OOC: Thanks once more to Shim.
Realising that they still hadn’t found the wizard’s spellbook – and Vaclav, for one, would never be parted from his – they continued to search once they were confident Scabbard had stabilised. Eventually, Jack turned up a false back in a cupboard. As they opened it, a mouth formed on the wooden surface, and began to shriek “THIEF!” endlessly. Ignoring it, Scabbard extracted a sorcerous-looking book and shut the compartment again, muffling the shrieks, which eventually petered out.
Somewhat battered, cursed, and with Vana rather exhausted, they decided to rest at the camp before heading into the deepest basement. Before doing so, they dragged rubble and debris from around the site to block off the tower entrance, hoping to prevent the creatures from venturing outside. With plenty of time, they were able to build a barrier that should take most creatures of the night to break through, leaving it scarcely worth leaving the shelter before the sun rose.
The rain began to pour down as they return to camp, leaving it relatively easy for ne’er-do-wells to approach undetected; Scabbard decided to sit up on watch and smoke. They had, after all, found some good-quality pipeweed amongst the bugbears’ belongings…
The packet he selected held several pungent bundles, and he experienced vivid dreams after turning in, chasing an androgynous figure through the alleyways of Arcol. When Vana woke for her shift, she recognised the scent of incense of meditation – normally used by the Smith’s priests to ensure their appeals were particularly potent. She searched around for signs of what had happened. Evidently, one of the pipeweed packets had been opened, but Scabbard had carefully tidied up afterwards, leaving little trace. Deciding it wasn’t of immediate importance, she held off waking them to quiz them in the morning.
The rain had settled down to a steady hum. Oswyn scouted round examining the mud for tracks, largely from sheer habit, and saw no sign of anything larger than a fieldmouse. The fine scent of Vana’s cooking (or anyone’s cooking, really) was welcome to them all.
“Anyone smoking last night?” she enquired.
“What of it?” asked Scabbard, belligerently.
“Well, the stuff you chose to partake of was a meditative herb, used in rites of the church.”
“Well, it sure hit the spot.”
“It, ah, would not normally be taken recreationally.”
“Right. Duly noted.”
Vana did not think there was any particular harm in it – perhaps an opportunity to come closer to the gods had been wasted – but nothing more. She raised an eyebrow at Scabbard, but said nothing more. He met her gaze and began picking his teeth.
“If you don’t mind, Scabbard, I would prefer to take charge of the herbs.”
He begrudgingly handed over the bag, keeping a small quantity to himself; Vana sensed the bag was a little underweight, and kept her hand held out just slightly longer than was polite. Meeting no response, she turned calmly and packed away the bag.
They wended their way back to the castle. The barricade has been ripped asunder and the area rooted up, but it seems there was no time for anything more. From the size of the breaches, it seems the creatures barely managed to clear a route in time.
Oswyn led the way down, with his hopefully-magical shield. Behind the door, they found stony corridors, with the sound of water dripping beyond. The echoes suggested large, resonant chambers. One fork led to a door, which the adolescent Scabbard handily unlocked with nimble fingers, thieving talents and the crude application of brute force. At the end of the corridor they found a ladder, which seemed to emerge beneath a watchtower at the castle walls; cunningly disguised amongst wreckage so as not to be seen.
The other fork led to a surprise – a glittering cavern, bedecked with crystals that reflected the light of their lantern. After staring around slightly dazzled, they hooded the lantern so that Vana could look with her dark-attuned eyes. She decided the crystals were merely decorative – a kind used for lantern manufacture – but was able to see a little further, into a side-chamber where some sort of slumped figure was visible.
Turning the lantern back on, Jack and Oswyn slunk round opposite walls of the cavern towards the side chamber. Finding nothing suspicious on the way, they beckoned for the others. Scabbard examined the fallen figure carefully; a skeleton with a large hole punched through its helmet. This seemed really quite suspicious. He tossed a stone at it; there’s a tink, and the helmet shifts. It almost seems like it was corroded somehow.
“I’d say we stay away from the centre of the room,” suggested the lad, turning to warn the others.
With a gentle plop, a grey oozing mass dropped from the ceiling onto Scabbard’s head.
Instantly, the acrid scent of leather and hair burning filled the air – and pain shot through Scabbard as his skin began to dissolve. “Help!”
