The following morning, the priestess Daena marched down to the dungeons and issued several brief commands before she disappeared again. This spurred a flurry of action from the soldiers, who marched into one of the cells and began dragging people out.
“What is going on?” Dominic demanded to know, getting on his feet.
“Not your concern,” one of the guards responded in heavily accented Mearcspeech, adding an insult in the outlander tongue and pushing the priest in the chest so that he fell.
“These men are my brothers,” Dominic explained, standing up again. “If you are taking them somewhere, take me along.”
“You don’t want to go,” the guard laughed coarsely. “Besides, we only want robes, not naked men.”
Looking down, the high priest located his robe that was covering Nikodemos like a blanket. “Help him,” Dominic told one of his brethren while nodding towards Nikodemos and retrieving his robe with its unique patterns. Putting it on, the blackrobe turned towards the guard. “I am ready.”
The guard gave a shrug, unfastened Dominic’s chain from the cell, and pushed him along with the other prisoners.
At the gate square in the third district, a crowd was once again gathering. After yesterday’s attack, people were not especially keen on doing this, but scores of Anausa soldiers were driving anyone on the streets in that direction. Another group of them were busy erecting wooden structures, though they were not scaffolds this time; instead, they were pyres.
Three soldiers had died or been burned to the point where death seemed likely; now, six blackrobes were being marched onto the square, and one by one, the outlanders tied them to the six pyres.
In the crowd, crying could be seen and heard. There were a few outbursts, but they were solitary and carried little resonance. The sheer number of soldiers present lay like a suppressing fist on the spirits of the spectators.
In front of the priests stood several of the Anausa with torches along with Daena and her shadow. The priestess was facing the onlookers as she began to speak. “The Godking is just. He punishes those who would lead his people astray. The sins of these blasphemers are many, and they shall be cleansed in fire.” A few cried out in shock, but Daena continued undeterred. “For each of his children harmed, the Godking shall exact retribution twofold. There is no escape from his blinding light except under the shadow of his wing. If you do not wish to perish in flames, throw yourself before him and beg for his mercy. Beg though you are undeserving,” she proclaimed, her eyes shining with purpose.
The flame-clad priestess turned to face the blackrobes, each of them bound to a pole on the pyre. “You, preaching the names of false gods while suckling like leeches upon the people, you are guilty of the greatest offence. Yet even to you the mercy of the Godking extends. Denounce the god you have served, admit he is nothing but an idol made by your own hands!” she called out. “Profess the hallowed name of the Godking, and you may yet live. Refuse and face the flames, in this life and the next,” came the final threat.
“I confess,” one of the blackrobes called out. “Don’t let me burn!” he yelled desperately.
“Me too!” cried another. “Get me down from here!”
“And me! Save me!”
“I’m sorry, forgive me!”
“My sins are many, it is true.” Dominic’s words cut through the sound of his brothers’ voices. “I sought power and riches. I do not deserve mercy, yet I will pray for it nonetheless.” The other blackrobes fell silent, as did the onlookers. He threw his head upwards, his eyes seeking the sky. “Rihimil! Forgive me my frailty. I place my spirit in your hands.”
“Burn them,” Daena yelled to the soldiers holding torches. “Burn them all!”
“Mistress?” asked one of the outlanders.
“Burn them all!” the priestess shrieked.
“The night has come,” Dominic prayed, his voice strong, “yet I shall not fear, for your light guides me.” Beneath his feet, the wood drenched in oil was set ablaze. “The dark has come, yet I shall not fear, for your strength protects me.” He coughed as the smoke began to rise. “Though death has come, I shall not fear,” he yelled. “The eagle brings me to your halls.” His fellow blackrobes could be heard crying or screaming.
“The night has come,” Dominic repeated, shouting as loudly as his voice would allow, “yet I shall not fear, for your light guides me.” One of the other priests heard him and joined the prayer. “The dark has come, yet I shall not fear, for your strength protects me.” One by one, his brothers added their voices to his. “Though death has come, I shall not fear. The eagle brings me to your halls.”
They continued until they could no more; until the smoke filled their throats and eyes, the heat wrapped itself around them, the flames licked the cloth and skin of their bodies, until they were silenced forever.
At a rooftop overlooking the square stood Kamran the blackboot. He was intently watching what was transpiring below. He had an expression of distaste upon his face as the screams reached him along with the stench. He put a gloved hand in front of his nose. “You are back,” he suddenly spoke, though he made no movements.
Behind him, one of his black-clad brethren walked up to stand by his side, having made no sound in his approach. “Just now. After waiting at the meeting point, I went to Dariush and spoke about our investigation.”
