Sneak Peek: The Punishment Hand

Prior to leaving Kansas, I was working on the third book in my non-magic epic fantasy series. Now that I’m settled in Kentucky, I’ve pick up the work again since I would like to have the new book available before the new year.

As of right now, book three of my Ascendant Realms series will be titled The Punishment Hand.

Adversaries Together, Book I

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Winterfinding, Book II 

(Both are now free as digital downloads through Amazon’s Kindle and Kindle app, which can be gotten for any device.)

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The story takes place a few weeks after the events of book two focusing on the reunion of six of the seven heroes of the story: Kira Ambrose, a priestess of sorts who is being hunted because of her heretofore secret lineage; the disgraced paladin Goshen Staad; Declan Rainway, a mercenary turned compatriot; Fery Landis, daughter of the leader of the besieged city of Rikonen Wynne Landis;  the free ranger Jena Char; and Wynne Landis, who is jockeying to be elected as the leader of the world’s religion.

The series is one of political intrigue, and this new installment moves along the machinations of various conspirators to wrest power. The dominate religion of the world of Syr Nebra is in the midst of electing a new Patriarch, a process call a Conclave. The eastern nation of Silvincia (called the Spires) has encamped an army outside the holy city of Sulecin in the central nation of Cassubia where the Conclave is taking place. The Spires is looking to be sanctioned for its siege and eventual annexation of the western nation of Essia. While this balance of power plays out, a huge armada from the far southern nation called The Aral has shown up causing the northern leaders much consternation.

Our heroes are discovering just how in over their heads they are and to just what degree they are but pawns.

If you’d like to find out more about the series and the story, you can check out what I’ve written on my world’s geography and races.

The Punishment Hand

My current cover for The Punishment Hand

Here’s a sample chapter. Please let me know what you think or if you’d like to be notified when the new novel is available (gentlyreadlit@gmail.com).

Chapter 4, Sulecin: The Cathedral City

“Eighty-seven dead.” Evreth Sola’s voice boomed through the chamber.

There were six rows of elevated benches along either side of the long rectangular room. With nearly three hundred bodies on either side of the chamber, the fact that Evreth’s voice could resound so surprised Wynne.

The open marble floor between the two sides was bisected by a narrow, thin rug leading to where Patriarch Arius sat silent looking like a wizened crone. He was flanked by Apostol Erick Suun and Penitentiary Egan Qualey. Before the apostol and penitentiary walked Legat Solospol Haren as he slowly made his round about the chamber following along the railing before the benches. The legat function was to ensure conclavists were not in violation of any of the codes of conduct. As he passed, Wynne noticed conversations discreetly ceased and hands were displayed palms up on laps.

Arius had barely reached his mid-twenties when he ascended nearly eighty years ago after the death of Patriarch Arsene. Death was a kind word for it. Although an open secret among the clergy, it was hardly disseminated among the populace that Arsene’s death by his own hand. Arius had maneuvered to sequester the former patriarch to force him to sign a series of edicts that Arius had himself written.

With his will broke and Arius’s enforced, Arsene had committed suicide. Many within the clergy began to refer to the incident using a colloquial phrase, the punishment hand. The euphemism started to pepper official and unofficial texts written afterwards. Common folk and clergy now used to the term as a catchall for suicide, both noble sacrifice and cowardly escape.

Arius had been easily elected then since the remaining clergy (all having been appointed by Arsene) were too afraid to do otherwise. He had gone on to mold and form the modern faith. He was the prime mover of the world that Wynne’s father, Wynne, and Fery had been born into. Now he sat on a throne of sorts that made him look impossibly feeble. Wynne saw a man who seemed about to fall into dust at any moment.

Before the frail patriarch who had decreed the genocide of the athingani, created the Novosar nation, and given Silvincia its legitimacy, they all sat. But he did not hold sway over them any longer. Arius had been stripped of all his authority.

On the first day, the conclavists had voted for the election of a new patriarch with the only dissent being Evreth, Arius’s hand chosen successor. The patriarch’s position was now purely ceremonial, to sanction the election by the clergy. However, the patriarch still had a devout following and was going to be a major force in the debates as the bickering entered its fifth week.

“We know how many died.” The Covenanter’s candidate Baro Rouse dismissed Evreth’s comment to sounds of assent.

Evreth was unphased, “Eighty-seven is merely the number of justiciars.”

“Merely?” One of the Covenanter faction muttered audibly.

“Three hundred citizens.” Evreth’s voice rose again. “Three hundred believers who were in Speaker’s Square to hear word of our deliberations.” This produced a wave of outrage that cowed Baro’s camp.

“No one is denying the tragedy.” Said Amberlin Marsch, the voice of the Consoli faction and one of the few women to survive Partiarch Arius’s purge of the sex from the higher ranks of the clergy.

“Almost four hundred souls gone—that we know of. The numbers will rise as some of those injured extinguish.” Evreth added to the growing indignation. It seemed he was getting the response wanted.

“Is it a tragedy?” Karess Youngblood muttered just loud enough for Wynne to hear.