Vana recalled something about these entities – acidic mindless things that seek metal to digest. The others had no idea what they were facing. Assuming it was merely some kind of debris dislodged by their movements, Oswyn leapt forward to drag the youth to safety. Thankfully, the ooze’s tiny brain decided to withdraw back to the cavern and continue digesting the delicious metal meal there, rather than follow these new arrivals.
Sadly, it seemed there was no way to pass it. Beyond the grey mass, an ornate staff glittered temptingly. Oswyn suggested that they could, potentially, gather scrap metal from around the castle and toss it in a corner to lure the thing away; as this would take a while, they decided to leave it for the moment.
There was another door in the crystal cavern, though, which Scabbard examined and pronounced safe. Opening it, he saw a corridor leaving to another cavern. There seemed to be a slight haze in the air.
Suspicious, Oswyn looked around for a stone. The floor seemed very clean. Remembering the creatures liked metal, he pulled a copper coin from his pouch and tossed it down the corridor. It tinked gently a few times, and came to an unexpected halt in mid-air.
The patch of hazy air seemed to shift and move towards them. Brows furrowed. As a sudden inkling reached Vana’s mind, the object surged forward into the light – a huge cube of near-transparent matter. Acidic protoplasm seared Oswyn’s outstretched hand, and he leapt back.
They hacked desperately at the thing, chopping away great hunks of jelly. It slumped into a messy puddle on the floor. As Oswyn stared suspiciously at it, Scabbard reached out a finger and took a lick. Delicious! Limey. He began to guzzle appreciatively.
As Oswyn retrieved his coin, now substantially shinier, Vana examined the rest of the remains. She discovered a shield, in surprisingly good condition, and several gemstones. One is a large glass orb that looks somewhat magical in nature. The shield appears to be proper dwarven work; she slung her current shield on her back and donned the other, in respect to its makers.
Moving along, an alcove held a statue of an armoured woman, while a portcullis blocks another route. Scabbard headed along one alcove, where he found a mirror on one wall; momentarily dazzled by the reflected light from his lantern, as his eyes adjusted he found himself no longer there. He was, apparently, on a featureless plain extending into infinity. He looked at himself.
“Hello!” said his… reflection? “I guess I’m supposed to be your evil twin, only we’re more or less cosmically balanced, so it works out about even.”
“I think we’re supposed to fight or something, and the winner gets to leave?”
“Seems like a fucking waste of time. You couldn’t just show me the way out, could you?”
“I see what you mean. I suppose since I’m only some kind of simulacrum, summoned here by this magic mirror, I should give you priority.” He undid some of his armour. “If you just stab me here, that should do it.”
Scabbard strode over, raised his dagger and attempts to stab the unresisting duplicate in his head. As he did so, the duplicate suddenly whipped out a dagger and tried to stab him.
“Come on, tell me you wouldn’t have done the same, hand on heart.”
Scabbard placed his hand on his heart, as though to swear, and then struck out. His cheek was gashed open by a lightning blow.
“You know, if I die, there’ll be nothing to reflect.”
“Nah, that’s all right, I’ll just replace you.”
Another scuffle. Another cut.
Scabbard lashes out one final time; he delivers a nasty cut, but not enough to prevent the duplicate from plunging its dagger into his heart.
From the point of view of the Scabbard emerging from the mirror, exactly the same thing just happened, except that he won the fight.
“Don’t come in ‘ere! There’s an evil mirror!”
“An evil mirror!?”
“It’s seriously creepy.” He smashed the mirror, and felt a moment of awful existential pain, as infinite possible Scabbards winked out of existence.
“I think I might have died.”
They made reassuring noises.
“You look surprisingly well for it.”
Oswyn felt his forehead and pronounced him well. Scabbard consoled himself with jelly and a smoke; the strange events quickly seemed to recede into a haze.
The statue seemed to be of the Keeper of Sanctuaries, in the elven style. It wore a bronze tiara with a red gemstone, a slightly unusual feature – typically she would wear a helmet to match the rest of her armour. Something was written in elvish at the statue’s base, but none of them could decipher it.
As Scabbard began inching towards the statue with larcenous intent, he could have sworn that its eyes swivelled towards him. He froze, impressed, since there was no evident way that a mechanism could do that.
