Reaping in Kale

Part Five

By R. Krommydas

FOURTH PART

 vampire by pngimg, CC-4.0-BY-NC

With the dust cloud beginning to dissipate, its blurred cause already nearly a half-mile away, Gareth turned back to the others and shook his head in mingled disapproval and disbelief.

"Look, master Brokk, I appreciate that no common horse would be able to carry her, especially if she really doesn`t know how to ride, but we really could`ve taken a cart!"

Brokk, rubbing his brow after the intense concentration needed to maintain the initial magic, sighed and explained again: "The horses will need rest more than she does, even assuming we overtook her on horseback. When it comes to this sort of distance, she can move faster on foot. I estimate she`ll cover at least six more miles before her speed drops back to normal. She might hit fifty miles total before she even begins to flag."

"And believe me, following the roads? Embla will likely hold out until tomorrow morning at a pace the rest of us would struggle to sprint at. She may even hit Fort Tres before stopping to rest. If she does, that letter of introduction we had you write will get her on a cart, or a carriage, the rest of the way to Bael while she sleeps off her exhaustion. It will have been over a hundred miles that she ran, you know."

Gareth threw his hands up, on the verge of defeat. "I understand the times and distances involved, master wizard. What I object to is this wanton splitting up of our forces. That hellish gnoll took all of us on last time and still managed to get away. Whatever others it`s working with will also be ready and waiting when we arrive."

The assembled eight adventurers and heroes, from all manner of backgrounds and realms, fell silent and thoughtful as one. Though their mission was a desperate one anyway, to prevent some unknown party from unsealing the Dreaming Pit wherein the oldest and most dangerous vampires of the world slept, the confirmed might of the gnoll allied to this project gave them pause. A solution needed to be found before they clashed with that horror again.

"Marquis Gareth," Tybalt spoke up suddenly. "I have a cunning plan."

The ignorant newcomers of Aidan, Brokk, and Isolde smiled hopefully at the massive tiefling. The others of Gareth`s entourage, somewhat more familiar with this line of suggestion, bit back heavy sighs and turned away quickly, intent on getting themselves and their mounts ready for the long hard ride to the Kale Heights on the other side of country. Gareth himself closed his eyes and trembled fitfully for a second, dreading what he was about to hear.

"What if we split up their forces too?" continued Tybalt. "We lure out that gnoll and leave him in Deadman Ravine!"

Gareth, his face an unreadable mask, breathed out slowly as he considered what to say to this. As Tybalt`s plans went, this was not the worst he had heard, but aside from the workability of it, it would mean causing more division and needing a lot of luck to work. Also, it would put Gareth himself in a very unsafe position, since only he knew where the hidden egress was out of the apparent dead-end ravine, and would thus need to lure the gnoll personally. Feeling as though logic would not suffice to explain away his misgivings here, however, he resorted to an old classic.

"Wonderful idea, Tybalt, but it does have one tiny flaw. I`m not going to do it."

The tiefling, far from looking disappointed or insulted at this dismissal, just nodded understandingly.

*****

The first terrified shriek gave the game away, and Wulfram immediately leapt back from the rear to cower by Serious Jaa'hla, who naturally began to giggle horribly. The miners, and the former bandits who kept them in line, tried to flee from the yawning tunnel as well. They never had a chance. Shadows, some ghost-pale, some night-dark, flickering and swift, overwhelmed them; and the screams took on a pained quality.

One shadow, bolder than the rest, rushed up the tunnel to the surface. It hesitated, for less than a heartbeat each time, as it passed the shattered barriers which had kept it and others from returning the way they had come. The runic wards on the innermost marble had been more an indulgence than anything else. Then had been the bone, banded rings fashioned from some titanic creature with no name, that had given way to nodes of first mithril, then platinum, then gold.

The expected silver rings encircling the whole structure came nearly nearest the surface, only surpassed by a deceptively simple copper sheet worked cunningly into the natural deposits. With all seven barriers opened, with the smells and sounds of life filtering into the Dreaming Pit, it had needed only for night to fall before the most restless of its occupants stirred again.

Now one of these gripped the tunnel ceiling, spider-like, hungry, offended by the strange laughing beast that dared to block its path to the tasty fleshling it could scent just beyond. Scarce more than a morsel, but perhaps enough to awaken all the memories that themselves had drifted into deepest sleep over the centuries. It gnashed its teeth and scuttled closer to the unlikely pair of gnoll and gnome.

Serious Jaa'hla stopped laughing. He met the eyes of this ancient predator, and suddenly fearful, it withdrew. For the first time in its long unlife, it had encountered a monster more terrible than itself. Wulfram, who had once back-talked a greater fiend, knew exactly how the ancient vampire felt.

Below them, the cries were fading away and being replaced by contented sighs. Only corpses, some more animate than others, remained. A few, too mutilated to rise again, were carefully divided up still further by those that had ripped into them so hungrily mere minutes earlier. There would be many spawn to feed in the coming nights, and these remnants of their former fellows would suffice to whet their appetites until the surface world knew again the shadow of the vampire.

Serious Jaa'hla waited until all was quiet again. Then he turned, Wulfram following wretchedly, to return to the surface and finish this part of the operation. With their use as slaves having come to an end, the rest of the living creatures-- prisoner and guard alike-- huddling together below the stars would be sent below.

Only the warlock would be allowed to remain. Serious Jaa'hla knew well the value of such tools, if wielded properly. This particular tool gave Serious Jaa'hla access to many others. His life would be kept easy if he did not simply throw it away. Stupidity was not one of his flaws, no matter how much he encouraged others to believe it was.

*****

He soared higher. The moon was new. He was hidden from all. None looked up anyway. They did not think of what might lurk in open sight. The realm beyond all senses was his domain. He had flown undetected on cloudless days. Wait, had he? Blazing Tanarus scorched away shadow. No creature of earth could feel the change. Surely.

He soared higher. The air was thin. He breathed it still. Mountains had peaks stretching above him even now. Those of the ground strained their lungs long before they passed the clouds. He flew over even the tallest. None could reach him. Wait, could they? A weight on his breast had sometimes pressed. The imagining of a knowing stare. Surely.

He soared higher. The stars shone brightly. Just beyond endlessly churned the ultimate storm. He could feel it. The only true power came from there. It trickled through the stars. He roiled with understanding. Nothing could challenge this. Wait, could it? To unseal that forgotten crypt was no mean feat. Chance alone might also play its role. Surely.

He soared higher. Chill Sulis hid from the evil below. It pushed up from the unclean depths again. A purification was in dire necessity. Others would come to share in the triumph. He had sent out the call. No fear that it would go unheard. Wait, was there? So few now recalled the truest depths of horror. Yet always some would stand against it. Surely.

He soared higher.

Soon. ***** The sweat-smell of the horses reached her first, before even the glow of a distant fire. The animals had been pushed hard to reach this far out, and they desperately to rest overnight. Useful creatures, as she had learned, but too easy to tire out. Those who rode them were not much better, though the outerkin, the strangely child-like Tybalt, showed promise. She knew he wanted to test his strength just as much as she did. Time for that after.

She thundered past the camp shortly before midnight. The night-wards of the bright aelfarrir Arlgand did not scream in protest at her intrusion. Wild Hamling, on guard at this hour, kept his expression respectably blank when he saw her. He was admirable, as far as the arratti went. Her only other point of reference for the little creatures was Isolde, but that woman was a rare find in any race.