He was one of handful of conclavist representing Essia. From Paraonen, he had deep lines all over his face, a near permanent reddish skin tone from his years whaling, and thick, milky white hair. A man in his middle fifties, he looked much older but his body was clearly far from feeble. In fact, Wynne had winced when they had first shook hands due to the firmness of Karess’s grip. How he had managed to be named a conclavist, Wynne thought, would have been an interesting story on its own.

“What?” Parvel Silken of third Essian city Heveonen sitting just behind Wynne and Karess asked.

The only way Wynne could describe Parvel was as a narrow man, hunched like a fiddlehead. Wynne found him profoundly annoying.

“A tragedy.” Karess repeated. “Isn’t that when someone’s greatest strength becomes their greatest weakness.”

“That’s dramatic irony.” Parvel attempted to clarify.

“Yes, but still.” The bickering of the assembly was reaching a crescendo, but Wynne couldn’t quite identify if anything significant had been said.

“Their faith.” Parvel said.

“What?” Karess asked.

“Their faith was their greatest attribute; it became a fatal flaw.” Wynne cut in hoping to put an end to the discussion.

“For the justiciars?” Karess turned to look at him. Legat Solospol slowly walked by eying the three of them, then scowled at some well behind them.

Wynne waited for him to pass then whispered “Well, that remains to be seen.”

Evreth’s voice pierced through the cacophony, “You may not be denying the tragedy, but you are most certainly looking to nullify its meaning.”

“And what meaning would that be?” Baro furiously spat back.

“That your order, that your sect, has become uncontrollable.” Evreth jabbed an accusatory finger at Baro. “Your justiciars have become overly militant and beyond any reasonable orthodoxy.”

“We obey the letter of the law.” He replied dismissively garnering shallow cheers from his cohort.

“That doesn’t matter?” Evreth demanded, astounded by Baro’s flippancy.

Baro tried to turn the tide, “The law doesn’t matter?”

“Don’t dare twist my words to suit you. The law or obeying the law is not the issue here. What is? Your sect deciding that they alone have the power, the authority to carry summary judgments. Justiciars are intended to police, to aid and serve the people and not to bully and intimidate.”

The conclavists stomped their feet in approval. It was a kind of muted patting given they were all wearing velvet boot slippers. Wynne found the whole display odd and overly dramatic.

“Succor is not our charge.” Baro realized he was not going to win the argument. Too many had already made up their mind against him and were latching onto the riot as the justification. But he still wanted to steer the debate to safer shores. “There are times when a firm hand is not only preferable but necessary. We could not allow this Shadow Sun sect to inflict its practice, its vision of the Light, upon those gathered to hear, to see all the Light.”

“No one here denies the Shadow Sun was out of line.” A conclavist Wynne didn’t know who had chimed in.

“But death?” One of the Consoli hit back.

“Not just death, murder.” Another called out.

“Who will be held responsible? You?” A conclavist near Wynne challenged Baro much to the satisfaction of Evreth and his cohort.

“You know full well I had nothing to do with this action.” Baro said to all.

Evreth could tell he had won the day and moved in for the finishing move, “If you would claim that the Light shines upon you, then we must ask what you can see. If you cannot see the darkness in your own order, your own shadow.” He paused to let the word linger. “If you cannot check its spreading, then how dare you suppose to guide our great faith!”

Applause broke out drowning Baro’s protest, “So it comes out! Your true interest in this singular event is to tear me down, too poison our brethren against me. That is truly contemptible!”

Evreth continued, “Murder is contemptible. Shirking one’s responsibility is contemptible. Saying what is true is hardly so.”

“What would you have me do?” Beaten, Baro tried to save some face. Unfortunately, few of the conclavists felt compelled to give him an easy out.

“Step away!”

“Punish the guilty!”

“Reparations!”

He shook his head, his jaw clenched and his body tense. “I can’t help but hear all those suggestions coming from those who have for ages opposed my sect’s vision of the Light.”

“We all know of the factions.” Parvel muttered annoyed.

“Saying so is hardly a crime.” Karess replied.

“It is unseemly.” Parvel said.

Wynne had to nod in agreement, “None of this is as elegant as I was led to believe.”

Karess turned to look at Wynne. His tone changed, suddenly having more gravity than before, “You have just witnessed a sea change.”

“For Evreth.” Wynne asserted, but he was unsure if any alliances were truly any clearer than before.

“The Bandrans are done.” Parvel said. “There’s no way Baro is going to ascend.”

Karess nodded but held up a hand as though a teacher correcting a student. “They still have votes. There’s no way they’re fractured.”

“So then, who will win them over?” Wynne asked more to himself than anything else.

“Anyone can, it comes down to what they want now that their ascension is not an option.” Parvel said then paused for a beat before asking, “Do we even have anything?”

“Absolutely nothing.” Karess said flatly.

“So then why bother? They are lost.” Parvel flicked his wrist dismissively.

