Plague (Book 2 of The Search)

Plague front coverplague back cover

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This is the first chapter



And their God spoke:
‘The pestilence precedes you.
Hurry, let it not be wasted.
Reap all the souls for Purgatory.
Search for the key.
The key must be found!
Kill the boy!’

The ceremonial chamber in the vast, roughly circular cavern, deep within the bowels of the volcano on Sanctity, was filled with dense, black smog. On the cold, grey stone benches around the walls, lay hundreds of corpses, the floor surrounding the altar in the centre of the arena, strewn with more.

The aftermath of the battle hammered the eyes, for it was not only the cadavers of monks which lay where they had fallen. Intermingled with the white robed figures were smaller, black bodies dressed only in loin cloths and ragged dresses of calico. These were the remains of the courageous and desperate slaves killed in the conflict. But interspersed with all the human bodies were even smaller bodies, these were animals covered in sleek black fur—the rats that Thaddeus, wizard of understanding, had called on for assistance.

But nearly all the bodies had one thing in common. All bore the marks of their hideous, violent deaths. They lay uncaring of the horror the sight evoked, for there was an abundance of bits and pieces of flesh scattered across the chamber.

There was one body in particular, though, that lay slumped over at the foot of the altar. It had been decapitated, its grey flesh drained of every last sickening morsel of blood. Leash, the vampyrus, had sucked completely dry of blood, Zorzecai, the demon master, before escaping through the dungeons.

The fog, sublimating from the cold, black rock of the basin floor at one end of the altar, continued its noisy, violent motion. The disgusting smells, permeating the site of the deaths of Tragen, wizard mentor, more than a hundred slaves, the Abbot of Sanctity and Zorzecai, was of flesh already turning putrid, the noise that of confusion and insanity and threat.

Moving within the cavern were deformed and dismembered souls, nothing at all do with the recent engagement. They were the ensnared souls of old, their shapes insubstantial, gliding through the swirling miasma. Colliding with each other, each encounter led to some further form of savagery, which only increased their pain and disfigurement. Yet each maiming was not enough to bring on annihilation as a little later the souls underwent a bizarre, unnatural renewal, a never-ending vicious circle of mental anguish, physical pain, near oblivion—and a healing of all but the mind.

The insubstantial dead souls of the humans trapped within the Darkness could neither see, nor feel a living soul. Unlike the abhorrent creatures that accompanied them. These were the demons bred in Purgatory with the express purpose of tormenting those dead souls previously herded by the collectors. And no two were alike. Tall and reed thin, squat and toad-like some had sharp outlines, others flowing together their bodies merging and then re-appearing as a totally different demon. The foul beings with an offensive caricature of a body, could feel both the living and the dead. And they all had two aims—one to slay the living, the other to torment the dead souls thereby harvested.

The interminable surge of the Darkness, curling and roiling from the basin and into the freedom of the cavern, resulted in an inordinate compression of the mists. There was not enough room in which to exist, so its rate of flow slowed for a while, but not for long.

Inevitably the Darkness found escape from the cavern, mostly through the small aperture in the rockfall – made by Leash – which led into the bleak dungeons. It whistled through the gap into the cells like steam through a spout and emerged at the sewer’s outfall.

But this rate of diffusion of the fog was still not enough to circumvent congestion. The Darkness needed to find escape elsewhere, the dispersal of the black mist was not swift enough to allow the demons ingress. They could not get through the gateway in the basin to dig at the fabric of the chamber, to enlarge the hole in the rockfall, or clear the doorway into the chapel at the other end. And so the Darkness searched the walls and the roof and squeezed itself into all manner of crevices and indentations and cracks.

But it was the floor of the cavern which it found more conducive to its hunt; the greater part consisted of stone slabs laid on compacted earth. And as with all such floors deep underground, it was subject to small earth movement. Here and there, edges of the flat stones rose or dipped, leaving soil runnels and small fissures in the hard, igneous clay beneath. It was in these chinks and crannies that the Darkness found its way into the burrows and tunnels running under the stones. It escaped deeper into the island as it trickled through the granules of the soil and seeped through the larger gravel and rocks.

To survive the frightening influence of the black rock, Sanctity’s myriad rodents had dug very deep underground. But not deep enough—the menacing black mists found escape through their runs and tunnels.
And the small animals and insects promptly found themselves the prey as they were instantly within reach of the creeping Darkness. The black rats – called upon by Thaddeus to aid the wizards in their bitter battle – having enlarged the entranceways to their nests, fled the acrid smog. But the fog caught up with them – and the rodents’ fleas – and it infected the jumping, biting insects. The rats, the mice, the voles and all manner of other subterranean life forms bolted in all directions, panic taking some deeper underground to die of starvation and suffocation. Others sought different routes to the upper world.

And the Darkness followed these last, gleefully.

The desperate rodents, plagued by the pestilential fleas, had no thoughts but flight, some primeval instinct telling them they would die if they remained on the island. The rats escaped on boats, accompanying the newly liberated denizens of Sanctity. For there were others living on the island besides the soulless monks and slaves, these were the sailors and fishermen of the port, the farmers, the dockworkers and the slave traders. They were all desperate to escape the island madness. And the fugitive rats, and their biting fleas, landed on other islands with the humans they had infected on the way. These rats were fast movers, used to the wharfs and the salt water, the grime and the refuse of a busy port. Some had already found safe havens on vessels that departed Sanctity’s shores before the Grim slipped its moorings for Griffin Island.

A few of the stronger, larger rats climbed the hawsers securing the wizards’ ship to the jetty and the fleas carrying the evil pestis travelled with them—as did something else.

What no survivor had noticed when fleeing the cavern was the thing that preceded the Darkness. A diabolical freak appeared out of the rock and climbed surreptitiously the low banks of the basin. A shape-shifter with a devious, demonic intelligence, it took a swift look around the cavern and quickly decided to take the form of a rat. But, although it had fully succeeded in transforming into the rodent shape, it unknowingly had a feature that distinguished it from all other rats—a white stripe running down its back. But it didn’t interfere in any way with it hiding amongst the other rats as they escaped.

It was the first to hitch a ride on the Grim.

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