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Chapter 18

The monster waited until the vessel was completely engrossed. As always, Chernobog's shadow voice aroused the pathetic creature to a frenzy of uncontrolled emotion. Every emotion—anger and fury as well as lust. The vessel was careless. And so, as he combined fury with lust, satiating himself on the servant's body while he imagined an insolent young witch in her place, he gave not a moment's thought to the effect his emotions would have on the monster's shackles.


The monster could sense the coming moment, when the vaporous cage that restrained it would soften, grow tattered. It could escape then, without either the vessel or the servant noticing its passage into the outer world.


The monster's own lust grew rapidly, as the gray mist that surrounded it began to take shape and color. Some small part of its mind urged caution—the master will be angry!—but the monster ignored it. Why should Chernobog care if the monster devoured another soul? And it could always claim that it had been commanded by the master's own servant. Had she not aroused the vessel? Had not the vessel's own fury and lust sent the monster on its way—even selected the prey?


Somewhere in what was left of what had once been a keen mind, the monster knew that Chernobog would see through the deception. But—


It no longer cared. Let the pain come, later. For the moment, the monster could think of nothing beyond the immediate prospect of feeding.


And such a magnificent feed! The monster could barely restrain itself from clawing at the cage.


Too soon, too soon. Wait until . . .


* * *

The gray mist faded and faded. Finally—it was enough.


The monster glided through and found itself, once again, in the outer world. The small room was dark; more of a crypt than a room, with the casket at the center. Once it had been a small chapel, but no longer. It was devoted to a different creed now—as the bones and infant skulls and arcane symbols on the walls attested.


The monster ignored its surroundings. It was not really part of any faith, and found the trappings meaningless. Instead, moving slowly, it opened the door that led to the room beyond. The door was neither locked nor bolted. There was no reason for it to be, since the larger room beyond was given over to the privacy of Chernobog's servant. It was a spare and austere room, lit only by a single candle.


The monster crept through the room toward another door on the opposite side. Behind that door was the bedchamber where the master's voice slept. Slept, and, every night, aroused the vessel.


The door to the bedchamber was not only unlocked, it was ajar. The room beyond was dark. Before entering, the monster listened for the sounds it was hoping to hear. Yes. The vessel was grunting his lust atop the master's voice, in the bed against the far wall; the monster could hear the voice responding with soft cries of faked passion.


The sounds meant nothing to the monster. It had a different lust to satisfy.


Silently, stealthily, so as not to disturb the rutters, the monster crept on all fours through the bedchamber. Another austere room, it was, well designed to disguise the servant's true nature. The monster's thin lips peeled back in jeering scorn, seeing the crucifix attached to one of the walls. Normally it would avoid such a holy symbol, but this one was meaningless. The servant had long ago, as she had with all the paraphernalia of her supposed faith, defiled the crucifix in such as way as to make it harmless. Still, the monster did not come any closer than necessary to the holy symbol as it glided toward the pile of discarded clothing on the floor.


The item it sought was there, just as it had sensed it was. Still tucked away, forgotten, in a pocket of the vessel's tunic. Carefully, slowly, the monster teased it out with its long, thick tongue. Savoring the taste, absorbing the scent . . .


It was enough. It could find the prey, now. Easily.


The monster sidled away, backing toward the crypt where its cage was kept. Again, being careful not to disturb the rutters on the bed; and, again, staying as far away as possible from the crucifix on the wall.


Once back in the crypt, the monster re-entered the cage with an eagerness it did not usually feel for that act. But that was because the cage was a cage no longer. Not with the vessel's mindless lust shredding the vaporous bars. The cage was now . . . a portal.


* * *

As soon as the monster felt the waters of the canal, and was finally able to see the outer world again, it flinched. It had not realized the time of day. The vessel and the voice usually rutted at night, but night had not yet arrived. It was only sunset.


With a quick thrust of its tail, the monster drove beneath the surface and hid amidst some pilings shoring the side of the canal. Cursing silently at the frustration, but unable to do otherwise. It would risk Chernobog's anger at an unauthorized feeding, but it would not risk the master's rage if it were seen. On that matter, Chernobog's instructions had been far too clear for the monster to claim an unfortunate misunderstanding.


So it waited, for the sun to disappear and the darkness to come. And, as it waited, felt its frustration mounting to the point of sheer fury.


Especially when it saw the prey herself passing by! Not forty feet distant!


