The Inquisitor was shaped like a man. A thin, unremarkable man in the Scarlet, a long fork-tailed coat of black and grey over his shoulders. But I’d never met a man I hated more, not even Finn, and I knew every inch of Finn.
Just like before, seeing him made me want to kill him, or kill myself, or both. To have him standing there breathing on my threshold, alive, looking back at me, was wrong, intolerable, made my flesh crawl. I tried not to even think about his breath mingling with the air I’d be breathing.
Her fingers twined through mine. The Inquisitor raised his sword to me, emotionless. It wasn’t even an unusual sword. It looked perfectly ordinary. Simple. Silver and black.
He opened his mouth to speak. Mariead’s bowstring sang out.
The Inquisitor’s arm moved before I realized what the sound meant. He caught the dart in his hand, its point four inches from his chest, and let it fall.
I took that moment to scramble up and to my feet, firming up my hands on Fury’s handle.
“Edwyrd.” Aidan wasn’t even out of breath, the fucker. “I’d hoped you had returned to Blackforge.”
“Sir Aidan,” the Inquisitor said, taking one step to his right, circling Aidan. His eyes flicked to me. “You were a good and loyal knight. A shame you have failed.”
Aidan took a wary step to one side, blocking the aisle, blotting out his view of Mariead and Eris.
“Failed,” Aidan repeated. He had sheathed his dagger while I was lost in loathing, or tucked it away somewhere out of sight. Now he held his long sword in both hands. Its edge shone with a cold, distant light.
“I had hoped it would be me who could test you,” the Inquisitor said, in a voice which suggested he had never hoped for anything in his life, didn’t know the meaning of the word, and didn’t intend for anyone else to ever learn. “I knew you would fail. I warned them. But your Captain recommended you for the Second Circle, and every knight’s loyalty must be tested if they are to join the White Guard.”
Aidan lowered his sword.
“The White Guard.”
The royal guard. The thirty knights who protect the Hand of God.
“You were tested.” The Inquisitor’s sword hung in his hand lightly, arm at his side, careless. “We struck at your weakness, and you have proven wanting.”
“You knew,” Mariead sounded stunned. “All this time, you knew?”
“Of course,” the Inquisitor said. “Nothing can be hidden from the eyes of God.”
“What she hid.” Grannine was distant, the words coming from the same direction as Mariead’s, though I still felt Her hands on mine.
“Those are not your eyes to claim.” Mariead’s voice thin, shaky, but echoed through the church, steadily approaching. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the Inquisitor to look, but it sounded like she was fighting her way forward against Eris’ attempts to hold her back. “If this is time for you to speak your piece, it is also time for mine. I name you and yours abominable and faithless, idolators who put forth their own judgment as the rule of God. You will not stand. God’s grace will win out.”
“I am God’s grace.” He sounded like he believed it. “There is no shame in your failing, Aidan. You chose according to your loyalties, and you chose wrongly. Many men would choose alike.”
“And how many men would choose to split your fucking head in?” My voice sounded like a mad dog howling after his sleek, Church-trained tone.
“Still alive, warlock?” the Inquisitor said. He raised the sword, pointed it at me, one hand behind his back, an understated, elegant form.
God, I hate him.
“He was a surprise, Aidan,” the Inquisitor commented. “I didn’t think you would stoop to this. Betraying your order? Turning your back on God? Bringing dark magic into the most holy fortress of the Templar?”
I glanced at Aidan. What are you waiting for, lad? His face was mirthless.
“In my defense, I hired him on a recommendation.”
I snorted. The Inquisitor’s dead eyes flicked to Aidan. Studied him for a moment.
“Our best knights are so often lost to us. I had hoped you might prove different. If only for the sake of our old friendship.”
“Would you like a moment to fuck?” I bent my knees, waiting for the charge. Kept half an eye on Aidan.
“Death is yours, revenant, and damnation as well. Do not rush to them.” The Inquisitor turned his dead fish’s glare on me. “Forsaking your life and soul to a demon? For what? For the promise of a stolen sword? For the sake of two ruined women?”