At Vana’s suggestion, Jack made a half-hearted “thank you” to the statue. A voice in his head quietly thanked him for uncovering the hidden shrine.
“Uh, we were mostly lookin’ for loot, to be honest, your godessness.”
“I can answer you three questions, if you wish, in recompense.”
Jack informed the others, at which Scabbard excitedly said:
“How do I stop being twelve?”
“That one is rather simple,” began Vana.
“If you say ‘wait to get older’,” responded Jack, “I’ll punch you.”
They dispute a little bit about what best to ask. Where’s the most valuable thing in this castle?
“It’ll just be friendship or courage or summat like that,” points out Jack.
Perhaps something longer-term would be better, like how to defeat the evil ancient vampire warlord that has corrupted Vaclav’s family bloodline.
“So, the first is how can Scabbard get older, the second is how do we defeat the foul things as have defiled this place, and the third is how can we stop the ancient vampire what has infiltrated the Barthary family and seem to be screwing with our mate’s head, which is to say Vaclav, Scabbard’s brother.”
In answer, the goddess opened Jack’s mind directly. He sensed chaos and order in strange harmony. While this was in no sense comfortable, he was left knowing exactly where to find something that might thwart both the evil and the vampires, and also perhaps assist Scabbard.
A portcullis blocked the way. The fighters strained unsuccessfully to raise it, but Scabbard was able with a little force – to slip through in his new slender form and reach the lever controlling it.
“Good work, Scabbard!”
Another door blocked the way. With the lock rusted through, Scabbard lost patience and simply kicked it off its hinges. The clattering echoed deafening along the crumbling corridors.
A section of the route was badly deteriorated, and though Jack was desperate to press on, the others eyed its slanting roof with great suspicion. With great reluctance, Vana judged the elven work safe for now, and they proceeded cautiously. Yet another door stood beyond, and resisted their efforts to force it. The noise provoked a shuffling noise from beyond, and Scabbard rolled his eyes.
“Sounds like we woke something up.”
“At least it’s not an ooze.”
“Probably undead,” judged Vana.
After several attempts, Jack managed to wrench it open. As Vana had predicted, they were indeed undead inside, and immediately lurched towards the party. Taking advantage of the narrow doorway, Jack and Oswyn took position to hold it while the others readied their weapons. Skeletons rattled towards them, and zombies began to lurch forward. Really quite a large number of skeletons and zombies, in fact. A veritable horde thereof. From a room beyond, a voice began to chant sinister and echoing words. Things looked a little tense.
As Vana sent the undead scattering, Scabbard slunk forward to wait in the shadows with a bottle of holy water poised. As a robed figure stepped out and began to mutter, he swung the bottle, but the rotting creature turned aside just in time to avoid the fatal blow. Beside it, an even more decayed companion hurled a spell that sent Jack crumpled to the floor, unconscious. The undead clustered round, slashing at Oswyn and sending him reeling. While Vana tried to shake Jack to wakefulness, Oswyn snatched the last phial of holy water and hurled it into the throng, turning two into sludge.
Jack staggered back to his feet and managed to fend off the zombies, slaying one that had been badly seared. Scabbard found the holy water an unwieldy weapon, and was unable to strike true; eventually it slipped from his grasp and shattered uselessly.
The skeletal mage led its remaining minions in a concerted charge against the fighters, ignoring the struggle behind it. Battered and bruised, they fought valiantly, chopping down undead one by one. Vana chanted hymns of healing and hurled axes at their foes.
Hissing vilely, the rotting mage clawed at Scabbard, ripping open his thigh. The assassin collapsed, blood pouring from his wound. Seeing this, Jack forced his way through the remaining skeletons and raced towards the mage, pausing at the last moment to whip his scabbard round in a brutal arc that nearly cleaved it in two. Astonishingly, the horrid thing clung to its unlife. The guard advanced grimly on it, staved off its desperate counterattack, and drove the blade down through its festering head, reducing it to a lifeless heap. With one wizard destroyed, the creatures seemed weakened, and the others were soon finished off. The skeletal wizard fought to the last, but was eventually destroyed as well.
Despite his injuries, Jack was determined to press on. A last door stood between him and his objective, and Scabbard soon broke it open. A strange glow erupted from the room beyond, carrying with it the pleasing scent of orange blossoms. A sense washed over them all that they absolutely must race forward and open the door on the far side of the room; none could resist. Flinging it open, they saw what seemed to be a study.