The monster's eye, peeking above the surface of the water in the shadows amidst the pilings, watched the prey row her gondola past. Its eel-throat gaped wide; thick tongue writhing in the water like a giant worm, tasting her scent.


The prey was so—splendid. Fresh, young, innocent. The monster knew that her soul would taste as fine as her hair, shining like copper in the sunset. So much tastier a soul than the wretched things the master had been feeding it.


It would be so easy. . . . The monster could capsize the gondola in an instant. Then, seize the prey once she was in the water and drag her to a hidden feeding ground.


So easy . . . Now! Now!


But . . . not even the monster, not even when it was burning with lust, was crazy enough to do it. Not while it was daylight. Not with people in other boats on the water, and walking alongside the canal. No matter how fast it moved, someone would witness the act. Might even catch a glimpse of the monster itself.


Chernobog's rage would not stop at mere punishment, then. Chernobog would feed on the monster itself, and not be satisfied with simply a portion.


Remembering the one time the master had fed upon it, the monster almost whimpered. Its lust receded, replaced by terror. Enough, at least, to enable the monster to bring itself back under control.


Wait. Night is coming, and I can find her anywhere. The scent will be easy to follow.


* * *

The monster was so intent on its own desires that it never noticed the priest standing on the opposite side. Never noticed that the priest was also watching the prey, as she receded down the canal—and with as much concentrated attention as the monster itself.


Nor did it notice the moment when the priest suddenly started and cast a gaze across the canal. Then, scrutinized everything in the area, as if a hunter had suddenly heard a noise in the forest and was trying to detect its source.


Nor did it notice when the priest spun on his heels and began striding hurriedly away.


* * *

The shaman, however, did notice. Naturally enough, since the shaman had been sent on this incredibly dangerous expedition for that very purpose. The monster thought it had "escaped." In reality, Chernobog had foreseen this eventuality and had decided to use the monster's lust to test his opponents. The shaman's master did not understand either the purpose of these peculiar priests in Venice, nor their power.


Chernobog also, the shaman understood, wanted to test the depths of the Lion's slumber. Once before the shaman's master had misgauged the Lion, when he tried to murder the Strega Grand Master with too open a hand. That attempt had roused the Lion from his sleep. The ancient spirit had not only slain the assassins before they could finish the work, but had carried the still-living Marina himself into the Jesolo.


Three years ago, that had been. The time had come, Chernobog decided, to see if the Lion had returned to his slumber. The shaman understood the logic—even agreed with it, abstractly. But it was he, not Chernobog, who was forced to lurk in the shadows of the canal and watch, while a monster roamed loose. A monster which would not hesitate for an instant to devour the shaman as readily as it would devour its intended prey.


* * *

The time finally came. It was dark enough, now, if the monster moved carefully. It eased out of the pilings and began driving up the canal with slow and powerful strokes of its tail. Keeping a wary eye for boats and passersby, and diving below the surface whenever necessary.


The scent was strong. As easy to follow as blood spoor, but far more delicious.


* * *

When Pierre came into the room, his face was as pale as a sheet. His eyes, open and strained; he looked for an enemy, but not one of this world.


"Something . . . is out there. . . ."


Eneko Lopez rose from the table where he had been writing a letter, his head cocked. "Yes?"


The Savoyard priest shook his head violently, and shuddered at the same time. "I don't know. I was watching the girl, the one you wanted to find out more about. Then—suddenly—I felt something. Something horrible. Evil more concentrated than anything I can remember in my life."


The Basque at the table turned his head and stared out the window. "Was it she herself, perhaps?"


Pierre shook his head again. Less violently, this time. "I . . . don't think so, Eneko. It was connected with her somehow, I felt. But I had the sense that it was something watching her, rather than she herself."


Reluctantly, as a priest will speak of such things. "It seemed very . . . lustful. A horrible sort of lust, and not the sort of thing that anyone would draw willingly unto themselves. And I am not so sure, now, that it wasn't actually hunting her, and not just watching her."


Lopez limped out through the open door near the table and onto the balcony beyond; then, peered down at the canal below. The waters were already dark with the evening. He raised his eyes and studied the massive edifice across the canal that housed the Imperial embassy.


Something watching—perhaps hunting. Something evil. A true innocent might, might be safe from such a thing, but how many people were true innocents, once out of leading-strings?


"Too late . . ." he murmured. "For anything except prayer."


He turned back, sharply and decisively. "Join me, Pierre. Here. Now. Whatever it was—let us test the thing. If it is what I think it is . . . Chernobog has made a serious error."


