For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloak.
– Isaiah 59:17
The last strike tore through Dominic’s breastplate reducing it to molten iron searing his skin. It rent and scorched his flesh. The earth fell silent and his last mortal vision was the macabre dance of hopeless battle waged by friends.
He found himself kneeling beside the woman in tattered clothes. The blue scarf draping her shoulders was stained with tears. “My faith has brought me back into the fray! You have brought me back to life to finish my task. Thank you.”
“You have been given life, but not a mortal life. Your task is complete; you have brought them as far as you can. You chose this path of sadness and pain for the betterment of man. But you knew it would end as it has.”
There is a gate at the edge of sight. A soft, warm light washes the ground before it. Michael, armored in silver and flame, slowly marches through the open door. “No, they aren’t done. They need me. Please! They are losing.”
“You have done what you could, and now you are beckoned home.”
Dominic stands and rushes to Artigli who stands alone before a foe he cannot defeat. Artigli slashes and hammers with sword and shield. Arrows rain in on his opponent from behind him. And still the glaive came and mercilessly tore him down. Dominic, blind to the pleas of the open doorway, guides Artigli’s strikes through breaches in plate and mail. The opponent falls. Dominic fills Artigli with wrath and he plunges headlong into the fray. Slashing left and right he brings his opponents to the ground.
But, the small group is surrounded, and wounded. Nizar has fallen. Freiderich struggles to remain on his feet. Ettore fearlessly pits himself against enemies he has no hopes to defeat. They will lose. Dominic now understands the sorrow of the woman that now accompanies him.
Lila launches into one of her blessings but the enemies shrug them off. They will lose. Lila clutches her harp, the one her father gave her in another life. She lets loose again trusting in the fairy story her father gave to her about the instrument. There wasn’t anything to do now but trust in fairy stories. The enemies stop – helpless.
“Do you believe that you were the only instrument of God in this fray? Do you believe that this moment was not known – was not planned? That harp was given to her for this moment alone, and now all that was meant has come to pass. You must come home now. You are to be rewarded.”
That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:12
Freiderich’s eyes slowly flutter open. He is immersed in darkness. That’s become somewhat normal. His wounds pain him greatly. They burn as if someone were pouring alcohol into them. There was nothing but silence and he is filled with dread. “We lost. They must have forgotten me in the darkness. I am probably the only one left alive.”
He gets up and attempts to bind his wounds and stop the pain a little. He bleeds through the bindings and the pain is only made greater by the bandage. “I have to get out of this darkness to do it right.”
He gets to his feet and begins to shamble to what he hopes is the edge. He never finds it. It seems to continue in all directions for as far as he can walk. He is tired, and hurt. The feeling of dread he has been feeling continues to grow as he realizes it might not be dark – he might be blind.
There is someone near him. He can’t see. He searches for his bow, but finds only new wounds that crack and open. He must have dropped it, but how could he find it now, with this darkness he couldn’t even make it back to where he had been unconscious.
“Freiderich…” “Freiderich, how do you feel?”
And the presence was suddenly very familiar. Dread turned to terror. This is Donato, and this is not blindness, nor is this life – this is damnation.
“You are mine now Friederich. Just mine… For all time. Come here, we will play a tune.”
And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
– Revelation 19:20
It has all happened before. And there will come a day when mankind fails – a day when there are none of faith willing to fight the beast. But, today It is pulled back into the fires along with the constant advisor. There they will dwell in their hatred for one another and their hatred for the gifts of man until opportunity once again presents itself.
Today, there are more immediate problems. Ghost cannot be left to be ravaged by the victims of the sickness. Instead a plan is quickly hatched. Nizar and Ettore stay to guard the bodies of fallen comrades while Lila and Artigli race to the shore. Artigli is an image of vengeance, hacking and slashing through a sea of plague. Lila is on his heels aiding with her blessings and songs of might. She has recalled the captain and crew, but it will be a while before they can come back ashore and they could not hope to withstand the onslaught of Poveglia. The two arrive at the shore, enchant those that hold out there, and meet the company from the ship.
Getting back to the fight is more difficult than before and several members of the crew are taken. The morale of the others falters and Lila plants courage and control in their minds. When they arrive Nizar and Ettore are both in the midst of carnage, but holding their ground. The bodies of the Cardinal and Mother are nowhere to be found. They did not leave, nor cast a spell – they are simply gone. In their place the grasses are burnt and dead. There is a scent of sulfur that fills the nostrils with heat.
A collective effort has positive results – Ghost, Dominic, and Freiderich are all taken away from this island and buried properly. What happens to them now is in the hands of God.
