Beneath the Kettle-Maker’s District, St. George-the-Defender, Morocco: “Easy there lads, easy…” Hughes de Paird, a man of middling weight and tonsured red hair raised a gentling hand. The four lay brothers paused, their strong brown hands firmly on the ropes. The preceptor knelt, examining the fit of the leaden box into the cavity carved out of the living rock under his feet. “Just a hair more to the left.”
Even through the lead and iron and old oak of the box, Hughes could feel a trembling hum under his fingertips as he eased the box – no more than two feet long, and six inches by six inches – into the space so carefully carved for it. All around the man, on a perfectly smooth floor, a dozen other acolytes were working under the light of lanterns and torches in the deep pit. A low chanting rose up, disappearing into the shadows above, as they carefully marked a labyrinth of arcane signs on the ancient schist.
Hughes stood, brushing dust from his old weathered hands. As he did, there was a dull thud from above. His head jerked up, and he raised a hand for silence. The thud was followed almost immediately by a shattering boom as the stout oaken doors that stood at the top of the ramp blew apart. Smoke and fire gouted out. Two of the Knights by the door had been smashed to the ground, and they staggered up. Both men groped for their rifles.
Bright tongues of flame stabbed out of the smoke and then – shockingly – men poured through the doors. Hughes spun, eyes wild with fear, and bolted across the floor of the pit. A wild thunder of rifle shots roared around him and the lay brothers were dying in droves. More men, clad in black from head to toe like the first wave, sprinted down the ramp.
Knights working on the wide bowl-shaped floor were firing back, their pistols and rifles cracking loud in the enclosed room. Some of the men in black went down, pitched back by the sharp slap of heavy bullets, but more darted from the opening.
Hughes reached the far side of the pit, his face bleeding from a shrapnel-cut, and he threw himself behind a heavy work-table. A young woman crouched behind the poor shelter, feverishly reloading a Swedish-made Krupp-Walther revolver. Hughes fumbled in his robes for his own gun.
“You must flee,” he hissed at the young woman. She ignored him, her face half-shrouded in brown curls, then popped up from behind the table, emptied her pistol in a half-dozen shots and then was crouched on the floor again.
“We have to get the le croix out of here!”
“No.” Hughes seized the woman’s arm, though in less dire straits he would have ordered another man killed for such an affront. “You must escape.”
Bullets ripped across the table, shattering pottery cups and a beaker of wine. Hughes flinched aside, then shouted in pain as a bullet tore through his left arm. He staggered, blood slicking his elbow and hand.
“Get up,” hissed the woman, snapping off two quick shots. The sounds of battle were dying as the last of Hughes’ men were shot down. One of the attackers slumped away, his rifle sliding from nerveless fingers. His face was gone, smashed to white bone and shredded red flesh by the woman’s gunshot. Shoving Hughes ahead of her, she darted into a tunnel mouth.
Cries of alarm rose up behind them as the two staggered down the sharply sloping adit. At the end of the tunnel, the floor of a well yawned before them. A rope ladder rose up, into darkness above.
“Climb,” barked the woman, pressing herself against the round wall. She had produced a quick-loader from her belt and clicked open the revolver with a practiced motion. Hughes, watching her jam the new roundel of bullets into the dull gray weapon with the ease of long practice, felt sick.
Is this what our long devotion has wrought? A woman – who should be pure as white light in thought and deed – hiding in a well, preparing to kill?
“If you don’t climb,” hissed the woman, glaring at him, “I will shoot you first.”
The clatter of boots in the tunnel forced his hand and Hughes began to scramble up the well. An eternity seemed to pass as he swarmed up, his arm flashing with pain each time he grasped a new rung of the ladder, but in only moments he rolled out of the top of the well and crawled behind the stacks of straw-filled boxes that had been placed there.
The crack of a pistol shot rang out from below, then another, and Hughes de Paird, lying in the darkness, realized that both of his sacred charges might be lost to him in the next beat of his heart.
Alicia Forsythe ducked back, wincing as a rock-chip – blown from the tunnel wall – cut across her cheek. The pistol report echoed down the sloping adit. Two of her men crouched behind her, rifles ready. Another dozen were busy in the big pit chamber, winching the curious lead box out of its hiding place.
“Where’s Michael?” She whispered to the sergeant at her back.
“He’s coming,” the man said, his voice heavy with an Italian accent. A scuffing sound followed and then Alicia could smell Michael’s pomade. Her fine thin nose wrinkled up. All this church incense drove her mad.