Only Brokk the wise had believed her without question. Now he was truly magnificent. The rest had almost hesitated on passing her on the road that evening. He had ridden on without looking around once. A glorious prize, but not one she believed she could bring back. All of the tribes united could not force him to go where he did not wish: that was her informed opinion of the wizard.

The feel of the compact earth beneath her was reassuring. Even as the firelight dimmed behind her, the road kept her on course in the pitch of moonless night. This was a run she could have done if blinded. Not quite so swiftly, certainly, yet to completion even so.

She ran on. Muscles flexed and ate up the miles beneath her. She was not even short of breath. The infuriating memory of the blaspheming gnoll drove her ever onward. When the beast was no more than a pulped stain, perhaps she could rest her thoughts as well as her body.

There was only one god, she reminded herself, and it was not the presumptuous filth of the Wintervale. Seeing the vast extent of that realm had terrified her. Its total annihilation was going to be vastly bloodier and more protracted than any of her people had imagined. Generations of warfare would be needed. She wanted to scream in frustration.

Embla saved her breath. There were still many miles before Fort Tres.

*****

Marchosias hung motionless in the air, watching Serious Jaa'hla herd the human cattle into the Dreaming Pit. The gnoll had not been part of the initial plan, instead seeking them out of his own accord. He had spoken words to Naxartes, words that Marchosias had not understood, words that had made the warlock spill many a secret of his former coven, the Circle of Twelve Moons.

Once they had truly acted as the wardens of the Dreaming Pit, yet time and complacency had eroded their sense of duty. They had devolved into a wholly unremarkable warlock coven whose leaders first ignored, then tolerated, then encouraged the pointless brutality and exploitation of the newer members by the older.

Now this gnoll, claiming to have once served as a member of The Eye under Bolg-Gatha himself, appeared out of the wilds to demand obedience whilst wearing the guise of servitude. Marchosias knew the game well, for such was what all imp familiars endured throughout their tiresome existence on this dull plane.

He did not like this turn of events. The details were unknown to him, but certainly rumors had long gone about of the many powerful items that had been interred with their undead owners. Some of these were obvious fabrications. Others had since been surpassed as the enchanting art grew more studied. Marchosias suspected the majority of the remainder were misconceptions or the wistful longing of fantasists.

However, a couple of exceptions stood out in the imp`s mind. Even his evil spirit quailed to consider the devastation that might be unleashed by even one of those if claimed by Serious Jaa'hla. It was no good being a corruptor of mortals if there were no mortals left to corrupt. He had only one course of action.

As he descended into the Dreaming Pit, Marchosias shucked off the despicable crow shape he had been forced into so as to maintain his position as Naxartes` familiar. The vampires would see right through it anyway and he did not want to give even the slightest impression that he was hiding anything from them.

As expected, he was left alone by the awakening bloodsuckers. They had no true interest in something they could not drink. At least, not until they had emerged again and finally slaked their thirst on the inhabitants of Kale. They were almost entirely too young to retain their full wits after sleeping for such a length of time.

Almost all, Marchosias kept in mind. Not all of them would be so weak. The longer a vampire took to waking up from the Dreaming Pit, the older and more powerful they were. The one he wished to speak to had not even begun to twitch yet, and others still older than she dreamed on in the levels deeper down. She would not be happy to be roused so rudely or abruptly, but needs must, and Marchosias needed answers.

*****

The imp alighted by the crypt. Out of respect, he shooed away the more curious vampires and their mindless spawn that came to gawp. This conversation was not one he wished to have leaked back to the surface, no matter how unlikely it was that any of these sleepy wretches would speak to Serious Jaa'hla. Softly, the imp spoke the name carved onto the great headstone.

Beneath him, the sepulchral hiss of a disturbed monster`s rest escaped the confines of the crypt. Marchosias repeated the name more urgently, pouring all of his fiendish willpower into the act, much as he might during hypnosis, or working some other devilish persuasion on his mortal charges.

The stone cracked under him. The stale air of the Dreaming Pit seemed to grow heavier. Marchosias shuddered involuntarily at the horrible gargling growl that reached his ears. It was a sound not unlike that of a particularly sadistic greater fiend with a lot of time to spare and a fresh batch of torture implements to experiment with. What made it worse was that the fiend, usually, could be bargained with reasonably and using legally binding contracts.

For the third time, the name passed his lips. Its owner writhed in the sarcophagus, shaking the crumbling crypt to pieces. The imp hastily flittered up to a more secure perch, and once more spoke the name, calling the ancient sleeper to wakefulness. Part of him wondered if perhaps he should have chosen somebody else to wake, on the off chance that they knew the answers to his questions.

The vampire was suddenly there, standing tall and furious above him. No sign of exhaustion or hunger clouded the crimson hateful eyes that pinned Marchosias to his perch. There had been no warning. One instant the crypt still shook with the outraged resistance of its occupant-- and the next, the ancient monster had not merely emerged, but shaken off its torpor with the clear intent to obliterate the foolish creature to have disturbed it.

One last time, he spoke the name.

"Lady Kyrren..." ***** As she departed the grounds with her pay, the wet nurse muttered unrepeatable things which, in keeping with his good breeding and high education, the major-domo had not dignified with any response beyond a censorious pursing of the lips. The peasants of Rentes-- or indeed, the peasants of any locale one could care to name-- were an uncouth lot, to his mind, and he was glad to be rid of this one. At his side, equally reproachful, was the housekeeper, second only to himself in the estate`s domestic hierarchy.

"I trust that his lordship will be returning from this expedition promptly," the housekeeper sniffed later that evening, as they oversaw the end-of-day duties. "We simply cannot tolerate these superstitious cretins lumbering around the property at all hours, spouting their execrable nonsense. If that child is to be fed here, it ought to be by a nurse of some appreciable wit. His lordship always did have a way with the smallfolk, despite their shortcomings."

The major-domo allowed himself a rare frown. "Superstition or not, it is common knowledge in the villages that a baby scarce a week old is already teething. In the absence of the marquis, we shall be hard-pressed to find a suitable wet nurse. That giantess, if you`ll pardon the crudity, was offering a far richer feed than could any mere peasant, and to replace that ample source will be no easy task."

The pair, considering their options from the limited choices available, were interrupted at this point by the painful sound of metal boots stomping through the carpets onto the stone floor below. Two knights barged into the reception hall, utterly ignoring the frantic attempts of a frightened doorman to overtake and announce them as was proper.

The first knight was a hefty and broad figure in hardened battle mail, obviously used to the rigors of combat. A brass plate was affixed to the left breast, allowing for the display of a variety of badges or medals. His helmet was almost impenetrably complete, giving no hint as to the identity beneath, with a stylised crest like a fortress tower rising up from it-- all that was missing was a little flag flying from the top. The sword at his side had a golden hilt that looked dangerously impractical, and the scabbard itself was clearly the very finest leather.

The second, a tall and lithe warrior whose armor was decorated with swirling patterns reminiscent of leaves, was wearing an especially bizarre curved helmet with a glittering silver crest fashioned into the shape of a swan. A delicate blade halfway between a true sword and a fencing foil hung at his side, with no scabbard to hide its elegant design. Soft blue eyes like sapphires caught the light of the lanterns, even in the shadows of the strange helmet.

In short, the pair looked exactly like the kind of jumped-up petty noblemen with too much time on their hands, not enough familial prospects to advance far in court, and just enough money to outfit themselves with equipment sufficient to get themselves and others into a lot of trouble.

