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Dozens of swordsmen streamed through the door before Simon appeared, dragging a bound and gagged Kurt in his wake. Eva came next, and the look Kurt gave her was enough for me to growl. As another man handed me a saber and my revolver, I shivered in the cold air from outside and tried not to gut Kurt where he lay. I wasn't dry yet, and the sensation of the wind whistling across the wetness was becoming painful.
I nodded towards Simon and his captive. "You caught a fish it seems."
He didn't return my grin. "He did too. Rupert's dead in the snow outside." The announcement caught me like a blow, and I leaned against a counter for support.
Simon continued. "The poor lad never knew it was coming. All of a sudden, this madmen was among us, almost by accident. Perhaps he was looking for the sentries."
"He was. I heard him as he left the castle," I said.
"Anyway, the bastard sees our numbers and takes off running towards the castle to give the alarm. Rupert throws himself in front of the devil, and Kurt stabbed him straight through. It bought us time though, and a few others and I dragged him to ground and bound him up . . . Not a pleasant start to the evening," he said, his voice catching in his throat.
I turned on the captive but couldn't find words to speak. The man had mistreated Eva and hounded us since the Faith's coup. Finally, I locked eyes with Kurt but spoke to Simon. "He'll get his justice soon enough." My enemy glared back at me, his eyes flashing.
In all of this Eva, said nothing. I moved to her, and with a slight grin towards Kurt, put a hand onto her arm. "Are you alright?"
"Of course," she said, her breathing hot from her sprint.
I spoke again, this time to Simon. "I've another captive if we have more rope."
By this point, there were dozens of people milling about the kitchen. True to the mission they were deathly silent, and some had taken up guarding positions near the stairwell and another hall that led elsewhere through the castle. Without much delay, we threw Kurt and the other prisoner into a large cupboard in a corner of the kitchen. We left them unguarded. If someone discovered them, so be it. We couldn't spare a man to watch them.
I drew Simon, Logan, Jacob, and Eva close and confided what I'd heard between the two Courtiers. If he was defiling Mercedes, the king might be in either tower. Upon hearing the news, Logan's frame froze. He didn't appear to breathe, but his neck began pulsating. I placed a hand on his arm, and his gaze met mine. His eyes were pools of murky oil, but within their depths, an unquenchable, roaring flame was emerging. For his part, fencing master crinkled his forehead for a minute before answering. "It doesn't really matter in the long run. We just need to move quicker," Simon said.
I nodded. "Right. If we split the group, one of us is sure to find him. I'll try her quarters first."
"Very reasonable. You lead. I'll follow towards his tower."
I looked to Eva. "And you, my dear?"
"I'll go with you. You're bound to need someone to look after your back," she said with a quick laugh. I was thinking the same thing about her, so I didn't argue.
The swarm of assassins took off through the palace. Gathered together, we numbered nearly fifty men, and despite our efforts, someone was bound to hear the mass moving through the dark corridors. Reaching the great hall, we separated.
Logan, Jacob, Eva, and I led twenty other students south towards Mercedes' tower. Running beside him, I could sense Logan's rage carrying him onwards. Sweat trickled down his brow, and the ragged breath escaping his lips was punctuated with muttered, incomprehensible words. Mercedes was his prize, and the Olympian beside me would settle for nothing less. The legs of the others struggled to keep up as the pair of us sprinted down the corridors. For a brief moment, I was reminded of our childhood together. How many times had I raced Logan under English skies? The games we played so long ago now swept us onwards, and I threw myself forward in the race, dashing around a turn in the hallway.
In the darkness I didn't see the Courtier. I merely collided with him.
The man sailed backwards, letting loose a foul curse before staring up at us. My collision had stopped the mass behind me. The warm light of a lamp bathed us as the fallen Courtier and I stared at each other. In fact, the new space was well lit by dozen of lamps set into the walls. We stood in a long atrium, a welcoming space with doors all about. A single staircase rose on the other side of the foyer. It spiraled upwards, disappearing into the antechamber's ceiling. From Rupert's lessons I knew this to be the route towards the southern tower. These observations occurred in the moment before I looked again at the fallen man.