“My lady?” Michael’s nasal whine grated on her ears, too. If she did not so desperately need his special skill with the athame, she would have pitched him over the side of the ship weeks ago.
Disgusted past measure, she dragged the man down, only an instant before a shadow flickered at the end of the tunnel and two bright flashes half-blinded her. Alicia ate dirt, hearing Michael squeak with fear and someone behind her cry out, then fall.
“Michael, have you found it?” Alicia turned her head, so that she could whisper at the scrawny priest.
“Yes,” gulped the Franciscan, cowering on the ground. “It’s in the box. Can’t you feel it? It’s driving me mad!”
“Good. Get it out of here, with the men.”
Michael crawled away and, after a moment, Alicia sent the sergeant and the rifleman behind him away as well. She lay quietly, listening, her pistol firmly in hand, pointing towards the end of the tunnel. After a long time – as she could hear her assault kommando bustling about the main pit – there was a soft rattling sound, like wood and rope brushing against a stone wall.
Almost soundless, Alicia rose up and padded forward, the pistol in both hands, leading with her iron-sights. The tunnel ended in a well, half-filled with debris, and a rope ladder rising up into darkness. Holding her breath, Alicia stepped into the opening, the pistol rising up…
A young woman hung on the rope, a dozen feet above. Metal glinted – the snout of a pistol pointed down at Alicia. The round muzzle seemed very large in her own sights. In that single moment of crystalline clarity, Alicia could hear a sharp intake of breath, then:
Forsythe froze, her mind filled with unbidden memories summoned up by that so-familiar voice.
“You should still be in school.” Her voice was working without orders, without conscious thought.
“I’ve graduated,” said the voice and a tiny part of Alicia’s mind registered the metallic click of the Krupp-Walther’s double-pressure trigger. She flung herself back into the tunnel, her own finger tightening in reflex. Twin blasts of fire sparked in the space between the two women and then Alicia was rolling up, smoke spilling away from the muzzle of her pistol.
She heart a shouted command, then something clattered down the well and spun into the tunnel. The sharp hissing of a fuze igniting sank in and Alicia was running, her legs pumping furiously and she threw herself out of the tunnel mouth into the big pit room with a shout.
A billowing cloud of dust and rock-chips blasted out into the pit, shrouding Alicia in a floating white cloud. She coughed, then staggered up, her hair coming loose from the knit cap on her head. Brushing it back, her hand came away wet with blood.
“Curse this!” She shouted, startling the priests clustered around the lead box. “Get that thing out of here!”
The Franciscans hurried to obey, looking away from the naked fury in the woman’s face. A full dozen of them had lifted the thing up in a cradle of ropes and began hauling it up the ramp. Alicia looked around, seeing details in the pit for the first time. Thirty or forty dead were scattered around, tangled and lying in slowly spreading pools of blood. She wiped her face, grimacing at the grime that came away.
“Clear out,” she shouted. “Back to the ship.”
Her marines leap-frogged back, rifles still covering the rubble-choked tunnel and the other cavities bored into the walls of the pit-room. Alicia was the last to leave, still furious, but she had gained her primary objective.
The memory of her friend’s voice haunted her, now indelibly coupled with the click-click of the Krupp-Walther’s action.
Frankish Commonwealth:The notorious Jason Cane (formerly a partner of Wolfden & Cane) was removed from his cell in Paris and sent under heavy guard to Brest, where a squadron of Commonwealth ships was waiting to escort him to an 'undisclosed location.' Through some oversight, however, Cane escaped from his escort and was then killed in a gun battle with mysterious 'black priests' in Nivernais. Danish troops, arriving on the scene, was aghast at the number of bullet holes in the church pews and the general slaughter.
Bilbao, Northern Spain: The little cantina was dark, even though it was not yet evening. There were only a few small windows to allow light in and those were so dirty that sunlight struggled to break through. A low open fire at one end of the room cast a certain dingy light but it didn’t illuminate, so much as it outlined the gloom. But that was just how the bar’s clientele liked it. Nobody drank here anymore except the Shawnee. Almost nobody.
In the corner farthest from the fire, a figure sat alone at a table. He was wrapped tight in a black cloak even though the room was warm. A wide hat kept his face wreathed in shadow. All his attention seemed to be given to a small plate of cheese and bread, and a bottle of wine, that lay on the table in front of him. The few drinkers in the room avoided this strange individual. Even the fiercest Shawnee warriors had figured that he was bad news.