"Where`s that insufferable lecher Gareth hiding away?" boomed the shorter one with the tower on his helmet. "I`ve got words needing to be had with him. Bring him out while I`m still in a good mood with the conniving wretch!"

The two most senior domestics inclined their heads knowingly at each other, despairing at the rudeness of these over-proud boors in their over-decorated mail.

"His Excellency is unavailable for guests at present, good sirs," the major-domo informed them coldly. "You will, of course, be granted the hospitality permitted to your stations. I will have a footman show you to your quarters, and escort you to the dining room if you wish to sup. I will convey your request for an audience to the marquis, and inform you as to his response."

The knights looked at each other in disbelief. With a deliberate slowness that spoke of a barely-controlled temper, the shorter of the two removed his helm. For the first time in fifty-seven flawless years of service, the housekeeper fainted dead away. The major-domo paled, sinking to one knee, and spluttering something that verged upon a properly humble welcome.

The taller knight, in the dulcet tones of the highest elven nobility, chuckled: "I think you scared them, King Dukalle." ***** The musical muttering coming from the ostentatious tent chilled Aidan more than the night wind. He found himself sneaking glances in its direction, his hand straying to the hilt of his war-hammer, his breath catching in his throat after a particularly unsettling intonation from within.

"She can be a perfectly gracious lady most of the time," Gareth said conversationally at one point, though he too seemed and sounded worried. "But when she`s gotten involved in her art... she`s a different woman. It only gets worse as she becomes more attuned to the Astral Harmony. The curse...it makes her extreme in every way. A flash of irritation can become a prayer to the God of Death. A passing fancy may become a rapacious obsession. Her music... I hope I never have to witness that again. I oughtn`t`ve told her to take that damned harp up again."

Aidan stole another look at the tent. "During my training, there were a few lessons on the differing kinds of magic. One of my younger, more foolish fellows made the error of jesting about the effectiveness of bards. 'Ha!' he would laugh out aloud, 'They walk into battles and sing at the enemy!' he would laugh, 'What good could they possibly do?' he would sneer."

Gareth raised a knowing eyebrow. "Let me guess. He was schooled by a bard pushed too far by his mockery."

"The boy had his mind scrambled like an egg," Aidan confirmed, shivering at the memory. "After five hours, he stopped screaming because his larynx had ripped apart under the strain. Then he had seizures and thrashed like a dying snake for two days. He stopped eating on the third day, convinced we were trying to poison him. When the clerics healed his ruptured throat, he babbled unceasingly that he was fit only to be beaten and starved and abused in the vilest of ways."

"Things only got worse after that. I left before his madness was fully healed, but that was more than a year later, and he still sometimes woke us up with hysterical weeping or attempts to gouge Heshtail`s sigil into his flesh. Begging the god for mercy, we think. The bard who did all this was barely punished, of course. Too skilled. Too vindictive. It was deemed likely that he would simply betray the hidden temples if banished. They were still kept apart-- the one would beat his head against the walls at the mere sight of the other."

Gareth nodded understandingly. He had seen the aftermath of many confrontations. Few were quite so terrible as those that Malevoxa had been engaged in before Arlgand had managed to break the enchantment on her and separate her from the cursed harp. At its height, the curse had transformed her into a monster such as legends were made of.

That jealous dignitary responsible had crafted the magic well, perhaps even too well. Following her hasty exodus from the Far City, rumors placed Malevoxa in Or City, inciting over a hundred drow to take part in an orgiastic bloodbath that resulted in them all, including one of the most senior heralds of the Lord of Envy, ripping themselves and each other to shreds. The public nature of the varied acts of self-debasement and self-mutilation interspersed with the more prosaic perversions had been highly indicative of Malevoxa.

An unconfirmed appearance was also suggested by the mysterious suicides of a dozen trolls on the Davonian border. Each had apparently set themselves on fire, slowly and deliberately burning away pieces of their body in a torturous process that would have lasted nearly an hour. It was an extended replica of the climax from Malevoxa`s infamous In Poenam Scortator, Nimirum Giovanni, made legendary by the genuine immolation of the lead actor on opening night.

There was no doubt to Gareth`s mind that, under any other regime bar that of the Lord of Wrath, the maestra would have towered above all human competition to stand tall before the elven artists of the Summervale. Instead of this majesty however, the passion that fuelled her was twisted by Sin and led her only to ever more damnable acts for the glory of her patrons.

In some of his more introspective moments, which were relatively rare if he could help it, he did sometimes wonder if anything could be done to save her soul from the Hells to which it was undoubtedly condemned. Much of the time this thought occurred to him, Gareth was forced to conclude that her lack of repentance was what would seal the deal.

At least we still have a few days to go, he consoled himself now. She should be able to hold off succumbing to the harp for a while yet. So long as nobody says this out loud to jinx it, we will be absolutely fine! We will! We damn well better be... ***** On the other side of concern, Arlgand and Hamling were waiting for the inevitable, which came shortly after Fort Tres appeared on the horizon on the second day of hard riding-- this time, Arlgand and the dwarf Brokk had both prepared a selection of spells to drive the horses ever swifter over the miles, knowing the risk of this was to leave themselves far less magically capable if an actual threat arose-- and when Gareth called a halt to start rooting around his saddlebags, they knew the time had come to make futile arguments.

"I thought you said you had left that behind you," Hamling started, his resigned tone not helping. "You are supposed to be a pillar of the community now."

"Pillars can go underground too," Gareth sniffed back irritably, fighting to retrieve what seemed to be a leather strap. "They can support and uphold stuff from there just as well."

Arlgand shook his head. "How long has it even been since you wore those? You are not that man any longer. Or you shouldn`t be. Oh Elflord, look at the mess..."

Gareth sniffed at them again and promptly sneezed at all the dust. "I got away with Bael last time because everyone was drunk and running away from us in the middle of the night. Won`t happen again this time around."

A large bundle of heavy swaddling emerged now, and even Malevoxa briefly glanced from her contemplations to inspect the stylised triple-triangle, one larger in the middle pointing down, two smaller at the corners pointing up, on the bundle. Some memory made Isolde frown, though she could not yet say why. It was a striking symbol, but she was sure she had never seen it like that.

With a final sniff, aimed this time at the curious leather strap and eliciting a faintly nauseous expression, Gareth turned away from the others. Then he went all the way around his horse, mostly hiding himself from view. A few muffled sounds that might have been the ripping of cloth and a remarkably tame curse escaped from the other side. His boots flew up over the saddle at one point, following by a distinctly restrained yelp as one or the other bare foot landed on a thorn. Then he reappeared.

Gareth, Marquis du Rentes, stood there in dark finery. A great cloak hung from him nearly to the ground, beneath a sturdy broad-brimmed hat and a leather eye mask cunningly tinted to accentuate his piercing eyes. Peeking out from the shoulders, a silvery fox head-- now obvious as the triple-triangle of pointed muzzle and perked ears-- formed the epaulettes of his tunic. Spurred boots of heavy leather reached to his knees, matched by gloves and a belt emblazoned with the runic form of the letter 'R' preferred by the gnomes.

At his right hip was sheathed the famed Kalais epee, the dancing sword, and at his left was coiled a formidable bullwhip. His bow and quiver, resting by the saddle of his charger, now seemed perfectly placed to be readied and drawn when needed from horseback. Unlike his former attire, reminiscent of the usual outlaw garb meant to blend into terrain and shadow, this was meant to be noticed and remembered.

