“We should tell Bayard Bogdanov,” Aleksandr said. “We must find the others anyway, and they should be at his keep. And this… Bogdanov will wish to hear. This Thaumati cult is a great deal more dangerous than anyone knows.”
Aleksandr was still kneeling by the fireplace. Yorrin didn’t disturb him. His broken leg couldn’t be doing well after getting thrown across the room like he’d been.
“Will he believe us?” Yorrin asked. He was shredding sheets from the excessively sumptuous bedding in the room, and stuffing strips of linen into the jagged openings in his gambeson. None of the wounds were deep enough to kill him, but several of them were still bleeding, and he didn’t have time to strip down and get them seen to properly.
“I do not know,” Aleksandr admitted. “Perhaps not. There is not much left.” He stared at the black ash in the fireplace. “I did not realize it would burn so easily.”
“Neither did I,” Yorrin said. “Not really. But—most stories say monsters are afraid of fire. And it didn’t seem too bothered by steel. I just figured… it was worth a try.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Quick thinking, Yorrin.”
Yorrin shrugged. He winced as he stuffed linen into the last tear in his gambeson. He looked around the destroyed room. Smashed furniture, blood spattered all over the floor, and a sloppy pile of flesh and fat and organs. The Silver Pine is going to charge Giancarlo a lot to clean up all that Aguapo. That macabre thought led to another, and Yorrin went back to the bed. He grabbed another sheet and dragged it over to the pile of gore and viscera.
By the time Aleksandr noticed, Yorrin was already well into his task.
“Yorrin?” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Well, we can’t give the bayard a demon skeleton to convince him,” Yorrin said as he scooped up another handful of Aguapo and dropped it onto the sheet. “But that doesn’t mean we have no evidence.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Bloody remains?”
Yorrin reached out and grabbed a wide strip of fatty flesh. He held it up, spread between both hands. “Bloody remains conspicuously lacking a skeleton.”
It looked like a third of Aguapo’s face; an empty eye socket, most of a nose, a bit of cheek and an eyebrow. It was disgusting, but Yorrin found it surprisingly easy to detach the piece of meat from its origin as a human being. He continued his explanation to Aleksandr. “Either he’ll assume we’re mad cultists that butchered Aguapo ourselves, or he’ll hear us out.”
Aleksandr’s expression turned queasy. “Ah,” he said. He didn’t argue any more, so Yorrin took that as assent and finished piling up the meatier bits of the factor’s remains on the sheet. When he’d finished, he pulled the corners together and tied them off, fashioning a sack full of Aguapo. He wiped most of the blood off his hands with another scrap of bedding.
“I am surprised no one has come yet,” Aleksandr said. “Is not as if the fight was quiet.”
Yorrin nodded. “Good point. Could be something else going on out there. You need a hand up?”
“No,” Aleksandr said. He shifted his weight, and Yorrin heard a hiss of pain. Aleksandr held out his left hand. “Da.”
Yorrin took the hand and tugged. The Ruskan’s weight in armor was much more than Yorrin could lift, but he was just giving Aleksandr some leverage and balance. Aleksandr lurched to his feet, favoring his good leg. He still held his sword in his right hand. The normal rippling luster of true steel was covered in a layer of black char from the fire.
Aleksandr ran a gloved finger down the flat of the blade, frowning. “It will not wipe away,” he commented.
“Probably just need to really scrub it,” Yorrin said. “Come on.”
He’d sheathed his own sword as soon as the fight had ended. He lugged the sack of Aguapo in his right hand, and with his left took hold of Aleksandr’s arm. He wordlessly offered to take some of Aleksandr’s weight, and Aleksandr leaned on him as they headed down to the rest of the inn.
They were only halfway down the stairs when Yorrin realized why nobody had come running at the sound of battle, or the demon’s death wails.
Frantic shouts resounded below, and a haze of smoke drifted up the stairwell. They hurried their pace, Aleksandr wincing in pain with each thumping step.
The Silver Pine was not on fire. That much, at least, was good news—Yorrin had begun to worry. The smoke seemed to be drifting through the windows and open door. Outside, the sounds of shouting and screaming could be heard. As they came to the bottom of the stairs, Yorrin saw that the common room was in chaos.
Through the threshold of the main door he could clearly see the cause of the commotion.
