Demon Hunter Severian: Lady of the Night Gates by Giovanni Anastasi by Giovanni Anastasi - Read Online

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Demon Hunter Severian - Giovanni Anastasi

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Demon Hunter Severian

Giovanni Anastasi

Acheron Books n.5

Editorial Director: Adriano Barone

English editing by Lee Allen Howard

Translation from Italian by Nigel J. Ross

Cover by Rom

Ebook Publishing by Matteo Poropat

ISBN epub: 9788899216160

ISBN mobi: 9788899216177

Copyright © 2014 Acheron Books

All rights reserved

Acheron Books – www.acheronbooks.com

Giovanni Anastasi

Demon Hunter Severian

The Lady of the Night Gates

MILAN, A.D. 394

In the year A.D. 291, Milan became the capital of the Western Roman Empire under Emperor Maximilian. At the time, it was one of the most important cities in the known world. For over a century, historians and poets vied to describe its splendors and its beauty.

The city reached its true height during the reign of Emperor Theodosius (347–395), the first Christian Emperor to officially outlaw public worship of the ancient Roman gods. In 392 his co-ruler Emperor Valentinian II was assassinated in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day. As a result, Theodosius became the sole ruler of the Romans, and Milan became the capital of the entire Roman Empire.

After a long absence, Theodosius returned from the battlefield to Milan in September A.D. 394, having defeated a contender for his throne. At the time, the Bishop of the city was Ambrose, born Aurelius Ambrosius, the man who at his death was to become Saint Ambrose. He was a man with immense authority, and in later years, thanks to his personal influence over the Emperor himself, he was considered the most powerful man in the Christian world.

Prologue

The priest fled along the street, the demon hot on his heels.

Gasping for breath, he ran frantically toward a colonnade, his own breath roaring in his ears. Or perhaps the roaring came from behind him.

The streets of Milan were silent and dark. The gloom reduced the statues at the street junctions to indistinct shapes, while the fronts of empty houses seemed like emotionless faces, the barred windows and doors their sightless eyes. Once again the priest tried to cry out, to call for help, but his voice refused to leave his throat.

The colonnade had seemed near, but he now realized it was still far off. He had no idea where to find refuge but didn't dare stop running. The demon was right behind him; he could hear its rasping breath, its claws scraping the paved street. The demon seemed to be getting closer and closer, even if he was running as fast and as hard as he could.

He looked around desperately but couldn't recognize any of the streets. The colonnade had gone, and the buildings surrounding him didn't even look like the city he knew, the city he was born and raised in, the city where he knew every lane. It had become a mass of unknown structures, towering around him on all sides, tall and threatening.

He felt something grab at his legs, and he let out a soundless scream. His tunic then became twisted around his ankles, as tight as a noose, hindering him from moving his legs.

The priest kicked, wrenched, pulled with all his might to free himself. He was still running, but all the time his tunic was wrapping itself around him more tightly. Thrashing, he fell to the paved street, the vast black shape of the demon standing ominously above him.

He continued to shout, without hearing his own cries, as the monster plunged down upon him. He tried to close his eyes, but even his eyelids refused to obey his wishes. He had no choice but to watch.

In the darkness, the demon had a strange bizarre shape: a giant chest and shoulders, as broad as the wingspan of an eagle, surmounted by three heads. The middle head was topped with two long, curved horns, the crown of an angel of darkness.

Clawed hands clutched at his arms, tearing his skin, and an enormous hoof bore down onto his chest, crushing him with unearthly strength.

The priest shrieked, struggled and cried out again, but he sensed nothing but the threefold rasping of breath above him, and that monstrous pressure on his chest that grew stronger and stronger…

His wife found him in bed the next morning, rigid and cold, trapped in a tangle of bedcovers, his mouth gaping and his eyes staring with their dead gaze. She could find only the strength to collect up her few things and hurry away, sobbing.

But not one of her tears was for him.

Part One

1

The smell of smoke met the man on horseback long before he saw the gates of the city. It was a bitter, sickening smell.

The gray stone walls of Milan stood in front of him, tall and smooth, and the helmets of the soldiers patrolling the tops of the walls glistened red in the setting sun. Up until this point, the road had wound its way between fields, but the last stretch passed alongside the city walls, and two hundred yards farther on lay one of the western gates to the city. The large square gateway was crowned with marble statues, like a victory arch.

But what caught his attention as he approached the city on his weary horse was not the magnificence of the gateway, but the crowd gathered outside, a crowd strangely quiet and calm.

