Preface: Greetings, all! This is the ninth chapter of the tale that began with “Wisdom in Shadow – Chapter 1,” comes immediately after “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 8,”and is the third story is a series that began with “What You Don’t Know,” also located on this site, although it features a mostly-different cast of characters.
As always, my standard disclaimer: The monster girls featured in this tale, and many elements of the setting, are based off of the works of Kenkou Cross, and as such this work is intended to be a tribute to his creativity. The characters, however, are my own. Pray neither sue nor steal; I have very little to take, but I love that which is mine.
Wisdom in Shadow
Chapter 9 – Sepulture
As morning light kindled the cloudy skies, George Lambton knew he had found what he had been looking for. He knelt down, staring at the rain-softened earth intently, his eyes tracing the fresh gouges in the ground, noting the claw marks, the rounded impressions of paw pads, the depth of the prints. After nearly a week of searching, his vigilance had paid off. There was a kobold in the forests outside Videre, and now he could track it.
“Find something, lad?” George straightened at the sound of the voice, glad that the prints were old enough that he didn’t have to worry about the mercenary’s loud voice or sour stench scaring off his prey. Instead of answering, he motioned to the ground before him, and Sergeant Pascual drew close enough to squint at the soft earth, his brow furrowed dubiously. “Paw prints, aye?” He drew the cigar from his lips, ashing it to the side offhandedly. “Wolf?”
George shook his head, pointing to a few of the more distinct marks. “No, these are too deep.”
“Really big wolf?”
Sighing, George shook his head again. “Whatever made these marks walked on two legs.” He indicated the length of the stride. “Human-sized, too. No, these are almost certainly kobold prints, which means we’ve found one of the monsters Father Wulfe kept.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Pascual muttered, straightening with a wince as his sore spine protested. The pair had been hunting for hours since he had forced himself from his warm bed, and it was having a greater effect on the aged mercenary than on the spry Purifier. “I figured it would’ve been leagues from here by now, after what you did to the old priest.”
George winced at that tacit condemnation, but his eyes still followed the trail, noting the broken branches ahead, the path that wandered through the woods. If he hunted now, while his quarry’s marks were still fresh, he might be able to find it at last. Then, he could perhaps end this mission, and he and Simon could move on from Videre to a real assignment, to real glory. That thought chased away any questions about what would happen to the kobold when he caught her, and he straightened as well, determination burning in his eyes.
It was time to end this hunt. “Come on, let’s move,” he ordered, and broke into a trot as he followed the prints, trusting the mercenary would follow behind. He heard and ignored the older man’s aggrieved sigh, his mind racing faster than his feet as he pressed into the forest. He wanted to act before anything could conceal the trail, desperately driven to find his prey at last.
After all, unless he was mistaken, these prints were leading towards Videre, and that worried him greatly for reasons he couldn’t yet explain.
Simon did not wake easily that morning. Every time his brain made the first steps toward wakefulness, the warmth of Gina’s body in his arms soothed him back to slumber. Somewhere distantly, he knew he had things to do, plans that he had half-conceived the previous evening, but the urgency behind them was stripped away by the softness of her skin, her rhythmic breathing, the way their bodies were perfectly intertwined. They weren’t even laying like normal; instead, he faced her, clutching her tightly to him, and he could feel her pressed against every inch of his naked body, her heat seeping into his muscles.
Naked. His eyes opened as the previous night replayed itself in his mind’s eye, and immediately his lower self flexed in immediate wakefulness. He remembered everything, but couldn’t pay mind to the more pressing concerns until his brain had savored all of the highlights from his first time with Gina, even going as far back as her bath hours before they had made love. Shifting uncomfortably as his erection grew, he tried to withdraw his hips from Gina, but she grunted in her sleep, tightening her grasp on him, which did very little to reduce the issue rising between them. Simon looked down at her with a smile, strongly tempted to wake her for a second round, but he knew that there were serious issues he needed to take care of, and if he wasn’t careful he would be tempted to spend the whole day in her arms.
