Ventus – Day 88 of 135


Practically every light in Turcaret’s mansion was lit. The manor house was much larger than the Boros home, perhaps because it was younger by several centuries. Its walls seemed to be all window, tall graceful arched portals of leaded glass separated by stolid buttresses. Like a multi-story cathedral. At another time, Axel might have stopped to admire it; Jordan Mason could have told him everything about it after one glance. Right now, all he could afford to think was, the place is crawling with people.

He and Marya crouched under some bushes on the edge of the lawn, about a hundred meters from the house. It was a cloudy night, so the lights from the manor were practically the only source of illumination. The golden wash from the windows spread across the lawn, which was dusted with the first snow of winter, and outlined a crypt in the center of the grounds.

“Commencing reentry,” said the voice of the ship. “Estimated time of arrival at your location: fifteen minutes.

“They’re on their way,” Axel told Marya.

“Great. Let’s go then.” She rose stiffly.

“Wait!” He grabbed her arm. “Look.” He pointed at the lawn.

“What? All I see is snow.”

“Tracks! Tracks everywhere.” Dozens of sets of footprints fanned out from the manor, encircling the crypt, vanishing into numerous small outbuildings, or terminating at the black walls of forest that surrounded the grounds.

“I see them,” said Marya peevishly. “So what? This is a busy place.”

Axel growled in frustration. “And when did the snowfall stop?”

“Two hours ago.”

“Listen,” he said. “If the snow stopped a couple of hours ago, then those footprints were made since then. After nightfall.”

“Oh.” She sat down suddenly. “You mean they know we’re here?”

“I think they know someone’s coming,” he said. “But I’m sure they don’t know why. And that’s about our only advantage at this point.”

“So what do we do?” she whispered.

He eyed the crypt. “How fast can you run?” It was a rhetorical question; she was pretty good for somebody who ran on tiptoe.

“I get it,” she said. “We run over to the crypt, get the head of John the Baptist and hope the ship arrives before the soldiers.”

“John the who?”

Marya rolled her eyes. “Forget it. Well? Let’s do it then.”

“This is ridiculous,” he muttered; but he stood, and at the count of three, they jumped the bushes and ran onto the lawn.

They made it ten meters; twenty; thirty. Still no outcry. Maybe I was wrong, Axel thought.

“There! In the field!”

Maybe not. Hounds bayed, and the black silhouettes of men disengaged from the shadows of the trees on the far end of the grounds.

“Keep going!” He spun around, not waiting to see if Marya had obeyed. Six hounds were racing across the snow. Forcing himself to act slowly, Axel went down on one knee, pulled the laser pistol and steadied it, then waited for them to come within range.

Each dog in turn became a blood-red beacon, and tumbled to lie still. As each fell the next blossomed with light; an observant man would have seen the speckled line of red light that joined the crimson flare to Axel’s hand. To anyone else, it must have seemed that the snow itself welled red and bit the dogs. The last one fell no more than four meters from Axel, and before it stopped sliding he was on his feet.

Marya stood at the entrance to the crypt. Several men were converging on her; she cowered back against the stone.

“Hang on!” shouted Axel. Two more men were moving to cut him off; he cursed as he saw swords gleaming in the light from the house. Not that they could kill him–Turcaret had tried that all too scientifically already–but they hurt.

And they could easily kill Marya.

“Stop!” cried the first man. He planted himself directly in Axel’s path.

Axel kicked him in the head and kept on running.

Two men held Marya. She struggled, then slumped in one’s arms. Or seemed to; Axel heard the man shout in surprise as Marya slipped down and out of her peasant dress, leaving him astonished holding it and her sprawled in her black unitard on the snow.

She shrieked–probably from the cold. Then she rolled to one side and disappeared.

Madwoman, thought Axel. Then he was there, with five men surrounding him.

The best tactic was to let them stab him; that way they overextended themselves, and none of them expected him to reach over the sword in his chest and smack them in the face. Which is what he did. As before, the blades lacerated him but did not penetrate his skin.

The last two realized he was armored and became more wary, but he didn’t give them any time, because he could see the doors of the manor opening, and armed men pouring out.

“Axel!” He sent his last opponent down with a side kick and turned to find Marya next to him. Her body below the neck was enveloped in an inky black cloud; she was shivering uncontrollably.

“I improvised,” she said.

“You’re brilliant,” he said, and hugged her with one arm. Then they ran over to the crypt.

The doors were bronze, very solid, and very closed. He pulled hard on the ring set into the right panel, but it didn’t budge.

“Lock,” said Marya, pointing.

“I know, I know.” He took out the pistol. “Cover your eyes.”

The metal glowed, groaned, and a hole appeared above the lock. Axel kicked the door. It held fast. “Bastard!” He shot the lock again.