For his part, he'd been studying me intently. As I watched, the shock on the Courtier's face turned to recognition and then utter horror before he screamed an alarm. The shrill, ear-splitting cry was cut short by a pistol shot.
The smoking weapon rested in Logan's outstretched hand.
"Why'd you do that?" I hissed at him. "Let's simply wake the whole palace! That'll help us!"
He shrugged, a bit sheepishly. "It was instinct. I'm sorry."
"The shot did nothing the scream hadn't already accomplished," said Eva.
The Courtier had ceased gurgling, his mouth open forever in rest. But we had larger problems by then. Around us, from behind the other doors in the atrium, I could hear voices.
I turned towards the swordsmen behind me. "Follow me! We don't have time to fight. Fuchs is either alerted or soon to be. If we miss him, we might never have another chance. Move!" I took off down the foyer but didn't make it three strides before the doors about us opened and angry men stumbled out. Most weren't even dressed, but all had weapons in their palms.
I skidded to a halt in the face of the newcomers. For a long moment, assassins and guards simply stared at each other, not speaking. Then one enemy spat "Damn," and the battle was on.
They saw our path instantly, and despite their nightshirts and bleary-eyed condition, our opponents were professionals. Within moments, they'd formed a line before the stairway. After a moment, this line advanced forward, driving the battle towards the looming students. Even as they attacked, one guard ran up the stairs, presumably to warn the king. A brief pistol crack from somewhere nearby brought this messenger to a halt, and he stumbled backwards to slide down the steps, a rivulet of blood flowing along his path.
I didn't have time to see anything else because another guard attacked me then. Tall, with long arms, the man's saber sliced through the air beside me. I hadn't seen him. Luckily, he'd misjudged the range, and his blade coursed by harmlessly. I swung my own weapon about, facing him. In the days of fencing at Simon's academy, we'd practiced numerous weapons, and I was feeling more than confident with the saber I held. Originally a cavalry weapon, I found the blade to be most fitting. The weight rested easily in my hand, and although heavier than other weapons, it possessed a forceful mobility that melded well with my body. But the slash along my arm from the rusted bar in the great hall's pipe was throbbing too. I couldn't fight forever.
As the guard slashed his weapon down once more, I sidestepped and send a riposte towards his exposed legs. He was too experienced for this though, for he dropped his weapon's tip, curving it to parry my own move. What followed was the most intricate of ballets, the moves and countermoves an intensive game of physical chess. In the end, I caught his shoulder in a passing swipe, and he collapsed in utter terror, cries of agony escaping his lips. There was nothing to be done but move past him and survey the scene.
A maelstrom of bodies fought in a storm of victory and sorrow. I sought to move towards the stairway, but another man stepped to block my path. He was another supplicant, another dancer waiting to engage in the minuet of death that swirled through the antechamber. Bowing to the inevitable, I moved to confront him. Before I reached him, however, he had collapsed, clutching at his chest. Even as I watched, a crimson tide began staining his nightshirt just above his breast. The bullet wound's mark spread and spread until the guard closed his eyes forever.
br /> I looked over to see Jacob running towards me, his pistol smoking.
"What're the chances he hasn't heard all this?" the American shouted at me over the din.
"Not likely. We need to move. Now!" Our conversation was halted for a minute as another guard leapt at Jacob. I looked on helplessly, unable to intervene. Once the man had been thrown to the ground, his leg a collapsing wound, Jacob looked at me again.
"Get Logan," I ordered, already moving. I'd seen an opening, and we were going to seize it. Jacob nodded and, having picked out our friend from the chaos, ran towards him. Together, they broke off from fighting and dashed to meet me at the foot of the stairs. By then, the defensive line the guards had originally formed was too intermixed with our men to prevent us from ascending. We'd go alone, but we'd go. Perhaps we'd even catch Fuchs before he fled.