At the sight of him, Isolde gasped, "Wait! You are the Estian Bandit? The mysterious beloved avenger of the people? The uncatchable, the legendary...the believed disappeared...the Fox of Kale? Le Renard?"

He replied merely: "Oui, mademoiselle."

The halfling looked him up and down critically as he stood there, doubtlessly aware of the classically heroic posture he had adopted, not even neglecting the rakish charm of a half-smile that would make any village maid swoon.

"Eh, I imagined him to be worse in real life." ***** Garrison Section Commander Claudette Vertipeau was nobody`s fool. She knew what was said about her, sometimes whispered behind her back, more often spoken to her face. On some days, growling her frustration wordlessly at a mirror, unseen by the men and women under her command, she felt as though she had heard everything about herself already. At the western gatehouse of Fort Tres early that morning, this had been proven wrong.

Now eight horses on the same road were approaching. The leader was a man in a mask, thus clearly identifying him as one whose actual importance in the land sometimes needed hiding. Vertipeau had a good idea of who this man was, but would say nothing. Situations involving noblemen with masks stank of politics. Politics were more dangerous than any marauder.

Vertipeau waited for them calmly. Crossbows waited behind the crenulations. Archers stood within the walls. The murder holes were manned. Her halberds blockaded the entrance. Greygrim, the over-serious sorcerer-youth who had yet a need to shave twice monthly, had respectable abjurative skills in case of hostile magic. She herself stood front and centre as a leader ought. Under her command, Fort Tres would stand.

The masked rider and his fellows halted before her. She suspected his second was the elflord at his side, rather than any of the warriors-- be they tiefling, elfblood, or the hositan who rode together-- or the robed dwarf of such incredible age he had lost all his hair. The begowned lady was a momentary possibility, but her distant, slightly deranged stare and inappropriate riding attire gave her away as an accessory; a bard, to judge by the harp she clutched more tightly than even the reins. Vertipeau knew without looking that the eighth horse would hold an ostentatious tent and unnecessary finery for this member of the group.

The elflord saluted, making a passable attempt for a civilian. "Hail and well-met, Fort Tres. We ride here with peaceful intentions, seeking a companion of ours who may have arrived bearing a letter of import."

"A certain letter was produced," Vertipeau confirmed slowly. "It had all the proper signatures and seals. Its bearer was given passage as requested."

The masked rider made a spluttering, disbelieving noise. Vertipeau ignored him. She waited patiently until the elflord handed over another letter, sealed and marked. She did not take it herself. Instead her second, Sergeant Phillippe Guy Dutres, third to hold the name since his ancestors were stationed here, respectfully broke the seal, read the contents carefully, and held it over to her for inspection. That was a mere formality. Had there been any discrepancy, he would have given the order himself.

Vertipeau, her suspicion confirmed, gave a professional bow. "Horses are ready for the change. You may proceed immediately. I need not warn you to cause no trouble. Give my regards to your polite associate. She left here shortly before dawn."

The elflord murmured his thanks and ushered the rest through the marshalled halberds. Vertipeau noted approvingly that they were all respectable riders, to say nothing of the courtesy they had treated her with-- not even one of them had balked to see her, or offer her thanks as they passed by, save for their bard. At her side, Sergeant Dutres barked an order of dismissal that, unusually, was not instantly obeyed, as the curious soldiery paused to stare at the strange group that had ridden into the fort.

Vertipeau inclined her head carefully, letting just enough of an eye glitter dangerously over her shoulder at her soldiers. They immediately dispersed. Discipline was something she could instil in the unruliest of troops. She was proud of that, and proud of not being a hypocrite. Vertipeau knew there was still much more to do this day. Still that exhausted voice speaking its praise came back to her.

Good voice. Good arm. You deserve command. Let none say elsewise.

Sparing one final look for the departing strangers led by the 'disguised' Marquis du Rentes, the half-orc went about her business. ***** The imp skittered irritatingly about, ignorant of its ignorance. Naxartes had little patience for this idiocy. With a perfunctory glance outside, where the gnoll and his pet-- no longer did Naxartes believe that that Davonian gnome was his to command-- were siphoning more prisoners into the pit, the warlock sent out the faintest of chastisements that elicited a pained shriek from the scorched imp.

"I am well aware of the nature of the weapons that Serious Jaa'hla seeks," he explained testily. "They are of no concern to us. This entire operation is doomed now, and the gnoll will die even if I were inclined to help him. Which, seeing as how he used an old embarrassment to get the location, makes my preference to leave him to die."

Naxartes ignored the hurt snuffling from the imp, instead whispering a message into the aether, casting it across many miles to its recipient. He would receive no response, but did not need one. Those who moved in their circles knew the values of discretion and subtlety.

"We shall move west," Naxartes continued. "Leave the elimination of those annoying wretches to someone with less of value to lose."

The imp, finally having extinguished the embers on its feathers, spluttered the most ineffective protest. Naxartes listened to the name it spoke and found himself very nearly amused. His familiar truly had no idea about the history of the creatures it lied about speaking to. Even if the legendary Kyrren had woken again, she was subordinate to another dreamer in the Pit. There was no risk of anyone, be it Jaa'hla or the others, getting anything except agony and death from below.

He did wonder at the number that had been reported to him. It had been five at the beginning, but only four now we're moving openly. Naxartes, being far more intelligent than any of the pathetic scum he was perpetually forced to rely upon, was convinced that the fifth had gone into hiding to lull the gnoll into a false sense of security. The result would be fatal for everyone on the other side of that deception.

Having only escaped from such a fate himself through his unsurpassable skill and power, Naxartes knew well just how dangerous those few could be. They disguised their competence behind masks of banality. Even he, perceptive as he was, had erred in seeing them as mere commoners. It was not a mistake he would make again. The duplicitous depths of their cunning, and their unjust and relentless pursuit of him, informed his actions now.

This did not mean that he was going to gift the same foreknowledge to any of his professional acquaintances. Naxartes had been insulted by Serious Jaa'hla invoking the name of Khadufel, as if Naxartes had not withstood the Ishian enchanter all those years past. Just because the gnoll had been there, and stupidly fallen for the warlock`s ruse, did not mean that Naxartes was in any way obligated to tell him about the ancient mysteries of his old coven. It simply proved expedient to do so. Naxartes had his own plans that would be fulfilled by this chain of events.

It had all started with a message he himself had received during one of his more successful communions with his patron in the Outer Realms... ***** SEVENTH INTERLUDE

As usual, the gnome was cowering away from his patron`s manifestation, stunned into gratifying silence by a true devil of far Barathus, not that Naxartes was in any way intimidated by this titanic muscled incarnation of slaughterous desire. He was merely courteous and mindful, as was appropriate and eminently reasonable. Even so, his patience at unjust censure was wearing thin.

"I cannot be expected to take responsibility for the failures of another," Naxartes argued back sourly, his arms almost folded as he stood before the desecrated altar. "Niklaus was a demoniac and therefore chaotic, unpredictable, and inherently incompetent. I did not choose him to be the instrument of our vengeance. Even were I to have used the same futile methods, my technique would not have been so divided and vulnerable to collapse."

"My worthless familiar, sent to me rather than selected by me, made that choice on its own accord whilst I was occupied with other affairs of note. It has proven especially craven yet in not returning from Kelerak to present its failings in person. Any and all blame, for which there is plenty, must inevitably fall upon its inefficient hide."