Time passed and two more Shawnee entered the bar. They wore very plain clothes and no jewelry, but the knives tucked into their belts were ornate and suggested wealth and rank. They walked slowly and indirectly over to the table where the shadowy figure was seated.
The two newcomers looked uncomfortable in the extreme. The Jesuit smiled to himself and wondered whether these great nobles were more troubled by the clandestine nature of the meeting or by the filth of this low dive. Pushing back his priestly hat, the shadowy man spoke, a strange accent tingeing his words, “You’re here at last, so sit. The barman will see that we are not bothered. Have some wine. It’s a rioja. Quite good, really.”
“It is good to see you again, Padre Leon,” said one Shawnee as he sat, speaking quietly and warmly, a shade of relief in his cultured tones. “I have been worried for you, in case the agents of the Enemy had claimed you.”
“Actually, I feared the same thing for you, Isaiah” the Jesuit replied. “You had been so late that I thought perhaps something unfortunate had happened…”
“Nothing happened. It was just hard to get here. We had to take care to avoid… unwanted attentions.” The second Shawnee spoke tersely. Worry seemed to radiate from him, to the amusement of the priest.
“If we were seen, I think we would face death,” Isaiah, the first Shawnee, explained.
“Ah, what dark times, my sons,” the priest lamented, stretching his arms out expressively and smiling “Dark, dark times when a Shawnee could face death merely for meeting with an agent of the Church.”
Father Leon smiled again, infuriatingly, and refilled his wine glass. He drank and went on. “Treason to evil men can be loyalty to God, Lord Jerome. And be assured that the men you will destroy are evil… Evil beyond your ability to measure.”
“Truly, the cultists are evil and they must be destroyed. For the good of Spain, for the good of Christianity,” Isaiah said in agreement. He picked up a piece of cheese from Leon’s plate and began nibbling at it. “They are godless men who would destroy the resting place of St. James himself!”
“Because they are one and the same, Lord Jerome” the priest pronounced simply, and sipped his wine.
“Perhaps. Or perhaps not,” came the reply. “I do not know if what you say is true. In fact, Padre, I do not even know who you are. The only reason I am present in this room is because the General vouched for you. He asked me to give you a hearing and I owe him enough to grant that favor. Otherwise I would never have come here and would never talk to you.”
“You want to know who I am?” Leon asked without the least trace of unpleasantness in his voice. “I am a simple man – a soldier in the Army of God – and I have been sent here, at the orders of my superiors, to organize this thing. My name is Leon San Sebastian. I derive my name from the town of my birth. I would give you the name of my family, the name I was born with, but I am a Basque and people not of my race will have trouble pronouncing our language.”
Leon waited for Jerome to say something in return. When no reply came, he continued. “Why should you listen to me? I can only say that the Society and the Church have access to certain sources of information that are not available to others. It is our duty to find out the secrets of the Dark Forces who are ranged against us, and we fulfill our duty admirably.”
While Isaiah nodded his agreement, the priest produced a thick leather portfolio from a black satchel that lay hidden by his feet. The front of the folder was embossed in gold with the seal of the Jesuit Society. He pushed it across the table to the two Shawnee.
“This contains most of the salient intelligence that we have gathered during more than a decade of investigations in Spain. You can read it later, once you leave here, and use it to persuade your brothers to join our enterprise. In brief, I shall tell you what we have discovered…” He paused to drain his wine glass before going on.
“Golden Dawn and other groups have been active in Spain for some time, but that is hardly a secret. You know about the recent unpleasantness as the cultists try to seize power in Spain – the riots, the purges, the plagues…” The priest smiled ambiguously. “It has all been a ruse. Golden Dawn has been in control of Spain for more years than anyone can really know. The whole Spanish Republic was just a creation of Golden Dawn. Before that… Who knows? I personally think that the cultists have controlled this country for forty or fifty years.”
“I am sorry, Padre, but this is hardly secret. Everyone knows that Dawn has been trying to take over Spain,” Jerome waved his hands in a vaguely dismissive motion.
“Listen to my words, Lord Jerome,” the priest replied sharply. “They are not trying to take over Spain. They have taken it over. The Duke of Parma is an agent of the Dawn. Largo, before that, was another cultist. The whole state, from top-to-bottom, is run by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The so-called ‘Cane family’ is no more than a phantasm, an invention to draw people’s attention away from the true seat of Golden Dawn’s power – Dawn is Spain.”