We pounded up the spiraling steps two at a time. Even so, cries of pursuit followed us, and I turned and clipped off a few shots over my shoulder to dissuade any chase. The battle continued to rage below, and I was painfully aware that more guards were joining the fray. Our men were excellent fighters, but numbers were telling over time, and I feared for them. Even if we all died in the attempt, killing Fuchs was the highest priority. The men knew this before the mission, and their sacrifice was truly worth the cause for which we fought. The thought plagued me but didn't stop me.
But then a flash of black caught my eye, and I froze. I'd forgotten Eva.
She was below, slashing this was and that with a light sword, little more than a foil. Her off hand held a pistol, and she shot down two more guards as I watched. Even so, my heart thrummed seeing her in the fray, and my mind screamed at me for my mistake. But it was too late now. If she died, I'd never forgive myself, but there was no way to bring her to me now. Too many guards separated us. With a heated breath, I turned and chased the others upwards.
Panting, we continued ever onwards, the stairs spiraling around and around like a massive auger, throwing us skywards like abandoned earth. The path wound through the atrium's ceiling, and the stones closed about us as we ascended. Logan and Jacob reached the top of the stairwell first. After a moment I followed, and we paused together in the gloom. Like so many other places I'd visited recently, darkness swallowed us. A bit nauseous from the climb, I leaned against a wall for support as we tried to decipher what lay before us. While the dark crowded about us, our eyes eventually adjusted to the gloom and revealed that we weren't completely blind.
"A ladder?" Jacob asked incredulously.
"Looks like it," I said, walking forward. Along the far wall, a single ladder led upwards to a trapdoor. This hatch was nearly closed, but a trickle of light escaped and lit the rungs below it. From its dim light, I saw we were indeed within the tower, the room a perfect circle. Interestingly enough, other than the ladder, the space was empty.
Logan held up a hand. "What's that?"
I looked at him. "What's what?"
"That!" he hissed, and I heard it this time. Somewhere above, a woman was crying softly, a series of low sobs echoing around us.
Then a scream rent the stones. "No!" wailed the voice above.
Logan's eyes went wide. He roared, throwing himself up the ladder before either Jacob or I could restrain him. Lacking alternatives, we scrambled up the rungs after our impetuous friend, our sheathed sabers rattling behind us.
The scene above was a picture taken from the darkest dreams of hell.
Exiting the trapdoor, we were bathed in a gorgeous light from dozens of candles and lamps. Ornate rugs and paintings lined the floors and walls, and the tower was a den of opulence. Two tall windows raced towards the ceiling along the room's perimeter, and the airy snow continued to drift by outside. A comfortable, four-poster bed rested against one side, and the room itself was quite large. But as the cries indicated, we were not alone.
A demon clutched at a maiden on the bed. Mercedes writhed, her face clouded by tears, and her shredded dress hung off one shoulder. Above her, like some vulture of lust, was the man we'd sought for so long.
Aloysius Fuchs looked the same as he had months before. The black of his mustache and imperial goatee mirrored the darkness outside. But there was the light of fury in his eyes as he whirled to face us. His black jacket, set apart from his guards' by gilded stitching, lay forgotten at his feet. His trousers were askew.
"I thought I told you not to distur—" His raspy, raw voice cut off midsentence as he glimpsed us. The eyes of the monster swelled in horror, but he acted without thought. In a single motion, he snatched his jacket from the ground, drawing a revolver. His strong grasp yanked the poor woman from the bed, hauling her before him like a shield. A delicate, smooth shoulder shone from her ripped dress, and there was animal terror in her gaze. When those wide eyes landed on us though, a glimmer of hope crept onto her face.
"Logan! Jac—" Fuchs cuffed her, and the exclamation died on her lips. At the blow, Logan prepared to leap forward, but the charlatan wheeled his pistol towards her head.
Fuchs breathed thickly, his frame shaking in rage. "I don't know how you boys got here, but you'll find it rather more difficult to leave."
"Enjoying your country, you sick bastard?" shot back Logan in a rage.
"Not nearly as much as killing the heretics of the nation. Do you three realize how touchy things have been with your little plots?"
Jacob, his revolver now leveled towards the pair, let out a long hiss. "Let her go Fuchs."