His ardor cooled slightly as he replayed his plans. His invisibility magic had worked on Gina, fooling George completely, and he could maintain it on himself for far longer. He would make the trek to the monastery, then use his magic to slip inside before the nuns noticed him. From there, he would find the hidden passage into the catacombs, and explore them until he found the oft-mentioned forbidden library where the prioress kept the tomes on arcane magic. Once he found that, he would research until he found a way of getting Gina clear of Videre, and then he would return, hopefully long before Lector Themras returned and heard of the howling in the night. As far as plans went, Simon felt fairly confident that it could work, but he admitted that he would have to play things by ear if events didn’t go as planned. He could always claim he was merely investigating at the Lector’s command if he were caught during his infiltration by the nuns, but such an excuse may not matter if Gina was right and the creature that had attacked him the previous night indeed came from the monastery.
He squeezed Gina tightly, sighing into her hair. He loved her too much to put this off, as anxious as he was beginning to feel. He would have to be separated from her for a while if his plan worked, but if he could save her, then they could wait for each other until he found a way to reunite with her. He didn’t want to think about what he might have become if he had never met her, but he couldn’t let himself think about their possible future together either, considering how little of the world he knew outside of the Hellenistic Empire’s borders. All that mattered was her safety, and the rest would come in time.
He looked down at her, and found she was awake, looking up at him with an unreadable expression. He smiled at her, lowering his lips to hers gently, and when he drew back his heart swelled at the joy on her face as she pressed fiercely against him. “Good morning, darling,” he said, and she beamed as she claimed another kiss from him. He felt her hips shifting, and he noticed the way she looked at him, but he shook his head bashfully, regret thick in his voice. “I have to get up. I have to go-” Her lips interrupted him, as her tongue pressed into his mouth, and he felt her grinding against him more intensely, a rolling caress of his lower body by hers that stoked his earlier erection back to full heat. Laughing in pleased surprise and crumbling resolve, Simon gave Gina a mockingly-stern stare. “I have work to do, you know, for both of us-” Gina rolled her eyes as he spoke once more, cutting him off with another kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck to hold him close as they tasted each other, tongues dancing from mouth to mouth. She had captured his member between them, and the rubbing of their bodies around it made him groan into her mouth. She drew back, baring her neck and pulling him close, and he complied by kissing his way from her jawline to shoulder, then towards her throat, teasing her by attacking that sensitive skin with lips, tongue, and teeth, drawing hissing sighs and needy caresses from her. He paused, pulling back to look at her once more, and the lust in her eyes sealed his fate. “Alright, just a little, but that’s it, okay?”
Gina smiled mischievously, and her eyes dared him to hold to that resolve. They both knew he wouldn’t, and they were right.
“Have a slow morning?” Charles Kramer shook his head at Simon as the younger man staggered into the inn’s common room. “Can’t blame you after that shake-up last night. Want some breakfast?”
“Sure.” Simon plopped onto a stool at the bar in front of Charles, lowering a collection of books onto its polished surface as he rested his staff against the neighboring stool. When the innkeep raised his eyebrow, looking at the belted bundle, Simon explained with a lowered voice. “In case George comes looking for me. He enjoyed these yesterday, and I thought it would, ah, save him a trip up to my room if he wanted to borrow one.” Charles Kramer’s eyes widened as he nodded appreciatively at Simon’s foresight, obviously glad neither he nor Mary would have to fend off the issue if the Purifier Errant came around, since Gina would be alone in the room. Simon leaned in closer, remaining as casually poised as he could despite the topic of their conversation. “Any word on the caravan?”
The innkeep nodded, his regretful expression answering the question before his words could. “A merchant just came in this morning from their last stop. He said the rest of the group already turned north towards the channel, headed for Avalon City before they move on to the rest of Albion. They won’t even be stopping by Videre at all.”
Simon frowned, but quickly hastened to reassure the other man. “That’s fine. I have another plan… it’s risky, but I think I know of a way. I’m going to the monastery to find what I need, but I might need help this evening. At the least, if the Lector returns, I’ll need you to let him know I am investigating the monastery, so he won’t go searching for me.”
“Easy enough.” Charles nodded a salute to the younger man as Simon started to slide off the stool. “But you should stay for breakfast, at least. Plus, Mary’s been worried about you all morning. She hasn’t stopped fretting since she woke up, and I finally told her to go tend to the washing to keep her from setting the kitchen on fire on accident.” He nodded towards that room, where Simon presumed a rear door led towards the stream behind the inn. Nodding, Simon slid back onto the stool, and the innkeep turned to fetch him a plate from the kitchen.