From above the small sea of heads rose two columns of dense black smoke, tugged toward the fields by the evening breeze. From a distance, he couldn't make out what was burning, but the crowd was so hushed that the breeze, together with the smoke, even carried the crackling of the flames.

Drawing closer, he saw soldiers in their chainmail and their canvas breeches, holding their helmets under their arms. Standing in line in front of the silent, motionless crowd, the soldiers were draped with black cloaks thrown over their shoulders and held spears in their hands.

The gate into the city of Milan was now in front of him, across the bridge over the narrow moat. Instead of forging ahead, the man pulled his reins to one side. The horse snorted, annoyed by the sudden change of direction, but veered off the road and headed toward the crowd.

The horse rider took the heavy stick he kept across his saddle and used it to tap the back of the first person within reach, a bald old man with a few tufts of hair behind his ears. The old man flinched and turned with searching eyes. The horseman bent forward, though his head hardly emerged from the depths of his fur-trimmed hood.

What's going on? he asked in a muffled voice.

The other man looked at him warily. They're killing the slaves.

Why?

They're pagans. They were caught making sacrifices to the gods.

The horseman spurred his horse, and the animal moved into the crowd, causing a small wave of shoves and protests. Almost immediately two soldiers made their way through the crowd and blocked him.

Where do you think you're going? one asked. Get out of here!

The horseman merely peered back at him.

The soldier and his companion carried swords at their sides as well as spears, and on their backs they had round shields painted bright red and blue. They were men from the Schola Palatina, the professional military elite, well-trained and well-equipped, under the direct command of the Emperor. Police force, garrison and guards rolled into one, they laid down the law in the streets of Milan, especially now that the Emperor himself was in the city.

Aware the man didn't intend to move, the guards crossed their spears and stood directly in front of the horse's nose. The horse snorted and pulled back its ears.

The man on horseback ignored them and looked across the heads of the crowd to a point where he could make out things more clearly. In an open patch of ground at the base of the walls, three stakes had been raised. Two had now almost disappeared, enveloped in a cloud of roaring, smoke-vomiting flames. Whatever was burning could no longer be seen, but even from a distance, the smell of burning flesh was unmistakable.

Tied to the third stake, with arms painfully contorted behind his back, was a boy.

He wore a sack-cloth tunic that the guards were covering with pitch, scooped from a bucket. Another guard stood alongside them with a flaming torch.

The man on horseback squinted: a pitched tunic, the Deadly Tunic. A horrific ancient form of torture, rarely seen anymore, reserved only for those who had committed the worst crimes, those who had caused offense to the Emperor himself. Crimes so severe that the law justified spreading pitch onto the body of a living person and setting them alight.

The horseman spurred his horse on and rode toward the two guards, who jumped aside to avoid being trampled underfoot. When he broke through the crowd to the open ground, three more soldiers quickly approached him. The front soldier held a plumed helmet under his arm, a sign he was a Roman tribune.

The man on horseback glared at him: here was the man putting on this small public display. Then his gaze turned toward the boy tied to the stake.

The boy was fairly tall, but now that the man saw him more closely, he didn't seem to be more than fifteen or sixteen years old. His blond hair fell in messy locks onto his neck; his features were bony. Germanic blood, no doubt, like many slaves, but not pure… his skin was darker, like that of people from the Italian peninsula. He held his head high, leaning it against the stake, his eyes closed. Clearly visible on his soot-blackened cheeks were lighter lines made by his tears, but he wasn't crying any longer. Around his neck he wore something, a small object that gleamed in the bright sunset.

The tribune raised his voice, and the man on horseback realized he was being spoken to. The tribune was Germanic through and through, one of those career soldiers born in the wet forests and muddy battlefields on the northern boundaries of the Empire. He was huge, with a reddish-brown mustache that trailed from his lip to below his chin; his pale blue eyes were almost painful to look at. Yet those eyes of his shone with a clear-headed predatory intelligence.

Did you hear me? he growled. He spoke with a heavy Germanic accent.

Without answering the question, the horseman quietly asked: What's the boy done?

The tribune glanced behind him, toward the boy at the stake. Idolaters. Him and his parents. Palace slaves. We found them hanging a pig in a cellar beneath the kitchens.

So you're burning them alive?

