Ysilde nim Loret ran back to the Silent Sisters. She could not escape from their Cathedral yet – she couldn’t! Until the dreadful final blessing was given and the Interlock Incantation was complete she could not help David Morningstar to carry out his plan, and Mars would not be saved. She could not afford to be rescued now, however much her brother had risked to come for her.
“Sisters! I’m supposed to be getting prepared for the final ceremony,” the girl told the six white-gowned devotees who had halted at her call. “I can smell the incenses, so it can’t be long! But nobody has come to braid my hair or to prepare me in my sacrificial gown. I – I was getting worried.”
Tybald made to follow his sister, to seize her away from the sinister nuns that served the church of the Sorcerer of Night. Blackthorn held him back. He grabbed the lord’s son with an iron grip and kept him matching solemnly behind the disguised Princess Aria as she trod in slow calm steps away from Ysilde’s appeal to the Silent Sisters.
“But…” Tybald began.
“Keep. Moving,” Blackthorn said through gritted teeth. The girl’s unexpected defection had put everything at risk. Better to remain undetected and think again.
Aria led them back to the little study they’d taken refuge in before. Blackthorn checked his battle-suit’s chronometer. There was little more than half an hour left before the explosives that Oglok had planted in one of the cathedral’s chimneys went off, assuming the clockwork detonator was reliable.
Once the rescuers were ensconced, Tybald shook himself free of the General’s clutch. “What was that? What was she doing? We had her rescued! All she had to do was to follow us out!”
“I didn’t detect any geas or obedience compulsion on her,” Aria admitted. “Then again, I didn’t have time to take a proper look.”
“Who knows her reasoning?” Blackthorn considered. “Brainwashing, fear, threats, the Helsinki syndrome… Doesn’t matter. It’s blown Plan A right out of the water.”
“She didn’t betray us,” Tybald pointed out. “She could have pointed to us and cried, ‘Intruders’ but she did not. She wanted to return to the Sisters but not to reveal our infiltration.”
“She may have been under specific compulsions,” suggested the princess. “In any case, getting Ysilde out of here just got a lot more complicated.”
“I just don’t understand it,” Tybald fretted. “What have they done to her? What do they intend?”
“She mentioned a final ceremony,” Blackthorn noted. “Any idea what that might be, Aria?”
“Transformation into the Bride of the Lord of Night?” the princess wondered. She shuddered, remembering a friend who’d suffered that dreadful fate. “Better we give her a clean death first and ensure that she can’t be brought back.”
Tybald paced the floor frantically. His growing self-assurance had been shattered by his sister’s defection.
“We need intel fast,” Blackthorn decided. “Since I’m guessing we won’t make a Silent Sister talk we’d better try someone else. Aria, can you beckon one of those vergers in here?”
The princess nodded. She slipped out of the room and returned a couple of minutes later, strutting like a queen, ignoring the dark-garbed cathedral functionary whom she’d summoned to follow her with a single crooked finger.
The fellow didn’t see anything untoward at first. Blackthorn and Tybald were both robed like him, disguised as servitors of the Sisters. It was only when Blackthorn slammed him into a bookcase and held a knife at his throat that he knew something was wrong.
“You have information. We don’t have much time. We want to know what’s happening. You want to live. Agreed?” the General asked the terrified verger.
The man would have nodded if that wouldn’t have slit his throat.
“What’s the ceremony that’s being set up right now?” Blackthorn demanded.
“It is… I don’t know! They don’t tell us. We had to consecrate the sanction chapel with wormwood and rue and to perform the ritual of the boundaries to cleanse it. And they’re bringing the relic, which means one of the rites of transcendence. That’s all I can tell you!”
“What’s a rite of transcendence?” Tybald wanted to know. “Something to create an undead?”
“It… it can be. I’m just a verger. I keep the candles are trimmed, make sure that the sacred pool is spiced, that the right lenses are fitted to the windows and the liturgical drapes are in place. They don’t tell us what they intend to do after that.”