“Javed was not there?” Kamran asked, looking at his companion.
The other man shook his head. “He left no sign either.”
“I will go tomorrow and wait.” He turned his gaze back on the square.
“Dariush said that we know their informants.” There was hesitation. “With this,” the blackboot said while gesturing towards Daena and the tortured blackrobes, “we will have everything we need.”
“I would not put a dog to this fate,” Kamran spoke, gazing at the pyres that were still burning brightly.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know, Arman,” he admitted. “I wish Javed was here to tell us.”
“He is not. There is only you, me, and Dariush to decide.” Arman waited a moment before he spoke again. “It may very well be us or them.”
Silence reigned for a long moment. “I will tell the captain. Let us be done with it.”
In the first circle, Rostam stood in the tower of its keep. There was barely any trace that it had once been headquarters to the Order; where the seven-pointed star had once been displayed, a black, armoured fist was shown instead. The keep was bursting at the seams with Anausa soldiers, quartered everywhere available. There was constant activity as patrols were issued from here to guard both the second and third district; the two lowest circles had outposts of their own for this purpose.
Rostam was standing in the only room that was otherwise not occupied. It was the top floor of the tower, formerly the chambers of the marshal of Hæthiod. Apart from sparse personal belongings, the rooms primarily contained maps, correspondence and missives, lists and similar pertaining to the Order. The outlanders had sealed the room to preserve its knowledge, eventually carting most of it south for the benefit of Sikandar, supreme commander of their forces. In case anything had been overlooked though, the room remained restricted to anyone but Rostam. Lately, ever since the arrival of the priestess Daena, the outlander captain could be found here increasingly often.
He was standing by the window with its superb view of the city. Down the slopes of Mount Tothmor, the five circles flowed like a frozen waterfall. At such distance, all that was ugly faded away. Even the smoke rising from the gate square in the third district was barely visible.
“Jenaab,” Kamran spoke. Rostam turned from the window to look at him. “We are ready.”
“Proceed,” the captain commanded, looking back at the city.
News quickly spread across Tothmor of the six blackrobes and how they had met their end; within the hour, it was the only topic of conversation in every tavern and watering hole, including in the lowest circle.
“Burned alive! Such savagery,” Andreas shook his head.
“They did it because we did it,” Nikolaos pointed out. “Everything we do, they revisit on us.” This sparked a murmur of agreement from the others.
“It is necessary,” Glaukos claimed harshly. “We need to keep pushing these bastards until they break.”
“Last time was close,” Philemon mumbled. “They nearly caught me.”
“Maybe we should lay low for a while,” another argued. “They’re on high alert right now.”
“You heard same as me, the court seer chose death over surrender,” Glaukos reminded them while his eyes pierced each of his companions, one after another. “Think how many will be inspired by that. Now is the time to press on.”
“I’m not going to burn on the stake,” Andreas declared. Several others assented to this.
“Then avoid capture,” Glaukos simply said. “You all have a knife on you.” His words were met by silence. “Philemon, you said your cousin had news.”
“He found out who gave up the greenrobe we were hiding,” Philemon told the others. “One of our own, a traitor.”
Nikolaos spat on the ground. “Filthy scum.”
“Georgios doesn’t know the name, but he saw the spy talking to the blackboots and followed him home. He lives in the third circle. Gave me a good description too,” Philemon explained.
“Does he live alone?” Glaukos asked.
“Doubt it. It’s a small house, but not that small.”
“You think the others in the house will fight back?” someone questioned.
“Not necessarily, but we cannot leave any witnesses,” Glaukos declared with a grim look.
“What if there are children?” Andreas argued.
“Pray there are not,” Glaukos replied. Before further arguments could be made, he continued quickly. “We do it tonight before this spy can do any more harm.”
“It’s in the third circle though,” another pointed out. “We can’t get our weapons through the gates, and we won’t be able to go home after it’s done.”
“No need to worry,” Glaukos assured them. “I have a sword inside already, just bring your knives. When it is done, we go to The Pork and Pepper and wait there until daybreak.”
“A tavern where I used to work.”
“We’ll have an ale to celebrate,” Philemon declared cheerfully.
“We need to go before the gates close,” Glaukos told them. “Let us meet at The Pork when we leave here. We stay there until nightfall and get it done.”
The other men nodded with varying enthusiasm and dispersed.
Around midnight, half a dozen men were sneaking through the third district. As the streets were wider and better patrolled compared to their usual haunt, their progress was slow with numerous interruptions. It took them more than an hour to reach their destination, a small house touching brick with both its neighbours. It had an unassuming front door to the street, which lay quiet off the main thoroughfares.