"Fuchs?" he responded. "I don't know what joke you're playing. Or what name you refer to me by. But if you persist in pointing that infernal device at your royal king, things will become decidedly painful." His gaze kept shifting towards the trapdoor — he expected reinforcements. I moved, slammed the thing shut, and stood over it. If we were to be assaulted by the guards below, they wouldn't catch us unprepared.
The lunatic across the room continued. "There will be no parlay. You'll lay down your weapons and surrender to your treacherous doom or you'll watch her brains coat the carpet. Her life's in your hands. Make a choice."
I struggled, trying to buy time. "Killing her, killing us, killing the king! Killing the monks! I know you're a religious man. Damn it, you're the leader of the Faith! What's the point of a God if you go around killing His creations?"
He sighed. "You're still on that, aren't you? We've discussed this already. Do you remember the last time we met?"
I sneered. "I seem to recall you murdering a man in cold blood, yes."
He snickered. "Ah yes. Well, the death of a man who betrayed God is no sin. We, the righteous, act as the Lord's hands. God wills it. His just wrath found a neck and we squeezed. Silence!" This last was directed at the piteous Mercedes. Her frame had began to quiver uncontrollably, and she whimpered, tears again coursing down her flushed cheeks.
The monster's eyes flicked back towards us. "No. I killed the monks for the same reason I killed the king — opposition to the will of God is too dangerous. God didn't make us equal; God made us noble, and God made us peasant. His will is to keep them separate, and His will is to be enforced."
"And you're the will of God?"
"I said it before. I don't expect a peasant like you to understand. The social order was put in place by the Lord for the very reason we're all here tonight. Without a king who knows his place as the father of his country, people grow unruly, unrighteous, unrepentant. They're children, and they need a strong hand! That strong hand is God's will. That strong hand is the Faith." The charisma in his words dripped like festering honey. I felt nauseated, his very voice an illness. The malady didn't stop though. He spoke on, shaking Mercedes while the pistol bore into her temple. "I grow tired of this. You will surrender to me. Or you will watch her die."
"Look at me!" roared Logan. All eyes turned to him. His face was contorted almost beyond recognition. Sweat pulsed through his scalp, turning his hair into a coiled mat. His very cheeks writhed in agitation, in fury
. "If you so much as touch her, I will flay your skin and watch you suffer. I promise you on God and all your false principles that nothing will save you!"
I had never, in all our time together, seen Logan in such a rage. He looked possessed, and I had little doubt he would fulfill his gruesome promise to the letter if the chance arose.
We all paused as my feet rumbled beneath me. An unseen hand was pounding on the trapdoor, and a voice — a beautiful voice — followed. "Nathaniel, Logan. Open the door! We have the palace. The rest of the guards are blocked in their rooms! Let us up!" shouted Eva.
A look of utter terror crossed the charlatan's eyes before it was replaced by inconsolable loathing. Before he even moved, a strange foresight played the scene before my eyes. What followed seemed like a performance I'd memorized long ago.
Wrenching his arm, Fuchs hurled Mercedes through the window, her body shearing the glass as the shards cascaded down, a transparent waterfall flecked with the blood of the innocent. Image by image, the woman fell from sight, rushing towards the frigid lake which waited below.
Logan screamed a wordless, animal howl. Throwing himself forward, he launched towards his enemy. But Fuchs was not waiting. Instead, the imposter snapped his revolver towards us and fired. Subconsciously I noticed Jacob buckle beside me, once more wounded. Even as he shot though, Fuchs strode towards the window, offered us one last leer, and dove into the night.
For a moment the world froze. Breath was entirely absent, and the flickering of lights played before our eyes like tortured scenes of emptiness. For only a moment, there was nothingness. Then the trapdoor opened and Eva and Simon burst upwards. Ignoring this, I looked into Logan's eyes, and the bleeding Jacob was forgotten.
Together, we moved. Together, we breathed. Together, we lunged, And together, Logan and I soared through the darkness, my friend seeking the girl, I the devil himself.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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