The choir boy shifted his feet the moment those lifeless eyes were off him. I spat on the ground, grinned at the Inquisitor. Here he comes.
“If I’d known it’d end with a chance at your head? I’d have done it for a handful of clips.”
Aidan didn’t lunge. He pounced, five feet forward at a jump, arms rising high. I saw his every movement in frozen clarity, his outline stamped on the air like a woodcarving.
“Pick up your feet, my own Dermot,” Grannine whispered in my ear. Hate stitched up Her voice, but it was soft against me, one hand creeping to my shoulder, the other wrapping round the hilt of my sword. “Now’s the time. Burn bright or burn out, I’m with you.”
Aidan was crawling forward, slow as treacle. His sword fell. The Inquisitor ducked, darted, dodged to one side, his plain silver sword cutting across Aidan’s brigandine, slapping the air from him. Aidan folded around the blow, doing nearly a half flip in the air, coming down on his back.
Mariead’s bow did not speak out. I missed the sound of it. So did the others. The Inquisitor turned.
Pale as a sheet, barefoot and noiseless. She stole up behind the Inquisitor with one hand forward, the other cocked back, holding the narrow, wooden-handled bodkin, a dagger meant for piercing plate, for snaking through chainmail, for putting holes in skulls.
She was close. Too close.
He didn’t even look at her. His free hand cut out sideways and hit the side of her throat just below where her head was tilted in a falcon’s hunting glare. The knife edge of his palm slammed against pale skin. I heard the strangled noise of her last breath.
Mariead tried to stab him anyway. She missed, but I loved her for it, though she lost her footing and fell between the pews, clutching her neck with one hand, holding her bodkin in the other like a talisman.
Aidan coughed, rocked back, and hurled himself to his feet with one snap of his spine, armor falling down around him like thunder. Penitents crowded in the door, not daring to step in. Didn’t blame them for that.
I took a step forward, and another, and stood watching, waiting for my opening.
“Mari!” Eris was on her feet. She flung an entire bench out of the way one-handed. The steel mace looked like a toy in her hand.
“Don’t be stupid, Eris!”
Eris threw her mace at the Inquisitor. It missed the mark, went flying past Aidan’s head and took a chunk from the wall with a deafening ring of metal. So much for that.
“Mari,” she stooped to the nun’s side. “Mari, breathe—Slate, she can’t–”
No use helping her if we get stabbed in the back, lass.
There was no reply, beyond a worried rush of breath as She fled to Mariead, fingers withdrawing from my hand. Felt a wry grin on my face. Guess you weren’t with me very long.
The Inquisitor drew a pistol from beneath his fork-tailed coat, aimed without looking—and broke off, withdrawing his arm. Aidan’s long knife lanced through the air his hand had just occupied, a masterful throw. Dagger and ball sang around the room before coming to rest among the rubble.
I was holding back. Fury in hand. The sound of the pistol startled me forward. We’ll feint, bait him out, draw him away from the minstrel. Aidan can finish him from the side–
Timing is everything. Knowing how long it takes a man to go from crawling to cutting, from blocking to beating you. Feeling the rhythm in your bones. You start to get a feeling like you know when the next blow will come, even before it lands. I wasn’t the quickest fighter, and I often had to make up for that by grit and madness, but when it came to feeling men out, I’d had far more than my share of practice, and I had more than a knack for it, in all senses.
But I couldn’t read him. Each time he moved, it was faster, faster, faster. The rules didn’t seem to apply to him—he went from speed to stillness and back without needing to spend the time building momentum. It gave his every motion an adder-like quality, dangerous.
I thought I knew the edge of his reach. I stepped into the fight, guard up, Fury rising to defend.
Turns out I couldn’t read him, after all.
His hands were gloved. He caught my wrists neatly in one, sword-arm cocked far back, and ran his plain, undecorated, blade into my gut.