“You keep watch in that end of the street, you in the other,” Glaukos commanded quietly, pointing and gesturing. “The rest of you with me.”
They scattered according to purpose. Glaukos and his followers crossed the street and reached the door. From his pocket, the Blade took out a small vial while the others looked with curiosity.
“Better stand back,” he whispered. “You do not want this on you.” The other men shied away several steps while Glaukos poured the contents of the vial onto the door where the handle was attached. The acid did not have much immediate effect on the iron handle, but it greedily corroded its way through the worn wood surrounding it. There was a tense waiting period while the acid did its work; restless, several of the men were unable to stand still. Their heads kept darting back and forth, examining either end of the dark street; all was quiet.
After a brief while, Glaukos placed his gloved hands on the door, above and below the handle. He began to push, slowly at first. The wood creaked as it splintered, and he stopped until the sound subsided. Then he made another careful push, paused, and another. It was a slow procedure, and his companions gritted their teeth, but Glaukos was unperturbed.
Finally, the door splintered all the way through and opened up. The handle suddenly fell the ground, no longer being supported, and Glaukos almost had to dive to catch it, fumbling a bit. The men breathed sighs of relief, and Glaukos placed it carefully without a sound on the ground. Finally, he drew the short sword by his side while his companions drew their knives and daggers.
“First room to the right, second floor,” Philemon reminded Glaukos. The latter nodded and entered the house as the first. As they progressed, the men separated to stand by the different doors, ready to strike should anybody appear.
Glaukos continued up the small stairs to the second floor. He cautiously took hold of the door handle, pressed down, and pushed the door open slowly. In the complete darkness, neither he nor anything inside the room could be seen. He took a step forward, using the sword as a cane to feel what was in front of him. In this way, he located the bed in the middle of the room. Raising his blade, he thrust down repeatedly. There was no sound, no scream; the steel clearly pierced only cloth and the hay of the mattress, not flesh.
The shutters of the window in the room were pushed open. This sent a gust of cold wind inside, but it also allowed the moon to send light into the room. It was faint, but enough. Glaukos could see the other man present, standing by the window. He also held a sword in his hand, and the blade glittered in the light.
“You,” Glaukos exclaimed, raising his sword in front of him.
“Yes,” Hugh responded. The son of Count Hubert had a satisfied smile on his face. “In here!” he yelled. “The Blade is in here, he is the one you want!”
Sounds burst forth everywhere in the small house. Blackboots appeared from every room, and the screams of dying heathmen soon followed.
Glaukos immediately shut the door behind him and met Hugh’s advance. With a shorter blade than his opponent, he could do little more than defend himself, however. His short reach did not allow him to come close to wound Hugh, who pressed his advantage, and quickly, Glaukos found himself pushed up against the door. From the other side, someone was trying to force it open.
Trapped, Glaukos bent down to grab the mangled blankets on the bed and threw them at Hugh. The latter raised his sword, catching the fabric while stepping back and outside of Glaukos’ reach. For a moment, Hugh’s vision was obstructed before he sliced through the obstacle. The next thing he saw was Glaukos jumping past him. The Blade threw his sword through the open window before jumping onto the latch and following through, landing on the ground beneath.
He cursed upon impact but got up, locating his sword and grabbing it. Looking up, he saw Hugh staring down at him. Wasting no further time, Glaukos began to limp away, his stride eventually becoming more sure-footed until he could start to run.
He gave a final glance behind him and dismay overtook his face. A dark shape had jumped after him, seemingly without being slowed down even momentarily; already, his pursuer was running and gaining on him.
Gritting his teeth and with a pained expression, Glaukos sprinted forward. Shouts could be heard in the outlander tongue; they came not only behind him but also ahead from the main streets of the third district. Footsteps hounded him.
Running deeper into the third circle, Glaukos sought the small alleys and crooked roads. The tall buildings shielded him from the moonlight, and the sharp corners obscured his flight.
Something whistled past his ear. As it struck the stones of the house ahead, sparks flew; it was a throwing knife. Looking behind him, Glaukos could see that his initial pursuer had caught up with him, readying another knife. Stopping abruptly, he turned around, brandishing his short sword in an arch.
His opponent stepped back, out of reach, and drew his own sword. Dropping the throwing knife, he pulled out a long dagger instead to wield in his other hand. Only now could Glaukos see that his foe was not a blackboot as the black clothing suggested; he faced a shadow warrior. With a sneer and disdain glowing in his yellow eyes, the shadow lunged out in attack.