"THERE IS A GROWING AND GREAT DISPLEASURE AT THIS REPEATED INCOMPETENCE," boomed the great devil Belphegor, such that any spirit weaker than Naxartes` own would have shrivelled at the sound. "WHAT WAS TO BE A SIMPLE IRRITANT EXPUNGED FROM THE WORLD HAS DEVELOPED INTO AN ANNOYANCE. ONLY MATTERS FAR MORE IMPORTANT THAN THESE HAVE DELAYED A FULL INVESTIGATION, WHICH YOU MAY REST ASSURED WILL BE EXCEEEDINGLY UNPLEASANT IN RESOLUTION."

Then, something of an actual shock, as a thing unexpected happened-- a thing that Naxartes, until now, had truly believed impossible. Naxartes had been ranked among the great of his former, admittedly pitiful, coven; kept from advancement only through the jealousy of his inferiors supposedly higher than he. He was not some contemptible acolyte whose missives and personal fantasies were necessarily examined and, where appropriate or simply amusing, exposed for manipulation by the true warlocks.

"Pardon this intrusion if you will, or indeed, even if you will not," had come the vilely discordant voice in interruption. "Your tenuous situation has intrigued and captured this otherly attention, it must be confessed. What splendiferous calamities might arise from a mutual focus upon the matter, we do wonder greatly..."

That now, a third party not present at either end of the exchange, had dare to interpose itself among them...Naxartes found himself to be less shocked at the magical implications of this than profoundly and personally offended by the intrusion into his private communion. Still, if it had a use to which it could be put, the intruder may as well surrender it before being suitably excoriated in life and thence in Barathus for its temerity.

*****

A unique invocation had pressed into Naxartes` mind thereafter, granting him the right and power to speak with this other figure at any time. Belphegor had appeared curiously accepting of the offer of help, no doubt reaching the same conclusion as the warlock-- though naturally taking a while longer, for the great devil was a being of rigid lawfulness and thus would struggle to comprehend the disorder of an interrupted communion-- and had not refused it, instead graciously permitting Naxartes to pursue this new relationship fully.

It was pleasing for the warlock to see that his patron was not so wholly inflexible or idiotic as to disdain a disposable supporting pawn that had so willingly presented itself to them. Of course, he had been somewhat concerned by the possibility, though hindsight clearly showed that no ordinary patron of Hell would have chosen Naxartes to elevate from among the rabble.

To assist in elevating from the rabble, Naxartes modified, rather than corrected, for it was a more accurate statement in this completeness. Naturally there were other ways, a great many ways, that I might have taken to reach my deserved station. I merely accepted the patronage as an act of temporal expedience, over any necessity.

On its reappearance from Kelerak, Imp had no appreciation for the situation. It was clearly too inferior among devilkind to comprehend the grand magnitude of intrigue that was the provenance of such as Naxartes or even Belphegor. One particular instruction received during the next communion had corrected its reluctance on the matter. It did, however, refuse to participate, not that it was missed, in any further ceremonies between warlock and devil.

Other meetings, more guarded, still took place. The mysterious third party that had so foolishly exposed itself to them-- for what could it be but foolishness to so blatantly give away that it could not only listen in to, but interrupt and join in with the special communion between patron and warlock?-- gave particular advice during one such session.

There is a tomb of the most ancient unliving, once known to your fallen coven, wherein a most unique tool of the forgotten ages lies, whispered the voice to him, and Naxartes at once recalled the mysteries held in keeping by the Circle of Twelve Moons, of the Dreaming Pit fashioned by the survivors of the enigmatic Cutalak`s Crusade that had ended in Cutalak`s own demise and nearly the extinction of vampirekind.

Some would seek to claim this for its own sake. What mirthful monster now creeps closer? Troubles for other days. Our concern is greater than these and others like them. White towers of cygnal majesty grow bright beneath the lasting warmth carried by a summer breeze. Winding through these we are, ever tighter in our constrictions, yet these veins of light are not choked. Greedily do those within hoard power, rightfully belonging to such as can actually wield it. Yet we, with the right tool, might rectify this injustice.

Naxartes felt himself burn with deserved hatred for the Summervale. The elves were greedy, and prideful and envious of those who had come after and surpassed them through natural skill and the hard labor to which elfkind was so averse. They hid away, indulging their basest appetites of belly and loin, only roused to wrath when any sought to displace them from a throne they no longer deserved.

What an irony that it was the Wintervale blamed for the spreading of Sin! ***** It has long been the prevailing opinion of the common folk, and an indisputable fact of the hositan, that adventurers of all kinds-- glory hound, treasure seeker, monster hunter, valiant defender, whatever they may be-- are utterly insane. The display currently taking place in the middle of Bael town square did absolutely nothing to disabuse the local citizenry of this notion.

Their mayor, a respectable man for all of being a moneylender, tried to explain again that Bael had too few remaining guardsmen to send as support for some insane expedition into the hills; and of all people to argue with him, it was the famed Le Renard! The masked outlaw known throughout the land, traveling now with the self-same warriors who had previously been at the side of a full marquis of Kale.

The two elves in this party, one of a far nobler and brighter visage than the other, were apparently discussing poetry to the visible displeasure of the beatific lady nearby, clearly distracting her from her own compositions on a strange harp. What seemed to be a bald gnome of some kind was also there, watching a pair of halflings chatter amicably about things only those strange little people could or wanted to understand.

Meanwhile, ignored by their fellows, a tiefling in dark plate mail and a copper-skinned giantess brawled furiously with each other. Neither seemed to have an advantage in strength or skill, with the tiefling only remaining in his armor to offset his significantly lower mass. As a defensive measure, it did not do him much good, for the giantess regularly toppled him, and the pained grunts from within suggested plentiful bruising.

A particularly loud cry of outrage from the mayor rose up: "Non! C`ena`possible! We would `ave nothing for the marquis `imself, less still for a bandit with a nice `at, `iding beneath a mask. I should arrest you. Next time, I will do so, and you ride back on that fine fine charger to the marquis and tell `im that! Wait...ride? That `orse! Oh!"

Many then saw Le Renard stiffen here, as if bracing himself for some further outrage, only to relax as the mayor continued: "You stole the marquis` prized `orse! I saw `im riding that same stallion on the night `e and the others came to our aid. What a cheek, to come back on the same beast any `ere could recognize! `ow brazen! Begone, man, and come back only in your own chains, save my taxpayers their money!"

A very few claim they saw a disgruntled exchange of coin between the halflings, annoyed woman to smug man, and even a similar meaningful exchange of expression between the elves, from the plainer with the offensively red hair to the handsome bright one.

Then the adventurers, collecting their brawling companions, who apparently were content to call it a draw, headed out of the town of Bael, the giantess trotting alongside the horses with no signs of the weariness that she had arrived with. With the end of this diversion, the townsfolk, shaking their heads at the madness of some people-- and really, what was the Marquis du Rentes thinking, associating with an outlaw, even one so noble as Le Renard?-- went about their autumnal day as usual. ***** Information, as Brokk had been known to point out, is one of the most powerful tools that anybody can wield. Teaching another to use this tool was thus an effective means of doubling your power. Having already been fought to a draw at their last encounter, Gareth and Aidan were busy planning how to apply the tool to a certain terrible gnoll and this time, hopefully, emerge both victorious and alive.

Fragments of information had already been passed between them before now, but speaking whilst riding at speed was a much more difficult proposition than most appreciated. Finding themselves now on the uphill path into the heights of Kale, pushing the horses to go faster would only exhaust them all and thus be utterly counterproductive. It was a perfect chance to review their options.