The tribune spat on the ground. Enemies of Christ are enemies of the State. Those who worship pagan gods through bloody sacrifices are guilty of offending the Emperor. And the law says that such traitorous trash is eliminated by burning. He then shook his finger under the horse's nose, unable to shake it under the nose of the man in the saddle. You are disturbing a public execution here. Get out of the way or I'll have you beaten till you're black and blue.

But the horseman wasn't listening. His gaze again was fixed on the face of the boy at the stake. The guard holding the bucket slapped on two more scoopfuls of pitch and stood aside; the guard bearing the torch moved forward.

Even if his eyes were closed, the boy stiffened. But he didn't cry out, he didn't shout, he didn't beg for mercy.

He'd just watched his mother and father being covered in pitch and burned alive, and now he was about to meet the same fate, but he didn't shed a tear.

From his dark hood, the man on horseback again squinted, scrunching up his eyes until they were two small slits. Thanks to the light of the torch, he could see the boy's lips slowly moving.

He's praying, the man muttered. He's praying.

The tribune snarled in anger, grabbed the horse's reins and pulled them down sharply. Now I'm going to make you…

The horseman suddenly reacted. The heavy stick resting on his saddle seemed to bounce into his hands. It spun round before coming down twice, once hard on the hands of the tribune and second in his face. The soldier yelled and fell backward.

At first the other two soldiers were taken aback. They raised their spears, but it was too late. The horseman brought his stick down on the closest one like a whip, between his neck and his shoulder, precisely where the open-shouldered chainmail left the skin unprotected. The guard fell unconscious to the ground without even a whimper.

The other guard struck out quickly and accurately with his spear, but the horseman leaned back in the saddle, avoiding the blow just in time. He twirled his heavy stick and hit the shaft of the spear so hard that it shot out of the soldier's hands. Then he dug in his spurs and the horse sprang into action, just missing the tribune who rolled onto his side, cursing loudly.

The Imperial Guard was in chaos.

At a gallop, the horseman crossed the execution ground in the blink of an eye. He tugged at the reins, and the horse reared up in front of the torch-bearing soldier, who fell backward.

A moment later, the man on horseback was already behind the stake, his stick in his left hand. With his right hand he reached inside his cloak and drew out a sword, one-and-a-half times longer than those of the guards. The sword flashed in the smoke from the blaze. The boy turned his head to stare at him with big, green, cat-like eyes, and then the blade of the sword slashed downward. The ropes binding the boy to the stake dropped to the ground.

The boy fell forward onto all fours and the man held out his stick. Take it!

The youngster coughed and groped with his hand, but he was too weak. Instead of taking hold of the stick, he lost his balance and fell face down into the dust and ashes.

The horseman glanced up. Hurrying toward him were two guards, their spears at full tilt. The man on horseback spun his stick twice and threw it at the legs of the closest guard, who was almost upon him. The guard fell to the ground, continuing on his forward path, rolling and crying in pain, one leg bent at an unnatural angle.

The other jumped over his colleague and thrust his spear toward the stomach of the horseman, who jerked himself away, though he didn't manage to avoid it completely. The sharp tip cut into his side before piercing the folds of his cloak, where it became lodged.

The horseman grabbed the shaft with his free hand, pushing it against his hip, and with a sharp dig of his spurs, drove his horse forward. The guard tried to let go of his weapon but wasn't quick enough. The end of the shaft jabbed into his breastbone and sent him flying.

Ignoring the wound to his side which was streaming with dark blood, the man on horseback threw away the spear, leaned forward and picked up the boy by the back of his pitched tunic, pulling him across his saddle.

Then with a sharp tug of the reins, the horse galloped off through the crowd toward the fields, while callous cries of the tribune ordered his men to give chase.

2

When he was sure everyone was sleeping, the sorcerer left his house. He walked hastily through the silent streets, descended into his basement and lit a candle with uneasy hands.

For days he'd been getting warnings. At first he'd tried to ignore them, hoping he was wrong, or that with time and the changing patterns of the stars, they would disappear, along with all the doom they were foreboding.

But instead of going away, the warnings came more often… and more clearly.

A crow had fallen dead at his feet as he walked along the street. A beaker of wine had broken in his hands, staining his clothes red. And the evening before that, a toad—a creature sacred to the Lady of the Night—had somehow managed to get into his chimney and fall into the fire, filling the house with the smell of burning flesh.

The gods were trying to tell him something, to warn him of imminent danger. And the sorcerer needed to hear their words clearly.

Unfortunately, the ritual he had in mind needed to be done in full moonlight, but he dared not summon the gods openly in the city, where anyone might see him. He would have to manage some other way.