“Not necessarily. They can bought, though they may very well ask for too much. An easier path would be to make all the other candidates equally unpleasant to them.” Karess trailed off as he scanned the benches around the Covenanter faction.

Parvel nodded, “Then it would mean who offers them the most and is the least disagreeable.”

“There it is.” Karess returned to his old salt persona. Wynne made a note to talk more with him, perhaps even mine Pallas for information. He was discovering his compatriots were less savvy than he’d hoped but perhaps much more pragmatic.

“We can offer nothing but we can be…” Parvel’s tone betrayed his self-satisfaction.

“Agreeable.” Wynne said in an exhausted tone.

His time spent trying to garner sympathy for Rikonen before the surprise announcement of the Conclave sequestering him in the Cathedral proper had taught him that it would an uphill climb. Yet, in a strange way, he had already lain the groundwork.

Apostol Erick struck a gavel on low bench before him signaling that the day’s debate was at an end. All discussion ceased and every conclavist stood to file out of the chamber. Each faction would retire to its individual alcoves to discuss and render a vote.

Wynne couldn’t remember just how many votes he’d already cast. He did know that he was to the point now where all the arguments were the same, from the same people, and to the same end. As the lines of conclavists slowly moved into their alcoves, Wynne felt a certain numbness.

The conclavists’ uroro vestments were deep red embroider with gold making them all look aflame.  There was little urgency; this was a slow burn. Wynne’s eyes scanned the chamber but he couldn’t discern any real changes of demeanor. He had been quiet thus far, leaving any speaking to Karess, but he had been tasked with crafting each speech.

As he stepped down from the benches, he felt a tug at his back. He turned and was startled to see the Consoli’s Amberlin Marsch. She was a short woman, not old but mature, with eyes that sparkled with a kind mischievousness.

“Grand Alder,” she said softly, “a word before you retire.”

Wynne glanced around. It wasn’t irregular for conclavists to exchange words prior to entering their alcoves, but it wasn’t encouraged.

Karess patted Wynne on the shoulder as he passed nodding that it was all right, but Wynne couldn’t help but look out for Legat Solospol. “Yes, Cantor Amberlin, of course.”

“I won’t keep you long but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your signature on my petition to revise benefices.” She took his hand and patted it gently, then departed with a shallow bow.

“And what was that?” Parvel lingered behind him.

“Thanks for something I didn’t do.” Wynne muttered.

Parvel nodded gesturing for Wynne to enter the alcove so the door could be closed behind them. Wynne turned his attention back to the alcove, rubbing his chin as he did so.

“I will need to leave a bit earlier than usual.” He paused, and then reached into his sleeve pocket he withdrew three blue lithos and handed them to Parvel. “Here are my lots, I give you my proxy.”

“I don’t think…”

“Thank you, Parvel,” Wynne closed Parvel’s hand over the lithos, “I appreciate your discretion.”

Wynne didn’t give him time to reply. He moved swiftly across the alcove ignoring the calls and eyes of a few fellows to a narrow doorway that opened to a tightly spiraling staircase. Hurriedly, Wynne disappeared into the darkness. 

***

Light poured into the empty Cathedral causing Pallas to pause on the catwalk that hung far above the alter. There were times when the Cathedral was truly beautiful, when its design fulfilled its soul warming promise. The pristine towering glass, immaculate marble, pillars leading the eye impossibly upward to the complex latticework where Pallas now walked roused the imagination.

When the sun’s rays passed through, it fed the delusion of divinity. These beautiful moments irritated him. Pallas released an annoyed sigh as he continued along the narrow walkway.

It was an atremental hold, a black iron box hidden deep in the upper rafters of the Cathedral. Intended as the patriarch’s most sacred place of contemplation, it had never lived up to is design. Rather, it had quickly become a hideaway for the patriarch and clergy of highest rank.

Under Arius, it had become a cell in which captive minds withered. Pallas came to the large circular door. He tossed back several small latches and lock guards, then grabbed ahold of the main bolt lifting it out and then up as it made a painful screeching. It was a wonder the noise didn’t echo through the Cathedral. With the door unlocked, Pallas rolled it to the side opening a crescent sliver large enough for him to enter.

Once inside, the door eased closed again. All was darkness. His eyes needed a moment to adjust, and when they did, he could discern a warm glow coming from deeper inside the cloister. He moved forward slowly and began to catch snippets of speech, tones of voice soon becoming familiar.

Half melted candles on chest high candelabras threw soft, orange light into the darkness browning the bodies collected before them. The wax seemed to be desperately grasping for the floor as Pallas identified Ebon’s plaintive whine.

“The Spires army should have been enough, but the riot…”

“The riot simple insured our control.” Stilbon dismissed Ebon’s worry.

“That it did, in spite of itself.” Sinclar had his back to the three already gathered—Ebon, Stilbon, and Vander. He ran his fingertips over the large oaken desk gently rapping then caressing the pockmarked surface.

The candelabras, the desk, and a ridiculously high backed chair were the only visible furniture. As Pallas came forward, the other three clergy said nothing but parted slightly to allow him to join their chevron before the Vicegerent.