Pierre hesitated. The Basque priest's solid bar of eyebrow lowered. "It is not forbidden, Pierre!" he snapped. "And what is the alternative? To allow a girl who may be guilty of nothing more than venial sins to be devoured by Chernobog?"


The Savoyard's uncertainty vanished. A moment later, he joined Eneko on his knees, crucifix in hand.


"Protections?" Pierre asked. Eneko shook his head.


"No time, but we are not the ones it is hunting—" Eneko cleared his mind of the distracting worry that this might be a trap for him and his own people. "Saint Mark—"


"Ah!" Pierre caught his meaning. "I found a prayer in the Accademia library that might be what we need."


The Savoyard bent his head over his clasped hands and began murmuring the words; Eneko concentrated on them, and on special, sacred magic of a Hypatian priest-mage, that of directed, aimed prayer, with power behind it.


Blessed Saint Mark . . . patron and protector . . . 


The power flowed, outward and upward, as Eneko concentrated; he felt another power join to his—Pierre's—and their souls sought for that place where prayers were answered.


But then, what he had not dared hope for.


He felt something stir; sensed sleepy eyes opening, somewhere, in that place that was outside space and a time beyond time, in that other where spirits dwelt. Something ancient.


What—


He did not have the means to answer that question; It could not hear him, he lacked a voice It would respond to. But he didn't have to answer it; he sensed It was now . . . looking. For just an instant, Eneko thought he saw a pair of great eyes, opening.


* * *

The monster was at the water-door. Not because it sought entry by that means—too risky—but simply because it wanted to be certain. It required only a moment of soft snuffling, licking the door with its tongue.


Yes. So strong! So delicious!


It moved slowly down the canal, searching the walls. A very great house, this was. Still massively impressive, despite the little signs of disrepair.


That disrepair would be of good use to the monster. There was a route up the walls—as easy to climb as a chimney to an experienced mountaineer. The monster almost chortled with glee.


Then . . . restrained itself again. It was still too early. Night had fallen, yes; but the house would not be asleep. The monster could not risk Chernobog's anger that much.


Wait. Wait.


* * *

Something else awoke, stirred from long slumber by prayers. Opened golden eyes, and then . . . understanding the meaning of the prayers . . .


Great muscles rippled down a tawny back. Huge wings began to unfold.


In my city? You grow too bold, Chernobog!


There was some fury in the thought. Not much. Mostly, the thought was just . . . amused. Christian priests, no less! They're not usually that smart.


* * *

From his hiding place in the pilings nearby, the shaman watched. He was awash in fear. The shaman understood what the monster was doing, and he knew that the slightest motion on his part would draw its attention. Should that happen, the shaman was far too close now to even hope to escape. In open water, with enough of a lead, the shaman in his fishform could outswim the monster. But here, in the narrow canals—the shaman had seen how quickly the monster could move in a lunge—


The shaman prayed to his pagan deities. Prayed desperately, hoping that time itself would move faster in its course.


* * *

It was time!


Still almost silent, for all its eagerness, the monster heaved out of the water and began climbing up the wall. It made swift progress, even stopping from time to time to scan the area in order to be certain there were no observers. The heavy wall's disrepair made climbing easy.


* * *

The shaman, still almost shuddering with relief after seeing the monster's form lift out of the water, froze with new terror. Something new was stirring! He could sense it! Something . . . immensely powerful.


He turned and began swimming away. But an iron thought came from his master.


STOP, SLAVE. I MUST SEE THIS. YOUR LIFE IS OF NO CONSEQUENCE.


* * *

There was no balcony providing ingress to the house. But the monster had seen the roof garden, and it served the purpose just as well.


A quick slither, and the monster was into the garden. Being careful, still, not to crush or disarray the vegetation. Leave no trace. Silently, on all fours, it crept through the lush vegetation. Too lush, really—the garden also showed signs of poor maintenance.


* * *

Eneko thought he heard a thunder of wings, and felt a shadow pass over him, before he and Pierre fell back into their heavy, mortal selves.


"It is done," he whispered. "Let us pray it will be in time."


A little shudder passed through Pierre's shoulders. "I wouldn't worry about that, Eneko. If the legends are even half true—" He gave his Basque companion a look that was almost baleful. "What have you gotten us into?"


* * *

When the monster reached the glass-paned double doors that opened onto the garden, it thrust its misshapen head cautiously between two large potted plants. The curtains on the doors were not closed, and the monster could see into the room beyond. Could see everything quite clearly, despite the overcast and the absence of a candle in the room itself. The monster was a creature of darkness, after all. It could see as well at night as in daytime—better, in truth, since the sun was painful to it.