He took his pestle and mortar and crushed myrrh, sage, pure incense and red poppy seeds together, and when he had made a fine powder, he mixed it with spring water and dark red wine. Then he pricked his finger and squeezed three drops of his blood to fall into the mixture.

He carefully cut a strip of clean linen, dipped a brush into the liquid, and used it to write the magic words on the linen, copying them from his parchments along with the secret names of the goddess he wished to invoke.

When he was pleased with the results, he soaked the strip of linen in oil and brought it close to the candle flame, allowing it to catch fire. He then took a silver coin hanging from a fine chain and a bowl full of water. He held the coin over the bowl in the light of the burning linen. Next he bent over the surface of the water where the coin was reflected like a small moon. Whispering, he called up the dark spirits of Sleep and the Messengers of the Abyss, entreating them to come in the name of the Lady of the Night Gates, to whom they all owed obedience.

He lifted up the basin, drank the water in a gulp, and then removed his clothes and lay naked on the cold stone floor. But before he closed his eyes, he opened a wooden box, put the very tip of his finger into its contents, brought his finger to his nostril and inhaled.

Sleep soon came, bringing tormented dreams, confused images of flames and shrieking, and of flashing blades whirling in darkness. There were men's and women's faces, too, some of which the sorcerer recognized. Then a wall of flame rose up, and the charging figure of a man on horseback appeared, brandishing a heavy stick that fell like a meteorite onto him. The sorcerer awoke, choked by his own breath, dripping with sweat despite the fact he was lying on the ice-cold floor.

In silence he rose and dressed himself, and when he'd finished, the images of his dream had almost disappeared from his memory. But little did it matter. He now knew what he needed to know, the only thing that really mattered.

He knew that a powerful and dangerous enemy had come to Milan, searching for him.

Aurelius Severian?

Severian opened his eyes. To look at him, he may have appeared to be fast asleep. But he'd only been leaning his head against the back of the seat and had closed his eyes to rest them.

His eyes became tired more easily now than when he was a young man. The outlines of things in the distance were rather blurred, and as the years passed the problem was growing worse. As a result, he relied much more on his hearing, which was still perfect, thank God. In fact he'd heard steps approaching quietly along the passageway.

He nodded to the young man in gray servants' clothing who was peering in at him from the door of the antechamber.

The young man made a half-hearted bow. Come. The Bishop is expecting you.

Severian got up and followed him along the passage. The wound on his side sent sharp pains that made him grit his teeth, but he didn't let on. It was a nasty gash that he'd dressed as best as he could with some wine and honey from the inn where he'd found board and lodging. He probably needed a few stitches, but Severian didn't have the right implements, and anyway he wouldn't have trusted himself to do it by candlelight, especially with his poor eyesight.

The servant led him along the passageway and then up a steep flight of stairs to the second floor. It wasn't a chilly night, but the stone walls of the building were cold and damp. Severian pulled his cloak a bit closer, and passing by a window he looked out across the roofs of Milan that lay shrouded in darkness. Lower down, he could almost make out the empty space of the square, and on one side, black and faint, the vast Old Basilica that the Bishop's residence was attached to.

The stairs led up to another passageway, then to a door.

The servant knocked, and a shrill voice from within answered: Enter!

With another bow, the servant opened the door, signaling Severian to go in, and then left.

It was the largest room that Severian had seen so far in the Bishop's Palace. But this room was just as cold as all the others, and the small fire burning in the fireplace at the end of the room did little to warm the place. The other two walls and some of the wall around the door housed floor-to-ceiling shelves that overflowed with scrolls, parchments and bound volumes. Standing in the middle of the room was a massive desk, also covered with heaps of scrolls. Otherwise, the vast study was empty: no carpets, no ornaments, no paintings. Just shelves and bare, damp stone walls.

Around the hearth, lit by the light from the fire, stood three chairs, two already occupied.

On one chair sat a young man wearing the long black habit that most Christian priests were starting to wear, though to Severian it seemed more like a military uniform. The young man had short, dark, neatly trimmed curly hair and an attractive face with soft features, though his eyes were as cold as two orbs carved from ebony. Despite the gloominess and his poor eyesight, Severian noted the priest's fingers had the dark permanent marks left by ink from constant writing. He was a secretary.

The man on the other chair was almost twice as old as the first, and Severian recognized him immediately, even if he'd never seen him before: Aurelius Ambrosius, the