“It was here, you know.” Sinclar spoke with a cold distance in his voice. “Where Patriarch Arsene took his own life. Arius had him sequestered, being the ascelpian for the Cathedral.”

Sinclar raised a finger and chuckled, “The duties of that office were so vague. Arius, who was no kind of healer, maneuvered himself into the position so he could whisper, ‘You must be feeling ill’ to anyone, effectively ending their career. He was a cunning man, measured and sure of himself.”

Sinclar turned slowly to face the four. Glancing at Pallas, he nodded slightly.

“He kept Arsene here for seventy days. In that chair,” he thumbed behind him, “no bed, no cot just that chair and this desk. The desk, covered with edicts Arius had written. He wasn’t going to let Arsene out of this cloister until he had signed them all.”

“This was Arsene’s prison. The only light he had was the aperture there across from us. An aperture that Arius had plugged up after Arsene stabbed himself with his own pen in the throat. All that happened here and was never recorded. Bu it was whispered throughout out Cathedral.”

“A story meant to solidify Arius’s power, to guarantee him election as Patriarch. And it worked. Arius became only the third patriarch ever elected by acclamation. Let that sink in. Only the third. Makes you wonder just how divinely inspired the first two were.” Sinclar gave a false smile. “After what you witnessed and heard today, imagine just how difficult it would be to orchestrate an acclamation.”

“It would be astoundingly…” Vander began to say.

“Shut your mouth.” Sinclar snapped, his face clouding with rage that immediately dissipated as he continued.

“Difficult would not come close to the conveying what Arius had to orchestrate. I’ve been working for years to bring this conclave about, to have it peopled by my agents, having events reflect my will. It has been more than difficult and none of it has gone to plan. I’ve had to adjust, shift my tactics in midstream, create completely new stratagems in order to preserve what gains I’ve made, endure incompetence from all corners, and deal with loose ends.”

He stepped forward smiling with his arms out wide in a welcoming gesture, “But you’re all here now in this place, because I willed it so. Here, in the very place where Arius forced Arsene to commit suicide, where the punishment hand was born, where Arius made is true ascension to Patriarch happen, we are about to achieve fruition.” The smile died on his face. “I will not allow anything to go awry.”

It was as good a time as any for Pallas to speak. “Vicegerent, the Covenanter massacre,” Pallas could see Stilbon wince, “has poisoned Baro’s candidacy, but thanks the Canon,” Pallas nodded in deference Stilbon, “we can secure the faction’s votes for ourselves if we can give them a means to save face.”

“What Light could do that?” Ebon whimpered. “My brethren were cut down out of spite, our followers murdered for no reason. Simply because Baro has let his blunt instruments get out of hand.”

“I wouldn’t accuse anyone of being blunt.” Stilbon muttered.

“Your ham-fisted jokes at my expense don’t change the facts.”

“Maybe not the best choice of words.” Vander had to stifle a snicker.

Pallas rolled his eyes and took a step back as Sinclar suddenly strode forward unleashing a backhand that spun Vander around dropping him to the floor. Sinclar set his eyes on Ebon who was already cowering but reached out with his other hand and griped Stilbon by the throat.

“You killed without permission, without warning.” He growled. “And you let your sheep be slaughtered. So as far as I’m concerned, you both have much more work to do to atone.”

Sinclar released Stilbon, who crumbled to the floor coughing as his beet-red face gasped for air. Ebon was still hunched praying not to be attacked, and Pallas swore he detected the faint scent of urine. Vander stood flattening the creases in his Cossack in an attempt to regain some of his dignity. Pallas took a step forward to stand where he had been.

“In response to the concerns, I have a simple solution.” Pallas said.

“Do tell.” Sinclar had turned back to the desk, leaning on it as he regained his composure.

“The Rikonen Prime Alder, Wynne Landis, could very easily be our shill.”

“I thought Karess was Essia’s candidate.” Vander said in a warbling tone.

Pallas nodded, “He would be, but I believe that Wynne could easily supersede him. He only needs leverage.”

“And what leverage could we provide? The man has been sulking through our halls for months trying to generate support. Arius has made sure that he found none. I can’t simple turn that back, it would reveal too much of myself.” Sinclar shook his head.

“I have been meeting with the Rikonese, and I believe that we will soon have some new information that will solidify your ascension.”

“It’s not right for you to withhold information.” Stilbon was standing again, wiping saliva from his chin and lips. “And what could you offer the justiciars that would motivate them more than fear of being on the wrong side of that Spires army at our gates?”

“These are legitimate questions.” Sinclar added calmly.

“I will be meeting with Wynne and some others from the city soon in my aetheneum.”

“That doesn’t answer the question.” Vander replied.

“No, it doesn’t.” Pallas coolly replied. He would be damned if any of these three imbeciles would provoke any outward emotion from him. He nodded to Sinclar, “But as the Vicegerent has said, your concerns are legitimate and as such will be address when the time is right.”

“When will that be?” Stilbon demanded.