Its great body grew taut as a drum, almost stunned by its good fortune. It had expected a difficult time, creeping through the house in order to find the prey.


Instead—


She was there! Sleeping in the bed!


It made sense, of course. Even the dim mind of the monster could understand that much. A girl with such coppery hair—such a coppery, splendid soul—


Hungry!


—would want to wake to the sunrise. Feel the coppery rays bathing her in a new day.


A new day which would never come again. Soft laughter began to gurgle up in the monster's thick throat. But it forced the sound under. Just a moment more of silence, and it would—feed.


A claw reached up for the latch. The monster knew, for a certainty, that the door would be unlocked. Such an innocent soul . . . it gathered its haunches.


Hungry!


* * *

The vise that clamped down on its head struck like a god's hammer. It vaguely remembered such a hammer. . . .


But there was no time to think of ancient weapons. The monster writhed like a lizard, caught by a hawk, its limbs thrashing and flailing.


Thrashing and flailing in—nothing. Talons smote thin air; a tail lashed in emptiness. Everything was dark, a darkness not even the monster's eye could penetrate. Dimly, stunned, it realized that its head was in a giant maw. Realized—dimly, stunned—that it was being carried through the air. Like a lizard, caught by a hawk.


The monster's thrashing grew frenzied. Something smote its back. Almost—not quite—breaking the spine. But the blow was enough to paralyze the monster.


* * *

Not even his fear of Chernobog could have kept the shaman from fleeing in terror, now. The spirit that had passed over him had seemed like a golden avalanche of fury and destruction.


As it happened, the shaman was quite safe. He was beneath the Lion's contempt. Nor did he have to fear Chernobog's wrath. His master was far too busy—far too frantically busy—forging his own defenses to worry about the doings of a pitiful slave.


* * *

Some time later—how much, the monster was too dazed to know—it was tumbled to the ground, its head spit out of a maw like a bad seed.


Wildly, scrabbling to get back to its feet, the monster looked around.


It was back in the cage. Except . . . even as it watched, the tatters in the vapors closed in, barring any exit.


No, not closed in . . . were driven in, by the flapping of great wings. Seeing the size of those wings, the monster flinched.


Then, flinched again, as it finally looked at its assailant. Flinched, and sidled away. Whining in its throat.


There are rules, creature. The voice hammered into the monster's brain. This is no longer our time—neither yours, nor mine. But there are still rules!


The monster howled as a great paw slammed into its flank, ripping gouges in the flesh. The blow was terrifying in its power. For all its own strength, the monster knew it was no more than a mouse at the mercy of a cat.


A very large and angry cat.


Another blow, which broke the arm the monster raised to fend it off. Another blow, which shredded its snout. Fangs like swords clamped on its haunches. The monster was jerked off its feet, shaken like a mouse in the maw of a cat.


This time, the monster's spine did break. So did its shoulder, when it was hurled to the ground. So did its rib cage, under yet another hammerblow of a paw the size of an anvil.


The monster was shrieking pure terror, now. Another blow shattered its jaw, bringing silence.


That's better. You'll live, of course. Here in this . . . foul cage. Heal, soon enough. Those too are the rules.


The growling voice turned into a rumbling laugh. But I dare say you'll not try that again.


A giant paw was raised, in question. Frantically, the monster gargled agreement through a broken jaw.


Remember, beast. This is my city—no one else's. Tell that to Chernobog, when you see him next. He may attempt to destroy it, if he can. But he may not do as he pleases. THERE ARE RULES!


Another blow came, crushing the monster's skull.


* * *

Diego found his two companions in Eneko's room, looking wan and exhausted.


"Did you see a ghost?" he asked cheerfully.


They glared at him. "Near enough," muttered Pierre. He pointed a weary finger at the Basque. "He summoned the Lion. I think."


Diego's eyes widened. Eneko chuckled. "It was Pierre's prayer, you know. How odd that he didn't mention that. . . ."


The Basque priest lurched to his feet and walked out onto the balcony. He leaned on the balcony and studied the Imperial embassy across the canal. The huge edifice was now somber with nightfall. Only a few lights could be seen, tapers and lamps flickering behind curtained windows. Behind him, Eneko could hear Pierre's murmured words, as he explained to their Castillian comrade what had transpired.


His companions joined him on the balcony a short while later.