"We caught the beast by surprise last time," said Gareth. "I will sound the Promise of Dawn again to banish the dark if need be, but I can only do that once a day, because apparently its makers thought it a good idea to impose a daily limitation on the number of times an exceedingly potent weapon against the forces of evil could be used. And whilst I normally never say this, but I hope I am wrong...it was more than just a single beast at Bael."

"The gnoll invoked the Dark Walker by name to behold our death," Aidan nodded, remembering the brief exchange of words. "I could actually see the thinness of the planes through which our fight was observed. The gnoll has a great connection to the ultimate evil. He did claim to be the last member of The Eye, which may not be entirely true. Word of Bolg-Gatha`s death did reach into the Occupied Kingdoms, though it was mostly suppressed, but nothing was said of the other scourges."

"They are more likely to have disbanded for now and he is the only one still active as a mercenary for the Wintervale, thinking on how fanatic he sounded as he prayed. It is exactly the sort of thing I`d expect a creature like that to do. He spoke of himself as Jaa`hla, which I don`t think is a typical gnoll name. At least he will be without armor, unless he got hold of some new- and hello there. You alright?"

Arlgand was suddenly riding alongside them, wild-eyed with fear. "Please! Please, by Tal-Allustiel, tell me you did not utter the syllables I fear you just did! I beg you..."

Aidan frowned at him, uncomprehending. "What are you talking about?"

"Never speak the name of such things aloud!" Arlgand urged with desperation in his voice. "Appreciate that names have a power that some--"

Cruel laughter echoed across the chill emptiness, cutting off the elflord`s warning. The shadows of tree and underbrush strained against the weak sunlight to point at a particularly reedy sapling, whipping violently around in the harvest-scented breeze that rushed over the eastern hills of Kale. Behind the blur was a patch of deeper darkness, that changed in the blink of an eye to a ghastly and familiar figure.

"That sort of monster always knows," Arlgand finished lamely, as Serious Jaa’hla smiled, and charged.

*****

The riders scattered involuntarily, their mounts bucking and screaming in terror as a supernatural fear descended on them, with even Hamling losing the battle to control his horse. This time taken by surprise themselves, the adventurers were immediately on the defensive, barely able to steer in directions vaguely towards each other so as to avoid being picked off individually.

Embla, being the only one on foot, immediately launched a counter-attack. She intercepted Serious Jaa'hla on his way to Brokk, whose placid old mare was too busy shaking to attempt flight. The pair collided with delighted bellows of rage, such as only true berserkers could manage. Incomprehensible words were hurled like javelins, inciting them both to greater ferocity as they nonetheless understood the basic message.

Both unarmed, they fell to tearing at each other with rabid hate, clawing and biting. Bloody gouges striped Embla on each arm. Gore-matted swathes of fur were plucked from Jaa'hla. Bones creaked in protest as muscles strained. Embla barely felt the sharp elbow ram into her cheek, dislocating her jaw. Jaa'hla barely noticed the arterial spray as his ear was bitten loose.

This last, however, gave him an unexpected edge. As the pair duelled, he turned his head just so, exposing his throat for a moment, holding his breath. Embla, naturally, took the bait, lunging forwards to bite through to artery and vein. The gnoll`s lungs, beginning to hunger for air, demanded the rest of him to work harder, and his heart obliged. Black blood gouted straight in Embla`s eyes, blinding her momentarily and burning like acid. Even she could not withstand that, and fell back, clutching at her face with one of the few genuine screams of pain that her friends had ever heard.

Then Gareth`s bow sung and his barbed 'gutripper' arrow embedded itself in the ground next to the gnoll. The horrid laughing suggested that the miss was no mere accident, that somehow the sheer overwhelming malice emanating from the beast had simply deflected the arrow. What should, in any other circumstance, have been a brutal rending of spine and intestines had been reduced to a humiliating failure.

Perhaps Arlgand or the wizard Brokk could explain the magical theory behind that little piece of cosmic cheating, but for now, the extremely annoyed and not a little frightened Marquis du Rentes was forced into admitting that the situation needed a new approach. Much to his displeasure, he was once again going to have listen to a suggestion from Tybalt. Though the others were nearing control over their horses again, only he and Aidan had succeeded thus far, meaning they would have to be the bait.

"Chase after us, ugly, and we`ll lead you right into a trap!" Gareth roared, to the delight of the gnoll. "You won`t even know what hit you until it`s too late. We`ll be long gone and back to our planned day before dinner, whereas you will become dinner."

Serious Jaa'hla cocked his head, giggling softly at the thought of something being able to kill and eat him, and then suddenly snapped his jaws shut on thin air. The sound of splintering wood overcame the gnashing of fangs, and a second shattered gutripper arrow dropped from his mouth. Gareth cursed, having expected something significantly less embarrassing, given how swiftly and accurately he had been able to loose that particular missile. Luckily, this failure had seemed to capture the last of their enemy`s attention.

No wait, that`s NOT lucky! Gareth corrected himself in a minor panic.

"Brokk!" shouted Aidan, and Gareth too yelled: "Malevoxa!" as both gestured along the route originally being travelled, before digging in their heels and hurtling away, the gnoll running after them with a maddened glee in his remaining eye, and actually beginning to close the distance.

In seconds, the trio had become mere specks in the distance, then vanished behind a rise, leaving their named seconds to consider how to continue the mission.

*****

The gnoll was impossibly close behind and the pair raced into Deadman`s Ravine, now truly urging their horses onward. Lesser steeds would have collapsed. Kalais chargers bred from the fierce wild stock that range beyond the Bay of Parting took this as a challenge. Both were stargazers, eyes high and unblinkered, despite their speed. Only as even their limits were reached did they start to dip their heads as would the common horse.

Serious Jaa'hla arrived mere seconds later. He paused at the entrance, almost confused, as he took in the sight. A landslide had happened here long ago, cutting off most of the ways out of what had once been a mere hollow, turning into an actual ravine. Boulders of all sizes lay strewn about in disarray, even tenuously clinging onto the walls. An angry look might suffice to finally knock them loose, but Serious Jaa'hla was not angry enough to glare.

He could not see his prey, but he could smell the fear and exhaustion from them. Taking horses through this place was idiotic. They had trapped themselves so effectively that the hunt was almost not going to be worth it. There was no laughter from the gnoll as he kicked out at a nearby mossy boulder to clear his own path. The boulder rolled away from the gnoll. It rolled slowly, steadily, and uphill. Vaguely amused by this, the gnoll kicked at it again, harder this time. Years of accumulated dirt fell away, revealing a faceted sheen beneath.

Serious Jaa'hla sniffed at the strange boulder, intrigued by the shimmering contents. One portion seemed to be a kind of trapdoor, surely indicating this was a construct of some sort. If so, that meant something living was inside, and that demanded more than token attention. With a hungry chuckle, he ripped at the most vulnerable-seeming area, until it gave way with an almost metallic scream of protest.

Waving tendrils tipped with spiked orbs instantly emerged from the hole and began to strike at him ineffectually. He tore them loose and gulped them down, ignoring the shrieking wail coming from within. They were delectable morsels indeed, sliding down his throat so very easily, thanks to a rich covering of mucus. As he feasted, Serious Jaa'hla wondered if any of the Kalais would appreciate this taste, for it seemed to him very similar to some of their more bizarre dishes.

