Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 04

Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 04

Chapter 3

Vilna

In Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, the Black Brain, Chernobog, continued with his plots. Many of these took the geographical power of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania far past the Bosphorus. There was some focus of his attention on Constantinople. Chernobog was aware of the watcher there, the dark one, three faced, of the moon and the sea and the earth. Such powers, lost gods and goddesses, had their own imprint on the non-material world. But the watcher had never made any attempt to resist Chernobog in any way. He paid her as little attention as she gave to the walls and towers of Constantinople. They were no barrier to her, and she was no barrier to him.

After all, what did she have left? An old bone harpoon and a pair of dogs. He wondered what still sustained her, why she had not gone the way of so many other old powers? But she never did anything. Just watched and wept.

The world was full of old gods, old goddesses and old powers. Most of them were so faded, so drained, that he could overpower them easily. Still, in the spiritual realm it was hard to measure the depth of their power, so he did not challenge and devour her. Someone or something still sustained her. Why waste his strength? He had better, more immediate uses for it.

*   *   *

Once, the huge man sprawled on the throne had been Prince Jagiellon of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In his quest for power, the prince had delved too deep and gone too far. The man who had done so had been a brutal murderer, who had taken sadistic pleasure in his victims’ slow deaths. What Jagiellon had become took no pleasure from such things, although he still dealt in them, as and when they were necessary. Chernobog had no real grasp of mortal emotions or of things like sexual urges. He understood they existed, but concepts like love were to him as the color purple is to a man blind from birth.

The Black Brain was a far greater monster than Jagiellon had ever been or could ever have been. But the demon possessed none of the prince’s vicious desires, nor did he take any “enjoyment” from what had been Jagiellon’s pleasures. Chernobog did understand that such pleasures drove the humans he worked with even more effectively than fear, but that was as far as his understanding went.

Still, Jagiellon had had a powerful mind and a strong will. The Black Brain had eaten into that, to some degree, but it was also a part of him now. It was the first time that the great demon of the northern forests, the fear-creature of the Slavs, had allowed a human to be this much part of him. That had advantages, but it had brought other things too.

Dreams. Or what might be called dreams.

Demons did not sleep. Maybe they were fragments of memories surfacing. Only Chernobog did not think he forgot, either. He worked with multiple deep and complex plots and plans, as he had done for millennia. He knew, of course, at least in theory, what dreams were. He provided illusions like them for some deluded humans. Well, maybe they were fragments of what the Prince had been, surfacing like bits of scale knocked off the bottom of a black pool, rising to the surface only to sink back down into the depths again.

He planned, as always, to extend his physical dominion, as well as his dominion in other planes. It was what he was and always had been; among his kind one either grew, or died. But sometimes in the midst of it all of his planning, all of his knowledge, there were these — interruptions; odd, disturbing visions of a beautiful woman in tears.

Tears were not something that had ever worried him before.

He sought information from the brain he had subsumed.

Jagiellon could not recall the face. But Chernobog was aware that the vision made his human part uncomfortable, as if that gaze and those tears were something he did not wish to look upon. Chernobog too felt as if he had met her, somewhere. Perhaps in other planes. Things took on other appearances there even if their essences remained the same.

Since the death of his last shaman, and the treachery and flight of Count Mindaug to the shelter of Elizabeth Bartholdy, the Jagiellon part of him had been awaiting a new shaman. Meanwhile, he’d been forced to do some of the more risky tasks of magic himself. He had other servants, of course, but he feared letting them know too much or being too strong.

Human mages were a danger to the body of Jagiellon, and could enlist and marshal threats against Chernobog — as he had discovered when he pressed westward too hastily. But the West still drew him, called to him. There was something there he had have…But he didn’t quite know what it was. He would conquer it in time and find out.

In the meanwhile he had deployed servants — lesser ones — to search and to spy. When it suited him, when he was sure there were no traps, he would take their bodies and see and touch and hear through them. Sometimes they lived afterwards.

From one of those he had sent out he had heard something which caused him to adjust his plans. He would not go too close to either Venice or Corfu. The ancient winged lion defended Venice, and Corfu had its goddess — she was awake and revitalized and the place drank magic. But he spied on the traffic between them. And thus he learned of the passage of Benito Valdosta, his wife Maria, and their baby daughter, north-bound for Venice. If rumor was to be believed, Benito would be heading south again soon, with a fleet to punish Constantinople.

Chernobog understood revenge. He also understood levers, even if he did not understand love.

“Bring me the blond slave,” he ordered.

The servant left at a run and, along with two others, returned a little later, faithfully obeying his master’s order, carrying Caesare Aldanto. He was blond still. He was also dead, long dead, and the passage of time had not improved him. The hair was possibly the only part that had not gone the way of all flesh. Briefly, Chernobog considered re-animating the slave; it was never a very successful process, though, and he discarded the idea. The spirit of the treacherous Montagnard sell-sword had long gone; there was no retrieving that part of him, either. Chernobog-Jagiellon hissed in irritation. The servants quailed.

But he merely said “Dispose of it. And find me someone from northern Italy. There are mercenaries from all over in my armies.”

*   *   *

Poulo Bourgo had been at the sack of several cities, and on the wrong side in a few of them. He’d known fear and terror from both sides. If he’d known that the huge slab of a man with the masked face interviewing him was none other than Grand Duke Jagiellon himself, he would have would have been deathly afraid. But since he assumed that his interrogator was just another underwashed Lithuanian noble, he was quite relaxed about it. He was a foot soldier, why would anything higher in the hierarchy than some minor functionary acting as a glorified clerk even acknowledge that he was alive?

It was a strange room, opulent, yet filthy in some way he couldn’t articulate. As if a film of something vile coated everything. The luxurious trappings, the draperies and cushions, the ornate furnishings, had an air of neglect, giving the impression that the owner cared nothing for them. Poulo couldn’t understand that. How could you have such wealth and not care about it.

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