Yorrin and Aleksandr stayed in Aleksandr’s room for the next several hours. They did not wish to be in the common room of the Silver Pine when Giancarlo returned.
I do not think I would be so calm as Yorrin was, in the face of Giancarlo’s admission of guilt, Aleksandr admitted to himself. Even if he still denies the worst of it.
Aleksandr unclenched his jaw and stretched his fingers to keep from balling his hands into fists. He was fully armored, grateful that he and Piotr had finished the repairs of his breastplate. Kholodny rested in his lap unsheathed. He had been honing the edge to pass the time, but he’d been finished for the last half hour. The rippled steel blade gleamed in the firelight, especially with the sheen of oil Aleksandr had just added.
One way or the other, I will find the truth tonight. Giancarlo, Aguapo, and anyone else who might be involved. They will each answer for their part in what was done.
Yorrin was sitting near the fire in the hearth. Like Aleksandr, he was still fully armored—though in his case that was little more than a darkly colored gambeson, a cloak, and thick leather gloves. He had his writing board out, and a new piece of vellum he must have purchased in the markets. His right hand was bare, and he was scribbling with a small stick of charcoal. Perhaps he was writing or drawing something important, perhaps only passing the time. He looked calm, indifferent.
That is good, Aleksandr thought. At least one of us is.
He wasn’t sure how much he showed it, but Aleksandr felt a tangled ball of nerves. He did not like dealing with treachery. Did not like imagining Giancarlo, Aguapo—anyone really—had been lying to them all this time. The idea that they had tried to murder Alaina…
Aleksandr unclenched his jaw again. He flexed his hands again. He glanced at the window. The shutters were closed, but there was enough space between them to tell that the sun had set.
“Yorrin,” he said, standing.
Yorrin didn’t look up, or speak in response. He just covered his vellum sheet and placed it on the table, then pulled on his second glove. He rose to his feet and gave Aleksandr a nod. Aleksandr sheathed Kholodny, and went to the door.
“If this is no trap,” Aleksandr said. “And he truly wishes to talk, then we listen. Even if he admits to guilt, da?”
“Of course. Information first, vengeance second.”
“Justice,” Aleksandr said.
“Right,” Yorrin said. His tone suggested that he did not interpret Aleksandr’s words as a correction.
Aleksandr opened the door, and they stepped into the hallway. The Silver Pine had several floors, and Aguapo’s room was on the top. They heard voices drift up from the common room as they ascended the stairs.
The top floor was little more than a narrow hallway and a few doors. The nicest rooms—including private quarters for Giancarlo, Aguapo, and Elfisio—were here, each one costing more than double what Alaina was paying for Aleksandr and the others.
Yorrin had already known which room was Aguapo’s. He’d likely known since their first night in Yerevan. It seemed the sort of thing Yorrin would pay attention to. He led the way down the hallway. He didn’t knock. He turned the handle—unlocked, it seemed, though Aleksandr wondered if Yorrin would have cared if it hadn’t been—and pushed the door open.
They stepped inside together, and Aleksandr closed the door behind him.
The room was twice the size of Aleksandr’s quarters. A roaring fire crackled in a sizable hearth, and the room was uncomfortably warm. The bed was large and layered with cushions and blankets. The wardrobe next to it looked as though it was large enough to store all of Aleksandr’s clothes, and armor too. On the far side of the room the window was paned in glass—another luxury—and shuttered.
The center of the room was taken up by a large table and several chairs. A half eaten meal was scattered across the table, and sitting in front of it was Aguapo.
The factor was draped in a large cloak—is he cold, in this heat?—and even the hood was pulled up. His head was slumped forward. Is he dozing? Truly, now of all times?
Yorrin took a single step towards Aguapo, then paused.
No, not dozing, Aleksandr realized. He saw a dark pool had spread beneath Aguapo’s chair. In the firelight, it gleamed black and orange.
“Fuck,” Yorrin muttered. “It wasn’t a trap.” He approached the slumped form cautiously.
That is a great deal of blood. He is dead.
Aleksandr’s mind raced. If Aguapo was dead, then his plea to meet in private likely meant that he had been genuinely intent on confessing to Aleksandr and Yorrin. But Giancarlo or the Thaumati must have known, must have heard somehow. They got to him first. If only we had approached him sooner. We could have ignored his request, met him in the common room downstairs. We—
“Aleksandr!” Yorrin had reached Aguapo. “He’s breathing!”