The stables. They lit the fucking stables on fire.
They stepped outside, the night air filled with smoke and lit by orange flames. Yorrin saw a smattering of the inn’s staff trying desperately to contain the blaze. He spotted Orson and Cam among them, running a bucket line from the nearest well.
It was obvious at a glance that their efforts were futile. The roof of the stables was already roaring with flames, and a few folk were struggling to get crazed horses out.
“Dascha!” Aleksandr growled. He whistled, then called the name again, raising his voice. “Dascha!”
Heavy hoofbeats on the street resounded, and the horse came galloping over from a crowd of horses scattered around the Silver Pine. Aleksandr leaned against the horse, placing a hand on the big beast’s nose. Dascha snorted, seemingly unharmed.
“We should help,” Aleksandr said. “May be people inside.”
Yorrin frowned. You’re going to run in there and haul someone out, is that it? On that leg?
“Yorrin…” Aleksandr said, seeming to sense Yorrin’s hesitation. “We must.”
“Right,” Yorrin said. “Yes sir.”
He dropped the sack of Aguapo beside Aleksandr, unbuckled his swordbelt and tossed it down as well. He reached into a belt pouch and took out a square of cloth, then unslung his waterskin and doused it.
“Stay here,” he said. He didn’t wait for an answer. He just spun around and darted into the stables, covering his mouth with the cloth as he did.
Most of the horses were out, but there were a few still strapped to Giancarlo’s wagons that were screaming up a storm. He saw a stableboy and a tall lanky man moving through the smoke, trying to cut the horses free.
Humans first. Yorrin scanned the area, trying to see through the gray haze.
There were a few people scattered around the stables, sprawled on the ground. The first two, nearest the door, were two of Giancarlo’s mercs. Not any of the ones that had made an impression. George? James? Poor bastards. They lay in a pool of blood, and a quick assessment revealed that they’d each been stabbed in the throat.
Up ahead, Yorrin found a stableboy with the back of his head smashed in. Yorrin saw brains, and didn’t spare any more time on the lad.
The fourth figure he found was similar, sprawled face-first at the rear of one of the wagons. The back of his head was a matted mess of blood. Not quite as caved-in as the boy, though. Yorrin rolled him over.
Giancarlo Rossi’s face was slack, but his eyes fluttered slightly at the motion. His chest shuddered in a weak cough.
Yorrin sighed, and shifted himself under Giancarlo’s arm. He tipped the man over his shoulder and struggled to his feet. Giancarlo was more than a head taller than Yorrin, but the merchant was lean and soft. Yorrin was not.
He hauled the unconscious merchant out of the stables and dumped him in the dirt outside.
Giancarlo’s arm shot out and clutched at Yorrin’s hand. “Aguapo!” he groaned.
“Way ahead of you,” Yorrin muttered, tugging his hand out of the merchant’s grasp. He headed back inside.
The stableboy and the man—Levin, Yorrin saw—had already freed the horses. Yorrin swept the rest of the stables, breathing through the damp cloth, squinting through the building smoke.
No more people to save, he thought. He headed back over to the wagon where he’d found Giancarlo. Aleksandr would tell you to get out now. Risking your life for others is one thing, but risking your life for money?
Yorrin climbed into the back of the wagon. Aleksandr grew up rich, he reminded himself.
It wasn’t hard to get into Giancarlo’s secret stash, now that he knew where it was. He grabbed a sack from the back of the wagon and began pulling things out of the stash. He stuffed them into the sack one by one. When it was full, he tossed it off the wagon and filled another.
His chest burned by the time he’d finished, and his eyes were streaming water. The flames were growing closer. That’ll have to do.
Yorrin burst out of the stables with a sack in each hand. The crowd had given up on watering the stables, and now they stood clear, ready to try to douse any of the nearby buildings if the fire crossed to them.
Yorrin ignored the crowd. He saw Aleksandr, still leaning on Dascha for support, now standing near Giancarlo. Orson, Levin, Cam, and the last two members of Rossi’s mercs were with him. Orson was hunkered down at Giancarlo’s side, examining him, while the other four just stood awkwardly to the side.
Yorrin staggered over to them and dropped both sacks of loot at the merchant’s side.
Giancarlo blinked up at him. “What is this?” he asked. The question led him to a few moments of hacking coughs.