As Simon waited, his mind danced from thought to thought frantically. He was worried; worried for Gina’s safety, worried for Mary and her father who had put themselves at risk for them, worried for his own fate, as well as worried about what might await him in the forbidden library. Still, he took comfort in the knowledge that Gina rested contentedly upstairs, and in the broad relieved smile that Mary gave him as she came into the common room, rushing to his side. His life had certainly become more complicated in the past week, and more dangerous for that matter, but at the same time he had found something he had lacked ever since he had been taken from his parents: people he loved, who supported him and stood beside him.
And if he had to risk his life for them, all those he had come to care for so much, then so be it.
Gina’s ear twitched as she heard the door to the room open, but a familiar scent left her relaxed despite the intrusion. Mary rounded the corner, a basket in her arms, and the human girl smiled at Gina as she saw her curled atop the bed. “Time to get up. Simon’s already had breakfast and left for the monastery, lazybones,” the human girl teased, but Gina didn’t rise to the bait, instead whining at the thought of her lover going alone into that place once more.
Mary heard the sound and winced at her own tactlessness, but busied herself gathering up Simon’s laundry, straightening the room as she went. “Pa says that the caravan isn’t coming, but Simon said he had something in mind to save you. People are talking about the howling last night, but it should be fine for now, least till that Lector comes back.” She paused to offer Gina a brave smile. “I’m sure Simon will figure things out before then.”
Gina nodded, but still curled into herself further as she watched Mary scowl down at the seared mark on the floor, scratching at it futilely with her shoe in the hopes of removing the black mark from the wood. Sighing, Mary continued about the room, and Gina watched her with faint curiosity, allowing the human girl to distract her from her fears. Mary turned towards her suddenly, pointing at the mattress under Gina. “Oh, I need to make the bed, if you don’t mind getting up.”
Gina’s ears perked in alarm as she considered that, particularly the moist spot in the bed from her and Simon’s lovemaking earlier that morning. She shook her head in a panic, waving her paws, as Mary stared at her in surprise. “Come on now, you can’t just lay about in an unmade bed, get up and-” Mary paused, emotions flickering across her face as she stared at the kobold’s bared chest. Gina glanced down, blushing as she noticed the mouth-shaped bruises Simon had left on her skin. Mary’s lips tightened as she recognized the marks as hickeys, and when she met Gina’s eyes there was something cold and distant there. “Oh… I see. So, you two are… together now? I’m… happy for you, really…” Gina could see the moisture building in Mary’s eyes, and she lunged from the bed, pulling the girl into a hug before she could sprint off. Mary resisted feebly, but Gina refused to release her, instead nuzzling her head against the other girl’s compassionately.
“I should have guessed. I mean, I always thought there was something, but I… I hoped that he might notice me. He’s always so nice, and so handsome, when you get past the hair. I mean, I’ve just known him nearly a week! But he’s the first guy that’s made me feel this comfortable, and he’s so smart and kind, I had wanted…” Mary shook slightly in Gina’s arms, and Gina stroked her hair softly, rocking her body back and forth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to fight you for him or anything, but I still…”
Gina shook her head, her face buried in the other girl’s neck. Humans were always so complicated, and they thought entirely too much. How silly was it that humans could understand families, but not packs? Gina pulled back, smiling at the other girl, who sniffled in response, moisture trickling down her cheeks. Lacking the proper words, Gina held her paw in front of the other girl, displaying three claws. Mary squinted at that, confused, and Gina sighed in frustration.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but…” Mary sighed, collecting herself and wiping at her eyes. “I can’t be angry at you. I can’t. Still…” Mary looked at the floor, her brow furrowed, for a long moment. When she raised her head, there was something different in her brown eyes, something hot and hard, but not sharp. “I don’t have to give up on him either, do I?”
Gina’s smile bared her fangs, but was not a threat. Mary had more spirit than she had thought. The human girl might make for a good member of the pack, if she learned when to submit. Gina stepped closer again, her teeth still gleaming, her chin raised, and met Mary’s stare with confidence.
Mary held that gaze for a long moment before nodding and looking away. “All right then. I’m not giving up. I’ll have my chance.” She seemed to be reassuring herself as much as warning Gina, and the kobold didn’t move. Mary glanced back to her, and her old smile started to appear once more. “I’d started thinking of you as a sister, but… I guess this makes us rivals, then.”
