They headed for the tavern avoiding any incidents with the watch. They all smelled pretty rotten after their night’s adventure. They had been splattered with plague foam and then engulfed in thick black smoke. Ezekiel peered into the stable but saw nothing interesting other than a stableboy. Masa sneaked up and peered through the windows of the inn, climbing up to look in one of the open-shuttered windows. He spotted signs that the magical, bloated rat female may have been there just a few minutes ago. The two beds in the room had both been slept in and the sheets were still warm.
They ran down to the jetty but it was another dark, overcast night. There were signs that a small rowing boat was moored there earlier and tracks of the giant rat and two men.
They managed to attract the attention of two boatmen, labourers who search the river for scraps of useful rubbish, and hasty negotiations got them rowed downriver after a small two-man boat the workers had just seen go by. They soon caught up and saw that a tall blond man in fine clothes, presumably Lord Hawthorne, was rowing and a scruffy-looking servant was standing in the prow looking ahead. The boat was leaving a faintly visible wake.
They also spotted a second wake nearby from a submerged swimmer. It was the huge bloated female rat. It turned towards them. Ezekiel and Harry shot it with crossbows and the thing thrashed about, bobbing to the surface. It tried to cast a spell on them, which Clara and Masa recognised as a mist-summoning, but another volley of shots finished the monster off. It exploded in a welter of foul black ichor that rained down on the boat. Fortunately everyone on the boat managed to resist the magical plague!
They continued to overtake the smaller boat. Lord Hawthorne was clearly in some sort of zombie-like state, taking orders from the scruffy man who looked similar in build and features to the rat men they fought earlier. As they got closer the rat man took a shot with a pistol that misfired and he hurled it away in disgust, gave some final instructions then dove nimbly overboard and swam towards them, too deep to get a shot at him.
Suddenly his powerful hairy arms were at the side of their boat, tugging, Masa was tipped into the water but the others managed to cling to the boat. It was clearly a desperate attempt to delay them and let Hawthorne get away but they quickly skewered the rat man and his corpse sank beneath the dark waters. He didn’t seem to be carrying much other than leather armour, rapier, pistol and daggers.
Their rowers didn’t like the idea of chasing a man who was clearly a noble and argued for more money but were told that Hawthorne was a Jesuit and they quickly caught the smaller boat. Harry smashed a hole in it and it began to sink. There was a brief fight with Hawthorne who was strong but lethargic. Lord Hawthorne was quickly and brutally murdered. They knew he was an unwilling victim but decided that it was vital to the safety of the realm that the Harbinger was denied its Vessel.
Hawthorne was travelling with relatively few possessions. They paid off the rowers with his fine boots, rapier and pistol. He was carrying no money (presumably the rat man had the purse) but they did find fine clothes in a suitcase in the boat.
There was nothing more to do than wait another day and night for the appointed hour.
It was more overcast than ever.
After weeks of measurements and calculations, Masa and Clara were finally agreed on the exact time and place for the Harbinger’s arrival. On the south bank of the thames a hundred yards east of Tower Bridge about an hour after sunset. Judging the exact time was no easy matter because of dense cloud and a thick fog that rolled up the river in late afternoon. They waited in heavy rain, beneath the eaves of a house owned by an import/export merchant Henry Weston. The Westons were at home but seemed to be ignoring any outside noises from the small group hiding at the corner.
A few minutes before the predicted time, a rolling thunder began to be heard, rising to a deep vibration that shook the foundations. Loose slates clattered off nearby roofs and shouted cries of alarm drifted through the mist. Overhead the bright red streak of a comet was seen, angling down sharply.
The calculations had been correct. The comet struck only a dozen yards away, but the physical impact was surprisingly small. A wave of dread pulsed out from it seeming to affect a large area of the city as screams were heard even across the river. Ezekiel broke and ran, taking a while to gather his courage and slink back. The others somehow resisted the horror.
Before them on the shore a tornado of circling fury had appeared. A pillar of roiling black smoke, twenty feet high and ten across with flashes of fire and lightning. A booming voice in their minds began to cry..
“WHERE ARE MY BRIDES? MY VESSEL? WHERE IS THE BLADE, ESCAVOL ?”
From nearby, they heard the sound of solidiers, some fleeing in panic, other being rallied by their commander to move in and investigate. Their voices were muffled. harry went to intercept them and found a troop of pikemen with heavy leather cloaks and helmets with huge bird-like beaks. They were dressed in the Plague Doctor costumes that the Privy Council had been stockpiling. They were Robert Cecil’s men and they recognised the imposing figure of Harry Pike as some of them had been following the group around town for the last couple of weeks.
Harry told them to keep back and they were only too happy to take his advice.
The column of smoke was condensing by the time Harry and Ezekiel rejoined their companions. Clara decided to start preparing a spell to Banish the spirit using components gathered by Masa. This would be very dangerous and would take some time to prepare for.
Suddenly the voice in their heads returned. “PRIESTESS? I SENSE YOU NEARBY. WHY HAVE YOU NOT APPROACHED TO GREET ME? COME TO ME AT ONCE!”
At that moment Ezekiel was lifted from the ground an pulled around the corner. Harry and Masa managed to grab him and slow him down but they were being pulled inexorably into the open. Ezekiel realised that it was his snake-skin armour that was being dragged and managed to shrug his way out of it. The armour had been crafted from the skin of the serpent-priestess in Prague. They had not known of any connection between her and the harbingers.
The black and yellow diamonds of the armour flashed, reflecting the flames in the smoke as it vanished into the column.
“AHH… YOU ARE DEAD. YOU ARE FORTUNATE THAT THE BLOOD OF STARS STILL BURNS WITHIN ME. I SHALL BRING YOU BACK BEFORE THE POWER FADES IF ONLY TO PUNISH YOU FOR YOUR MANY FAILURES.”
Sickening sounds of something wet, something squelchy could be heard from inside the column, a whimper and then a woman’s scream and her weaker mental voice…
“Lord, I died in your service before I could recover the blade. Surely that loyalty counts for something. Others were sent to prepare for your arrival here. They have failed you, not I.”
“SILENCE! WITHOUT THE BLADE OF IMMORTALITY, MY SACRIFICE THIS NIGHT WILL KILL ME. THE SERPENT MAY RAISE ME UPON HIS ARRIVAL, AS I HAVE YOU, BUT UNTIL THEN I WILL BE DEAD. THOSE WHO BROUGHT YOUR SKIN HERE ARE MY ENEMIES. THEY WILL SEEK TO PREVENT MY WORK. DESTROY THEM NOW, WHILE MY POWER IS IN YOU, AND YOU WILL REGAIN MY FAVOUR”