Aleksandr crossed the room in a few long strides. Aguapo wheezed a wet sounding breath as Yorrin tilted his head back slightly. The hood fell from his head, and the cloak opened at the movement. Aleksandr glanced down, and shivered.
If there are gods, I hope they show this man mercy.
Aguapo was shirtless beneath the cloak, wearing little more than a breechcloth. His skin was a lattice of bloody wounds, completely drenched in red. He had not just been slain, he had been slain cruelly.
Tortured. Why? To make an example for us to see?
“Aguapo,” he said softly.
“Acqua,” the fat man groaned. “Water.” Yorrin grabbed a cup from the table and brought it to Aguapo’s lips. He drank greedily until it was empty. “Grazie.”
“You don’t look like you have long,” Yorrin observed. He said it without malice, but also without much in the way of sympathy.
“Si,” Aguapo said. “Si. Mi dispiace. Ah—sorry.” Blood bubbled out of Aguapo’s lips, trickling from the corner of his mouth.
“I take it Giancarlo did this to you? Or—the Thaumati cult?”
Aguapo shook his head at first, then gave a single desperate jerk of a nod. “Not Signore Rossi,” he said. “Cult. Thaumati. Si.”
“Giancarlo is in league with them?” Aleksandr asked.
Again, Aguapo shook his head. “No. Signore Rossi knows… niente. No thing. È, era—it was Elfisio. Elfisio e io. Me. He and me.”
The factors, under Giancarlo’s nose? We thought they might be involved, but not independent of him. “Why?” Aleksandr asked. “I must understand. Please.”
“Torathi,” Aguapo said. He mustered a bit of emotion—a bit of anger—at the word. “Distrutto il cultura. Our culture—our faith. Destroyed. Gone. Ripped the heart out of Cassala. Elfisio—he hates. Has always hated them. Had plans, in Nahash. Friends. All ruined.”
“With the Underpass closed,” Aleksandr said. “Your plans in Nahash were done. But I do not understand—how did you know the Thaumati cult?”
“Elfisio,” Aguapo said. “Done business here before. Poco—little bit business with them.”
“How did you coordinate the attack on Alaina?” Aleksandr asked. “Both attacks. Or… no. You did not?”
“Elfisio,” Aguapo said. “Avvelenata—poisoned. He poisoned priestess.”
Aleksandr grimaced. “And the other attack?”
“He sent letter. And denarii. Ahead, with a friend he made at the inn. To hire mercenaries. Contact the cult. He thought—” Aguapo’s words degenerated into wet coughing. He was shivering uncontrollably, despite the heat from the fire.
“He was trying to get in good with them,” Yorrin said. “Turn a friendly acquaintance into an ally, by ensuring the newest priestess never arrived.”
Aguapo nodded. “Si,” he said. Blood ran down his chin in rivulets. “So that they would help him—us—against the Torathi.”
“Why in God’s name do you hate the Faith so much?” Yorrin asked.
“It was—mistake,” Aguapo said. “I—”
“No, nevermind, don’t bother,” Yorrin said. “Waste of time. Bloody heathens. Where is Elfisio now? Not here, I assume. And the cult? Where is the cult?”
“They—took him,” Aguapo croaked. “Non felice. No—happy. Knew—knew I was—tradire—treachery. I was betray them. Ci hanno tradito prima.”
Aleksandr tried to meet Aguapo’s eyes. The factor looked through him, unfocused. His shivering was growing more erratic, almost violent. “Where are they?” Aleksandr asked.
“Non lo so,” Aguapo said. His voice came out in a sigh, and more blood ran out of his mouth. “Non lo so…”
The fat man shuddered, and then was still. Yorrin reached out and placed a hand over Aguapo’s throat, feeling for blood or breath.
“He is dead,” Aleksandr said, knowing what Yorrin would find. “Surprising he lived so long.”
Yorrin nodded. His hand came away bloody, but he didn’t seem to care. “What now?”
Aleksandr felt his teeth grinding. “We must find them,” he said. “Elfisio and the Thaumati both. Perhaps—he may be innocent, but perhaps Giancarlo will know something. He will want to know what has happened, regardless. Come.”
Aleksandr turned towards the door.
“Aleksandr…” Yorrin’s voice sounded uncertain.
Not just uncertain. Afraid. Aleksandr turned to his friend.
Yorrin wasn’t looking back at him. Instead, he was staring at Aguapo’s corpse. Aleksandr did the same, and realized that Aguapo was moving again. His body quivered in faint but distinct spasms.
