Sigils 13: A Simple Question

The sky was black and the air was cold.

Yorrin probably felt it worse than the others. His cloak was gone, burned up along with the demon. His gambeson and tunic beneath it were sliced up in too many places, and the chill air cut straight through. By the time they were closing in on their destination, every inch of him was soggy from the drizzling rain. The shallow cuts in his chest and side had long since stopped bleeding, but they still stung every time he twisted in the saddle.

If discomfort is the price of success, I’ll gladly pay it, he thought. I’d sleep in cold rain with open wounds a hundred nights straight if it meant we got through tonight alive and victorious.

It was an odd realization, in a way. Part of him rebelled at the thought. But that part was small, and growing smaller each day. His main concern was how they were going to find the cult, and whether or not they’d be too late to stop the creation of more bone demons.

A score of those things would rip through the bayard’s knights like cheesecloth. They could slaughter us, kill the bayard—bring this whole city to its knees. The thought was sobering.

They rode down the streets of Yerevan two by two, with Aleksandr and Yorrin at the head. The bayard had loaned them a few horses out of his own stables, so the Ruskans and the Taraamites were all mounted along with the rest of them. There was no way a column of their size could go unnoticed, so they didn’t bother. Every other pair or so carried a torch to light the empty streets.

If Prudence can’t find us like this, she needs a new line of work.

He needn’t have worried. A good while before they reached the meeting place Robin had mentioned, he saw a small shadowy shape lurking in an alley up ahead. Yorrin held up a hand, and the column pulled to a halt. He exchanged a wordless look with Aleksandr. The two of them urged their horses forward.

“Prudence,” Aleksandr said once they reached the alley. He didn’t dismount, but he kept his voice low. “Have you found them?”

“Not yet,” she said. “They’re around here somewhere, though. They have to be. One of these warehouses is where I’d be hiding. They’re big, and not many folk live in this part of the city. It’d be easy to hide out in one of them.”

Yorrin nodded. “Makes sense,” he said. “Rotten thought you’d have it figured out by now.”

Prudence shot him an annoyed look. “Well, Rotten was about as useful as tits on a trestle table, so I sent him to find you. You going to help, or not?”

Yorrin rolled his eyes. That sounds like Robin. “Sure,” he said. He dismounted, rummaged in his saddlebags for a satchel of tools, and glanced at Aleksandr. “Rejoin the column and let them know to keep on to that winesink.”

Aleksandr’s brow furrowed. “Very well,” he agreed. “But—why?”

“Good idea, Yorrin,” Prudence said. She ducked back into the shadows of the alley without responding to Aleksandr’s question.

She ought to treat Aleksandr with more respect. “We’ll watch from hiding,” Yorrin explained. “The column draws attention. If the cult is embedded in this area they might have eyes on the street. No way they’ll miss you.”

Aleksandr nodded. “Da, I see. You will watch for who watches us.” He took the reins of Yorrin’s horse in hand and led the animal back to the rest of the group.

It didn’t take long to catch up with Prudence. They exchanged a few looks and a gesture or two, confirming the different paths they’d take to observe the column and get a good look around the surrounding area. Yorrin ended up taking the forward position, while Prudence doubled back around to see if anyone was trailing behind.

Yorrin unslung a rope from the outside of his tool kit, and affixed a three-pronged grapple to the end of it. It took only one try to hook it onto the roof of a tall warehouse, and in a few moments he had picked his spot.

He’d picked a tall warehouse, the one across from the winesink that Robin had mentioned. He had a commanding view of the street for a good distance. He saw Aleksandr and Robin now leading the column towards him. They carried half a dozen torches and lanterns, lighting up the quiet street. Small alleys cut between nearly every one of the warehouses in this part of Yerevan, which gave dozens of possible spots for someone to be watching them. Yorrin studied every one of them as best he could.

His companions meandered down the street, finally pulling up in front of the tavern. A single guttering lamp hung outside the door, illuminating the crude buck’s head sign Robin had described. Aleksandr made a show of calling them together, formed up in a rough circle. Yorrin could hear low voices, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Movement. Yorrin squinted. Was that a person, or just a shadow dancing in the light of all those torches?

Then the shadow moved, well outside the torchlight. It was clinging close to a warehouse, keeping tight to the dark corners. It crossed over the street, moving under the scant bit of moonlight filtering through the dark clouds. Definitely a man. Clad in dark clothes, trying to stay out of sight, but he was awfully close to them. Did he follow them, or was he waiting there?

The man was moving quickly away from the column, but Yorrin realized suddenly that he was moving quite close to Yorrin’s vantage point. Yorrin made a snap decision then. He held his rope and grapple in hand, having pulled the rope up behind him and not bothered to coil it. He hooked the grapple into a beam along the edge of the warehouse rooftop, and dropped off the side.

