is that the princess can’t talk,” Blackthorn noted just loud enough for Aria to hear him.
Tybald found the fifteen minute progress through the labyrinthine interior of the Silent Sisters’ Cathedral nerve-wracking and tense. Every official they passed seemed to stare at them. Every temple guard paused a fraction too long before swinging open a gate for the holy lady. By the time they passed under the watchful gaze of the sister-house guardian statues the noble’s son was sweating beneath his robes.
The plan was to head down to the cloister cells where they expected Ysilde to be held. Once the girl was slipped into a spare Sister’s vestment she could walk out with them the way they’d come. Oglok’s explosion was timed as an additional distraction should there be any delay and Blackthorn needed a Plan B.
Aria deviated from the schedule. As six Silent Sisters carried a reliquary down the main corridor towards them she turned abruptly left and glided into a small study.
“What’s going on?” Tybald hissed in a low whisper. “Why are we here?”
Aria closed the door. “Something’s happening. Those nuns were in their formal ceremonials. They’re all burning with ritual magic on them, like they’re gearing up for some major joint working. And the object they were carrying in that marquetry box had a necromantic signature that gave me a headache to look at it.”
Blackthorn sniffed the air. The Sisterhood’s ceremonies would never be betrayed by gongs or chanting but they did like their rare incenses. “They’re doing something,” he agreed. “Let’s hope it’s not Ysilde-related.”
Aria resumed her calm stately pace towards the novice cells.
A wicked-looking biotech gargoyle guarded the entrance to the chambers. “Pass gesture, most revered one?” it asked.
Blackthorn sized up the heavy-hooked brute. Its granite-carved sections were augmented by ectoplasmic musculature and fast-morphing multiplasm. Part golem, part cyborg, part conjured monster, the guard would offer serious physical opposition; especially since Aria could not project commands to it as the Silent Sisters did.
“You are required in the clerestory,” Tybald told the amalgam. “You are commanded there right away.”
The gargoyle paused for a moment then stamped off.
“That was good thinking,” Blackthorn congratulated the young lordling. “You figured that while it would have orders not to allow anyone to pass it might still be receptive to commands to do other things. Poor programming well exploited.”
“After a while with you people I’m starting to get the rhythms,” Tybald admitted. “Besides, if it didn’t work, was it going to shred us worse than it would otherwise?”
Aria snorted. “You’re having a bad effect on the boy, John. He was already predisposed to riding across undead wastelands to retrieve kidnapped damsels. Soon he’ll be making annoying jokes while he fights.”
“Lead on, Silent Sister,” the General told the princess, pushing his finger to his lips.
Aria managed a last seething this-is-not-over, John-Blackthorn glare and led on down into the dormitory level.
A long low corridor with a coffered roof was lined with stone cubicles. Each room was eight feet square and contained a straw pallet, a prayer mat, a washbowl, a stool, and a waste bucket. All were uniform and empty save for the last.
“Ysilde!” Tybald gasped, rushing to his sister. He embraced the surprised girl and swung her round. “Ysilde! Ysilde! Ysilde!”
“This’d be Ysilde then,” Blackthorn surmised to Aria. “Is she…?”
“Alive,” the princess reported. “And apparently unharmed.”
Ysilde nim Loret wriggled free of her brother’s hug and stared at him in disbelief. “Tybald? What are you doing here? How did…? I mean…”
“It’s going to be okay,” the lord’s son promised his sister. “We’re here to get you out of here. We’re going to get you home!”
Ysilde noticed Blackthorn and Aria for the first time. She puzzled at Aria’s flowing white robes then worked out that the princess was not a Sister of Silence. It was something about the eyes. “You’re mad!” the kidnapped girl told Tybald. “They’ll kill you if they find you here!”
“Which is why we’ll do the reunion later,” Blackthorn intervened. “For now we’re on a schedule. This way.”
Tybald took his sister’s arm and guided her from her cell and up the corridor. “Just look as if you were accompanying this Sister somewhere. Later on we’ve got a robe like that for you and we can walk out of the main cathedral door.”
“Ssh. Someone’s coming.”
Aria folded her arms across her breasts, palms on her shoulder, as the Sisters did when they walked. Blackthorn and Tybald moved to flank Ysilde as if escorting her.
Six Silent Sisters glided into the hallway from the chancel. Four of the verger watchmen accompanied them.
They had almost passed by when Ysilde broke from between her rescuers and ran to the nuns. “It’s not time yet! Sisters! Sisters…! Help me!”