“You’re welcome,” Yorrin said. He turned to Aleksandr. “You alright?”
“I am fine,” Aleksandr said. He ignored Yorrin’s arched eyebrow. “Did you see Robin or Prudence?”
Yorrin shook his head. “Not so far. That’s likely a good sign—didn’t see their corpses, after all. Maybe they followed the ones that did all of this.”
Aleksandr nodded, scratching his beard with his left hand. His right hand still held his unsheathed longsword, the blade and hilt scorched black.
“That the cult, aye?” Cam asked. “The ones what tried to do for the priestess?”
“They were working with his factors,” Yorrin said, jerking his thumb at Giancarlo.
“Elfisio and Aguapo? Really?” Orson spoke from where he knelt by Giancarlo’s side, without looking up. “I liked them. Well. Aguapo, anyway.”
“That one had second thoughts,” Yorrin said. “They killed him for it. Took the skinny one.”
Levin had been scowling silently since Yorrin exited the stables. His upper lip curled, turning his frown into a snarl. “Where?” he said.
“Dunno,” Yorrin said. “Still puzzling that one out. Which is why I hope that’s where Prudence and Rotten disappeared to.”
“We must go to Bayard Bogdanov,” Aleksandr said. “Gather the others. And we agreed—Prudence will look for us there.”
Yorrin nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Agreed.”
“Reckon I’ll come with ye,” Cam said. Levin gave a single stiff nod.
“Don’t you work for him?” Yorrin asked, nodding at Giancarlo.
“I’ll stay with Giancarlo,” Orson said. “Make sure he’s alright. And protect him if someone comes for him.”
Levin frowned. “Orson,” he said.
“I’ll be fine,” Orson said. “You should go. They killed John and David, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, thought so. They killed the others, too, in a roundabout way. They arranged for those Ruskans to fight us on the road, right?”
“Da,” Aleksandr said.
The other two mercs, two more that Yorrin hadn’t taken the time to get to know—I think that one’s Conrad—looked at each other awkwardly.
“I’ll stay with you,” one of them said to Orson.
The other one, Conrad, nodded. “Good. He’ll watch out for him, Lev,” he said to Levin. “I’m comin’ with you. Let’s finish this.”
“Good,” Aleksandr said. To Orson and the other man, he said “We do not know what will come. Is possible the Thaumati cult will return. Keep the inn safe, da?”
“Sure,” the one Yorrin couldn’t remember—Nathan?—said. “We’ll keep our eyes peeled.”
Yorrin donned his swordbelt, and hefted the bag of Aguapo. “Let’s gather the horses and go,” he said. “Whoever’s coming, mount up.”
By the time they set out for the bayard’s keep, the black night sky was drizzling rain. The sack of Aguapo squelched awkwardly as it bounced against the horse.
These cultists turned a man into a sack of jelly. They have powers beyond your understanding, a nervous voice in the back of Yorrin’s mind told him. Are you sure about this?
On the opposite side of the sack, Yorrin felt Olivenco’s sword clatter against his other leg. Up ahead, Aleksandr hissed in quiet agony every time his horse jostled him. He still carried his family sword in hand, as if he was afraid to sheathe it. The others rode behind them in grim silence.
The smart move would be to slip away and never look back. But that’s the thinking of another man, Yorrin realized. A smart man. A survivor, I thought he was. But he didn’t survive after all. He died on the gallows. Torath sent Aleksandr to show me that. To show me what good a man can do in the world. And now he’s sent these demons to show the opposite.
Yorrin urged his horse on a little faster, catching up to Aleksandr. “You need to get that leg seen to. Sir.”
Aleksandr glanced at Yorrin, and gave a curt nod. “Da,” he said. “Alaina can tie a—” he paused, searching for the word.
“Splint,” Yorrin said.
“Splint. Da. She can tie splint before we go hunting.”
“Risky,” Yorrin said. “Bad for the break, isn’t it?”
Aleksandr just shrugged. “Is no other choice,” was all he said. He winced as he bounced in the saddle again.
That was all that Aleksandr would say on the matter. Yes, it’s dangerous. He knows that. He’s going to do it anyway.
Perhaps it would be smarter to flee, Yorrin thought. But if every man that faced a demon ran and hid from it, the world would soon be overrun by demons.
Someone has to stand and fight.