It was twenty or thirty feet to the bottom. He held the rope tight, dropping down in four tight bursts. Each one wrenched his arms as he came to sudden stops, but it was a hell of a lot faster than climbing down the normal way. And it meant he came down right behind his target.

He heard a sharp intake of breath down the alley. His eyes were adjusted to the dark well enough to see the man he’d been watching. He was wearing a dark cloak over dark clothes, and he was staring at Yorrin with wide eyes.

“Got him!” Yorrin called out, hoping his companions would hear and follow.

The man bolted. Yorrin sprinted after him. His target turned a corner of the alley at high speed, and Yorrin heard a clattering sound as the man bounced against the far wall.

By contrast, Yorrin cornered the alley just fine. His boots skidded slightly on the muddy ground, but he was prepared for it. He leaned in, came off the skid running, and tackled the man from behind.

They went down hard. By the time the others had come rushing through the alleys, Yorrin had the man pinned down facefirst in the mud.

“Aleksandr,” he said. “This one was following you, I think.”

“Definitely,” Prudence said, emerging from a far alley. “I thought I saw someone, but then I lost him. Nice work, Yorrin.”

“Nyet! I was not!” growled the man in a Ruskan accent.

Aleksandr stepped forward, limping. He had finally returned his blackened sword to its sheath. His mail-covered hands were clasped in each other, resting at his belt. He gave the man a cold, hard look.

“Who are you?” Aleksandr said. He asked with a quiet intensity, barely putting the inflection of a question to it at all.

“Nobody!” he spat. “I am nobody. Let me go!”

Yorrin rolled the man over so he could properly face Aleksandr. He still knelt at the man’s side, pinning one arm down. Behind Aleksandr some of those with torches crowded in, casting orange light on the man’s face.

His hood had fallen back. He was pale-skinned under the spatters of mud, with dark hair and eyes. His lips were thin, bared in a grimace that showed bad teeth.

Doesn’t really look like a cultist, does he? Yorrin thought. He just looks like… anyone really. A man.

“You were following them,” Yorrin said. He drew a slender dagger off his belt and waved it in the man’s face.

“Nyet! No!” the man protested. He thrashed in the mud, and tried to hold his own free hand up to ward Yorrin’s blade back. “Just walking.”

The movement shifted the collar of his tunic, baring some of his chest. Yorrin frowned. “Bear,” he said.

The big barbarian pushed his way through the others. “Da,” he said. “Yorrin?”

“Pin him down for me, will you?”

Bear grinned. “Da!” he said. The man struggled more vigorously as Bear hunkered down and proceeded to pull the man’s arms up, pinning them in the mud.

“Someone get his legs,” Yorrin said.

After a moment, Levin stepped up and grabbed the man’s ankles. Yorrin brought his purse-cutter down to the man’s tunic.

“What are you doing?” the captive said, still struggling to no effect. “Stop!”

Yorrin dipped the blade down, slicing through the tunic in a single long cut. The two halves of the garment fell open.

Aleksandr exhaled in a low sigh, almost a hiss. He shook his head sadly.

The man’s chest was covered in a jumbled lattice of tattoos. Line after twisted line laced across his skin, and there was now no mistaking the script the tattoos were written in.

“Thaumati,” Yorrin said, more for the benefit of those two far back in the alley to see.

The man’s thrashing grew more wild, and he began to snarl and shout at them in Ruskan.

“You are not in position to kill anyone,” Aleksandr said. “But is good you no longer deny it. You are of the cult, then.”

The man spat another word in Ruskan. Then, he spoke again, in Middish. “You will all die. Sky will blacken, streets run with blood. All in this place will die!”

“Where are your masters?” Aleksandr asked.

“Preparing for you!” the cultist said. “Preparing your end, fool. All of you!”

Yorrin moved his dagger closer to the man’s face. The iron gleamed orange in the torchlight, and he held it a fraction of an inch from the cultist’s eye. “I’d suggest you answer his questions,” he said.

Yorrin made eye contact with Aleksandr, hoping the question was clear enough in his expression. I’m no torturer, but we don’t have time to dilly dally. I hope he agrees. Or is that the guttersnipe thinking? Aleksandr’s got particular ideas about morality.

Aleksandr met Yorrin’s look, and sighed. “Dylan,” he said. “Take a few to secure our perimeter. In case there are more of his ilk around, or they come at the sound of his shouting.”

Dylan nodded. He gathered up Prudence and most of the others. Soon it was just Aleksandr, Yorrin, and Bear and Levin holding the man down.

And one more. When Robin went to follow the others, Aleksandr stopped him. “Robin,” he said. “Stay.”