“When I say it is.” Sinclar ended the conversation. “Go, Ebon, and speak with the Consoli. Tell them that your brethren would welcome an alliance. An immovable passive resistance against the aggressive Covenanters.”

Ebon nodded, “That will only do so much, Vicegerent. It won’t be enough votes for yourself.”

Sinclar turned to the friar with a warm smile and slowly approached him. Ebon looked like an animal paralyzed with fear. Sinclar place his hands on Ebon’s shoulders, gently patting. “I am aware, but you will be delivering me a voting bloc that will be quite important later on. Trust me, my friend. Now go and tell Amberlin that you are for her reforms, alright.”

Sinclar spoke to Ebon as though he were a child. Ebon nodded eager to please and to be away. As Ebon disappeared into the darkness and the sound of the iron door opening came, Sinclar turned his attention to Vander.

“As you say, there is still an army at my gates. An army that should be doing my bidding rather than challenging my authority. You need to send word to your contacts, ready them for my ascension, and have the general of this venture be ready to come see me. There will be great changes underway, changes that will benefit our allies in the Spires.”

Sinclar took Vander by the arm and turned him around to leave, “You go and on your way out you make sure your contingent of conclavists will vote against the Consoli amendments and the Covenanters.”

Vander shook his head confused, “But won’t that just…”

“Nullify Evreth? Yes, it will. He’ll lose just enough votes and desperately flail about. Perhaps even find me and my quietly unspoken for faction. My point is, Vander, you just need to do what I tell you to do.” Sinclar patted him on the back and pushed him off into the direction of Ebon. He stood a moment and then turned to face the remaining two.

“This happens now.” Sinclar’s tone shifted back to menacing. “There will be only one more scrutiny. I want it to last long enough that votes are traded on the floor in their speeches. Then a call to vote.”

“I can ensure that all our votes are accounted for.”

“I have ensured that, Stilbon.” Sinclar sneered. “What I need you to do is make sure that the paladins are set to accept the vote and the justiciars are kept in check until afterwards. No more blood. The riot served its purpose but no more lashing out.”

“Served its purpose?”

“It was hardly an accident that the Shadow Sun sect was guided into Speaker’s Square.” Pallas clarified.

Stilbon’s jaw dropped but he immediately regained his composure. He nodded at the Vicegerent, “All the righteous blades will accept the decision of the conclavists. Any dissenters will be removed, cut away like a tumor.”

Sinclar smiled, “That is the answer, Stilbon. That is what needs to be done.”

He turned to Pallas, “Speak to me immediately after your little reception.”

Pallas nodded deferential and began to leave alongside Stilbon. Just as they came to the door, Sinclar called after him.

“Both of you.” They stopped and exchanged a glance. Pallas was visibly irked which Stilbon found satisfying.

“Of course,” Pallas replied over his shoulder, then addressed Stilbon, “I shall find you and we will report here together.”

Stilbon nodded, “I shall be ready.”

“Go.” Sinclar commanded and the two slipped through the bright crescent opening to the Cathedral proper.

***

The five of them made their way in the dark through the alleys. It was cold but the air was heavy with moisture. Their breath could still be seen but it was smaller now, not the cloud it had been only weeks before.

The Speaker’s Square massacre had led to weeks of rioting in all quarters of Sulecin. Two of the safe houses the group had gone to were newly burnt out husks. A third had been surrounded by Covenanter pilgrims, so they’d avoided it. That night they had slept on a rooftop back-to-back in strange looking circle. When morning had come, they were all covered in hoarfrost and stiff to the bone.

Finally, they made their way to the last safe house on the list that Pallas had left. The locale was nearer to the Cathedral than they had been in before. In fact, as they meandered through the alleys they caught glimpses of the chasm that was once the circling promenade. Following the directions, they came to an abandoned tenement. Its doorway gaped open and peering inside there were only shattered chairs and tables covered with thick dust.

“This is it?” Declan asked.

Fery looked at the parchment that Pallas as left trying to decipher the directions. They hadn’t been written in Common but rather the First tongue and it had been a long time since she had need to read the language. “Yes, this is it but we have to…”

“Let me see,” Kira asked pulling her glove off and gesturing for Fery to hand her the paper.

Fery did so without reluctance. Reading the First tongue had been giving her a migraine. Well, that and the fumes coming up from the promenade chasm.

Declan walked around the room. It wasn’t clear what he was looking for but he was definitely searching for something. Jena looked him over, “What?”

“There’s a draft.”

“How can you tell, it’s freezing in here.” Goshen asked.

“For a big guy you sure don’t hand the weather well.” Jena said.

“I’ve yet to acclimate myself to your lifestyle.” He replied.

Jena smirked, “You’re from here.” Goshen winced as she turned her attention back to Declan. “And so?”

Declan pushed over a table and kicked a broken chair out of his way as he squatted down inspecting the floorboards. He held his hand just inches over the floor feeling the air, then stopped, and reached a finger down between a gap in the boards. He pulled gently at first but then yanked hard. He fell back as five of the boards flipped up revealing a passage below.