“He lives?” Aleksandr asked. Could this be his body’s death throes? It does not look—
Aguapo’s body jerked with immense force, and Aleksandr heard a wet tearing sound from within him. His head flopped back, lolling over the back of the chair. The spasms grew in intensity.
In the firelight, the lattice of cuts across the fat man gleamed red. His entire body was drenched in blood, and yet as Aleksandr stared he could see the wounds beneath. Not just a series of single slices, but an intricate network of interlacing incisions. It was unlike anything Aleksandr had ever seen before.
No. Not quite never. Aleksandr felt a chill run through him despite the warmth in the air.
“Those wounds,” Yorrin said. “There’s a pattern to them, isn’t there? Are they...?”
“Thaumati,” Aleksandr agreed.
Aleksandr heard the crunching of bones beneath. It sounded like a hunter dressing a carcass. Meat and skin and bone violently coming apart. The cuts began to widen. Aguapo’s layers of fat and flesh stretched, as if an invisible hand was tugging upon them, pulling the wounds wider and wider.
Not an invisible hand, Aleksandr realized. They are stretching from the inside.
Shards of bone began to protrude from the corpse at random angles. Aguapo’s fingertips split open, and jagged bone broke through. The cuts expanded, running into each other, forming long fissures in Aguapo’s corpse. Aleksandr no longer had any illusions that Aguapo still lived. More and more white bone stuck through the openings. His flesh began falling away in strips and chunks. Thick slabs of fat and skin and muscle peeled off him like layers of an onion.
In moments, Aguapo’s flesh lay in a pile around the chair like discarded rags. His skeleton continued to writhe and spasm. The force of its convulsions shattered the chair into fragments, and the skeleton twisted on the bloodsoaked floor.
That is not Aguapo’s skeleton any longer. It is something else completely. A Thaumati demon.
What Aleksandr had mistaken for broken bones were protrusions that seemed to have grown out of the existing skeletal frame. Jagged spurs of bone jutted out of every joint and at many strange angles. The length of the arm and leg bones seemed to stretch before their eyes, growing inhumanly long. The toes and fingerbones now ended in long sharp claws. The lower jaw stretched, teeth falling away in a quiet clatter as rows of inch-long fangs erupted out of its mouth.
The skeleton seemed to be held together by sinew and connective tissue, and wiry cords of pale muscle that clung to the bone in small clumps. Something off-white and leathery sealed off the ribcage, a sort of second skin, so the skeletal creature was not entirely hollow.
The transformation had been rapid, happening over just a few moments and ramping up in speed with each moment. At first, Aleksandr and Yorrin watched the demon that was Aguapo’s skeleton emerge, totally transfixed.
Aleksandr came to his senses when it finally stopped writhing. It crouched on all fours, its grotesquely monstrous head staring right at Aleksandr. The eye sockets were empty, white bone with tiny black pits where the eyes should have connected to the brain. Aleksandr thought he saw faint dots of reddish light deep in those empty holes.
The creature opened its mouth, and a low, clacking sort of growl came forth. Aleksandr saw its front claws dig into the wooden floor, and its tail writhed menacingly behind it.
It has a tail. Aleksandr was not sure when that had emerged, but it was several feet of vertebra bound in pale cords of sinew, and it ended in a long bone shard that looked very much like a blade.
Kholodny cleared its sheath with a quiet rasp. Yorrin had already drawn his own sword, and he was shuffling to the side, trying to get on the demon’s flank.
The creature suddenly snapped into action. It launched itself off the ground, leaping straight at Aleksandr.
Too fast! Yorrin tried to strike it as it passed, but his sword barely raked across the bony flank. Aleksandr brought up Kholodny, to interpose it between him and the demon. The creature went low, ducking under the sword. He felt it wrap its long bony fingers around his ankles. He swung his sword down on it, but the blade glanced off the demon’s skull.
It lifted him off the ground by his feet, tossing him head over heels towards the wall. In mail and plate he weighed as much as two men, but the creature threw him like he was little more than a child.
He hit the wall in a crash of sound and white-hot pain. His broken leg screamed, and his vision blurred with light and colors. He groped for his sword, struggling to regain his senses and get back on his feet.
He heard Yorrin shout. He heard the dry, alien growl again. He heard wood splinter under the demon’s claws. He heard the ineffective clatter of Yorrin’s steel sword against iron-hard bone.