His musings were interrupted when the ravine seemed to shift under him. Looking around curiously, Serious Jaa'hla saw that nearly everything he had taken to be mere stone was in motion, upsetting the earth through the sheer number of creatures that were now stirring from their long dormancy. The two humans he had been pursuing were quickly forgotten, and already exiting Deadman`s Ravine via the hidden path that Gareth had once discovered.

"When I tell this story, if I ever tell this story," Aidan panted heavily, resisting the urge to look behind him at the scene he knew was taking place. "I think I will have to leave this bit out as being too ridiculous. I don`t even want to know how YOU knew of this."

*****

EIGHTH INTERLUDE

The brilliant dawn was all the more comforting now that the Graf Balaur, a keilican, a true vampire lord sired by the infamous Cutalak himself, was at long last truly and irrevocably dead. The victory had come at heavy cost. Many had died even before the truth of the matter had come to light. Only one, Maurice Durienne, was left of the original party besides himself.

Most, Gareth admitted to himself somewhat guiltily, would not really be missed. Even the most recent death, of an ally whose name he had struggled to pronounce, would fade from his memory soon enough. There had been that lovely lady of course, rumored to have been of questionable chastity, turned into a horrid spawn with a repulsive taste for children. Even transformed, she had exerted such a pull upon him that Gareth had nearly become a meal. He had been working on overcoming that weakness ever since.

There is a distinct shortage of perfect breasts in the world, he thought idly. It was a real shame to have to plunge that stake between them. Ha! Anyone heard me saying that aloud would immediately think I was making some kind of lewd double-entendre. As if I can`t think of entendres on their own. Single, lonely, wistful entendres; sighing softly out of hope that another, a heroic and handsome chiselled cavalier, will come to them in the night. They embrace eagerly, knowing that their desperate doubling will surely--

"You`re looking like alliterations are going through your head again, Gareth," interrupted the elderly druid, startling him out of his reverie. "Please stop it. I get nauseous just trying not to think about all the things you must be picturing. You realise you talk in your sleep? You try to sweet-talk in sleep-talk and I have never heard the like in my life. Even your dreams must get offended by some of those suggestions."

"Don`t like it, don`t listen in to my private seductions," Gareth answered snippily, more than a little disgruntled. "What do you want, Maurice?"

"The vampire is dead and his minions surrendered. Jonotan has already begun to rehearse what he will say at their trial. I imagine between that and his impending marriage, he won`t have any more time for the likes of us. So, unless you want to be left alone here, I suggest you get back on your horse and join us in returning to Kale City."

"I need to report back to the church of Heshtail anyway. They will want to know that the threat is ended. The other faiths can hear of it through them, and believe it more readily than from me or you. Besides, there is...something I must do. And as different as we are, I think we can call each other friends by now. I could really use a friend. I knew what I was risking and what the consequences were, but...look, I could really just use a friend."

With one final look at the brooding castle that had served as the Graf`s final lair, and which would probably haunt the dreams of sensitive travellers through the Karpatens for decades yet, Gareth spat a curse against all vampirekind, and joined his last, weird friend on the road back to Kale.

*****

"I actually think I recognize this part of the trail," Gareth commented, peering down the new fork. "Didn`t we stop here briefly on our first journey out? Had a little debate over whether or not to see what was down that way before finishing the trip?"

Maurice frowned at the hollow, disliking it all the more now that he knew how close it had been to a vampire lair. Still, an amusing memory did come back to him and he relaxed into a smile. A few moments later, Gareth recalled the same part of the conversation and laughed. Just as then, the notion was indeed a very silly one. After all, what could the odds possibly be?

They looked at each other and then back down the trail. An awkward silence came over them. Neither made a move to spur their horse onward again. Maurice scratched the back of his neck, looking away at nothing in particular. Gareth opened his mouth to say something, thought of nothing, and closed it again.

With a groan at his own foolishness, the druid turned his horse down the path and grumbled about something or another. A moment or two later, Gareth followed, also trying to convince himself that this was not a ridiculous thing to be doing right after a very brutal and very close battle against an elder vampire. The way the pair pointedly avoided looking at each other made it quite clear that each was failing in his own way.

After some minutes, the silence became quite unbearable, and Gareth started to hum. He was not entirely sure where he had heard the tune before, but supposed it had been some bawdy song played by a mostly-talentless minstrel in a back-alley tavern somewhere. The sort of place which had more drink on the floor and walls than in the bellies of its customers, and dancing girls who could be more accurately described as exotic apes in a sackcloth 'dress' and that had been strategically shaved. He missed those sorts of places. An idea occurred to him then.

"So what do you say we bet that no--"

"No," Maurice said at once, with emphatic finality. "Terrible idea. If you want to tempt Janora, do so somewhere far away from me. The Lady of Fate does not like being tempted."

"Well then, I bet myself ten silver pieces that we won`t find a single dire snail down here!"

*****

It took some hours for the dust to settle, painting the formerly green vista a variety of brown shades. At the end of it, the druid Maurice contentedly announced that the hollow was now a ravine, almost completely sealed off from the outside world, and with nearly everything within either uprooted or crushed. All in all, he summed up, an effective solution to the problem that had nearly arisen from there.

"I still think this is a plan that will come back to bite me one day," Gareth asserted glumly. "You thought it up. The only thing missing from it`s an ironclad guarantee of certain and irrevocable success."

The druid shook his head in good-natured resignation: "Relax. Nobody will care enough to investigate an obvious landslide in a part of the border mountains known to be unstable. You can come back here to collect the shells as and when you need to, and pay off whatever debts you still have accrued without anybody being the wiser."

Gareth was not convinced. "Nobody will care about the highly magical shells that I suddenly have an apparently endless supply of? What mystical and wondrous peddler of the exotic do I go into business with?"

"The elves of the Belendale," Maurice answered calmly. "I can write you a letter of introduction that will get your foot in the door, so to speak. A few of the borderers know me by reputation. If I vouch for you and you keep your charm reasonable..."

"And you aren`t troubled at all by the fact that I am basically farming this resource? You, a druid, a protector of the natural and the wild? What happened, you got hit by an intelligence-boosting spell in that fight or something? Because I feel like if it was anyone else telling me to do this, I`d be getting set up for a major fall of some kind."

"Gareth!" the druid laughed cheerfully. "You ought to know me better than that. That nest was huge. If we hadn`t dealt with it, within a couple of years they would have spread to the lowlands in Kale and in Daven. Farms would be stripped and famine would set in, killing thousands. You might as well profit from a good deed done. Besides, they will have to go into a hungerless torpor now that most of their food is buried, and so won`t be breeding nearly so much. Decades will pass before this nest is again a tenth the size is was. Perfectly balanced."

Gareth continued to mutter to himself. "Did you have to say that in such a horribly smug and self-assured way? Fine. But when I tell this story, if I ever tell this story, I think I will have to leave this part out of it. As an epilogue to the grand tale of vanquishing an elder vampire lord and thwarting his vile schemes of conquest and whatnot, this particular bit strikes me as just a little ridiculous. Anti-climactic. Not good for romance. The ladies like a good climax, you know."

"I mean, really?" Gareth sighed heavily. "Flail snails?" ***** "I still cannot believe that nobody recognised him just because he had a mask on..." Isolde continued to complain bitterly, much to Hamling`s delight as he danced one of his shining silver winnings across his knuckles. "He didn`t change his voice. He was riding the same horse, with the same people. His cheekbones were identical! I said that to Embla and she just looked at me. Why am I the only one to notice a man`s cheekbones? What is wrong with everyone? Wipe that smirk off your face, Hamling, before I smack it off!"