“Well, there you are then.” Declan grinned. “Shall we?”

Jena nodded, “Might do.”

“Just wait a moment.” Kira said holding out the parchment. “Let me see what Pallas said for us to do.”

“Where do you suppose that goes?” Goshen asked.

“Deep.” Declan said as he squatted looking down into the crevasse. “There’s holds here cut into the stone. Looks like we’d be going down one at a time and it’d be a tight fit.”

Jena nodded, “Yeah, that’s not much more than two or three feet in diameter. Pull your gear close.”

“Would that even be enough? I doubt.”

“Goshen’s right,” Declan said, “Maybe we stow our stuff up here?”

“Or drop it down.” Goshen shrugged.

Jena shook her head, “No way.” She pointed to the hole, “One of us goes down there to find out what’s what, like where it leads, then comes back up here.”

“I dunno, that could take some time.” Declan muttered.

“It makes more sense than leaving our things up here unattended or all of us climbing down there to end up Light knows where.” Goshen said and all three nodded their heads as they contemplated the hole.

Fery came up to the three, her hands on her hips. “What the fuck makes you think that’s the way to go?”

They hall turned their heads abruptly and looked at her dumbfounded, as though her voice had just snapped them all out of some mystical revelry.

Jena scowled looking at Fery then turned to look at the men. “She’s not wrong. What they hell are we thinking?”

Goshen shrugged and Declan returned his gaze to the hole.

“There’s something in the air around here.” Fery said.

Jena chuckled, “Yeah.”

“No, I mean it. There’s some stench coming up from the chasm. It comes in waves, like the wind brings it. Smells awful, but I can feel myself get light-headed and it’s hard to think.”

“That’s coming from the chasm?” Declan asked.

“Pretty sure.” Fery said.

“What would do that?” Jena asked.

Kira came over the four, “Well, I think we’re going to find out. I figured out what Pallas wrote.”

“And?”

“Goshen go look through those cabinets behind you.”

“What am I looking…” He went to open a cabinet and the rotted door came off in his hand. The cabinet was empty. He tossed the door aside and opened the next where he found it.

“Masks.” Kira said as Goshen held out what he had found to the group.

“Masks?” Delcan said.

Jena took one of the masks from Goshen. She held it up. It was a firm, featureless surface with a single long eye slit maybe half an inch wide. There were no slits for the nose or mouth.

“How do you breathe in this?” She wondered aloud.

Fery picked up another and looked inside. “There’s some kind of filter than covers your nose and mouth.”

She pulled out a couple of straps and the fabric that was sewn around the edge of it. She threw the fabric back and held it with the inside facing her. She bent her head down and gestured for someone to tie the straps, which Jena did. Still bent over, she adjusted the mask and threw back the cloth as she stood back up. The cloth fell like hair around her shoulders as the mask gave her an uncanny air.

“You look like some kind of executioner.” Goshen said.

They could just barely see Fery’s eyes through the slit as she looked over each of them. There was some mumbling but they couldn’t make out what she was saying.

Jena waved her hand, “Don’t bother speaking, it’s too muffled.” She gestured for Fery to take it off, which she did. “So?”

“Yeah, there’s a filter in this. You don’t realize how much it helps until you use it. The air tastes…different. Like water pour over charcoal.”

“Huh.” Declan said as Jena took the masks from Goshen and handed them out.

“We couldn’t understand a word you said.” Goshen added.

“Yeah, we’re not going to be able to talk to each other with these things on. So, we’ll have to keep close to one another and use simple gestures. Wait.” Jena turned to Kira. “Are we going down that hole or not?”

Kira nodded, “We are. It goes down to a cistern of sorts. There’s a landing and then stairs. A tunnel that we follow to the end.”

“Then what?” Declan asked.

Kira shrugged, “The directions end.”

“So we’ll figure it out when we get there.” Jena asserted.

“What about our gear?” Goshen reminded them.

“Take it or leave it?”

“How much of a rush are we in?” Fery asked.

“I’d say a bit more than usual.” Kira said

“So…” Goshen shrugged.

“Fuck it, I’m just taking it.” Declan threw up his hands. He placed the mask over his face and drew the straps tight. Tucking the cloth under his tunic leathers, he spun his pack around to his chest and pulled its straps tight so that it hung from him like an infant. Then he began to climb down into the hole.

“Well, decided then. Get set.” Jena said as he put the mask on.

Soon all five had disappeared into the hole. They moved slowly with there being little light and their vision impaired by the narrow slits of the masks. Then the hole opened up to an eerily perfect looking rectangular cistern. With all five of them out of the hole, they were rather tightly packed.

Once all five were down, they began inspecting the cistern. The walls were damp and cold as a lone sconce burned a bluish flame that seemed to come from a metal tube of some sort. They quickly found the stairway cut from the wall.