Aleksandr’s vision cleared, and he saw the demon clinging to side of the room. Its four limbs each ended in jagged claws, and they were dug deep into the wood of the wall. Yorrin stood his ground, sword in hand. He breathed heavily, but seemed uninjured.
Aleksandr’s hand found Kholodny. He tried to struggle to his feet, but lances of pain shot through him when he used his broken leg. He got his good leg under him, braced himself against the wall, and dragged himself up.
As he did, the demon burst into action again. It leapt for Yorrin, but Yorrin ducked to the side at the last moment. Its claws still raked past him, leaving deep scores in his gambeson. Layered shreds of cloth spilled out, and Aleksandr saw that some of them were stained red.
Nevertheless, Yorrin recovered quickly. He lunged, scoring a hit with his sword upon the demon’s side. His sword pierced through the leathery tissue between two ribs, but the demon twisted away before Yorrin had thrust more than an inch into its chest.
It scrambled away, circling around Yorrin.
It is so fast. It takes four steps for every one of Yorrin’s. How can we deal with such a thing?
Aleksandr did not know. But he knew that he would face it at Yorrin’s side. He limped forward, each step an agony.
The demon lunged again, and this time it engaged Yorrin for a furious exchange of blows. Its claws opened more shreds in his gambeson. Yorrin’s sword continued to prove ineffective, though Aleksandr wondered if Yorrin was using it correctly. He hooked his sword arm around the demon, almost a strange sort of hug, and with his left hand he grabbed the hem of his cloak and swept it across the demon’s face.
He is not trying to stab it, he is trying to catch it. To entangle it.
Yorrin twisted around, guiding the tangled demon with him, and then he shoved the creature into the fireplace.
The fire flared, as if a piece of kindling had been thrown upon it. The demon’s movements grew wild and frantic. Beneath Yorrin’s cloak, a sound emerged like nothing Aleksandr had ever heard. It was a scream, a keening whistling sound that hurt the ears.
Aleksandr saw his moment. He crossed the room in a charge, heedless of the pain it caused. Yorrin held the thrashing demon in the fire, and Aleksandr thrust Kholodny forth with all his strength.
His blade passed between two ribs with little resistance. The creature did not bleed. It did not die from being impaled through what would be the lung, were it human. It continued to thrash wildly, and Aleksandr did not slow his momentum. He carried it forward, until he felt the tip of his blade resound against the wall behind the fire.
The demon flailed wildly. It clawed at the blade, raking the long bone shards across the mail on Aleksandr’s forearms. It made a sound like stone grating on iron. Its tail whipped around, striking at Aleksandr’s chest and leaving gouges in the breastplate.
It continued to scream, and the fire blazed higher and hotter with each moment. Aleksandr saw the bone demon catch fire like dry wood, far faster than any human skeleton ever would. The white bone and sinew blackened under the flames, and Aleksandr felt heat creep up the blade of his sword. Even through his gloves, Kholodny felt hot in his hands.
The fire roared as the demon was consumed. Its death wail was the loudest one yet, and Aleksandr felt a wave of heat ripple through the room as the last bit of bone blackened and dissolved to ash. Finally, the weight on his sword was gone. Aleksandr staggered back from the fireplace, dropping to his knee. Yorrin stood beside him, his breath coming is heavy pants. His cloak had been torn from his throat, consumed in the fire with the demon. Olivenco’s sword lay on the ground a few feet a way, dropped in the scuffle.
Kholodny still felt hot to the touch, and the entire length of the blade was scorched and covered in black soot. Aleksandr let the sword fall from his tired hand with a quiet clatter.
“Aleksandr,” Yorrin said. He swallowed. His chest was stained with blood, but at a glance the wounds looked relatively superficial.
“Yorrin. Are you alright?”
Yorrin nodded. “Fine. You?”
Aleksandr grimaced. “I will live,” was all he said.
“Good,” Yorrin asked. “Any idea what that was?”
“A Thaumati demon.”
“Right,” Yorrin said. “I figured that much. Ever heard of anything like that before?”
Aleksandr took a deep breath. It made his chest hurt. Likely an injury from the fall. “No,” he said. “I have not.”
“Me either,” Yorrin said. After a moment of silence, he spoke again. “Aleksandr.”
“Let’s kill these bastards.”
Aleksandr flexed his hand. He reached down and wrapped his fingers around Kholodny’s hilt. The soot and ash had blackened it all the way to the crossguard. It was still hot to the touch, but bearable through his gloves. “Da,” he said. “We shall.”