They came to a well-appointed room lit with thin white candles that gave just enough light to illuminate the pallid corpse on the bed, bloodstained bedclothes maintaining its barest modesty. Two half-clothed women, lovely but for the red smears covering their mouths, gyrated on the bed by the dead body. One of them, a delicate-looking woman with long, black hair, smiled lasciviously at the newcomers.
The prince shoved Noah forward. “This man’s name was Felun. He is known to you, I believe.”
Noah made himself look. The corpse had indeed been Felun. His features were contorted into a cold, grimacing mask. “Monster,” he spat weakly. “What did you do to him?”
“Nothing he did not enjoy, I assure you,” the dark-haired woman said in a deep, smoky voice. The women smiled at one another, stretching on all fours like cats.
The prince ran the tip of a finger over the bloody sheets and put it to his lips. “Your righteous, moral, obedient convert? It took only a glimpse of bare flesh and a smile, and his pretentious self-righteousness was stripped away. Along, incidentally, with everything he was wearing.” He jabbed his finger into Felun’s covered corpse, sinking the sheet into some deep wound. “Then, after he partook of my favorite sacrament, his beautiful parishioners, still kneeling, sucked the very lifeblood from him.” He put his face close to Noah’s; suddenly, he smeared his still-bloody finger on the missioner’s lips. Noah vomited once again.
Gleeful, the prince jumped back. Head spinning, Noah held himself up on the bedframe, and the women on the bed crawled over the body to kneel behind him. One jerked him by the hair, pulling the back of his head to rest between her breasts.
“Shall I ask you to join us, Noah?” The prince assumed a pensive air. “There are five more rooms like this, with the same scene played out. Your friend Machmanis? Your altar house stewards? Dead. But I need not end your life.”
Noah shut his eyes, and the prince stepped closer. “I can reward you in ways much more real than your God has done. Will you bow instead to me?” Noah turned his face away from the voice, the foul breath.
The prince gripped his face and whispered in his ear. “They say you have never had a woman – that you have remained chaste for nearly five hundred years! Astounding! Why is that, I wonder?” Cold hands caressed Noah’s chest from behind. He shuddered.
“Are you uninterested in women, then?” whispered the prince. He darted his bloodstained tongue into the missioner’s ear. “Very well. Say that I am your god, Noah, and your god will love you, in spirit and in flesh.” With nothing left to vomit, Noah dry-heaved. He could not think clearly anymore, could not form the words of the desperate prayer his spirit was crying.
Unexpectedly, most of all to Noah, he began laughing. The sound was soft at first, almost as if he were drawing a hitched breath, but he then raised his face to the prince, looked him straight in the eye, and burst out in full-throated laughter.
“Oh, dear,” said the prince, frowning. “I think we have broken his mind.”
“You have not, prince,” Noah told him, with an edge of iron to his voice. “My message for you has changed. Turn from your evil ways. Fall on your face and repent. There is forgiveness for you, even now, even as your damnation pursues you.”
The frown deepened. “Your confidence was rather darling before, Noah, but now it bores me.”
“And yours is pathetic! Redemption slips away, prince. It is not gone, but it is at the door.”
The prince turned. “Yes, I am most certainly bored. Sisters, do what you will with him.” The woman holding Noah’s hair pulled his head back once more. The other ran her hand down to his thigh, then opened her mouth to reveal teeth that had been subtly filed to points.
A wolfhound’s whine – a hollow sound, as if it echoed along a stone passage – caused the sisters to pause. They glanced toward an open portal, black with shadow, toward which the scarred guards started.
A thick grey body hurtled through the darkness, knocking one armored man down despite his size. The other began to draw his sword; he stopped, then stepped back, as a massive form filled the portal. Noah had regained control of himself, and he pulled away from the grasp of the women, whose eyes had widened in the candlelight at the sight of the new arrival.
Like a mammoth moth emerging from a stone cocoon, the giant came into the room, rising to full height once inside. The remaining guard made a spastic attempt to remove his blade once more, but before he could do so, the giant swung his own weapon. The crunch of bone on bone and the guard’s cry of pain from his crushed hand spurred the two sisters off the bed and out of the ghastly room, fleeing half-naked. The prince spared a cruel sneer in Noah’s direction and exited behind them.