With their backs against the wall, they cautiously moved down the stairs. Soon it opened up to a large cavern, and they saw that the stairway was a series of switchbacks descending into the darkness. At every other landing, a sconce of gentle blue flame threw enough light for them to see where they were going but not much more. They made their way for what seemed like an interminable distance. Kira looked up to gauge their progress after about a half an hour but could only see faint flicking.

Finally, the stairs ended. They were standing on an uneven stone floor. Standard torches stabbed into the rock wall quivered in the dark beckoning them onward. They followed the light and soon the irregular cave walls and floors turned into smooth, rounded stone. The group suddenly found themselves standing in a large tunnel.

Goshen pulled a torch free and walked out into the center of the tunnel. A trickle of water ran down the middle of the tunnel. He stood astride it as he looked up, back, and forth. The tunnel was at least thirty feet wide, and in a middling distance, a very pale light signaled which way they needed to go. Goshen gestured for the others to follow him and they made their way cautiously towards the light.

Soon everyone felt a breeze and the torch Goshen held went out. It was weirdly warm and something about it was making Declan and Kira’s eyes water. They had to pause a few times to clear their vision. Finally, though, the tunnel opened up to a huge canyon.

Jena and Goshen stepped out onto a small balcony. Jena set her hands on a wrought iron balustrade and gazed out across the chasm. Goshen tapped her on the arm and gestured toward a rope bridge that extended out just below them to a sister balcony just barely visible.

The others came the balcony’s edge. Fery looked up realizing they were more than halfway down into the promenade chasm. The brisk, clear sky they had left nearly an hour ago ran like a brilliant band above them. Kira tugged at Fery’s sleeve gesturing down into the chasm. There was a thick, grey-green cloud barely a hundred yards below them. The cloud didn’t seem to move, to churn, drift, or undulate, rather it just hung there letting itself slowly dissipate into the fresh air above it.

Goshen had made his way to the rope bridge following an even narrower stairway carved into the side of the chasm. He discovered the cables were thicker than he had suspected and drawn tauter as well. Looking down he saw a thin dark line of another rope bridge just inside the cloud’s mists. He could just make our the rough surge of water.

He also spied several smaller tunnels opening out into the chasm issuing a steady stream of foul grey water that fell to mist by the time it reached the cloud below. There were hundreds of these openings at all levels on their side of the chasm.

The opposite side of the chasm was nearly all featureless, rough stone except for the companion balcony across the way where the rope bridge led. Soon the others were behind him, Jena nodding for him to start to cross. They crossed in pairs. First, Goshen and Kira, then Declan and Fery, and lastly Jena.

The opposite side balcony was drastically different from where they had left. Instead of pragmatic looking with merely functional detail, this side was cut wide and with flair. The balustrade had an intricate latticework of well-maintained steel bleeding into the rock as though it was a natural part of it.

The tunnel was a well-lit hemisphere cut with a perfectly even floor and smooth creaseless walls and ceiling. The five walked on down the tunnel soon coming upon a tall, deep looking wardrobe that had its doors wide open. Jena approached it first and inspected it. Declan stood with is head cocked watching her, as Fery and Kira looked at each other and shrugged. Goshen kept looking back the way they had come, jittery and impatient.

Jena stood still for a moment, her hands on her hips. There came a harsh mumble from beneath her mask the others could only assume was her cursing. She reached up and pulled off her mask.

“Go on, we should be fine.” She said to the others as she took deep breaths.

Jena tossed her mask into the wardrobe then took a step back to look down the tunnel.

“Light be damned, these things are uncomfortable.” Goshen said as he took his mask off. He breathed deep. “Still smells a bit off but this air is cooler, it’s…”

“Moving,” Declan finished Goshen’s thought after he had thrown his mask in the wardrobe with Jena’s, “There’s some kind of ventilation on this side. Look, there.” Declan pointed to a metal grate.

Goshen came over next to him, “Is that blowing air out?” Both men felt the cool air on their faces.

“Obviously,” Jena said over her shoulder, “we’re beneath the Cathedral.”

She turned to Kira who still worn her mask. “You’re friend Pallas has been waiting for you to make your way here.”

Kira replied but it was inaudible. Jena closed her eyes and waved her off, “Take off the damn mask first.”

Kira paused for a moment then pulled the mask off. She was blushing. “Sorry. I said, he’s not my friend.”

“What would you call him then?”

“I don’t know.” Kira shrugged. “I only trust you all.” Jena smirked satisfied by the answer.

“His help has kept us safe. If he wanted to harm us or imprison us, he could have done so a hundred times already.” Goshen replied.

Declan nodded, “But that Sinclar fellow kept you two safe until he had need for you, so…”

“My father.” Kira said with a hint of contempt.

“I can’t imagine why the Vicegerent would want to kill Kira then but now want to keep her pristine.” Goshen asserted.

“Well, it’s been established that you don’t have much of an imagination.” Jena said as she inspected the inside of the wardrobe.

Goshen didn’t grimace or blush or attempt to rebut, he just shrugged. “Fair enough.”

“So we have to be on guard with everyone that’s not us.” Fery surmised. “Maybe we should have come to this realization before we came this far?”

