He could hardly believe a man’s flesh could go from healthy to this blackened, unholy state so rapidly, but he had seen it with his own eyes, had watched it crawl across the preacher’s body like a hungry shadow. And this girl, Cassidy, claimed it was something condoned, maybe even commanded, by the old city families, which meant even the Lords and ministers might be complicit.
No, that couldn’t be true. The High religion, his religion, preached peace. With realism, sure, you needed a guard to keep unruly elements in check, to protect a city from the outlands and worse. And the guard could attract some bullies into its ranks, a necessary evil, but poisoners and assassins? Surely not.
Unless something was rotten in Ironhaven. He recalled the dead man’s final, rasping words, unheard by the others as he slipped Jacob a slender key.
“The inner sanctum, the unholy truth...”
A truth that might have cost this man his life.
A set-up, Cassidy had suggested, and maybe she was right, but maybe someone wanted this man silenced, too. Two scrub grouse with one bullet. He would keep that to himself for now.
“Whatever the reason,” he interrupted the girls, “They're not going to hang around for long if they're looking to catch us poor fools in the act.”
Cassidy looked indignant. “Who are you calling a fool?”
“He’s got a point,” Frida cut in. “We should get rid of the body, and fast.”
Jacob took a deep breath, and wished he hadn't, the air was rank. He prayed the day would get no worse.
Cassidy smiled at him, “You’re a big man, Jacob. Grab his legs.”
“Is that going to work?” Frida pointed to where the flesh had torn at the shoulder joint. “I don’t think he can take it.”
Jacob balked at the thought of the man’s flesh parting and tearing as they lifted. That soft, shredding sound from earlier replayed itself in his mind.
“We’ll wrap him back up.” Cassidy nudged the preacher’s open robes with her foot, “Pick him up by his robes.”
Frida looked revolted, but she nodded. None of them liked it, but it had to be done.
“So where are we taking it?”
Cassidy thought for a moment. “I know a place. We can take the back streets. With a pinch of Earth-given luck everyone will be distracted by the caravan.”
Jacob gritted his teeth. He rolled his neck and shoulders, stretched and squared up with the corpse. All procrastination of course, delaying the vile inevitability of the task. But as he was about to reach for the preacher’s robes there was a frantic knocking at the door, and an out-of-breath voice.
“Hey. Let me in.”
Cassidy looked up, startled. “Who?”
Jacob thought he recognised the strange accent. “The Darklander girl?”
Cassidy slipped the bolt and the wild girl dived in, shoving the door shut behind her.
“You gotta-” She clamped a hand over her mouth and choked at the putrid stench in the room. She pointed at the corpse.
“Urgh. He looks like Death’s own bitch.”
“We know.” Jacob said.
“You gotta move him.”
“We know,” Cassidy replied, “You came back to tell us that?”
“No. Saw some big men, armed men, stalking the caravan. All seriousness and business. Asking questions ‘bout a preacher.”