All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 01
All The Plagues Of Hell
Eric Flint and Dave Freer
Marco Valdosta greeted the news with a breathless hopefulness. “Are you sure?” He looked around their bedroom as if the sight of the chamber where the child would have been conceived brought some sort of reassurance that the news was accurate.
Katerina Valdosta, the last child of the ancient house of Montescue, nodded at her husband. “I can count, Marco, even without Maria’s assurances.”
“We’re pregnant!” he yelled, jumping into the air with delight.
“I’m late. I may be pregnant. You are just fat.” She poked him in the stomach, trying not to endanger her own ears with her smile. “I know Maria says it is definite but it’s too early to be absolutely certain, Marco.”
He folded her into his arms anyway.
A small, old castle near Arona, in the duchy of Milan
Staring out the window of her own bedroom, quite some distance northwest of Venice, the expression on the face of Lucia Maria del Maino was not at all like that on the faces of Marco and Kat. It was sour, sullen, disgruntled.
The stirring of life in her womb gave her no pleasure. Firstly, it was too late. And secondly, it was just a tool to get what should have been hers by right. She would have her reward, even if it meant turning the serpent that devoured loose on all of them. She’d already given its blood price–her sister. If the great wyrm wanted more, it would have it.
As a bastard son, and the only child, Lucia might still have ruled Milan.
As a woman, no.
For a while her mind dwelled on revenge. She’d met Carlo Sforza, and he’d paid her no particular mind. She hadn’t liked that, even if he was a mere commoner. But then, she too had paid him no particular mind. And it was not as if she’d loved her father. Rather, she had loathed him. But he had been a lever. And now he was dead, by Sforza’s hand. Her anger at being thus cheated flamed white-hot.
It took a while before she realized Carlo Sforza would have to take his place.
She steeled herself, knowing it would have to be done. In a way, the serpent had honored the last bargain, given her power to capture Phillipo Maria, to snare him away from her mother.
The castello at Arona had been a Visconti holding for time out of mind, perhaps even their original land, her father had said. It had certainly been built on the ruins and with the stones of older buildings. Down beneath the castello were cellars and the dungeon which had been adapted from several limestone caves. And those cellars lay atop of an even lower cellar, the old one, the one with the crude carvings in which the rock itself seemed to have flowed, making them look like a nasty accident. Lucia and her sister had found the key nearly eight years ago, now. The room in which it was hidden had once been their father’s room, and probably the nursery for every generation of noble children raised in the Castello. It had fascinated them: why was it so carefully hidden, in a block that swung out of the wall, when touched just so with something sharp? The indent so painstakingly cut into the rock held the key, neatly.
It had taken them nearly a month of dreams of treasure, secret passages and hidey-holes to find the door it fitted at the back of the cellars. Heavy, iron-bound, and with rusty hinges that shrieked. They had always been forbidden to go down into the cellars at all.
What they’d met there had cost her sister her life. Neither Lucia nor the dying, feverish girl had ever admitted where they’d been, or what they’d found there, or what had happened. But what was down there had said that next time she would have to come to it.
And that she would come.
She could have flung that key into the river. But she’d put it back into its hiding place.
In the old cellars, the dark had been hung with trailing cobwebs, touching her face like ghostly fingers trying to hold her back. But they had gone now, along with the light of the candle, so abruptly snuffed as she entered the round black maw in the far corner. She understood: no light came down here. No light ever had. No light was allowed. This was the place of the dark, and of its power.
The tunnel wall was curved and polished to an oily smoothness under her hand. The rock of it was cool on her fingertips as she felt her way, cautious step by cautious step, into that stygian blackness. Lucia needed that wall, for the floor of the tunnel had been cobbled, but the round edges of each hand-sized stone caught at her probing toes. The cobbles too were made of some unpleasant material that almost seemed to give a little underfoot. It wasn’t slippery, at least, which as the descent was steep, was just as well. Instead it seemed to cling to her soles. The tunnel wound down, turning left and right, seemingly at random. The silence was such that she could hear her own shallow, nervous breathing, her own careful footsteps, no matter how much she tried to keep quiet. Even her heartbeat was like a fast drumbeat in her ears, relentless, marching her cautious feet onwards, onwards, onwards, downwards, into the pit.
The air was dank and stank of rat-urine. They must dare this tunnel too. Yet her reaching ears could hear no scurry, no chitter nor squeak. Just a silence, heavy and oppressive, as heavy as the hatred and anger that drove her down here. Drove her on, down, down, into the darkness.
Despite the pitch-darkness she somehow felt that the tunnel had opened up. Perhaps there was a breath of air movement, or perhaps… just a feeling. She edged out reaching for the far wall, reluctant fingers leaving the rock that gave her orientation and position. The tunnel had been two arm-stretches wide at the mouth.
“The other side can’t be that far,” she muttered to herself, as she edged further and further from the security of the wall.
There was a soft, shuddering, susurrating shiver in the very floor of the pit under her.
“Far.” The sibilant word came from behind her, and then, as she turned in terror, it echoed back from some vast distance. “Far, far…” The cobbles beneath her shuddered and clattered again, and she fell to her hands and knees, as the vast serpent shook its plate-sized scales, and it moved under her.
She screamed, realizing. The scream too, echoed. It sounded very thin and small.
“Why do you disturb my rest?” hissed the great wyrm, in a voice cold as its scales.