Declan nodded, “We have pretty much walked into the perfect trap.”

“Wynne’s here though.” Goshen said.

Jena nodded and mumbled to herself, “Sure enough but where?”

She found a small box at the back of the wardrobe from which two long, thin switches protruded. Jena ran her thumb over them and thought for a moment. She shrugged was just about to flick both of them up when a grinding noise came from within the wall. A seam appeared near the wardrobe as door-sized rectangle of stone receded into the wall. The torchlight couldn’t do more than throw shadows into the dark passage that had just opened.

The group froze for an instant. Jena jumped back and joined Declan and Goshen who had their hands on their weapons looking for an excuse to unsheathe them. Just then, a figure came forth dressed in red and gold. Fery ran forward pushing passed Declan and Jena to embrace her father.

“How fortuitous.” Wynne said with a wide grin as he hugged his daughter.

Fery seemed not to want to let go, “I didn’t realize how much I missed being near you.”

Wynne kissed the top of her head, “I think it was too soon for us to be separated again.”

“Too right.”

Looking up, Wynne saw Declan and Jena, each holding a drawn dagger, and smiled. “Glad to see you two are still on your toes.”

Jena didn’t move but grinned while Declan sheathed his blade and said “Always. Kept her safe, Master Landis.”

Kira came forward, “What are you doing down here?”

“What are you?”

“Looking for you.” Goshen said.

“Well, there’s your answer.”

“Why now though?” Kira pressed.

“I’ve come down here every day since Pallas told me you were in the city. He said you’d be making your way here and I wanted to be the first face you saw. These,” Wynne gestured around them, “catacombs, sewers, I guess? Can be rather off-putting when you’re alone or first encountering them.”

“I didn’t even know about these tunnels.” Goshen said.

“Why would you?” Wynne asked. “What need does a paladin have of knowing about the undercity?”

“Still.” Goshen shrugged and turned to Kira, “Did you know about all this?”

“I assumed there were sewers but I never thought they’d empty out beneath the promenade.”

“There’s a river down there.” Goshen said to her then turned to Wynne, “There’s a river down there, too.”

Wynne nodded, “It comes from some massive underground lake to the north. They’ve redirected it so that it encircles the Cathedral before it continues on to bleed into the groundwater of the Shurin Plains.”

“That cloud? That wasn’t just river mist.” Declan asked.

“They call it the Miasma. All the sewers of the city pour into the chasm, into the river. The whole thing is a churning cesspool of sorts. That cloud is the gas, the fumes from it all. When you were coming down, you saw the sconces?”

Jena nodded, “Never saw that kind of flame before.”

“They harness it, burns without soot and blue. Doing so also keeps the fumes from building up.”

“What happens if it does?” Declan asked.

“It can explode if it touches a flame. A sudden, gigantic fire ball explosion.”

“Damn.”

“I remember that.” Kira said more to herself than to anyone.

Goshen nodded at her, “Yeah, when you were a novice a neighborhood suddenly burst into flames. Utterly leveled.”

“Which is why they keep this side so well ventilated.” Jena said bitterly.

“True,” Wynne said, “it’s also why the promenade can be retracted. It lets the gasses escape.”

“I thought that was so no one could interfere with your Conclave.” Declan said to Goshen.

“Things can have multiple uses.” Goshen shrugged guessing.

“Well, this is all fascinating but…” Jena was tired of the conversation.

“Yes, come up.” Wynne gesture toward the passage. “There’s a lift here that can accommodate us all.”

“A lift?” Declan asked.

Wynne nodded, “It’d take all of us about two hours to walk up.”

“That feels about right.” Jena said following Wynne.

“And the clergy have devised a rather simple yet effective way to travel up and down. It involves measured counterweights that allow the ride to be…”

“I, I really don’t care…” Jena cut him off. Wynne was a bit crestfallen.

“Where are we going?” Kira demanded.

“To speak with Pallas in his athenaeum.” Wynne said.

“What good will that do us?”

“We’ll be able to talk and plan in safety and a bit more comfort than here.” Wynne frowned. “Why are you resisting?”

“Do you know what’s been going on out there? Your daughter was nearly killed by a mob.” Kira snapped.

“Of your faith’s devout, I believe.” Wynne retorted. “I’ve been enduring the idiocy and zealotry of your clergy for a while now. In fact, I think I’ve seen more of the underbelly of your faith than you ever suspected. Than either of you.” Wynne pointed at Goshen and Kira. “So I would like to sit with my daughter in a place that doesn’t smell like shit. Is that acceptable?”

Kira blushed and shook her head. “I’m sorry, it’s just…”

Fery placed a hand on her father’s shoulder, “We’ve been through more than any of us expected and we’ve only had each other.”

Annoyed, Jena took Kira’s hand and pulled her into the passage, “He’s not wrong and you’re instincts are right.”

The rest followed behind leaving Wynne standing with Declan, who smiled apologetically, “She tends to get to the point.”

Wynne nodded, “I had forgotten. No wonder Roth likes her.”

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