A huge sandaled foot pushed down the guard struggling to rise from the dead wolfhound’s weight. The heavy head of a two-handed hammer, swung again by the giant, came down with a crack on the man’s shin, turning his efforts to agonized cries.
“My great thanks, Eudeon,” said Noah. He glanced at the incapacitated guards and the still form of the wolfhound. “You killed the hound.”
“I had no choice,” replied the Nephilim. “It has tasted human flesh, I am certain.”
“I have no doubt of that. Help me.” Noah grabbed a corner of a hanging tapestry, woven gold glinting in the candlelight. As one, he and Eudeon pulled it from the wall and covered Felun’s corpse.
“Here.” Eudeon reached up for the wooden rod upon which the tapestry had hung, pulling it down and handing Noah the makeshift staff.
“Lives have been lost here,” said Noah darkly. “But perhaps there are lives to be saved. Come.”
Eudeon led Noah out of the hideous chamber. Undeterred by wolfhounds’ howls ahead, they followed the winding corridor, wary of each shadowed doorway that pitted the passage walls. With mortal threat came clarity of mind and renewed vigor, and both served Noah well when a meaty guard barreled out of a side door behind the two missioners. Bellowing and brandishing a polearm with a rusted, hook-like head, the man attacked. Noah spun to meet him, blocking the weapon with his improvised staff, which proved solid. In a practiced motion, Noah pulled his parry away to sweep the guard’s feet. The guard’s back hit the ground; Eudeon dropped the top of his hammer down on the man’s knees as if they were buttercream and the hammer the churn-stick. The giant kicked the polearm away, and they moved on quickly.
“A crossway lies ahead, Noah,” said Eudeon. “If we hurry, we might gain it before the wolves. Our escape lies to the right.”
“Then we shall go left,” said Noah. “I will leave no other victim to die today at the hands of these monsters.”
Even as he spoke, the crossway came into view around a bend, and with it a pack of slavering wolfhounds. No guards ran after the animals; if the wolves had handlers, such men had been left far behind. Retreat would only bare their backs to the beasts, so Noah and Eudeon braced for the onslaught.
The wolves reached the intersection; to the missioners’ surprise, all but two of the pack peeled off howling toward something unseen down one of the cross-corridors. Before either man could wonder, the remaining pair of running wolves was upon them.
Eudeon met the snarling snout of the first with the head of his hammer, spinning aside to let the canine corpse fly past him to the ground. Noah stepped back and swung hard at the wolfhound that lunged at his throat. The end of his staff hit the beast behind the ear; it shook its rough mane, stunned, but attacked again. Noah managed to bring his staff up in defense and thrust it lengthwise into the wolf’s jaws, bracing with two hands against the angry animal. Eudeon struck again; the wolf collapsed, its spine broken.
“I like this not, Noah,” said the Nephilim, hefting his hammer. “This tool is meant to build, not destroy.”
Noah did not give an answer, his silence implying agreement. They approached the intersection of corridors cautiously. From the silence, Noah guessed the rest of the wolfhounds had moved on.
Around the corner, wolf carcasses littered the blood-slicked floor. Another animal paced around the bodies, nudging them with its hawklike beak, sensing for signs of life. The beast was the size of a lion. Bristly hairs covered its body; long claws clicked on the tile, leaving bloody prints as it meandered. It was a fearsome creature, but not so much as the being beside it.
The giant was wiping the blades of his weapon on the wolves’ hides. Not quite as tall as Eudeon, he still stood well over eight feet. Segmented iron pauldrons covered his broad shoulders and connected to iron-and-leather gauntlets, and an iron breastplate guarded his chest; otherwise, he was unarmored. The blades of his weapons connected to an ornate haft taller than a human; at the top of it, two swept to either side, and a third continued straight upward.
Noah almost laughed in relief. “Gilyon!”
“Praise the Creator – you are alive.” Gilyon strode over the wolves to Noah and gripped his shoulders. “When we heard the stewards were missing, we feared the worst.”