“What about Ysilde? The girl you’ve got prisoner in the novice cells?”
“ I don’t know. I swear it by the dark one! A Bride-to-be, I’d say. The Brides came and inspected her.”
“He’s speaking the truth as he knows it,” judged Aria. “He is too frightened to prevaricate.”
Blackthorn got a few more background details before he rendered the verger unconscious.
“What now?” the princess wondered. “Time is getting a bit critical and we’re missing an important part of our escape party – the girl we came to rescue.”
“Change of plan. Where was your headache-y reliquary heading?”
Aria consulted the map. “I’d say that sanction chapel where the ceremony’s being set up. Here. There’s a high gallery where we could overlook what they’re doing.”
“What about Ysilde?” Tybald objected.
“That’s where Ysilde’s going to be taken,” answered the General. “We can’t just jump in blind. We got caught out that way once and got lucky to walk out unscathed. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and we have to find out what.” He dragged the verger under the writing desk. “Lead us to the balcony, Aria.”
Oglok the Mock-man checked his chronometer. It was past time for Blackthorn and the others to retreat out using the laundry-service as cover. That meant that either the General was walking Lord Throg’s daughter out through the front door, or else things had gone horrible wrong.
The beastling expected it would be the horribly wrong option. It usually was.
In any case he had his own exit to make. An eight foot hair-covered genetically-engineered Mock-Man could hardly move about the Cathedral undercover. Since Blackthorn hadn’t returned to wheel him out in the linen basket, he’d have to use the alternate route.
Oglok returned to the chimney flue. The grill was loosened from his previous intrusion. It was easy to pass the barrier and climb up the brick interior of the chimney breast. More flues joined together, venting hot air from the refectory ovens and the glass kilns. The Mock-Man ignored the discomfort and made his way higher, past the place where he’d set the explosives.
Beyond that were the chimney-pots themselves, pewter and clay tubes ringed with warding runes and covered with mesh. They were too narrow for even a human to pass through let alone something the size of Oglok.
But Blackthorn’s binocular examination of the cathedral had spotted soot hatches in the stacks, little doors that allowed entrance from the steep pitch of the Cathedral rooftops so that the chimneys could be accessed for maintenance. Oglok prised one open. It was a tight fit for the Mock-Man but he managed to squeeze through with a minimum of scrapes and a good deal of cursing.
The tiled roof was reinforced with magics. It could have withstood a shell blast so it had no problem bearing Oglok’s weight. The Mock-man loped along the apex, slid down the next ridge and hurled himself down to the lower gable below.
The two nearest gargoyles noticed him and turned to pursue. Stone flowed like water as their bodies flexed and pounced, powered by technologies that were to all intents and purposes dark magic. Sharp talons and wicked beaks sought the intruder’s flesh. Heavy wings slashed razor edges at the Mock-man.
Oglok caught the first sentinel and used it to pound the second. Great chunks of stone splintered from each but the gargoyles kept fighting. Oglok hurled one off the edge of the building to shatter down across the charnel-terraces below. He cracked the other over his knee then prised his fingers into the split to tear it to pieces.
More of the sentries loped across the roof. Oglok couldn’t stop them all. He turned and ran, lumbering with unexpected speed along the pitch until he could drop again, onto the guest house roof. The gargoyles glided after him using impossible stone wings for balance.
The Mock-man shattered the head of a guardian that got too near and hurled the fragments to cause another to crash into a tower weather-vane. Another pair of the grotesque graven images crawled over the guttering ahead of him to block his escape off the roof’s edge.
Oglok cursed them and anybody who’d carved them. He accepted the raking that the first gargoyle scored him with and leapt horizontally at the other, grabbing it with all four limbs. Mock-man and sentry alike toppled off the roof and free-fell towards the cathedral precinct far below.
