The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 31 Alternate Routes

Backlit by the rising sun, swathed in a veil of morning fog, the great fortress of St.-Mere-Abelle loomed in the distance, stretching far along the clifftop overlooking All Saints Bay. Only then, view-ing the sheer size and ancient strength of the place, did Elbryan, Pony, and Juraviel truly come to appreciate the power of their ene-mies and the scope of their task. They had informed Jojonah of their course soon after he arrived at their campsite.

And then he had told Pony of her brother's demise.

The news hit her hard, for though she and Grady were never close friends, she had spent years beside him. She didn't sleep well the rest of that night, but was more than ready for the road before the dawn, a road that had led them here, to this seemingly inde-structible fortress that now served as prison to her parents and her centaur friend.

The great gates were closed tight, the walls high and thick.

"How many live here?" Pony asked Jojonah breathlessly.

"The brothers alone number more than seven hundred," he replied. "And even the newest class, brought in last spring, have been trained to fight. You would not get into St.-Mere-Abelle through use of force, if the King's army stood behind you. In calmer times, you might find your way in posing as peasants, or as workers, perhaps, but now, that is not possible."

"What do you plan?" the ranger asked, for it seemed obvious to all that if Master Jojonah could not get them in, their quest was hopeless. After their meeting in the wood, Jojonah had promised to do just that, assuring them that he was no enemy, but a very valu-able ally. The four of them had started off together the very next morning, Jojonah leading the way to the east, to this place he had known as his home for many decades.

"Any structure this size has less noticeable ways to enter," Jojo-nah replied. "I know of one."

The monk led them to the north then, a circuitous route that took them far around the northern tip of the great structure, then down a winding, rocky trail to the narrow beach. The water was right up to the rocks, waves licking against the base of the stone, a dance that had continued for centuries untold. Still, the beach was certainly passable, so the ranger plunked one foot in, testing the water.

"Not now," the monk explained. "The tide is coming in, and though we'll get through before the water is too high, I doubt that we'll find the time to return. When the tide recedes later this day, we will be able to make our way along the shore to the dock area of the abbey, a place little used and little guarded."

"Until then?" the elf asked.

Jojonah motioned back up the trail, toward a hollow they had passed, and all agreed they could use the rest after their long day and night of hard travel. They set a small camp, sheltered from the chill sea breeze, and Juraviel prepared a meal, their first in many hours.

The conversation was light at this time, with Pony doing most of the talking, telling the eager master of her travels with Avelyn, retelling parts over and over again at Jojonah's bidding. It seemed he couldn't get enough of her stories, that he hung on every little detail, probing the woman repeatedly to go into more depth, to add her feelings to her observations, to tell him everything about Avelyn Desbris. When Pony at last got to the point where she and Avelyn had met up with Elbryan, the ranger joined in with his own observations, and then Juraviel, too, found much to add as they de-tailed their efforts against the monsters in Dundalis, and the begin-ning of the trip to the Barbacan.

Jojonah shuddered when the elf described his encounter with Bestesbulzibar, and then again when Pony and Elbryan told him of the battle outside Mount Aida, of the fall of Tuntun and the final, brutal confrontation with the dactyl demon.

Then it was Jojonah's turn to speak - between bites, for the elf had prepared a wonderful meal. He told of the discovery of Bradwarden, of the centaur's pitiful condition, but one that healed re-markably under the influence of the elven armband.

"Even I, even Lady Dasslerond, I suspect, did not know the true depth of the item's powers," Juraviel admitted. "It is a rare bit of magic, else we would all wear one."

"Like this?" Elbryan said, smiling, and turning his body so his left arm was showcased, the green elven band tight about his muscles.

Juraviel only smiled in reply.

"There is one thing which I have not yet seen," Jojonah inter-rupted, dropping his gaze over Pony. "Avelyn befriended you?"

"As I have told you," she replied.

"And at his demise, you took the gemstones?"

Pony shifted uncomfortably and looked at Elbryan.

"I know that the stones were taken from Avelyn," the monk went on. "When I searched his body - "

"You exhumed him?" Elbryan asked in horror.