Mary extended a hand, and Gina pressed her paw against it. Their handshake brought a bright smile to both of their faces. Gina watched as Mary collected the rest of the laundry and headed for the door, an unfamiliar excitement tickling at her heart. Whatever this meant, Gina decided, it was going to be fun.
Simon stared at the doors to the monastery from behind a manicured shrubbery, impatiently gripping his staff as he waited for that impressive portal to yawn open. This was one part of his intended infiltration he had not planned for; once he was in the monastery, he presumed he would be able to sneak to the catacombs easily enough thanks to his invisibility magic, but he knew from experience that the nuns tended to watch for those who entered the monastery. Since the doors were far too heavy to open due to an errant wind, it would be suspicious for them to move without anyone coming in. His brief scouting of the monastery had revealed a few other possible entrances, but he faced many of the same issues with those. After musing on this a while, he had decided to wait until he saw someone entering the building and trail behind them, but the road up the mountain had been barren of travelers thus far, and he hadn’t seen any of the sisters come or go for quite some time. The importance of his mission gnawed at him as he watched, and he fidgeted anxiously, hoping that someone would finally appear and offer him a chance to slip inside.
His prayers were answered as he spotted one of the sisters walking toward the entrance along the outer wall of the monastery. She clutched a pair of long-handled shears and a deep basket in her padded work gloves, and stray sticks and sprigs of greenery dotted her ebon habit as she ambled towards the door, whistling a merry tune. Realizing this was his chance, Simon closed his eyes and concentrated on the shape of a familiar rune, the focusing implement he had been taught for that spell. He felt a surge of energy pass over his skin, raising goosebumps over his arms, as Blindness of Impurity took effect. He glanced at his hand, noticing an iridescent sheen over his flesh and clothes, the sign that the magic was working. Mustering his courage, he marched swiftly towards the door, taking all the care he could to be silent, conscious of every shifting stone under his feet.
The sister reached the entrance just as Simon drew near, and he barely managed to slip inside behind her as the door swung closed, holding his breath while he shadowed her progress. They had only just entered the narthex when she paused, and he heard a faint sniffing sound as she looked around. Swallowing silently, Simon stepped away from her, sweat beading on his forehead as he fought to muffle his movements, keeping his staff raised high to prevent it from striking the floor. The sister waited a long moment, a broad smile spreading on her lips, before she began to whistle once more, proceeding into the monastery as she swung her basket at her side. Simon’s shoulders slumped in relief as he fought to choke back a deep sigh, but he allowed himself only a moment before he resumed his course.
The narthex was empty of both nuns and pilgrims, aside from the solitary gardener, who progressed into the nave and turned towards one of the aisles at the sides. Simon allowed her a head start before he followed her, entering into the main chamber of worship with a cautious glance around him, checking his skin once more for the gleam of magic that protected him. The nave was silent, but groups of sisters stood along the walls, whispering in hushed conversations, laughing with tinkling tones that were soon swallowed by the empty space. Simon was able to make swift progress through that open chamber, but found himself looking around warily as he fought to stifle any sound that might betray him with a resounding echo. His cautious attentiveness revealed new details of that room to him as he made his way to the pulpit: the stained glass windows and pillars were just as he had seen before, but several of the supporting pillars sported fanciful carvings below their cornices, including sculptures of birds that protruded outwards. In particular, Simon noted several stone owls, and a shiver ran up his spine as he noticed that many of them seemed to be peering in his direction. Chalking his unease up to paranoia, he nevertheless pressed onward, hurrying as best he could towards the area beyond the pulpit, which held pews intended for the choir.
The ambulatory arched around the choir’s pews, and he followed that path. The curved walls featured stone pillars with decorated wooden panels between them, and Simon suspected one of them would feature the hidden path the prioress had mentioned to him on his first visit to the monastery. He felt along the panels as he went, searching for any latch or groove, but froze in place as he noticed one of the nuns walking along the ambulatory towards him. Her face was overshadowed by her wimple as she kept her head down, but her lips were curved in a faint smile, and he pressed against the wall to allow her ample room to pass by, checking his skin once more for the telltale glimmer of magic. Fortunately, his spell still held, and the sister passed by without noticing him, though his racing heart refused to slow until she was gone from sight.