Seated within was a skeleton, dressed in the finery of an elven prince and chained to its chair. A glow shifted within its eyes, but it did not move it limbs an inch. It stared at Oswyn. The woodsman felt compelled to advance; he sat beside it, took a piece of paper from the desk, and began to write. The first piece he wrote meant nothing to any of them. A second attempt appeared to be the high language of the Grand Old Empire, which Vana could decipher.
“Can you understand this?” She nodded, and glanced at her companions, who shrugged.
“What the fuck is that?” demanded Scabbard.
“Oswyn, are you alright?” asked Vana. He nodded in confusion, and continued to write doggedly. “I believe, whatever you are writing, the creature has bid you do so. It has been resisting a great deal of time – it is asking how long since the Flux came.”
“It has been more than half a millennium,” she replied.
The writing continued. It seemed that something had tried to make the prince ‘like them’ – like the spectral creature that had mocked it and scribbled with chalk. Something wanted to bind its spirit to dead bones, but it refused to join them. From what it wrote, the undead had only arisen with the Flux. “They can bind my spirit in my skull, but I will not be like them. I will not move an inch. I will wait here and be killed, but not before I have passed on my knowledge.”
“We have come, and we will hear your words.”
“What do you know in these benighted times of General Blood?”
They well recalled the vampire lord, and looked grave. Vana translated the creature’s words as Oswyn wrote.
TWO YEARS AFTER THE FLUX SWEPT THROUGH THIS LAND HE BESIEGED THIS CASTLE
THIS DEMON IN THE SHAPE OF AN ELF MOCKED US AND DECLARED THAT IT WAS HE WHO BROUGHT THE FLUX
HE HAS WORKED FOR CENTURIES, ALWAYS TRYING TO UNLEASH THE LAUGHING WOLF SO THAT THE FIRE HIDDEN IN THE MOON CAN BE UNLEASHED TO CONSUME THE SUN HERSELF
ALWAYS HE HAS BEEN THWARTED
BUT I AM HIS GREATEST ENEMY
I AM THE ONE WHO HE CANNOT ALLOW TO KNOW PEACE
I AM THE ONE SAGE WHO REMEMBERS THE EMPIRE OF EXECUTIONERS
I WAS HIS RECORD KEEPER
I TOOK HIS SECRETS WITH ME WHEN I FLED THE EXSANGUINATOR HEADQUARTERS TO THE NORTH
HEED ME WELL FOR I KNOW THE MEANS OF HIS DEATH
YOU KNOW THAT THE STAKE IS THE BANE OF THE VAMPIRE
AND YOU KNOW THAT THE SUN IS THEIR BANE
AND THESE ARE ALL PART OF THE BURNING ONE’S JUDGEMENT ON THEIR KIND
“How do we know he’s not just lying? I mean, if someone had chained me to a chair, I’d say pretty much anything to get out,” pointed out Scabbard.
Vana frowned. “He says if we think he’s lying, kill him now. I believe it would be wise at least to hear him out.”
I WILL NOT BURDEN YOU WITH WISDOM YOU REFUSE AND MISTRUST
THE JUDGEMENT AGAINST GENERAL BLOOD IS PERSONAL
IT WAS HE WHO DIRECTLY DEFIED THE BURNING JUDGE
THEREFORE, A STAKE MUST BE DRIVEN THROUGH HIS HEART BY ONE WHO IS EMPOWERED TO PASS JUDGEMENT BY THE BURNING JUDGE
AND HIS BLOOD MUST BE DRUNK BY ONE OF HIS FELLOW EXSANGUINATORS, ONE OF HIS OWN KIND
THE BURNING JUDGE WILL BE SATISFIED WITH NO LESSER PUNISHMENT
“Weren’t we only trying to defeat the general so we could deal with another vampire?”
“Yes, to help free the Barthory family from their curse.”
“So, what, we need to track down the vampire we wanted to defeat, and ask it to help defeat General Blood so that we could defeat it. Is that right?”
“Or we could find a third vampire as doesn’t like neither of ‘em.”
“Or,” suggested Scabbard helpfully, “one of us could become a vampire.”
There was a general air of discomfort. Assassins…
DID YOU SAY BARTHORY?