The three return to the island during the day. Most of the sickened have retreated to caves and dark holes. There is resistance but it is minimal. They explore the 6 towers of the monastery dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy. Most of whom are stricken with the plague themselves. They will not last long; in fact a few are half-crazed already. In these places the 6 sisters had amassed extraordinary wealth from their victims. Every sickened person would offer all they had – every earthy possession – for a chance to be free of the island. These offers were gladly accepted and then those offering them would wait just a few more days for transport. Always there was hope given that their salvation was close at hand. Always they would wait until the madness came and they roamed the island. In this way coins dropped into the monastery coffers as rapidly as rain from the sky.
Carrying their wealth with them the three left the island. They journeyed back to Verona with Artigli – to recover his father’s shield. The entire long way the party talked of nothing but vengeance for Dominic and Freiderich, except Lila who remained silent. She was always much quieter after that day. Mother’s blood wasn’t enough; Mastino’s would come too. They would overthrow him and plant Artigli on the throne as the Podesta. But, cruelty didn’t end with Mother. Mastino had amassed a great army both of local militia and of trained soldiers from throughout France and Germany. He had recalled most of his fighting forces from the lands conquered by his uncle in order to cement his place in leadership. He saw no visitors. He made no appearances. No one knew if he was even in the city anymore. When seeking out Rosa the party didn’t find her. Worse, there were no philosophers to guide their way. The artists, writers, poets, and scientists had all been persecuted and chased from the city. It was weeks later that they found that Rosa had been one of many of Cangrande’s loyalists to be rounded up and hanged from the castle.
Artigli, for now, had to settle for only the shield, but no blood. He and Ettore crept into the castle and stole it unceremoniously.
The party made their way into Tuscany to meet with Uggucionne with whom their families had been safely kept. On this journey, everyone had adopted Lila’s silence as his or her own. Carrine was saddened by the news of her husband, but did a very poor job of hiding the faint feeling of relief as well. From here, the party went separate ways. Ettore took his “wife” back to Venice to start a life in the shadow of what was left there. Nizar just left, promising Lila he’d return. She didn’t know if that were true. Lila, didn’t know where to go, just that she had to move. Carrine elected to go with her if she’d allow it. Artigli signed himself up on Uggucione’s band.
Artigli eventually became the right hand. He was the most powerful lieutenant in the group. Some speculated as to whether Uggucione himself would’ve withstood him if he had the mind to take leadership for himself. But, he never tried and never seemed interested.
Lila and Carrine traveled through their sadness. They took care of one another. At first they didn’t, but after some time they talked, and then they talked often. They traveled through taverns and were mostly left alone on the roads. They became very adept at concealing themselves penniless beggars to avoid the gaze of brigands. And, the few times that a band was more interested in them than their wealth, Lila quickly changed wicked minds of men. Occasionally they received word of major events. In the time that they traveled – a little longer than a year – several powerful leaders were assassinated without anyone to take a claim to their lands or titles. Ghibelline fell while he slept, cut to pieces while he screamed. The Anti-pope vanished in the night. The caliph of Sicily was found dead in his bedchambers along with two of his wives and a mistress. His chest was carved with Arabic word for “whore.” A brand he’d take with him to the afterlife some thought. The Admiral of the Republic of Venice was found drowned in his own bowl of fish stew.
Gradually, the lands of Verona amassed by Cangrande fell one by one to the marching Lion of Venice. Mastino seemed powerless to stop the march. It was rumored that there was a new player behind Venice’s secretive aristocracy, and that person was using the military build-up from the prior years to gain more territory inland, mainly that of Verona. By the end of the year the column of the Lion of Venice was erected in Verona’s main Piazza and Mastino was found dead. This is rumored to be the first time the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” was coined. Whether that is true or not is unknown, but what is known is that Mastino was sliced by small blades more times than the physicians could count. He was wearing his armor, but it made little difference as the thin blades found their way under the plates and through the mail without hindrance. The perpetrator was never discovered.
Eventually Nizar returned to Lila’s side as he’d promised. He was just the same as before. Lila and Carrine were somewhat recovered but had adopted more stoicism that made travel with the surly Arab somehow more tolerable for both sides. Lila understood his demeanor now, why he’d always been like this and she felt sad for him.
Together they hatched a plan to infiltrate the Sforza family that had since taken over Como. It would be easy if they did it correctly, but they wanted to see what had become of Ettore, and find out if he would be interested in joining them for just one more adventure – hopefully followed by a long life of quiet. Arriving in Venice they found it to be the same rugged place as it was before – but now, without war looming over it – there was joy in the city. Wine flowed freely, the poor were still poor, and the fondamentas were still unsafe at night, but somehow the pall of dread had been lifted. Finding Ettore proved easier than they had thought. After all he’d been through, he just went back to being a gondalier. He politely refused to go with them but offered what help he could offer from afar. That help was vague at best and Nizar and Lila left him confused – as often they were around Ettore.