His search resuming, he quickly discovered a hidden latch in one of the edges of the paneling. He was surprised he had found it so easily, but he had quickly focused on that spot; it felt as though he had seen it before, perhaps in a dream. Checking all directions rapidly, he took a deep breath and triggered the latch, wincing as the panel scratched against the floor as it swung away from him. He slipped inside and hastily closed the panel behind him, hearing it click back into place with a grim finality, sealing him into near-darkness. Taking a deep breath, Simon paused to feel for the latch on this side, and was relieved to discover it almost immediately, but turned from that door to face into the shadows ahead.
The path soon descended down a twisting staircase, and as Simon followed it he noticed that the route was lit by ensconced torches that burned dimly. He paused at one of them, examining it as closely as he could. He suspected it was enchanted to burn for a very long time; the alternative was that someone had recently come down into these catacombs, and had left torches lit behind them. That option did not make him for especially comfortable, but he pressed on, blinking away the afterimage the torch had left with him as he willed his nightvision to return.
Soon enough, the stairs ended at an uneven floor. The walls of this underlevel looked largely unfinished, though they sported the same lit sconces as the stairwell, and the floors were rough and scattered with loose stones. Simon watched his steps as closely as the path ahead, noticing that the floor of the catacombs seemed warped in places, as if the earth itself had twisted before resting once more. Perhaps the original builders of these halls had been more ancient than he had expected, or less skilled, or perhaps the earth had settled in strange ways over time. He could see dark streaks on the walls, as if moisture had stained the stones drip-by-drip over the decades, and in the places where those tracks descended the ground looked especially turbulent.
As he made his way through the cavernous halls, he spotted places where the stone had been worked into shelves and boxes. Inside, he suspected, bones were wantonly heaped, the last remnants of heroes and priests fading from memory into dust. This ossuary was appropriately grave-silent, such that his shuffling feet seemed to intolerably rend the quiet, and he bowed his head respectfully to the tomb-boxes as he passed, saluting the fathers of faded faiths and champions of wars unwritten by the ages. He felt like an invader among the dead, and childishly hoped his passage wouldn’t disturb their slumber.
Finally, he arrived at a likely room: a massive chamber with an arched roof, lined by columns that protruded from the walls, forming cul-de-sacs lined with bone-shelves. At the end of that passage stood a door, the first of its kind he had seen in these catacombs, and a thick chain crisscrossed the edifice as if restraining whatever lay inside as much as to protect it from intruders. That was probably the entrance to the forbidden library he had come to plunder, he surmised, and stepped towards it resolutely. Thankfully, he hadn’t seen anyone down in the catacombs, so he doubted he would be disturbed once he entered the library. Now, to find the Thesis on Teleportation–
He paused in mid-step, glancing down to see the ground ahead of him glowing dimly. His eyes traced the runic form that pulsed upon the stone floor as if alive, and his heart clenched as he recognized the shape from that which had been burnt into the floor of his innroom. It seemed that Gina and the Lector had been right after all: someone from the monastery had tried to kidnap him, and almost certainly this was where many of the missing pilgrims had been taken, sent from here to somewhere else and not seen again.
He stared down at the rune, watching the arcane light shimmer and flare as he considered the implications of the spellwork in front of him. If the rune had been used in the past, it would be inert, like the one in his room, but this one was definitely active. His mind was drawn back, however, by the faint sound of a foot brushing the stone floor, and he whirled to face that sound. He squinted his eyes against the darkness as a figure seemed to detach itself from the shadows, a white wimple the only visible marker until she came close enough for him to peer under its shadows to find a pale face. He started to step to the side, eager to avoid colliding with her, but she paused, her head turning to follow his movement.
“Forgive me, sir, but you cannot be down here. If you need anything, I can bring the prioress down, and I am sure she would be willing to grant you whatever you need from the archives,” the nun suggested kindly. Her soft tone did nothing to stop the chill racing into Simon’s stomach, and he glanced in a panic at his arm, finding the pearlescent sheen still upon his skin. That discovery only made his fear swell, and he reacted swiftly, slamming the butt of his staff onto the ground before him, visualizing a spellshape he had rarely used. His Shield of Resolution took effect immediately, appearing as a golden barrier over and around him, the shimmering half-sphere covering him from the ground to a space not far above his head. “Stay back,” he warned, feeling his previous invisibility dissipate; such magic was pointless now, he knew.