"Never that!" Jojonah answered. "I searched with the soul stone, and with garnet."

"To detect his magic," Pony reasoned.

"And there was little about him," Jojonah said, "though I am certain -??even more so from your descriptions of the journey -??that he went to the place with a considerable cache. I know why his hand was extended upward, and I know who was first to find him."

Again Pony looked over at Elbryan, and his expression was no less unsure than her own.

"I would like to see them," Jojonah stated flatly. "Perhaps to wield them in the coming fight, if there is to be one. I have consid-erable talents with the gemstones and will put them to good use, I assure you."

"Not so good as Pony," Elbryan remarked, drawing a surprised look from the monk.

Despite that, Pony reached to her pouch and took the small satchel from it, opening it wide.

Jojonah's eyes sparkled at the sight of the stones, the ruby, the graphite, garnet - taken from Brother Youseff - and serpentine,and all the others. He extended his arm toward them, but Pony shifted her hand away, out of his reach.

"Avelyn gave these to me, and so they are my burden," the woman explained.

"And if I might better use them in the coming fight?"

"You cannot," Pony said calmly. "I have been trained by Avelyn himself."

"I spent years - " Jojonah started to protest.

"I saw your work with the merchant caravan," Pony reminded him. "The wounds were minor, yet they took you tremendous ef-fort to bind. I have measured your strength, Master Jojonah, and I speak now with no intent to insult, or to brag. But I am the stronger with the stones, do not doubt, for Avelyn and I found a connection, a joining of our spirits, and in that bond I came to understand."

"Pony's use of magic has saved me and so many others time and time again," Elbryan added. "She does not boast, but merely speaks the truth."

Jojonah looked from one to the other, then to Juraviel, who was also nodding.

"I did not use them in the fight for the merchant caravan because we knew that monks were in the area, and I feared we would be de-tected," Pony explained.

Jojonah put his hand up in front of him, a signal that no further explanation was needed; he had heard this same story before when he was spiritually scouting out the three. "Very well," he agreed. "But I do not believe that you should bring them into St.-Mere-Abelle - not all of them, at least."

Pony looked to Elbryan again, and he shrugged and then nodded, thinking that the monk's reasoning, offering the same ar-gument that he and Juraviel had made to Pony earlier, might be sound.

"We do not know if we will get back out," Juraviel reasoned. "But is it better," he asked Jojonah, "that the stones be hidden out here instead of back in the hands of the monks of your abbey?"

Jojonah didn't even have to think about that one. "Yes," he said firmly. "Better that the stones are cast into the sea than to be given into the hands of Father Abbot Markwart. So I beg that you leave them out here, as we will leave these fine horses."

"We shall see" was all that Pony would promise.

The discussion then turned to more practical matters at hand, with the ranger asking what they might expect in the way of guards at this seaside door.

"I doubt that any will be down there," Jojonah replied with con-fidence. He went on to describe the massive door, backed by the huge portcullis, backed by yet another massive door, though that inner one was likely left open.

"That sounds little like any entrance for us," Juraviel remarked.

"There may be smaller entrances nearby," Jojonah replied. "For that is a very ancient section of the abbey, and at one time the docks were used extensively. The great doors are fairly new, no more than two centuries old, but there once were many other ways into the structure from the docks."

"And you hope to find one of these in the dark night," the elf said doubtfully.

"It is possible that I could open the great doors with the gemstones," Jojonah said, glancing at Pony as he spoke. "St.-Mere-Abelle takes few precautions against magical attacks. If they are expecting a ship, the portcullis, the only obstacle against successful stone use, might be open."

Pony didn't reply.

"Our bellies are full, our fire warm," the ranger remarked. "Let us find some rest now, until the time is right."

Jojonah looked up at Sheila, the bright moon, and tried to recall the latest he had heard concerning the tides. He rose and bade the ranger to accompany him back to the waterfront, and when they got down there, they saw that the water was much calmer and al-most back down to the base of the rocks.

