Chapter 33

The Chapel of Bone

Oliver launched himself down the passage, hurling an unintelligible scream before him as he ran. Ahead, Jeanne lurched forward, narrowly avoiding the blade of the scythe by stepping into the circle of the weapon’s sweep, then reeled and nearly fell as the arm of the robed figure struck her in the face. If he had been armed with a more accurate weapon, Oliver would have shot the guardian then, but the small pistol was intended for close range defense, not a running gunfight.

Jeanne stumbled, then regained her balance in time to convert the momentum of her near fall into a spin and slam her elbow into the chest of the guardian. The robed figure howled again and stumbled backwards, flailing its scythe about wildly with one hand. Jeanne tumbled backwards and skidded across the stone floor as she leapt to escape the gleaming edge of the weapon’s curved blade.

Oliver leaped past Jeanne as she struggled to rise, reaching the robed figure just as it managed to recover its footing. He slammed his shoulder into the guardian’s chest, causing it to stumble backwards again and crash into the bones of the chapel doorway.

He jammed the barrel of his gun beneath the withered ear of the creature and growled, “What are you?”

The guardian’s wrinkled face contorted as its eyes widened. Its lips drew back, revealing a toothless mouth with blackened gums and a wide, red tongue. Its body convulsed as it tried to swing its scythe at Oliver, but the instant he felt the guardian’s arms move, Oliver slammed his knee between its legs. It howled again, and the stench of its breath nearly knocked Oliver senseless.

“Who are you? What is your purpose?” Oliver growled. He choked back bile and repeated himself in several variants of French, working back from the present day, back through various dialects to ancient vulgar French, a form that was essentially a rude conglomeration of Latin and tribal Gaulic dialects.

Only when Oliver had recited his demands in every form of French he knew and started in on German did the guardian cease struggling and say, “You are most learned in language. Have you been granted admittance to our sacred order?” Oliver recognized the vocabulary and grammar of its speech as early modern French, the form used in courtly speech and formal writing throughout the seventeenth century, but the speech was so muddled by the creature’s decaying mouth that even Oliver’s practiced ear struggled to pick out the individual words between the liquid slurring of the guardian’s decrepit tongue.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jeanne shouted from behind.

Oliver risked a glance at Jeanne over his shoulder and saw her standing just out of reach, fists clenched and chest heaving. Beyond her he caught a glimpse of Diana skirting around the edge of the chamber, moving silently as she raised the camera to photograph the church.

The stench of the guardian’s breath washed over him again as the shriveled lips parted and the thing again asked, “Do you know the password?”