The nun did not react to his protective magic, still walking towards him. If anything, her smile only grew more pointed. “Please, sir, you are in a holy place. There is no need for violence. Just come with me, and we will give you whatever wisdom you seek.”
Simon’s alarm grew at her composure. He didn’t want to harm this woman, but he wasn’t above threatening her. With a thought, he cast a second spell, and three balls of light formed over his head, lengthening into glowing beams. His Spears of Contempt hovered patiently, aimed at the woman approaching him. “I said, stay away.”
At last, the nun paused, raising her head. Her violet eyes met his, and her smile bared white teeth. “Poor, poor child,” she murmured, but her grin was that of a confident predator padding towards trapped prey. “You walk like a boy dressed in his father’s oversized clothing, clutching that staff like it means something to you. Look how dimly your faith gleams. It is as if you know your beliefs are twisted and hollow, but still you cling to them for protection.” She extended a hand, and with a shimmer of mottled red-and-purple energy an ornate sword formed in her grasp, the metal of the blade twisted upon itself like a sharp-edged figure-eight. At her other side, a similar glow presaged the appearance of a shield upon her left hand, made of the same dark metal as the blade, embossed with the shape of an owl. “Your flaccid zeal cannot protect you from true divinity.”
“Back, fiend!” Simon snarled, and his barrier flared as he poured energy into it. His spears of light edged forward, like hounds pulling at their leashes. The searing light shining from his magic made the nun recoil a step as her skin rippled like a heat mirage, and a moment later her glamour faded. In place of the nun stood a woman in dark armor, still holding the sword and shield, but little similar to her previous appearance otherwise. This woman was tall and graceful, though her skin had an almost blue pallor to it. Silver hair cascaded behind her, and black-feathered wings spread out from her lower back. The armor she wore looked intended as much for seduction as protection, leaving her thighs and the upper surface of her breasts exposed, both accentuated by the sheer and crimson cloth she wore in those places. Atop her head, she wore an armored crown, decorated with red gems and dark feathers, and below that headpiece her violet eyes glowed with an internal light.
“So bold,” she purred, stepping even closer, her hips swaying as she came. “You remind me of my husband, when he was younger. He was just as stubborn…” Her tongue slid across her lips. “Until I taught him the pleasure of surrendering to his true desires. My mistress will teach you the same.”
“Sorry,” Simon shook his head, “But I’ll pass on that. Leave, or I will make you go.”
The woman chuckled, raising her sword. She was close enough to press it gently against his barrier, and sparks erupted from that meeting as his magic resisted its presence. “You don’t have your little cur to protect you this time, boy,” she gloated, “and you don’t have the spine to fight me on your own.”
She barely had time to raise her shield to deflect the spear of light that had been aimed at her sword arm, and fell back as he launched a second and third attack, both lances of energy deflected into the stone walls by her shield and blade in turn. She responded just as abruptly, lunging at him, her sword singing out as it clashed against his barrier again and again. Simon grunted, pressed back, and he started to retreat before he noticed the intensity of her gaze, the victory in her eyes. The rune behind him; that was her goal. She was pushing him back intentionally.
Simon’s shield wavered, and her sword nearly reached his skin before it was stopped. The woman laughed victoriously, but the sound was cut off as Simon recast his barrier, even larger this time, thrusting her back. As she staggered away from him, Simon dashed to the side, out of the way of the rune on the ground. As he stopped to face her, however, the uneven ground stole his footing, and he nearly collapsed as the earth below him groaned ominously. He had unfortunately chosen one of the warped patches to make his stand on, but he didn’t have time to consider that as the woman lunged towards him once more. He slammed his staff into the ground, reforming his magical shield once more, pouring his energy into it, hoping to force her back enough to give him time to think of a way of fending her off, or escaping, or-
Battered by the erupting magic, and surrendering to the unseen ravages of time, the ground below Simon caved in. He barely had time to flail for a grip, his staff falling from his hand, before he plummeted into the cavernous opening below him, consumed by the darkness instantly. The shadows were so complete that he didn’t even notice when unconsciousness claimed him, his head striking a rock as the earth’s maw swallowed him.