"Two hours," Jojonah reasoned. "And then we will have the time we need to get into St.-Mere-Abelle and complete our task."

He made it all sound so easy, Elbryan noted.

"You should not come here," Markwart told Brother Francis when the man arrived at the Father Abbot's private quarters, a place he had frequented often in the last few weeks. "Not yet."

Brother Francis held his arms out wide, truly perplexed by the hostile attitude.

"We must turn our attention wholly to the College of Abbots," Markwart explained. "You will be there, and so will the centaur, if we are successful."

Brother Francis' face screwed up even more with confusion.

"I?" he asked. "But I am not worthy, Father Abbot. I am not even an immaculate, and will not attain that title until next spring, when all of the abbots are back in their respective abbeys."

The grin that splayed across the Father Abbot's wrinkled and withered face nearly took in his ears.

"What is it?" Brother Francis asked, his tone edging on frantic.

"You will be there," Markwart said again. "Immaculate Brother Francis will stand beside me."

"But - But - " Francis stuttered, too overwhelmed. "But I have not reached my ten years. My preparations for promotion to im-maculate brother are in order, I assure you, but the rank cannot be attained by one who has not yet spent a full decade - "

"As Master De'Unnero became the youngest abbot in the modern Church, so you will become the youngest immaculate brother," Markwart said matter- of-factly. "These are dangerous times, and sometimes the rules must be bent to accommodate the immediate needs of the Church."

"What of the others of my class?" Francis asked. "What of Brother Viscenti?"

Markwart laughed at the notion. "Many will attain their new rank in the spring, as scheduled. As for Brother Viscenti ..." He paused and grinned even wider. "Well, let us just say that the com-pany he keeps could well determine his future.

"But for you," the Father Abbot went on, "there can be no de-lays. I must promote you to immaculate before I can then move you into the position of master. Church doctrine is unbending on that point, regardless of situation."

Francis teetered and felt faint. Of course, he had predicted as much to Braumin Herde that day in the seawall corridor, but had no idea that his mentor would move so quickly. And now that he had heard the proclamation out loud, had heard firsthand that Father Abbot Markwart did indeed mean to promote him to one of the two vacant master positions, he was surely overwhelmed.

Brother Francis felt as if he was rebuilding the pedestal of self- righteousness he had broken by killing Grady Chilichunk, as if, by mere fact of his ascension in the Order, he was redeeming himself, or even that he needed no redemption, that it had been, after all, merely an unfortunate accident.

"But you must stay far from me until the promotion is final-ized," Markwart explained. "Better for protocol. I do have a most important job for you, in any case - that of breaking Bradwarden.The centaur will speak for us, against Avelyn and against this woman who now holds the gemstones."

Brother Francis shook his head. "He thinks of them as kin," he dared to disagree.

Markwart brushed the notion away. "Every man, every beast, has a breaking point," he insisted. "With the magical armband, you can inflict upon Bradwarden such horrors that he will beg for death, and that he will give up his friends as enemies of the Church merely on your promise to kill him quickly. Be inventive, immacu-late brother!"

The title was indeed inviting, but Francis' face soured anyway at the thought of the distasteful job.

"Do not fail me in this," Markwart said sternly. "That wretched beast may be the keystone of our declaration against Avelyn, and do not doubt that that declaration is vital to the survival of the Abellican Church."

Francis bit his lip, his emotions obviously torn.

"Without the centaur's confirmation against Avelyn, Master Jojonah and others will stand against us, and the very best we might hope for is that the labeling of Avelyn Desbris as a heretic will be taken under consideration," Markwart explained. "Such a 'consideration' process will take years to complete."

"But if he truly was a heretic - and he was," Francis quickly added, seeing the Father Abbot's eyes going wide with rage, "then time is our ally. Avelyn's own actions will damn him, in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the Church."

"Fool!" Markwart snapped at him, and the Father Abbot spun away, as if he couldn't stand the sight of Francis, a gesture that pro-foundly stung the younger monk. "Each passing day will count against us, against me, if the gemstones are not recovered. And if Avelyn is not openly declared a heretic, then the general populace and the King's army will not aid in our quest to find the woman and bring her to justice."