“Axel!” They were surrounded again. Marya stepped between Axel and the soldiers, shouting, “Get the door!”

“Get the door? What are you going to do, hold them off with your bare hands?”

Someone tackled Marya from the side. They rolled out of sight around the corner of the crypt.

Axel shot the door again and as they came for him he hit it with his shoulder. It gave way just as if someone on the other side had opened it and he fell through.

Luckily, it was only three steps down. Axel hit all three on his way to the floor. When he rose, cursing, he was entirely in darkness, except for a panel of grey representing the door. A man was silhouetted there. The man was saying, “I’m not going in there.”

“Wise!” shouted Axel.

“We’ve got your accomplice!” said another voice. “Come out or she’s done for.”

Axel barked a laugh. He stepped up, fumbled until he found the hot edge of the door, and said, “Get stuffed.” Then he closed it.

ETA five minutes,” said a voice in his head. “Are you ready for us?

“Oh yeah.”

He shuffled around for a bit, bumping into sarcophagus-shaped obstacles every couple of meters. Axel had night-vision just like Calandria, but that only worked when there was some source of illumination, even if it was too faint for ordinary human sight.

“Fuck it.” He undid his cloak and threw it over a stone something. Then he shot it with the laser.

The cheerful flames showed him to be in a small room with about ten large stone coffins. Four were lidless and empty; the others all had faces and names carved into their stone covers.

He looked around quickly, and found Turcaret’s coffin was the one over which he’d draped his cloak. Grabbing the cloak by an unlit corner, he flung it over an empty lamp sconce on the wall, and turned his attention to getting the coffin’s lid off.

It was heavy, but when he braced both feet against the nearby wall and put his shoulder to it, the stone grated slowly to the side. A rank stench wafted out, making him gag.

“Madness, madness,” he grunted as the lid fell off with a resounding crunch.

“Hello,” he said to the withered but recognizable corpse in the sarcophagus. Then the flames ate the last of his cloak and he was plunged into darkness again.

“Shit.” He had several seconds of grace period; the dying embers from the cloak were enough for his augmented night vision. He could faintly see the shape of the body. He unceremoniously dumped his pack on Turcaret’s chest and dug everything out of it, throwing clothes and food all over the floor.

Shielding his eyes, he said, “Ever wanted to travel?” to Turcaret. “Well now’s your chance.” He fired the laser, flicking it quickly right-to-left.

The worst part was reaching into the sarcophagus in the dark, and pulling Turcaret’s mostly-severed head off his body. When he had the stinking thing free, Axel jammed it into his pack and stepped back to retch.

“I better get a medal for this.”

Locked onto your signal,” said the ship. “We’re on final approach. We should be visible to you.”

Axel listened. Confused shouting came from outside the crypt. “We see you,” he sent.

It was easy to open the door of the crypt and saunter out. Nobody was paying him the least bit of attention.

It was also easy to see, since the sky was lit from horizon to horizon by the vernier engines of a nicely solid and real military starship about a kilometer overhead. As it stopped directly over the field, threw out four massive landing legs and began its descent with a deafening roar, the soldiers around the crypt bolted for the trees. Axel put his fingers in his ears, squinted, and walking out to meet the ship.

In moments it was down, metal feet sinking into the snow, then the ground, finally easing to a stop as thousands of tonnes of weight made the ship’s diamond-fiber muscles quiver. The vernier engines, which it held high above itself on long arms, coughed and fell silent. Axel took his fingers out of his ears, and shook his head rapidly. A breeze smelling of hot metal tickled his cheek.

A wide door in the bottom of the craft opened, and a broad ramp extended to touch ground. Men in vacuum armor jumped out and began to take up firing positions. Axel felt warmly happy, despite the fact that two of them had their guns trained on him.

He raised his arms. “I come in peace,” he said in High English.

An officer strolled down the ramp. “Are you Chan?”

“The very same. Good to see you, major.”

“I’m sure,” said the officer drily. “We don’t appreciate being used as a taxi service, Mister Chan. Where’s your companion?”

He nodded in the direction of the house. “They took her. A little local trouble, I’m afraid. Uh, can I lower my arms now?”

“At ease.” The two marines lowered their weapons. “I suppose we’ll have to go ask for her back.”

“Here,” said Axel. He lobbed the pack at the major, who caught it awkwardly. “This should pay our way, once it’s been analyzed. And, uh, can we get Marya and get out of this hell-hole now? I’ll bet the swans will be here any second.”

The major opened the pack, gagged, and dropped it. “What the hell–?”

“It’s a long story,” said Axel. “And if you want to hear it, we’d better get a move on.”

The major looked from the pack to Axel and back again. Then he whirled and said, “Nonfatal settings! Fan out. I’m going to negotiate a hostage situation.” He walked towards the house, paused, and said “Coming?” to Axel.

Axel grinned. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

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