Promachos scowled at the hole that had devoured her prey. She flexed her wings, preparing to give pursuit into the pit, but a tension in the air warned her off. Instead, she stooped, extending her sword into the hole as far as it would reach. An electric shock made her recoil with a wince, pale violet energy sparking into existence and racing up her blade and into her flesh. Her frown deepened at that as she sheathed her blade, rubbing her nerveless fingers with her other hand as she looked into the darkness of the vertical shaft. Someone had warded that area, and it would not be easy for her to win entry.
“How unexpected,” murmured a voice behind the dark valkyrie, and she turned hastily, dropping to one knee and bowing her head.
“I beg your forgiveness, Mistress,” the monster said with genuine regret in her voice. “My overconfidence allowed him to escape.”
“Don’t worry, Proma,” said the other woman, proceeding into the torchlight, which revealed her black habit and white scapular. Sister Benevolence drew closer, a tight smile on her lips as she stared at the hole that had stolen away the young Inquisitor, and the fallen staff that lay at its edge. “He will resurface soon enough, have faith.” She drew close enough to rest a reassuring hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “We will claim him then, and, while we are at it…” He eyes coldly lingered on the opening in the ground. “It seems we have a pest problem. A little rodent hiding in our basement, as it were.”
“Shall I take care of that now, Mistress?”
Sister Benevolence shook her head, a charitable smile on her lips. “Patience. I expect it will come to surface soon enough. No, I have another mission for you.” The dark valkyrie met her gaze, and the prioress extended her hand to help her servant to her feet. “I suppose this means that fanatic was right about there being a laboratory below our home, and that means he will be returning to take care of that matter. We do not need such attention drawn to us. No, he will need to be… disposed of. I pity the soul charged with such a task, but even such bitter men can be broken in Pandemonium.” The valkyrie laughed at that, climbing to stand beside her mistress. “I want you to make certain he doesn’t send for reinforcements. This matter ends here, in silence. Leave the priest himself to me.”
The armored woman snapped to a salute, her gauntlet clashing with her breastplate. “As you command.”
Sister Benevolence smiled. “Your faith is commendable. You have served me well, Promachos, and I will ask Mother that you be recalled soon enough. You have spent too long out of your husband’s arms.”
The valkyrie lowered her head, but her cheeks darkened. “He and I both serve, faithfully.”
“And such devotion deserves to be rewarded. Stay with me a little while more, and we both will return to Pandemonium in glory.” Sister Benevolence licked her lips as she stared into the darkness of the pit. “I will have so much to teach our newest convert, after all.”
Together, both women turned to climb back into the monastery, waiting for their prey to emerge from the earth. They would be ready, and then the pleasure could begin.
Simon was slow to awaken, but his shivering muscles forced his consciousness to the surface, pressing him past the throbbing pain in his skull. He groaned at that ache, wondering what he had done to deserve such punishment; his head hadn’t hurt like this since he drank with George. Simon leaned onto his left side, seeking Gina’s warmth, but the sloshing of water was his only reply, and despite his opened eyes the world remained shrouded in darkness. A crippling wave of claustrophobia washed over him, and he flailed for contact with something aside from the water that suspended him, but found nothing above. His feet did find the floor close below the surface of the water, and he carefully stood up, finding it only as deep as his waist. He patted the water’s surface as he blindly felt for his staff, realizing that the water around him was strangely thick and viscous. His hopes of reuniting with his weapon were quickly discarded, which he lamented; the staff served as a focus for his magic, and its absence would be a problem if he faced any serious threat.
Even without his staff, he was still capable enough to cast basic spells, and he focused to summon a glowing orb above his outstretched hand, a Spark of Enlightenment. That light was nearly as bright as a torch, but revealed very little to Simon, aside from rock walls and the pool of cerulean fluid he had fallen into. He trailed his free hand into it, watching it seep between his fingers, glimmering in the steady light; the fluid seemed oddly incandescent, as if it possessed an energy of its own. Somewhat concerned that he had been briefly submerged in this strange liquid, Simon looked for an exit. He could see, dimly through the dense water, that the floor of this pool looked to have been manmade, and ahead of him was a stone lip. He sloshed in that direction, climbing over the ledge and stepping down onto a stone-worked floor.