With every aggressive move made against him, Glaukos was forced to retreat. His blade could only parry one of his opponent’s, meaning he had to constantly evade the other. When he finally went on the offensive, his sword was stopped by its counterpart while the dirk in the shadow’s other hand gave him a rift. Ignoring this, his fist struck against the shadow’s face, covered as it was. The cloth fell away to reveal a ghastly sight. It was a face that seemed frozen in anger and with the features of a demon. It took a moment for the moonlight to reveal that it was a mask, made from metal to cover the shadow’s face. Only the eyes were untouched by mask or cloth.
Reeling backwards, Glaukos attempted another aggression, but received only a gash for his troubles. As this repeated a third time, he was slowly beginning to bleed from several wounds.
Glaukos returned to purely defensive manoeuvres, and the shadow eagerly took advantage of this, launching a series of strikes. Moving back step by step, the Blade constantly evaded, but nothing more. Only when the shadow made a deep lunge did he react; as the sword reached the end of its momentum, Glaukos gripped it with his gloved hand while thrusting forward with his own sword. The unexpected move disrupted the shadow’s balance, and his dagger could not avert the assault; cutting through leather, Glaukos’ sword embedded itself into the shadow’s thigh.
He did not allow himself even the brief moment it would require to recover his sword; letting go of the handle with one hand, his enemy’s blade with the other, Glaukos turned around empty-handed and sprinted away.
The shadow pulled the sword from his leg and gave a loud yell, shouting orders to his compatriots. Sheathing his dirk, he wiped some of Glaukos’ blood from his sword onto his fingers. He manoeuvred his fingertips under his mask to press the blood against his lips.
Two blackboots appeared in the alley. “Fravashi,” one of them spoke, “where did he go?”
The shadow breathed in deeply through his nose. “Follow me.”
Like a hound on the trail, the shadow led his companions unerringly through the maze of alleyways and passages until they were back on the main street, where they were met by Hugh standing in front of a tavern.
“How did you know?” sneered the shadow in Mearcspeech.
“He used to work here,” Hugh nodded towards The Pork and Pepper. “After the Blades were disbanded. It seemed likely he would hide here.”
“Why are you still out there?” asked Arman, the blackboot, in a derisive tone.
“He is a former Blade,” the young nobleman pointed out. “I am not charging into the dark alone.”
“He lost his sword,” the shadow said in his hoarse voice, touching the torn leather on his thigh; whatever hurt had been caused to his leg, it did not seem to impair him. “He is near, I can smell him. Inside!”
Kamran, the other blackboot present, aimed several strong kicks at the door until it broke open, and they all hurried inside, finding themselves in the common room.
“Split up,” the shadow commanded.
A frightened tavern keeper appeared from a side chamber with a savage-looking knife in his hand; behind him beyond the doorway could be seen his frightened family. The shadow punched him in the face, making him drop his weapon, and stepped past him to ransack the room while the wife and children of the owner screamed and pressed together in fear. Hugh went upstairs to the open second floor, Arman went into the small courtyard and stables, and Kamran went to the kitchen.
It was small and without hiding places; Kamran barely glanced around except to find an oil lamp and light it. Further search quickly revealed results; there was a hatch in the ground that led to the storage cellar typical of a place like this. Opening the hatch, the blackboot descended down the stairs into the darkness.
Along the walls were shelves with many goods, preserved in the cold room. Cured or dried meat hang from the ceiling, a barrel of apples stood by the stairs, and on the ground were several large bloodstains. Bending down to examine them, they lay in a straight line; they almost formed an arrow pointing towards the wine barrels. Crouched together behind them, out of sight, Glaukos sat with his teeth biting into his lower lip; he did not even have a knife to defend himself with, and his pale complexion suggested blood loss.
The blackboot let his gaze follow the stains along the floor towards the wine. Taking a deep breath, he extinguished his lamp, engulfing the basement in darkness. Next, he poured some of the lamp oil onto the floor to cover the spilled blood; the stark smell of the oil quickly permeated the room. Finally, he turned around and walked back up the stairs, closing the hatch behind him.
In the common room, the outlanders and their ally gathered after their search. “Nothing,” said Hugh. “I checked everywhere, he was not there.”
“The gate to the courtyard was open,” Arman told the others. “I think he entered that way, but I saw no sign of him.”
“Or that is how he left,” Kamran suggested. “He came through here to make us lose track of him, knowing he could escape out the back.”
The shadow gave a growl. “I was sure I had his scent. With me,” he ordered them and left speedily, going through the courtyard and its gate to enter the streets of the district again.
In the cellar, Glaukos remained crouched. His breathing was laboured, and despite the cold, beads of sweat were forming on his brow. His companions were dead or captured, most likely, and he had nothing to defend himself with. “The night has come, yet I shall not fear, for your light guides me,” he mumbled, his prayer barely audible.