“A long story, and one which we must save for a later time.” Another figure, human, came out from a shadowy recess in the wall. Metal glinted in the hall’s torchlight under his faded duster. He carried a crossbow, its stock and magazine dressed in gold leaf and chalcedony, its ornateness in striking contrast to his worn clothing.
“Midash.” Noah nodded at the man. “I knew you must be close. My thanks to you – and your griffin, too.”
Midash tilted his chin in acknowledgement, patted his familiar on its corded shoulder, and began plucking quarrels from the wolfhounds. He frowned, staring at Noah’s clothing. “Are you hurt?”
The missioner glanced down at his crimson-spattered tunic, felt the cold, wet fabric sticking to his skin where he had been pulled against the bedsheets soaked in Felun’s blood, and realized what a ghastly sight he must be.
“No, I am uninjured,” he said. “Felun…”
Footsteps and the creak of hard leather warned of the soon appearance of more guards, so Noah and his comrades ran the other way. Their retreat had naught to do with fear; on the contrary, Noah had no doubt that any martial encounter with armed adversaries would be fatal for the other party, no matter their number. Eudeon was the most peaceable of his rescuers, and he had slain beasts thrice his size with only his hands. He followed now, still in a bit of a daze, only gradually realizing that none of his companions quite knew where they needed to go.
“The slave who guided me must have escaped the moment she was able,” Eudeon was saying.
“As would any sane person,” Midash said.
Out of a pillared opening ahead came a branded manslave balancing a pitcher on his head. He spotted the group fast approaching, squealed, and darted away, letting the pitcher crash to the ground. It shattered, painting the floor dark with its contents. Gilyon put on a burst of speed, Midash’s griffin close behind. The Nephilim did not chase the slave; rather, he charged the portal out of which the man came. Noah steeled himself for more horrors, and the scene he found did not disappoint.
Gilyon and the griffin had discovered the kitchen, if such a place had been designed by the Serpent, his demons, and death itself. Blood covered everything: tables, floor, wooden blocks and red-stained basins. Cages lined the walls, huddled men and women inside several. Others were empty; despairing, Noah breathed a prayer for the poor souls once contained there. A handful of kitchen staff, necks branded, paused in their work. A series of clay ovens heated the room to uncomfortable degrees, but the nightmarish centerpiece of the place was the ugly slab of wood in the center of the room, where two men held the feet and hands of a young woman while another brandished a knife over the smooth throat, his business mercifully interrupted by the appearance of the savage-looking newcomers. All inside the human slaughterhouse were frozen; the natural inhabitants of the place, greasy and meaty men stained with sweat and wearing belts heavy with all manner of knives, were still from momentary surprise, while Gilyon had been struck with abject disgust. The moment passed, as does the quiet prayer before the sacrifice, and chaos ensued.
Midash’s griffin leapt over the butcher’s table while kitchen workers scattered in every direction. The middle butcher raised a cleaver, to no avail; the beast knocked him to the filthy floor and ripped off a good portion of flesh on either hand with two strikes of its toothed beak.
The other two men dropped the woman’s limbs and attacked Gilyon together. A harsh sound, a combination of cry of rage and scoffing laugh, barked out, and he swept his crossblade across their advance. Knives clattered to the ground. One of the men scrambled back, exiting the room through an arch masked by hanging strips of dried fish. The last had been literally disarmed; the stump of his right wrist bled freely, and he shrieked in pain. From the kitchen’s entrance, the other missioners watched the oily man trip on his own severed hand and fall hard on his backside. While Midash and Eudeon ran to the occupied cages, Noah caught the maimed butcher under his sweaty arms and pulled him to the ovens. He heaved the man up, ignoring the gibbering of pain, and with a strain and a firm grip on the man’s shoulder and elbow he forced the hemorrhaging wrist into the oven. The butcher squealed like a hog, but Noah set his strength against him. Flesh seared and fat popped as the stump pressed to the hot clay of the oven.
The wound cauterized, Noah let the moaning man drop to the ground. With his hammer, Eudeon had broken the locks on the cages, and Midash was now gathering the frightened captives together, soothing them in the gentle way that was his reputation among the missioners.
“Look at their eyes,” said Midash to the others. Set in the sooty faces were pale violet irises still full of fear.