Aidan was a rush of crimson in the corner of my eye…turning to a blur. The blade in my gut was torn free with a cold flash of pain, struck Aidan’s sword aside. The Inquisitor boxed Aidan’s ear with a force and precision like a blacksmith’s hammer, and Aidan sprawled across the ground, stunned.
I snapped my arm out, clutching after that fork-tailed coat, but the Inquisitor denied me that. He even dodged when I spat blood after him.
My right knee hit the stone floor. It was excruciating, had been sore ever since I cracked it on the cobbles in the Bridgeport forge. My vision swam.
“Come on, you peaky fuck,” I hissed. “Kill me.”
Don’t make me watch them die.
“Get up, Dermot.” Grannine’s hands were under my arms, lifting them into a guard, locking the sword into my grip. “We’re not done yet.”
“Your host is spent, succubus.” The Inquisitor raised his sword, pointed it at my right eye. I stared down the tip of it, and did not look away. “I thank God it was I who was here to oppose you this time. Only He knows how long you might have schemed in the heart of this blackguard before you were exposed.”
Behind the Inquisitor, Mariead’s hands were still raised, clawing at her throat, my view of her obscured. Eris was rising, standing over her. Grannine was there with her even while She was with me, body splayed low on the ground like a serpent, scarlet hair falling in waves, whispering into Mariead’s ear.
“I hear you singing to me, soulless child,” Her voice came from the base of my chest, was almost a chorus to me, fury scorching through my ears. It hurt to hear Her, and I clapped my palms to my head. “I do not know why I hate you, but I do, and if you do not end us both now, I will–”
“Eris, I said don’t!”
The minstrel’s face was twisted with rage, flushed with it. She lifted the pew behind her, seven feet of wood twisted back over her shoulder, and it had already started to move when I shouted at her. I might as well have tried to reason with a boar.
The Inquisitor dodged, of course. He slipped away. The giant piece of wood scythed past my head, missed me by inches. I ducked to avoid it, which hurt like fuck, widened the hole in my heart.
“Eris, run, take her and run!”
He didn’t bother to raise the sword. He raised a leg instead, struck the top of his foot into her liver with a perfect kick. Eris grunted, slipped to one side, and hit the ground.
“Stop,” I said, and it blew a bubble at my lips. I coughed, touched my face, looked down to see blood on my black left hand. “Not them.” Not them. It should be me. I’m the bastard. The sellsword. The one they hired for the dirty job. I’m the warlock, the heretic, the monster. Kill me.
Kill me first, at least. I can’t watch them die. I can’t see any more of them die.
Grannine’s hate crawled through my head, the wild, feral loathing of a rabid animal. Instinctive, irresistible. I took it into my heart, made it my own. The Inquisitor’s face was still. His eyes lightless.
“I will confess, you are intriguing.” He paused as Eris coughed. Kicked her again. “Something about your familiar…is…” His brow furrowed for the first time. “Despicable.”
I think we won’t be getting out of this one, lass. I’m sorry. I tried.
“Dermot, I hate him.” I felt Her cradle me as I leaned forward, unable to keep my head up. “Hate him. I’d burn him, scour him out, scatter his ribs, crack his heart and…”
Why do we hate him?
“I don’t know. It’s gone as soon as I reach for it. It’s so close. He’s so close.”
I laughed, blood frothing at my mouth. We didn’t touch him. A Templar, an archer, a mad minstrel and me, and we barely put a scratch on him.
He wrapped his gloved fingers around my throat. The sword hung at his side. I fumbled at his arm, fingers in claws, seeking after bare skin to rip. Please. Let me draw at least a drop of blood before I die. Before I…
Dark scarlet rose in my eyes. Blood boiling up. I felt the thinnest strip of skin, exposed at the wrist where his glove was pulled back by my fingers.
I felt his Inquisitor’s heart beat once, slow, calm.
Behind it, something else.
We hate him.
“Because of what he is?”
Yes, but…more than that.
“Because of what is in his heart.”
What is in his heart?