Robin shrugged. Obviously happy to avoid work, however trivial.

“Last chance,” Aleksandr said. “Tell us where they are. Is all we need from you, just this one thing.”

The man snarled something in Ruskan. From his tone, Yorrin knew it wasn’t an answer.

“Robin,” Aleksandr said. “You once say that men learn to sing when you—ah, how was it.” Aleksandr grimaced, clearly unsettled.

“Start carving them up,” Yorrin finished for him. I remember that. Aleksandr’s thinking the same as I am, then. We need to find them. Now.

Robin wrinkled his nose. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

Aleksandr set his jaw in a stubborn frown. “Da. You did. I am thinking we need you to make this man tell us where his people are.”

Robin shrugged. The look of distaste on his face vanished, and he gave the cultist a lopsided smile as he drew a dagger from his belt. “Well then, guess I’m still a Songbird after all. A little, at least. You know how to sing, friend?”

The cultists glared at Robin with wild eyes, spitting more Ruskan curses at him.

“I don’t speak Ruskie,” Robin said. “Better teach you how to sing in proper Middish, yeah? Levin, mate, hold him steady for me will you? I need to get this boots off.”

Levin didn’t say a word. He just shifted his position, bearing more weight down on the cultist’s legs and shifting his grip up so that Robin could yank off the man’s boots.

His bare feet were pale and flecked with mud. They thrashed and twisted in place.

“I will kill you! All of you!” the cultist shouted.

“Right then,” Robin said. “Which one do we begin with, hm? I usually start with the little toes and work my way up, y’know? Just seems fairer that way. But you Thaumati chaps killed some of our traveling mates. George owned me eight pence I’m never like to see now, am I? So I’m thinking…”

Robin’s blade dipped down. Yorrin did not look away as Robin deftly began peeling off one of the cultist’s toenails. He wailed, a high-pitched sound, and continued to struggle. His foot jerked in Levin’s grip, and a fountain of blood pulsed out.

Robin clucked his tongue. “Oops,” he said. “I didn’t mean to take the whole digit off just yet. It’s your own fault, really, struggling like that.”

The Thaumati cultist snarled more Ruskan at Robin. Threats and curses, from his tone. I don’t think he’s giving us anything useful yet.

“Aleksandr, was that an answer to your question?” Robin asked cheerfully.

“No.” Aleksandr’s face was stone. His lips were drawn, his eyes narrowed.

He hates this, Yorrin recognized. But he doesn’t see a better way forward, and neither do I.

“Shame,” Robin said. “Guess we’re on to piggy number two.”

He went back to carving up the cultist’s toes. Bear muffled some of the cultist’s screams while Robin worked. The barbarian seemed unconcerned by the violence, but he wasn’t relishing in it the way he did the bloody work of actual battle. Whenever Robin paused in his torture, Bear lifted his hand from the man’s mouth and gave him a chance to speak.

They were at it for a while. It may have been no more than a few minutes in truth, but it felt much longer to Yorrin. The cultist’s snarled epithets turned to frustrated cries, then to anguished wails. When it became little more than blubbering, and most of his toes had been mangled, Robin stopped again.

“I’ll be moving up to your balls now, I expect,” he said. “But you know you can end this any time. All you need to do is tell Aleksandr where we can find your mates.”

Before the cultist could respond, Aleksandr spoke. He was tight-lipped and his voice sounded tense, like he was holding back a tide of emotion. He spoke a few words in Ruskan, and ended in the cadence of a question.

The cultist nodded. His cheeks were soaked with tears. He whispered a few words in Ruskan. His voice had gone hoarse from the screams.

“Bear,” Aleksandr said. “Release his arms.”

Bear frowned, but he did as he was told the Cultist did not make any effort to escape or fight. He just raised one limp arm, and gestured in a direction. He said a few more words in Ruskan.

Aleksandr nodded. “Levin, Robin, move aside,” he said.

They did so, leaving the cultist laying in the bloodstained muddy street without anyone pinning him in place. Aleksandr drew his long black sword and advanced on the prone man.

The cultists eyes widened. He held up his arms in a vague defensive gesture, babbling in Ruskan. And a bit of Middish. Yorrin made out “No!” and “I told you! Mercy!”

The cultist was too weakened and disoriented to defend himself. Aleksandr drove the tip of his sword through the man’s chest, and he sighed one last breath before he died.

“Some men are beyond redemption,” Aleksandr said softly.

“He told you where they are?” Yorrin asked.

Aleksandr nodded.

“And if he was lying? We might’ve needed him alive.”

Aleksandr clenched his jaw. He wiped the blood from his blackened sword and sheathed it. “I do not think he was lying,” he said quietly.