WE HAD A MERCENARY CAPTAIN HERE OF THAT NAME
SHE STOOD BY MY SIDE ON THE WALLS AS WE SPAT DEFIANCE IN THE FACE OF GENERAL BLOOD’S FORCES
ONE DAY SHE WAS CAPTURED IN BATTLE
AND THEY TRIED TO RANSOM HER TO US
BUT THEY HAD CHANGED HER
HER HUNGER FOR BLOOD HAD TRANSFORMED HER
SHE CLAIMED TO STILL FEEL LOYALTY TO US
SHE CLAIMED THAT SHE WOULD HAVE FOUGHT AND DEFENDED US ALL NIGHT JUST AS WE FOUGHT BY DAY
I COULD NOT LET A LEECH INTO OUR CAMP
I REGRET THIS
“A decision that he now claims to regret, but an understandable one.”
I DREAD TO THINK OF WHAT SHE HAS BECOME
LONG CENTURIES DREAMING OF VENGEANCE
SHE RENOUNCED OUR LADY OF SANCTUARIES WHEN I REFUSED TO RANSOM HER
MAYBE SHE NOW SERVES THE TYRANT, OR THE WOLF, OR THE SECRET FIRE
OR MAYBE SHE HAS TURNED TO THE BURNING JUDGE, WHO STANDS OPPOSITE TO THE KEEPER OF SANCTUARIES IN THE ORDER OF THINGS?
“He wonders what she has been doing since he rejected her.”
“Well, we met her. What did she say, again?””
HOW HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED BARTHORY?
HOW DID SHE APPEAR TO YOU? WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF HER DOINGS AFTER THE FLUX?
They recounted some of Vaclav’s dream.
HOW DID SHE COME TO YOU IN THE DREAM?
HOW DID SHE APPEAR, WHAT WAS SHE DOING?
WAS SHE A LEADER OF SOLDIERS?
IF SHE COMMANDED THE LOYALTY OF MEN AND WOMEN UNDER ARMS THEN SHE CANNOT BE AS WARPED AS SHE MIGHT BE
Jack demurred, pointing out that the vampire had easily controlled their minds when they entered the dream.
THAT IS TRUE
“It’s also our only lead.”
THOUGH SWOONING SYCOPHANTS ARE OF LITTLE USE ON THE BATTLEFIELD
IT SEEMS YOU HAVE A CHOICE
YOU CAN BEAR THIS BURDEN YOURSELF AND BE FORCED INTO COLLABORATION WITH ONE YOU FEAR OR DISTRUST
OR, IF THE CULT OF THE BURNING JUDGE IS STILL EXTANT OUT THERE, YOU COULD SIMPLY TELL THEM AND WALK AWAY
THE BURNING JUDGE’S CULT WOULD STOP AT NOTHING TO EXECUTE THE JUDGE’S SENTENCE ON GENERAL BLOOD
“Would they help us?”
“It ain’t so much helpin’ us, as doing summat as happens to coincide wi’ our goals. Though I ain’t precisely comfortable wi’ it.”
BUT OF COURSE, YOU WOULD NOT BE PRIVY TO HOW THE SAGA ENDS. OR THE MEANS EXERTED TO ACCOMPLISH THIS
OR YOU COULD FIND BARTHORY YOURSELF AND CONVINCE HER TO JOIN YOU ON YOUR MISSION.
IN WHICH CASE AT LEAST YOU KNOW HOW IT ENDS. EVEN IF IT IS WITH YOU BLEEDING OUT AT HER HANDS.
Scabbard felt this was a good point. Oswyn wondered about trying to combine the two; but perhaps Barthory and the cult would not work together?
THE CULT MIGHT BE CONVINCED TO WORK WITH BARTHORY IF THEY THOUGHT IT SERVED THEIR SENSE OF JUSTICE.
THOUGH THEY WOULD CONSTANTLY WAIT FOR A CHANCE TO EXPOSE HER TO THEIR BELOVED SUN.
“Aye, well, happen we don’t take no mind o’ that.”
“Providing it happens after we deal with the General.”
“Well, what if we offer Barthory to them as a means to kill the General, and then hand her over to the Cult when it’s done? Two birds with one stone.” Scabbard is eternally pragmatic. Just then, he heard what might be someone moving in the chamber beyond. He glided to the shadows and slipped out to look.
