Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 05

“Milan originally, Milord,” he said, when asked where he hailed from.

“Did you ever go to Venice?”

“I was a bodyguard there for a while, for the Casa Dandelo. I was lucky to get out of there with my life, Milord.” A suspicion entered Poulo’s not very fast moving mind. “I can’t go back there, Milord,” he added nervously. “They’ll recognize me.”

That was the moment he realized how afraid he should have been. When that face looked up at him, and he saw the eyes gleaming dull and dead though the holes in the mask. “When I have done with you, no one will recognize you. You will not know yourself in a mirror.”

Poulo might have tried to run, but he could not move. Somehow, the huge man facing him had stabbed him with a long, peculiar-looking knife. How had he moved so fast?

Poulo stared down at the blade piercing his chest, his mouth agape. From its position, the blade had to have penetrated his heart. Yet although he was paralyzed, he still lived.

The masked man lifted a small flask from a side table next to his stool. Bourgo had noticed the flask but had thought nothing of it. Liquor of some sort, he’d assumed, albeit of an unpleasant greenish-brown color.

Whatever was in that flask, however, it certainly wasn’t liquor. The masked man poured the substance onto the blade and it formed into a glutinous blob, like jelly. Then the blob began hunching its way up the blade toward Poulo. He could only stare in horror as the jelly oozed its way toward the stab wound in his chest.

When the blob was an inch or two from his chest, the masked man suddenly twisted the knife-blade. The heart wound was twisted open and Bourgo’s blood gushed out. Much of it, however, was absorbed by the jelly, whose color shifted toward red.

Then, suddenly, with a horrid sucking sound, the blob lunged through the wound into Poulo. Within three seconds, it had vanished completely.

The masked man jerked out the blade. Poulo collapsed to the floor. Finally, he could scream. And scream he did, for a very, very long time.

*   *   *

The Black Brain gazed upon him, satisfied. The preparation of the new slave had just begun, of course. Screaming and pain would continue for some time.

But there would be very little blood spilled as the parasite spread throughout its new host. The creature was a demon itself, of sorts. It would heal the wounds and consume and change the blood. In time it would kill the host, but that was no concern of Jagiellon’s. It could also be forced to obey, if he needed it to. But that would be too visible, and was no part of his plan. Instead Jagiellon conditioned the new slave to obey, until obedience was invisible. Pain and magic would be brought to bear. There would be keloid scarring caused by the parasite’s healing of its host; that didn’t matter either. The scarring, internal and external, was necessary. It didn’t matter if the slave was personable; he wasn’t going to be required to seduce anyone.

When the power that had been brought to work on him had finished, the Milanese thief and bravo would not have recognized himself in a mirror — if his new master had made him look into one. His memories and physical ability were still accessible to his new controller — who would not pull his strings like a puppet, but rather had set deep compulsions, far harder to detect magically.

*   *   *

Poulo Bourgo began the long journey west, to Venice. He knew people there still, even if they would no longer know him. They could be compelled to assist him.

*   *   *

The Black Brain plied the paths of elsewhere, avoiding the woman, her old bone harpoon and her dogs. He went further south to where he had taken control of those who sought holy inspiration and visions to guide them. The Baitini were unskilled in plying the worlds beyond and unskilled in magic, which they considered it evil and unclean — much to the benefit of the demon who had become their unknown master, by wielding such magics.

The Baitini prayed for guidance, and for help with the Mongol yoke, whose broad tolerance they found perverted. There was only One True Way for the Baitini; their way. They instead would force all into their narrow path, and kill those who they could not force.

The Baitini had not ruled by an open show of power, but by the hidden hand before the coming of the Mongol and the destruction of Baghdad. They’d tried those same tactics on Hulagu when the Mongols first came — and he’d almost destroyed their stronghold at Alamut in response.

Many of those who survived had fled to Damascus — also called Dishmaq, by some Mongols and Arabs — and now the two centers struggled quietly for dominance. The Old Man of the Mountain at Alamut was still formally their leader, but there were those in Damascus who tacitly challenged his position.

The Supreme Master of the Hidden Hand was one such. He now lived in the incense-reeking halls of their secret place in Damascus, far from the stark isolation of the mountains. He pulled the threads of death and fear across the lands of the Ilkhan and their vassal states, carefully avoiding open conflict with the Mongol. Instead, his Baitini undermined the Mongols by working for them, making themselves indispensable and penetrating government and serving as their functionaries — all the while seeking divine power and guidance.

The Black Brain was not the God they sought. But it was willing to take them and subvert them to its design. They were a sharp if small tool, right in the heart of the Ilkhan. They wanted visions of paradise? Nothing could be easier for Chernobog. Their paradise would be exactly as they imagined it to be.

* * *

The old man who was the Supreme Master of the Hidden Hand staggered out of the scented garden. His eyes were wild and his white robe soiled and disordered.

He could barely stand, but his words were clear enough. “At last! Our time is at hand. Paradise is ours, and so is power.”

The Supreme Master of Poisons looked doubtfully at his him. He knew what they smoked in the hidden, scented garden, to reach upward. He’d seen how new Hands believed fervently that they had seen paradise already. He knew what they’d experienced. He organized it, down to the houris. The current Supreme Master was an old man, and anything he said should probably be subject to suspicion. They went like that sometimes, believing too much, believing even in their own deceptions.

The Supreme Master of Poisons decided he had better send word to the Old Man of the Mountain. The Master of the Chalabis, the final arbiter in matters of religion, and thus politics and the power of the Hidden Hand, had long ago returned to holy Alamut. The Poison-master wondered who would be elevated next.

The Supreme Master of the Hidden Hand grabbed his arm with a scrawny but fanatically strong hand. “Come!” he ordered.

*   *   *

The Supreme Master of Poison took his own life that night. After what he had seen and experienced in the scented garden he was too consumed with shame — and lust — to go on. But not before he quietly sent a message to Alamut.

Others came to the garden at the insistence of the Supreme Master of the Hidden Hand; others proved stronger in resolution and obedience to him, to the message. New masters went out, full of religious zeal, and new orders. They remained in the same business, but with a renewed holy vigor, and rather a different direction.