Francis followed that reasoning; anyone officially deemed a heretic became an outlaw not only of the Church, but of the kingdom as well.

"And I will have those gemstones!" Markwart went on. "I am not a young man. Would you have me go to my grave with this issue unresolved? Would you have my presidency over St.-Mere-Abelle be marred by this black mark?"

"Of course not, Father Abbot," Francis replied.

"Then go to the centaur," Markwart said so coldly that the hairs on the back of Francis' neck stood up."Enlist him."

Brother Francis staggered out of the room, as shaken as if Markwart had physically struck him. He ran his hand through his hair and started for the lower dungeons, determined that he would not fail his Father Abbot.

Markwart moved to the door and shut it, and locked it, scolding himself silently for allowing his office to be so open, given the se-cret and telling floor design in the adjoining room. He went to that room then, admiring his work. The pentagram was perfect, exactly as it had appeared in the book, scratched into the floor and with the grooves filled by multicolored wax.

The Father Abbot had not slept in more than a day, too engrossed in his work and in the mysteries the strange tome was showing him. Perhaps the Chilichunks would also attend the College of Abbots. Markwart could bring spirits up to reinhabit their bodies, and with hematite he could all but eliminate the natural decay.

It was a risky move, he knew, but it was not without precedence.The Incantations Sorcerous clearly spelled out a similar ruse, used against the second abbess of St. Gwendolyn. Two of St. Gwen-dolyn's masters had turned against the abbess, arguing that no woman should hold such a position of power - indeed, other than the abbey of St. Gwendolyn, women played only a minor role in all the Church. When one of those masters found that the other had died, merely of old age, he understood his predicament, for he knew that he could not battle the abbess alone. But through prudent use ofThe Incantations Sorcerous, the master had not been alone. He had summoned a minor malevolent spirit to inhabit his friend's corpse, and together they waged war on the abbess for nearly a year to come.

Markwart moved back to his desk, needing to sit and consider his course. The Chilichunk imposters would only have to be in front of the College for a short while. It was possible that the decep-tion would succeed, for only he and Francis knew with certainty that the couple had died, and then he would have two strong wit-nesses against the woman.

But what might be the cost of failure? Markwart had to wonder, and the possibilities seemed grim indeed.

"But I'll not know until I see the animations," he said aloud, nodding. He decided to follow the course. He would bring the Chilichunks - their bodies, at least - under his control, and seehow fine the deception appeared. Then he could decide, while watching the progress of Bradwarden's bending, whether or not to present them before the College.

Smiling, rubbing his hands with anticipation, Markwart took up the black book and a pair of candles and went into the prepared room. He placed the candles in the appropriate positions and lit them, then used diamond magic to pervert their glow, having them give off a black light instead of yellow. Then he sat between them, within the pentagram, legs crossed.

Soul stone in one hand,The Incantations Sorcerous in the other, Markwart walked free of his body.

The room took on strange dimensions, seemed to warp and twist before his spiritual eyes. He saw the physical exit, and then another, a portal in the floor with a long, sloping passageway be-hind it.

He took this darker route, his soul going down, down.

Sheila was directly above the abbey, and the water was far, far out when Jojonah led the ranger and his companions to the wharves and the lower door. Symphony and Greystone had been left far behind, as had many of the gemstones, Pony taking only those she thought might prove necessary. She now held a mala-chite, the stone of levitation and telekinesis, and a lodestone.

Jojonah led the way to the great doors in front of the wharves, then inspected them closely, even taking the ranger's sword and sliding it under one worn area. As he moved the blade back and forth he felt the barriers - the portcullis was down.

"We should search south along the cliff face," Jojonah reasoned, speaking in a whisper and motioning that there might be guards atop the wall - though that wall was several hundred feet above the companions. "That is the most likely place for us to find a more ac-cessible door."

"Do you suspect that any guards will be posted within this portal?" Pony asked.