Aleksandr turned and limped out of the alley.

“Cult man say it not matter what we do,” Bear said to Yorrin. “His master kill us all, turn church lady into monster of bone and death.”

Yorrin sniffed. “We’ll see,” he said.

“We kill them all, Yorrin. Da? This not like the others. No take prisoners and make them join us.” Bear frowned, and he rested a hand on the head of one of the axes stuck through his belt.

Levin was watching their discussion with an inscrutable expression. Robin was looking at the corpse lying in the mud, and the pool of blood slowly spreading beneath it.

“They’re Thaumati cultists, Bear,” Yorrin said. “They killed a priest and who knows else. Tried to kill Alaina, killed Aguapo and turned him into goo and black magic. Yes we’re going to kill them all. Obviously.”

Levin gave a slow nod and turned to follow Aleksandr.

 “Right,” Robin said. “Well then. Shall we?”

“Da,” Bear said. “We go, we find, we kill.”

Yep, Yorrin thought. That about sums it up.

 The Thaumati hideout looked much like any other warehouse. Yorrin and Prudence approached it first, leaving the others down the street and out of sight. They would watch for Yorrin’s signal. His bullseye lantern hung, unlit, from the outside of the small satchel of tools on his back.

There was no one on lookout that Yorrin could see. Makes sense. A lookout would be noticeable. Would’ve given Prudence something to look for. Smart.

Smart or not, it meant Yorrin and Prudence could creep right up to the warehouse unnoticed. There were two doors: a large set of double doors on one end and a small door off to the side. Yorrin saw high shuttered windows, to light the huge room during the day. As high up as they were, there was likely a catwalk inside near the ceiling, to allow them to be opened and closed. That’ll be our way in.

Yorrin carefully picked his way to the smaller side door. He pressed his ear up against it.

With our luck, Aleksandr and Robin were wrong. The cultist fed us a line, and now we’ll have no—

A voice reverberated through the door. Yorrin’s mouth felt dry, and he swallowed nervously. It was hard to make out, but that didn’t sound like Middish or Ruskan or Spatalian. Not Cassaline nor Temple Torathi. Yorrin could only remember one time in his life he’d heard sounds like those. Deep in the Underpass, right before Borthul put a score of goblins to sleep with words.

“This is the place,” Yorrin mouthed the words to Prudence. She nodded. They exchanged a few hand signals, and then they proceeded to climb freehand up the side of the building. The wood was slick from the drizzling rain, but they picked their way up slowly and carefully.

The roof was layered timber on a gentle slope. Yorrin passed his kit to Prudence to light the lantern and give the signal. He positioned himself at the edge of the roof, leaning off the edge to get to the shuttered windows. He carefully leveraged the blade of a knife between two slats of a shutter and gently teased them open a sliver. A faint orange glow spilled out through the crack.

I guessed right. A narrow wooden catwalk ran along the edge of the wall, just below the window. It would be easy enough to get onto it if he opened the shutter a bit more. Down below, he saw that the warehouse seemed to have a few rows of crates forming a sort of makeshift wall against the large double doors. Aside from that it looked less like a warehouse than a barracks. He saw tables, chairs, and pallets scattered about. At least two dozen figures stood milling around the room.

What dominated his attention, however, was a single table near the center of the room. That’s not a table, Yorrin realized. That’s an altar.

A lean naked figure was sprawled across it. In the dim light Yorrin wasn’t sure if they were tied down or not, but he suspected so. What he could tell was that their body was etched with dozens of bloody sigils. One of the darkly clothed figures stood over him, incanting some Thaumati sorcery.

Looks like Elfisio didn’t win their favor after all.

Yorrin felt a gentle tap on his back. Prudence had signaled the others. That meant he had a few minutes at most before things got very loud very quickly.

He slid his knife back between the slats. Prying open the shutters without making a sound was a delicate process. Yorrin risked a little noise—he expected that the chanting would drown it out. Soon he had the window open. He pulled himself back up onto the roof, signaled to Prudence, then shifted around so that he could climb through the window feet first.

Soon he and Prudence were crouched in the narrow catwalk. A rickety looking ladder led down on a far wall, but Yorrin ignored it. He moved along the catwalk, getting as close to positioned directly over Elfisio’s tortured form as he could. He carefully took out his rope and coiled it around a knobby rail. He made eye contact with Prudence in the dim light. She had unslung her small crossbow, and was taking up an overwatch position.

She met his eyes, and gave a cool nod.

I don’t see any more demons, at least. Just men, Yorrin thought. Aleksandr and the others should hit that door any minute. We’re as ready as we’ll ever be.

One way or the other, their business with the Thaumati cult ended tonight.