The Judas Strain

Page 29

"What the hell are you talking about?" Gray asked.

Vigor also noted the steel flash of satisfaction in the emerald eyes of the Guild assassin. She seemed to gain a measure of enjoyment in taunting them. Still, he also noted the thinness of her face, the bit of pallor to her cheeks. She was scared.

"We're all to blame," Seichan said, nodding also to Vigor.

Vigor kept his reaction placid, not playing this game. He was too old for his blood to be so easily stirred. Besides, he already understood.

"The Dragon Court's symbol," Vigor said. "You painted it on the floor. I thought it was meant as a warning to me, a call to investigate the angelic inscription."

Seichan nodded, leaning back. She read the understanding in his eyes.

"But it was more," he continued. He remembered the man who formerly filled his seat at the Vatican Archives: Dr. Alberto Menardi, a traitor who secretly worked for the Royal Dragon Court. The man had pilfered many key texts from the archives during his tenure, stole them away to a private library in a castle in Switzerland. Gray, Seichan, and Vigor had been instrumental in exposing the man, destroying the sect of the Dragon Court. The castle ended up being bequeathed to the Verona household, a cursed estate with a long bloody history.

"Alberto's library," Vigor said. "At the castle. After all the bloodshed and horror, once the police allowed us on-site, we discovered the entire library gone. Vanished away."

"Why wasn't I told about this?" Gray asked, surprised.

Vigor sighed. "We supposed it was local thieves... or possibly some corruption among the Italian police. There had been many priceless antiquities in the traitor's library. And because of Alberto's interest, there were many books of arcane knowledge."

As much as Vigor despised the former prefect, he also recognized Alberto Menardi's brilliance, a genius in his own right. And as prefect of the archives for over thirty years, Alberto knew all its secrets. He would have treasured and been intrigued by such a discovery, an edition of Marco's The Description of the World with a hidden extra chapter.

But what had the old prefect read? What made him steal it away? What had piqued the interest and attention of the Guild?

Vigor stared at Seichan. "But it wasn't ordinary thieves who cleared out the library, was it? You told the Guild about the treasures to be found there."

Seichan did not even have the temerity to flinch at his accusation. "I had no choice. Two years ago, the library bought me my life after I helped the two of you. I had no idea what horror it hid."

Gray had remained silent during their exchange, watching, eyes narrowed. Vigor could almost see the gears turning, tumblers falling into new slots. Like Alberto, Gray had a unique mind, a way of juggling disparate fragments and discovering a new configuration. It was no wonder Seichan had sought him out.

Gray nodded to her. "You read this text, Seichan. The true account of the return voyage of Marco Polo."

As answer, she shoved her chair back, leaned down, and unzippered her left boot. She removed a sheaf of three papers, folded and tucked into a hidden inner pocket. Straightening, she smoothed the papers open and slid them across the table.

"Once I began to suspect what the Guild intended," she said, "I made a copy of the translated chapter for myself."

Vigor and Gray shifted closer, shoulder to shoulder, to peruse the sheets together. The large seaman leaned over, too, his breath spiced with anise from the raki.

Vigor scanned the title and the first few lines.

Chapter LXII.

Of a Journey untold; and a Map forbidden

Now it came to pass, a full month beyond the last port, we sought to restore our waters from afresh river and repair two ships. We ported in small boats, at which time the abundant bird and thickness of vine astounded. Salted meat and fruit were also depleted. We came with forty and two of the Great Kaan's men, armed with spear and arrow; and as nearby islands were populated by naked Idolaters who ate the flesh of other men, such protection of body was considered wise.

Vigor continued reading, recognizing the cadence and stiffly archaic prose from The Description of the World. Could these words truly be Marco Polo's? If so, here was a chapter only a few eyes had ever laid eyes upon. Vigor craved to read the original, not fully trusting the translation—but more importantly, he wanted to peruse the original dialect, to be that much closer to the famous medieval traveler.

He read on:

From a bend in the river, one of Kaan's men shouted and pointed to a steep rise of another peak from out of the valley floor. It lay a score of miles inland and deep within the thickness of the forest; but it was no mountain. It was the spire of a great building; and other towers were now spotted, half hid in mists. With ten days to idol in repairs and as the Kaan's men wished to hunt the many birds and beasts for fresh meat, we set off to seek these builders of mountains, a people unknown and unmapped.