Standing directly in front of him was Countess Barthory. She took him gently by the hand and drew him close – and everything went black.
After about a minute, the others began to wonder what had happened. With his free hand, Oswyn made gestures of enquiry.
YOUR FRIEND MAY JUST BE BEING A VERY CAUTIOUS SCOUT
IS HE USUALLY A PATIENT AND CAREFUL CHILD?
“Not…. Precisely,” answered Vana. “Perhaps we should carefully step outside and check.”
Scabbard lay unconscious on the floor. He looked a little older, and had a small mark on his neck – the bite of a vampire did sometimes lead to a kind of aging. Apparently the shrine’s word had been true, in a twisted sense. In his hands, a note had been placed. Checking first that he was still alive, and then examining his canines, Vana eventually extracted the note.
Take this as a token of my good faith. You see I have taken nothing from the boy he did not wish to divest himself of.I know the ancient one knows how to kill General Blood for good and I am pretty sure he has told you it involves me somehow, given what I have overheard. My co-worshippers in Arcol that sent you on this mission can contact me. Either give me the means of ending this on my own, or come with me, I care not. One way or another, I will destroy Blood. And then I will honour the glorious Sun face to face for the first and last time since I awoke to the ways of Judgement. Yrs, Barthory.
They showed the note to the prince, feeling he would have some insight. Oswyn sat down to write once more.
YOU HAVE BEEN BETRAYED
THEY MUST HAVE TOLD HER WHERE YOU WERE GOING AS SOON AS YOU SET OUT ON YOUR MISSION
BUT SHE CANNOT BE AS DEBASED OR BESTIAL AS MOST OF HER KIND IF SHE LET THE BOY LIVE
“That’s odd. We set out on a side-track here; it wasn’t planned,” mused Jack. But their presence in the region was known – Scabbard, after all, had made rather a show of himself in the baron’s castle, and they let the bugbears go. There was ample opportunity for Barthory to have tracked them down.
NIGHT MUST HAVE FALLEN IF SHE WAS ABLE TO GET IN AFTER YOU
KILL ME AND GET AWAY WHILE YOU CAN
“Who rules this place by night?” asked Vana. After all, they had already destroyed many of the undead, some powerful.
THE WRAITH WITH THE CHALK
BLOOD’S AGENT IN THIS REGION
“Unless there is more than one wraith with chalk beneath this castle, it has already been dealt with.”
YOU OVERJOY ME
ONLY MY DEATH COULD BRING ME MORE SATISFACTON
“Very well. Then I would suggest that we take you to the shrine of the Keeper of Sanctuaries that remains here, and there release you.”
BARTHORY WOULD NOT BEAR TO STAND BEFORE THE GAZE OF HER FORMER BENEFACTOR
SHE WOULD NOT DESECRATE ME THERE, AT LEAST
YES, TAKE ME THERE
I RELEASE YOU FROM MY SORCERIES
With Vana keeping watch, Oswyn and Jack hefted the chair and bore it to the shrine. Scabbard wondered whether it might still help them further, but Vana gently rebuked him, pointing out the service it had already rendered, and the centuries of waiting it had already endured. She pulled a hammer from her toolbelt and handed it to Jack.
“You are something of an agent of the Keeper now.”
“Fair enough, m’lady.” He took the hammer and brought it down on the skull, shattering it.
The statue stepped down from its plinth, knelt, and began gathering the shards of the skull. As it did, it looked up at them and spoke.
“The funny thing about the followers of the Laughing Wolf – so often they make all these promises to each other, and then almost immediately start working to break them. The sorcerer who rules here by day, that you slew – he took his orders, he claimed, from General Blood. But even as he did so, he worked on a potion by which he hoped a vampire might be controlled. Alas, of course, it is of little use without the blood of the vampire itself, or one of its kin, to complete it. Sad, really.”
Having collected the pieces, she tossed them one by one into her mouth and consumed them, before returning to her silent pose on the plinth.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.”
“Aye. I’ll have to write it in me next letter to Meg.”
“Well,” said Vana, “We have what we came for.”
“And saved ourselves a long walk through a swamp,” added Jack.
Nursing their wounds, they left the ruined shell of Bone Hill behind them, quieter than it had been for centuries.