“You are from Seba?” Noah asked the woman closest to him. She nodded. Her striking eyes that marked her as a member of the Seban tribes pulled to the ovens, and she began to cry.
Gilyon pulled up the man he had crippled and threw him against a wall. “You know why she cries?” he growled. The Nephilim took his groan as fearful assent. “What manner of…”
At that moment, Noah thought his giant friend would lose control and end the man right then. Gilyon checked himself, though.
“Your reckoning comes soon,” he told the butcher. “But first, you will lead us to your master.”
Midash stayed with the rescued Sebans, but his griffin followed Noah, Eudeon, and Gilyon. Their path cut through other food storage and preparation areas. From one room’s ceiling hung scaled pangolin carcasses and ten-foot-long vipers. In another, vapid-looking women slowly cut a variety of cacti, seeming to barely register the party making its way among the copper vats that filled the room. The wounded butcher halted at a pile of whitish powder in a silver bowl, addiction’s lustful intensity in his eyes, but Gilyon roughly prodded him on.
The busy sounds of eating and drinking, mingled with a score of scandalized conversations, came from ahead. The butcher broke away in a burst of speed, screaming a warning and stumbling down the steps leading to the hall. Noah and the two Nephilim chased him, but Midash’s griffin caught him at the bottom of the stair in a long pounce and knocked him flailing into the room, where he lay still. Their appearance in the hall interrupted the gossip and revelry, but not entirely; to his disgust, Noah noticed one fat man glance up as he continued to drink from his goblet, dark blood trickling down his chin.
Groups of leather-clad guards filtered into the hall, taking positions at the exits. They kept their distance, though, testimony to the dead wolves the missioners had taken no pains to hide. With Eudeon and Gilyon flanking him and the griffin at his side, Noah ignored the threat of the armed guards.
“This evil ends now,” said Noah, letting his righteous fury melt into words, but the harsh laugh that echoed from hearth to canopy drowned them out.
“Welcome to my kingdom, children of the bene Elohim!” A voice like burnt honey, sweet and smoky and far from human, came from above them. When he had first come to this place as the prince’s “guest,” Noah had taken the bestial stone forms that jutted from the walls overhead as statuary. In actuality, as he now saw, they bounded a balcony, where the prince stood now. His dark eyes met Noah’s. He began muttering, lifting up hands, the light from below casting his shadow on the ceiling like a wide-winged bat. Noah suddenly felt fatigued beyond what his exertion thus far would justify.
“That is no human prince only,” gasped Gilyon. Eudeon struggled for breath also. Noah dropped to his knees and looked around him.
What little rosiness remained in the feasters’ pale, fleshy faces had drained to stark white, and those lips not already stained crimson had turned blue. The blood from spilled goblets lightened to pink, then clear. Noah glimpsed a woman flopping about, still clutching a morsel of meat. Whatever sorcery this was, it knew no friends but the prince.
Tired, more tired than he had ever been, Noah felt cold wetness replacing the stickiness of his blood-soaked clothing. Where red droplets had splattered his front, he now saw spots of water, like he had been caught in a light mist-shower. He could do naught but pray as he succumbed to unconsciousness, lifting his eyes and pleading for deliverance from the demoniac above with the power to turn blood to water.
A polished blade appeared from the prince’s chest. A weight lifted from Noah; he breathed anew, as if he were Adam newly formed from the dust. The prince’s body tumbled to land hard among a jumble of fat bodies that showed no signs of life returning. Most of the guards were stirring, but these had been disarmed by the common men of Phempor, many familiar to Noah from the altar houses, who were rushing into the hall.
The man on the balcony wiped his sword on the cape he had ripped from the prince as he fell, cleaning the blood that befouled the blue of the lapis at the weapon’s hilt. His features were hard, all that was not iron melted away from flesh and spirit by a missioner’s life, but the family resemblance to Noah was unmistakeable. He saluted Noah.
Gilyon was already on his feet, supporting himself with his weapon planted on the bricks. Eudeon was sitting, his hand absently petting the panting griffin. “Perhaps,” he said to Noah, “it is time for a furlough.”
For once, Noah agreed.