Free of the pool, though it still clung to his clothes and hair and dribbled down his back, Simon looked around to get his bearings. The chamber he found himself in was completely unlit, and the high ceiling and wide expanse swallowed his little light. Still, this chamber was more deliberately finished than the tomb above his head; the floors were made of fitted stone, and the walls were tightly mortared. Spread across the room were stone tables littered with cloudy beakers and every conceivable cobwebbed apparatus, though the benches before them bore a thick coat of dust. The air felt thick and musty, and it seemed likely to Simon that even mice avoided this barren chamber. Still, he felt a certain pride as he looked around the room: despite the most unlikely of circumstances, he had discovered the missing laboratory.
He explored the room, shivering still from his time in the pool, but found little of interest for his efforts. Finally, however, he came across a massive stone door that loomed over him. He reached out to press against it, hoping he could find a way out of this cavernous hall and back to the surface, albeit preferably one that didn’t lead right back to the catacombs he had just unceremoniously departed. As he shoved against the door, it began to screech open as Simon overcame the clinging friction of ages of disuse at the cost of his aching shoulder. Once it had opened enough, he was able to use his hands to force it wider, slipping into the next room.
Unlike the expansive chamber he had just left, this room was reasonably sized for the library it resembled. It was also lit by a dancing fire, the broad fireplace in the back wall piled high with firewood that looked barely scorched by the flames that burned around it. The light from that fire sent shadows cavorting across the tall bookcases, which were heaped full of thick tomes with threadbare covers, but the wide table in front of the fire was lit enough for him to see the open books and papers and piled tomes scattered haphazardly atop it, intermingled with inkpots and upright quills. A massive painting displaying seven male figures had been placed above the fire, but the shadows concealed all other details from him.
More importantly, he noticed with a start, this room was not as unoccupied as the prior one. Instead, a woman stood at the table, almost concealed by a perilously-leaned pile of books. She was covered by a purple shawl with head lowered, but the arms extended before her clutched a thick book, and he noted with a thrill of unease that her skin was unnaturally pale, reminding him of the armored woman he had just battled. He thought for a moment that she may, somehow, have missed his loud entrance into the room, and glanced around for a place to retreat, but as he looked she lowered the book to the table calmly, her body turning to face him. Below that concealing cloak, her skin was uncovered, her modesty preserved only by the table and the cloth that draped over her shoulders and breasts.
As she rounded the edge of the table, walking unconcernedly towards him, he noticed with embarrassment that she was similarly unclad below her waist. He was distracted from that discovery, however, by the violet flames that burst into life around her hands and wrists as she raised her head, staring coldly towards him. Her eyes glowed with that amethyst light as she pointed one flaming hand in his direction, and he grimaced at the threat he saw in that stare.
“Well, it seems you finally found me,” she stated flatly, her voice cold and emotionless. Despite her tone, her lips curled in a frigid smile, and he wished desperately that he had managed to find his staff. “It’s such a shame that you won’t be telling anyone about me. Well… it’s a shame for you, anyways.”
Unfortunately, Simon was out of ideas, and out of luck.
Continued in “Wisdom in Shadow, Chapter 10“
Author’s Note: Whew, finishing this chapter reasonably on time pressed me, I must admit. My new schedule is rather brutal, especially as I have had to plan out my lessons for two new classes basically as I walked into teaching them. Still, I have found ways to make time to write, and fortunately next week is a testing period. This is typically a boring time as I sit and watch my students take online diagnostic tests, but this time, at least, I have better ways to entertain myself. I hope to have a great deal written by next week’s end, and that will make keeping my deadlines much easier moving forward.
Speaking of what is to come, we are moving towards the climax now – just after a new character has been reintroduced. I won’t hide that this is not the only late introduction to come; one named character will only make her appearance in the final chapter, despite her overall importance to this tale. Still, it’s not like this is the end of this story, right? The next work in this series, I now reveal, will be an experiment of a different kind, in which a new protagonist takes his place, but familiar faces enjoy progression of their own… but further such details will have to wait.
Now, I must see to the rest of my duties, and eventually I will return to the keys to begin work on the next chapter. Big things are coming, and I have much to plot. And, somewhere amidst it all, I shall find time to sleep…