After the first page Vigor sensed a palpable menace growing behind Marco's simple narrative. In plain words, he related how "the forest grew quiet of bird and beast." Marco and the hunters continued, following a trail far into the jungle, "trampled by these mountain builders."

At long last, as twilight neared, Marco's party came upon a stone city.

The forest opened upon a great city of many spires, each covered with the carved faces of Idols. What devilish sorcery were employed by such a people, I would never discover; but God in His merciful vengeance had smote this city and the forest proper with a great blight and pestilence. The first body was a naked child. Her flesh was boiled to bone and covered with large black ants. Everywhere one turned, the eye came upon another and another. A count of several hundred would not match the slaughter here; and the death was not constrained to the sin of man. Birds had fallen from the sky. Beasts of the forest lay in twisted piles. Great snakes hung dead from branches of trees.

It was a City of the Dead. Fearing pestilence, we sought to leave with much haste. But our passage was not unwatched. From the deeper forest, they came: their naked flesh was no more hale than those strewn across the stone steps and plazas, or floating in the green moats. Limbs were rotted to expose the flesh beneath. Others bore bubbling welts and boils that covered most their skin; and still more carried bellies heavy with bloat. All around, wounds wept and steamed. Some came blind; and others scrabbled. It was as if a thousand plagues had blighted this land; a legion of pestilence.

From out the leafy bower, they swarmed with teeth bared like wild animals. Others carried severed arms and legs. God protect me even now, many of those limbs were gnawed.

A chill washed over Vigor, despite the growing heat of the morning. He read with numbing horror as Marco described how his party fled deeper into the city to seek refuge from the ravening army. The Venetian described in great detail the slaughter and cannibalism. As twilight fell, Marco's party retreated to one of the tall buildings, carved with twisting snakes and long-dead kings. The group set up a final stand, sure their small party would be overwhelmed as more and more of the diseased cannibals entered the city.

Gray mumbled under his breath, no words audible, but his disbelief was plain.

Now as the sun sank, so did all our hopes. Each in his own way cast prayers to the heavens. Kaan's men burned bits of wood and smeared the ashes on their faces. I had only my confessor. Friar Agreer knelt with me and offered our souls to God through whispered prayers. He clutched his crucifix and daubed my forehead with Christ's suffering cross. He used the same ashes as the Kaan's men. I looked upon the other men's marked faces and wondered: in such trial, were we all the same? Pagan and Christian. And in the end, whose prayer was it that was finally answered? Whose prayer brought the Virtue against this pestilence into our midst; a dark Virtue that saved us all.

The story stopped there.

Gray flipped the paper over, looking for more.

Kowalski leaned back and made his only contribution to the historical discussion. "Not enough sex," he mumbled, and attempted to hold back a burp with a fist and failed.

Frowning, Gray tapped a name on the last page. "Here . . . this mention of Friar Agreer."

Vigor nodded, having spotted the same glaring error. Surely this text was false. "No clergymen accompanied the Polos to the Orient," he stated aloud. "According to Vatican texts, two Dominican friars left with the Polos, to represent the Holy See, but the pair turned back after the first few days."

Seichan collected the first page and refolded it. "Like this secret chapter, Marco edited the friar out of his chronicles. Three Dominicans actually left with the Polos. One for each traveler, as was custom for the time."

Vigor realized she was right. It was indeed the custom.

"Only two of the friars fled back," Seichan said. "The presence of the third was kept hidden . . . until now."

Gray shifted back and tugged at his neck. He pulled free a silver crucifix and placed it on the table. "And you claim this is actually Friar Agreer's cross? The one mentioned in the story."

Seichan's firm stare answered his question.

Shocked into silence at the sudden revelation, Vigor studied the crucifix. It was unadorned, with the barest representation of a crucified figure. Vigor could tell it was old. Could it be true? He gently collected it from the table and examined it. If true, its very weight gave substance to Marco's harrowing words.

Vigor finally found his voice. "But I don't understand. Why was Friar Agreer cut out of the story?"

Seichan reached over and collected the scattered papers. "We don't know," she said simply. "The remaining pages of the book were ripped out and replaced with a false page, stitched into the binding, but the quality and age of the new page dated it centuries later than the original binding."

Vigor frowned at such strangeness. "What was on the new page?"

"I was never able to see it myself, but I was told what it said. It contained a rambling rave, full of references to angels and biblical quotations. The writer clearly feared Marco's story. But more importantly, the page spoke at length of a map included in the book, one drawn by Marco himself. A map they deemed to be evil."

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