The gargoyle spread its wings instinctively. Whatever science or magic allowed those impractical stubs to defy gravity, it cut in to slow the monster’s descent. Oglok grabbed the statue in a stranglehold and pinned it. He used the grotesquery as a living glider, steering his unwilling ride over the outer towers of the west gate and the upper burial terraces. They crashed to ground together near the pilgrim-steps before Oglok shattered the gargoyle with a final blow.
The Mock-man sprinted off into cover between the charnel houses to avoid the gargoyles that still hunted him. He growled that it was typical that he’d done such spectacular feats of daring and there was nobody about to see. Wherever Blackthorn was you could be certain there’d be an audience for the stupid things he did!
A short walk and a steep stair took the other infiltrators into the shadowed heights of a thin gallery above the sanction chapel. Intended for access to the roof lights when coloured filters were required for certain rituals, the thin gantry ran round three sides of the tall chamber. Blackthorn crept out first to look at what the Silent Sisters were doing.
Aria caught his shoulder and pointed. Amidst the sixty or so voiceless devotees ringed round a consecration pool below were three veiled woman in richer white satins: Brides of Night!
Tybald realised what these creatures must be and suppressed a gasp. Had these undead wives of the Sorcerer of Night come to add his sister to their ranks?
“We have to save her. We have to get Ysilde out of there now!” he whispered to Blackthorn urgently.
Aria shook here head. “There’s more. More than even the Brides. More than I can see. Damn it!”
Six more Silent Sisters processed in, flanking Ysilde nim Loret on every side. Tybald suppressed a suicidal urge to call out her name. Why had she returned to them? How would anyone willingly walk into this terrible place to meet those terrible creatures?
“How much immediate danger is she in, princess?” Blackthorn checked. “Do I have to zip-wire down there now and try and take them all?”
Aria didn’t think the odds good. The Silent Sisters were formidable. The Brides of Night were deadly. A trio of Night Brides had almost killed them before. “I don’t understand what they’re doing. The magics aren’t as necromantic as I’d have expected to turn Ysilde into an undead. They’re more invocatory. Extremely complex. This is a ritual that must have been years in the crafting.”
The sacrificial maiden walked the mosaic aisle with slow careful tread. Operating to some internal rhythm that the observers could not fathom, the Silent Sisters glided around her with perfect precision, gesturing runes and waving yew-branches. The Brides of Night were the last to approach. They merely stared at Ysilde, circling her like jackals looking for a vulnerable side to attack their prey.
Tybald tensed. Blackthorn didn’t blame him.
“I wish I could risk an active diagnosis spell,” Aria snorted in frustration. “Whatever’s happening down there is really intricate. I’ve never sensed anything like it.”
The Brides guided Ysilde to the pale high altar then backed away.
“There’s that reliquary,” Tybald spotted. “What are they doing with it?”
Ysilde came to a halt before the white sacrifice-stone. The marquetry box lay atop it. Without anyone moving, it unlatched itself and opened like a puzzle.
Aria caught her breath. A shadow-door appeared between Ysilde and the altar.
Incantrus Veil stepped out of the lightless black portal.
“What?” growled Blackthorn. “Him?”
“We have to save Ysilde right now!” insisted Tybald. “You know what that thing is! A walking personification of dark magics stitched from bits of dead wizards. It mustn’t have my sister!”
“We’re missing something!” Aria insisted. “There’s more going on than…”
The shadow-door rippled like a pool. Another figure stepped through.
This one wore darkness like a mantle, wrapped around him like a Roman toga. His pale brow wore a midnight crown. He projected an aura of absolute authority over life and death.
The Brides of Night and the Silent Sisterhood knelt. Ysilde crouched with them.
The Sorcerer of Night looked over his flock. “Thank you for your welcome, my faithful,” he told them in sepulchral tones. “I am humbled by your adoration. It is good to be with you at this most special of times. I see that all has been prepared.”
He regarded the kneeling Sisterhood of Silence, the prostrated vergers, his veiled Brides. His gaze lingered for a while on trembling Ysilde nim Loret.
He looked right up at the gallery. “I greet you too, John Blackthorn.”