The others were ignoring this, mostly preferring instead to consider how to approach the crude and worrying empty mining camp that had suddenly revealed itself along their path. That this was their destination could not be denied, for the remains of the wards which had encircled the Dreaming Pit lay strewn about. There were no signs of life, be it enslaved villager or equally intimidated bandit.

Embla, still rubbing at her eyes despite Arlgand`s immediate use of a healing spell, was growling things in her native language, with certain syllables of horrific implication such as Hraghilssh and Viurnnikai and Slaasstrya and Ylsmyr-- numbering among them. She was being watched closely by Malevoxa, who was mouthing the syllables back as if committing them to memory, composing a future rhyme out of this new material.

Though surely it was but a trick of the light, any third party who observed this observation might have believed that the light of reason had gone out of the bard`s eyes, and perhaps even the very soul from her body, leaving an empty shell behind. A shell of purest ambition, unhindered by codas of law or morality.

The only one who might have recognised this at that moment was Arlgand, who was too busy trying to devise a plan with Brokk for how to sneak the group into the camp-- they had agreed that, given the circumstances involved, sending in Isolde to reconnoitre was an unacceptable risk. The predatory senses of vampires were not exactly an unknown factor, but they were extremely unfamiliar.

The elven priest and dwarven wizard, together holding the powers and mysteries of some of the eldest magical arts in the world, were utterly stumped by the prospect. Brokk began to outline a theoretical, but exhausting, reworking of his available magical energies to provide some very temporary invisibility, whilst Arlgand argued back that this would weaken him too much to be worth it.

"Oh sweetlings, what good could your charming little spells do here?" interrupted Malevoxa with a cold condescension, her fingers drifting dangerously close to the cursed harp. "Your magic is so boringly focused upon the individual that it has no real power over the masses. A dozen here, perhaps, or half as many there. What would you know of the influence that an artist can exert over thousands?"

"What do you suggest instead, songstress?" Brokk hissed back in something approaching anger, remembering other insults-- always implied, never spoken aloud-- during his initial attempts to discuss their respective magical discipline. "A rousing monologue with full harmonic accompaniment to cover our stealthy approach? Your ostentatious bardic magic is precisely the opposite of what is needed for this, so kindly refrain from offering up your unwanted opinion. Now hush, whether you will it or not, and let the real spellcasters think."

Arlgand winced at the tirade and covered his ears. Before he could come up with an alternative, Brokk nearly fell from his horse in shock as Malevoxa suddenly, inexplicably, and riotously plucked at her harp. The strings trembled even before her hands passed over them, as if knowing in advance of the violence they would soon be subjected to. Her voice, as strident and powerful as a full orchestral chorus, infused with the unbridled magic of the bards, rent the air as it was raised in ironic verse:

𝅘𝅥𝅲With catlike tread
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Upon our prey we steal
𝅘𝅥𝅲 In silence dread
𝅘𝅥𝅲 Our wrathful way we feel
𝅘𝅥𝅲 NO SOUND AT ALL
𝅘𝅥𝅲 No, with nary a spoken word
𝅘𝅥𝅲 A fly's footsteps distinctly heard

The visibly complete, utterly impossible, lack of any reaction whatsoever from the camp was proof enough that the bombastic melody had shrouded them all from any means of perception. Triumph blazed in Malevoxa`s eyes as she looked over at Brokk for a moment, before digging in her heels and moving off, still singing at a volume no single throat could achieve.

Having at least the good grace to look a little shamefaced, Arlgand motioned for the party to ride on. Brokk`s scowl was fierce enough to shatter stone at five hundred paces. He quickly dissuaded himself of the notion that a lightning bolt out of nowhere would be a perfectly natural phenomenon at this time of year, and tried not to look at the extremely tempting target that was Malevoxa`s very exposed back. ***** The cadaverous figure was almost drooling in anticipation, but beyond his heartbeat ringing in his own ears, Wulfram could not hear a thing, even from the twitching spawn that awaited the order to rampage. Everything had started to go wrong so quickly, exactly as he had feared would happen. It was a natural consequence of those terrifying adventurers showing up, the gnome knew.

First Jaa'hla had stiffened suddenly, his current bout of hysterical laughter cut off abruptly. He had instead begun to smile. A shadow enveloped him, crawling out from his mouth and dripping from his punctured eye. When it cleared, the gnoll was nowhere to be seen.

At once, Naxartes and Marchosias had abandoned the campsite. The imp had handed over a scroll of some kind to one of the saner vampires to awaken, and verbally left the monster in charge. Wulfram was curious as to why he was still alive at this point, but suspected from certain looks being sent his way it was because the vampires thought of him as too pitiful a meal to be drunk, especially now that they had broken their long fast.

The one left in charge had the air of a nobleman about him, even looking down his long beaked nose at the other vampires assembled just within the tunnel to the Dreaming Pit. He did not deign to acknowledge their spawn at all, as if to do so was wholly beneath him.

"Did you hear something?" Wulfram whispered suddenly. "A very quiet something. Something like..."

A pale hand flickered up to his head, fingers snapping shut on a soft body that had been crawling among his sweat-damp hair. The gnome winced at the legs twitching frantically, unaware that they were dead, and the vampire brushed the flattened fly against the tunnel wall.

"Oh good," Wulfram breathed tonelessly. "That makes me feel so much better."

The lordly vampire sneered, but said nothing, turning his vile attention back to the sunlight blocking their exit. Just beyond was a freedom that they had all once turned their backs on, wearied with the unchanging mundanities of the mortal world. Some of those who had awoken and glutted themselves had afterwards even returned to their crypts, sleepily calling to the others to join them once more.

What had followed was a massacre that even the vampires had shrunk back from. To see their own kind be ripped apart and feasted upon was a maddening terror, unimaginable and yet undeniably real. With each cracked skull, each plucked heart, the Angelscourge grew more wrathful at the cowardice she had beheld. Nearly thirty died the final death before Lady Kyrren ran out of prey.

Now, she too waited below, her hunger briefly slaked and her absolute dominance over the awoken vampires assured. Left unspoken was that fragment of knowledge, that even older and mightier horrors than she still slumbered in the depths of the Dreaming Pit. Lady Kyrren did not fear them, of course, but she held them in a wary respect that demanded her presence should one of them show signs of rising.

A very particular crypt, inscribed with peculiar titles in the proto-Lundish speech from the days of Aelfar, was the one to which her gaze had kept returning. Its position in the Dreaming Pit indicated that it was one of the very oldest of all the crypts within, and that the Dreaming Pit itself might have grown out of others coming to rest alongside this primordial sleeper.

Only Lady Kyrren seemed to know who was within, and of what they were capable should they awaken at long last. It was her right to await this possibility whilst her lessers went to the surface-- and whatever words she had exchanged with that visiting imp must also play a role in this, not that any were so foolish as to question her about that either.

Those, however, were matters for another time, if ever. The vampire aristocrat entrusted with Marchosias` scroll drew it out now, smiling evilly at his ostensible peers. Their anticipation was palpable, tainting the air with a toxic heaviness that made Wulfram struggle to breathe. Even the spawn, with scarce a mind to call their own, seemed to understand that a moment of significance was upon them all.

The scroll was unfurled. The syllables upon it were spoken. The scroll turned to dust. And as one, vampire and spawn rushed to the end of the tunnel, where the sunlight had simply winked out like a candle in the wind.

TO BE CONTINUED