Leon sat back in his chair and spoke sadly. “We have discovered many of their secrets. They seek to harness the power of modern technology to create a new kind of world. They say they will set the masses free from the lies of religion and the tyranny of priests. They will ‘illuminate’ the world for a thousand years with their perverted science and their satanic arts… They say it will be a ‘Golden Dawn’ for the human race.” A sad smile played around the edges of Leon’s mouth. “Did you ever wonder where they got the name? Now you know. And the first people to receive the ‘benefits’ of Golden Dawn’s brave new world are the Spaniards.”
“Then our duty is clear,” declared Isaiah. “I and my legion will not stand idly by while our Catholic brothers are stripped from the Light of God’s Grace and cast into the darkness. We will crush the cultists!”
Jerome half-nodded but his face suggested he was unconvinced. The Padre went on pensively. “It is the curse of the Society that we must move in the dark, act in the dark. Little of our work is ever seen. When we first uncovered this intelligence, we approached the cultists and tried to bring them into the light. We told them about the truth of Jesus Christ and offered, in return for some small financial consideration, to ease their position in the world. The Golden Dawn would have been allowed to rule Spain but as Catholics. In short, I we tried to convert them… But they did not want to know God. They worshipped only science. They love only power. They spurned us, refused to pay the Society even a single coin in return for our protection.”
“And the merchants?” asked Jerome.
Isaiah answered, speaking with the firmest of convictions. “They cannot be trusted. The greed of traders is such that they can never be trusted. They would sell their own children for sacrifice if it would bring them a profit. They probably do…”
“The Society does not know very much about the merchants,” the priest said slowly, “other than that their money has propped up the cult for many years now.
“They could be cultists themselves. They could just be blinded by the profits their satanic allies bring them. They could even be innocent dupes. We have not been able to find out anything certain about Norsktrad, but we know that their current leader – Bond, he is called – is venal and corrupt beyond anything that we have seen before. He lusts after women and has sordid and perverted tastes. It is therefore my suspicion, even though I cannot prove it, that his lascivious and sinful heart has been seduced by the darkness.”
“Then Norkstrad shall become my enemy.” Isaiah fingered the rich hilt of his knife. “Your suspicion is enough for me, Padre.”
“Why not discuss this with the Empress?” Jerome asked. “She will help the Church. She is pious.”
Leon laughed long and hard, muttering to himself, between guffaws, in some bizarre language that the Shawnee did not recognize. “Oh, Lord! Valeria was a cultist herself, in her day. She committed her share of ghastly sins before the altar of the Insect God. Our files on her would dwarf anything we have on Golden Dawn. It may be that she is now faithful but maybe not. The Society cannot afford to the chance. Your soldiers must simply be true to the Faith and fight the heretics in order to protect Spain and the bones of St. James. If Valeria is virtuous and devout, she will understand. If she is not, she will be damned.”
“I understand,” said Isaiah.
“Very good, General. I just hope the rest of our men do likewise. They are loyal and it will be hard to convince them to turn on the Spaniards. They have no reason to hate King Charles.” Anxiety was now plain on Jerome’s face and in his voice.
“Your men are loyal,” went the priest, “and that is commendable. But loyalty to Christ comes before all else – and, therefore, loyalty to his Church.”
The table lapsed into silence while Leon drew a little wooden crucifix out of some hidden pocket. It was plain wood, reddish-brown, with a tiny ivory figure of Christ on it. The letters INRI had been embossed on it in silver. He ran his fingers over each letter slowly in turn.
“Iustum necare reges impios,” intoned General Isaiah.
“Precisely,” the priest said, satisfied. He placed the little cross in the palm of the Shawnee general’s big powerful hand. His own was pale and delicate by comparison, a few ink stains on his fingers, such as one might find on the hand of a scribe.“No Prince of this Earth has any claim on you, unless he is both Catholic and devout. You owe loyalty to the Society, to the Holy Father, and to your Fellow Catholics in that order. It is now your duty, delegated to you by Our Lord, to go forth and exalt the cross by liberating the Spaniards from the rule of iniquitous men. Those who would support these iniquitous men, as the merchants do, are themselves sinners and enemies of the Faith. You must treat them accordingly.”
“Very well,” answered Jerome. “I have doubts about the wisdom of this action but I will read the evidence you have given me. If it is as you say, I will act appropriately and so will my legion.”
Padre Leon watched the two Shawnee commanders walk away. “Vaya con Dios,” he said under his breath as they left.