"Are you certain it was not she herself?" asked Diego quietly. "We must be certain about this, Eneko."


The Basque shrugged. "I'm not certain of anything. But . . . no. I am now almost sure the girl is an innocent. The more so, since you discovered her identity."


"The name 'Montescue' is an old one, Eneko," said Diego uncertainly. "Evil enough, in that family, over the centuries."


Again, the Basque shrugged. "And of what old family can that not be said?" With a little laugh: "Certainly not mine! Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather—"


"Several times," growled Pierre. "Just as Diego has bored me endlessly with tales of his own wicked Castillian ancestors. My own progenitors, on the other hand," he added cheerfully, "were virtuous peasants."


His companions bestowed skeptical looks upon him. "Each and every one!" he insisted.


The moment of levity was brief. Diego returned to the subject like a dog chewing a bone. "Still, Eneko. We must be certain."


The Basque was back to his study of the Imperial embassy. His gaze was intent, as if he could penetrate the heavy stone walls and see what transpired within.


"It doesn't make sense, Diego. I've discovered, as you know, that Casa Montescue is in dire financial straits. And the girl Katerina is the only member of the family young enough—and trusted enough—to be working at the 'gray trade.' Her grandfather is too old, her sister-in-law . . ." His lips tightened with distaste. "Untrustworthy, by all accounts. That's enough—more than enough—to explain her mysterious habits."


Diego began to say something, but Eneko drove over it. "Besides, consider the logic of what just happened." He gestured with his head toward the Savoyard. "Pierre is wrong, incidentally. I'm sure of it. We did not summon the Lion, we simply . . . woke it up for a time. To actually summon the thing requires knowledge I do not possess, and—if the legends are to be believed—the participation of one of the four ancient families of Venice. Which are: Terrio, Lacosto—both families long vanished; Valdosta—destroyed, presumably by the Montagnards. And—" He paused, giving the next word added emphasis. "Montescue."


Diego stared down the dark canal, in the direction of Casa Montescue. "You think the Evil One was trying . . ."


"The same legends also specify a son of the families, Eneko," objected Pierre. But his demurral was not spoken with any great force.


Eneko smiled grimly. "Yes, I know. But does Chernobog?"


He sighed. The next words came iron hard, for all the softness of the tone. "Enough, I say. I'm satisfied that the Montescue girl is innocent. We've got few enough resources as it is—just the three of us. We've learned all we can—and need—for the moment, concerning Katerina Montescue. Time to concentrate on two more important matters."


"What really happened to the Strega Grand Master," mused Diego. "That's one. What's the other?"


Eneko's little chuckle was quite absent of humor. "What do you think? What really happened to the children of Lorendana Valdosta? Two sons, I remind you."


"Casa Valdosta was destroyed," protested Pierre. "Everyone says so."


Eneko stared into the darkness. "This is the murkiest city in the world, brothers. We cannot assume anything."


* * *

Agony led the way, dragging the monster back into consciousness. In the cage, true enough, its bones and flesh would knit and heal. But—not without pain. Immense pain, in this instance.


Worse than the pain, however, was the terror; once the monster's returning mind understood that Chernobog himself was here.


Here . . . and in a rage.


Another blow destroyed most of the healing. A second broke the monster's spine anew.


You imbecile! You had your orders!


The monster tried to babble its excuse. But it was impossible, with a still-mangled snout.


It would have done no good, in any event. Chernobog was not to be misled, and the monster—now that its mind was no longer clouded with lust—knew how foolish that thought had been.


You awakened the Lion!


Another blow sent gouts of blood flying, along with gobbets of flesh.


Thankfully, it felt Chernobog receding. The fury in the master's voice ebbed, slightly, replaced by a colder and more thoughtful anger.


Nothing for it. I cannot punish the servant, for there is nothing left to punish. Nor the vessel either, for the moment, since I still have use for it. But you . . . 


The broken-bodied, half-paralyzed monster whined, begging forgiveness.


On you I will feed.


The monster howled for some time thereafter, as Chernobog held it down and tore out its innards. Not gobbling the intestines so much as chewing on them, slowly and with apparent relish.


When Chernobog was done, there was not much left of the monster. But, in the recesses of what had once been a mind, the monster knew that there was still . . . enough.


It would survive. Barely.


The healing would be painful. Agonizing.


I trust you will obey me, henceforth.


The monster tried to whine its abject obedience; but failed, quite miserably. The only sound it made was that of spilling blood. Chernobog had also devoured its tongue.


 


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