"At this time of night, I doubt there are any below the second level of the abbey," Jojonah replied with confidence. "Except perhaps for guards Markwart has posted near the prisoners."

"Then let us try these," Pony replied.

"The portcullis is down," Jojonah explained, trying hard, but fu-tilely, to keep the edge of hope in his voice.

Pony held up the malachite, but the monk wore a doubtful expression.

"Too large," he explained. "Perhaps three thousand pounds. That is why this gate is hardly guarded. The front doors swing in, but they cannot open while the portcullis is down. And of course that portcullis is inaccessible to any lever we might construct while the solid doors are closed."

"Not inaccessible to magic," Pony argued. Before the master could protest, she fished out the soul stone and was soon out of body, slipping through the crack between the front doors to view the portcullis. She went back to her physical coil quickly, not wanting to expend too much energy. "This is the way," she an-nounced. "The inner doors are not closed, nor did I see any sign of guards in the hallway beyond."

Jojonah didn't doubt her; he had done enough spirit-walking to know its potential, and to understand that even in the darkened tunnels, the woman would have been able to "see" clearly enough.

"The front doors are barred, as well as blocked by the port-cullis," Pony explained. "Prepare a torch and go and listen care-fully, for the lifting portcullis and then the bar. When you hear it rise, go quickly, for I know not how long I can offer you."

"You cannot lift - " Jojonah started to protest, but Pony had al-ready raised her hand with the malachite, had already fallen into the depths of the greenish stone.

Elbryan moved near the master and dropped a hand on his shoulder, bidding him to be quiet and watch.

"I hear the portcullis rising," Juraviel whispered after a few mo-ments, the elf standing with his ear pressed against the large doors. Elbryan and a stunned Jojonah rushed to join him, and despite the monk's protests that it was impossible, he did indeed hear the grating sound of the great gate lifting into the ceiling.

Pony felt the tremendous strain. She had lifted giants before, but nothing of this magnitude. She focused on her image of that port-cullis and fell deep, deep within the power of the stone, channeling its energy. The portcullis was up high enough, she believed, above the top of the doors, but then she had to reach even deeper, to grab the locking bar as well and somehow try to lift it.

She trembled violently; sweat beaded on her forehead and her eyes blinked rapidly. She pictured the bar, found it in her mental image, and grabbed at it with all her remaining strength.

Juraviel pressed his ear closer, could hear the bar shifting, one end going up. "Now, Nightbird!" he said, and the ranger put his shoulder to the great doors and heaved with all his strength. The bar fell free, the doors swung open, and Elbryan slipped down to one knee in the passageway, quickly moving to light his torch.

"The locking mechanism is in a cubby down to the right," the monk said to the elf as Juraviel ran past Elbryan.

A moment later the torch came up and the elf announced that the portcullis was secured. Jojonah, back at Pony's side, shook the woman roughly, drawing her from her trance. She came out of it and stumbled, nearly falling over for lack of strength.

"I have seen but one other with such power," Jojonah remarked to her as he led her into the passage.

"He is with me," Pony replied calmly.

The master smiled, not doubting her claim and taking great comfort in the possibility. He quietly closed the inner doors then, explaining that the draft would be felt deep into the abbey if the corridor were left open to the sea.

"Where do we go?" the ranger asked.

Jojonah thought on it for a moment. "I can get us to the dun-geons," he said, "but only by going up several levels, then coming back down at another point."

"Lead on," said Elbryan.

But the monk was shaking his head. "I do not like the possibili-ties," he explained. "If we encounter any brothers, the alarm will be sounded." The notion that they might indeed meet up with some of St.-Mere-Abelle's flock brought a wave of panic over Jojonah, not for this powerful trio and their mission, but for the unfortunate brothers they might encounter.

"I beg you not to kill any," he blurted suddenly.

Elbryan and Pony exchanged curious glances.

"Brothers, I mean," Jojonah explained. "Most are unwitting pawns for Markwart, at worst, and not deserving of - "

"We did not come in here to kill anyone," Elbryan interrupted. "And so we shall not, on my word."