Ettore was different too. He was hard. The child that ran to Nizar in tears after their first really close call was no longer. His eyes were cold. After the death of Dominic and Friederich he did not react. He just kept doing his job. If he were angry or sad no one could tell. Lila was upset to see his face had not changed in that year. Ettore smiled when he saw them, but she could tell it was a mask. There was no warmth in it. After digging a little more the two came to find out that Ettore controlled every small vessel in the lagoon. There were no competing families anymore. Those that had killed his parents so many years before were all found dead in canals about the city – dozens of them. All cut by many small blades. Periodically a family would seek to steal the boy’s monopoly and send assassins to his doorstep as was the Venetian custom. Each time Ettore would be happily rowing his Gondola the next morning. Soon, people stopped trying; after several such assaults it became apparent that the killers were not merely disappearing with coin. They were just disappearing.
When Nizar and Lila were about to leave, content in knowing that Ettore was at least safely established in his city, they were approached. Ettore himself came to them dressed in clothes unworthy of his wealth or apparent status. He handed them a leather pouch and said “My love and help is always yours.” In it, there was a gold inlaid medallion depicting the Lion of Venice. The only people who had access to such devices were the Lords of Venice themselves. Either Ettore stole it, or he was far more influential than they had guessed. This medallion was as good as a treaty with the most powerful nation on the Mediterranean.
It took time to travel to Como. No one was sure if they really wanted to go back there – not even Lila. But once there, looking over the great lake around which the city was built, she was resolved. She would get it back, but through much more conventional means. The Sforzas had done a good job rebuilding. Since this was not wartime they hadn’t increased taxes so much. The people had rallied behind their leadership after years of alternating between anarchy and tyranny. Lila Introduced herself to the family. At first she was met with skepticism, but no one made a move against her. The entire family was aware of what she had done, what the two of these travelers were truly capable of. No one was sure if there was even a person in the city capable of besting these two. It is hard to believe that a slight singer and her Arabian bodyguard would be so intimidating.
After several months of interacting with the family, gaining a local following, and subtle magical manipulations Lila had gained a very substantial social foothold in the Hierarchy of Como. And then it was time. The ship had arrived – ship laden with spices, dried fruits, and silk. It was a ship worth a fortune. Lila and Nizar walked into the throne room at the appointed time with the medallion of the Lion of Venice prominently displayed around Lila’s neck. The marriage contract was signed very quickly and almost no negotiation. In weeks she was no longer Viktoria Comaschi, but Lila Sforza. And she had more than a typical say in matters of governance. She was young, and so was her princely husband. It wasn’t very many years before the Podesta died, and her husband took the mantle of leadership. And with Lila whispering in his ear she knew the city was hers again. Always by her side was the imposing Arab. And, for a time, there was happiness. The treaty with Venice held, and ships came into Genoa and brought goods from far and wide overland to Como. Once again this was a hub of trade, and quickly regained its prosperity.
Decades passed. Almost two in fact; long enough that Nizar didn’t even complain so much of the cold anymore. When Lila came into her small salon, the one on the south side with big windows and warm sun, there were two people waiting for her. It was then that she realized she hadn’t ever left her trials behind. She had never let her guard down. Terrifying spells began to swim in her mind as she contemplated how she would steal life from the intruders. This was a moment before she recognized them – Ettore and Artigli. Both had wisps of grey sprinkling their hair. Ettore especially was wrinkled with a face burnt by sun and wind. “We have brought someone. You and Nizar need to speak with him. I’m sorry for being so unannounced, but this must be a quiet meeting.”
After Nizar came in they walked together to the kitchens where a tall, slender, very dark man stood warming his hands over the cook fires. They had never seen him before. Through a startlingly thick accent he introduced himself “I am Izemi.” They had never seen this one before. He was young. They wondered if this newer version were as deadly as those they had encountered so long ago; he did wear two gleaming scimitars at his sides and they were clearly made of fine steal.
“A man that calls himself Guy de Lusignan has gained much power in Jerusalem.” The accent was so thick Nizar begged him to speak in Arabic. “This is not alarming – tense peace has long been maintained between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. But, he is not like the other Templars of his order. He is evil and full of hate. He does not look to maintain the tense peace, but has made it clear he intends to pitch brother against brother in terrible war.” It went without saying, but Izemi said it anyway “He has used dark powers to gain his influence – those only granted by our Great Enemy.”