Pony nodded her agreement, and so did Juraviel, though the elf wasn't so sure that the ranger had spoken wisely.

"There may be a better way to the dungeons," Jojonah said. "There are old tunnels off to the side, just a hundred feet in. Most are blocked, but we can pass those barriers."

"And you will know your way along them?" the ranger asked.

"No," Jojonah admitted. "But they all tie together - the oldestparts of the abbey - and I am certain that any course will lead us soon enough to a place I can recognize."

Elbryan looked to his friends for confirmation, and they both nodded, preferring a trek down unused passageways to a course that would likely put them in contact with other monks. First, on Juraviel's reasoning, they also closed the portcullis, preferring to leave no sign that the abbey's security had been breached.

They found the old passageway soon after, and, as Jojonah pre-dicted, had no trouble in getting through the barrier the monks had constructed. Soon they were walking along the most ancient corri-dors and rooms of St.-Mere-Abelle, sections that had not been used in centuries. The floors and walls were all broken, the uneven angles of stone casting ominous lengthened shadows in the torch-light. Water stood calf-deep in many places, and small lizards ran on padded feet along the walls and ceiling. At one point Elbryan had to draw out Tempest just to cut his way through a myriad of thick webs.

They were intruders here, as any person would be, for these re-gions had been left for the lizards and the spiders, for the damp and the greatest adversary, time. But the companions plodded on through the often narrow, always twisting corridors, spurred by thoughts of Bradwarden and the Chilichunks.

The tunnel was dark and without detail, just a swirling mass of gray and black. Fog drifted up about the spirit of wandering Markwart, and though his form was noncorporeal, in this place he felt the cold touch of that mist.

For the first time in a long, long while, Markwart considered his course and wondered if he was wandering too far from the light. He recalled that time when he was a young man, first entering St.-Mere-Abelle half a century before. He had been so full of idealism and faith, and those qualities had pushed him up through the ranks, attaining immaculate on the tenth anniversary of his entrance to the Order, and master only three short years later. Unlike so many of the previous Father Abbots, Markwart had never left St.-Mere-Abelle to serve as abbot of another abbey, had spent all of his years in the presence of the gemstones, in the most sacred of Abellican houses.

And now, he reasoned, the gemstones had shown him a new and greater path. He was beyond the limits of his predecessors, wan-dering into regions unexplored and unexploited. And so, after only a moment of doubt, it was with great pride, bolstered by his unwa-vering confidence in himself, that Markwart continued the descent along the dark and cold tunnel. He understood the perils here, but was certain he would be able to take whatever evils he found and twist them for the sake of good, the end justifying the means.

The tunnel widened to a black plane of swirling gray fog, and among its rolling mounds and stinking mists Markwart saw the huddled forms, blacker shadows among the darkness, hunched and twisted.

Several nearby sensed his spirit and approached hungrily, clawed hands extended.

Markwart held up his hand and ordered them back, and to his satisfaction, they did indeed retreat, forming a semicircle about him, red-glowing eyes staring at him hungrily.

"Would you like to see again the world of the living?" the spirit asked of the two closest.

They leaped forward, cold hands grasping Markwart's ghostly wrists.

A sense of elation filled the Father Abbot's spirit. So very easy! He turned and started back up the tunnel, the demon spirits in tow. He opened his eyes then, his physical eyes, blinking in the sudden candlelight, the twin flames flickering wildly. They were still burning black, but not for long, for they flared red and huge sud-denly, great fires spouting up from the meager candles, swaying, dancing, filling all the room with their red-hued light, stinging Markwart's eyes.

But he did not, could not, look away, mesmerized by the black shapes forming within those fires, humanoid shapes, hunched and twisted.

Out they stepped, side by side, the two hideous forms, their hungry, red-glowing eyes boring into the seated Father Abbot. Be-side them the candles flared one last time and returned to normal, and all the room was hushed.

Markwart sensed that these demon creatures could spring upon him and rend him to pieces, but he was not afraid.

"Come," he bade them, "I will show you to your new hosts." He fell into the hematite and his spirit walked free of his body once more.

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