Below us, the rolling foothills of die Weissbergen, and the small town where our caravan had stopped for the past week. Above us, the moon, pallid and bloated on the dreams of this once proud nation. In between, the modest manor of one Baron Faulker. The townsfolk had nothing but kind words for him. He kept the kobolds at bay. He made sure his people were fed. His taxes were more reasonable than most other men in his position. All he asked was that no one intrude upon his keep.
So inevitably, we must do that very thing.
Six inches to my left and a foot and a half down, ginger Daniel was peering through a hole in the fence that just happened to be at eye level for him. After about 5 minutes of this, I cleared my throat quietly. "Look, Dannyboy, I know this is important to you. I know I said that I would help you do this. But it's kind of cold out, and I'd like to get some rest tonight before we pack up and move on."
Six inches to my right and a foot and a half up, I heard rather than saw Dmitri's bushy eyebrow raise as he tilted his head, lightly rattling the multicolored beads in his hair. Even in this darkness, I could see his luminous green eyes, evidence of his Ussuran lineage. "We are leaving in the morning? I, uh, was not made aware of this."
"Well, if Des Gaulles has any sense, we are. I do not believe that the townspeople will buy our three-ringed farce much longer." I sighed, and began to rub my temples. "But then, this is Monsieur Des Gaulles we're speaking of." I sneered, then turned around and spat on the ground.
Without taking his eye away from the gap, Danny lilted back "Aye, Renaldo, but perhaps if you could actually FIGHT a bull like we said you could, the townsfolk just might have had an easier time swallowing this malarkey, ya think?"
I bristled, and my left hand sought out the hilt of my rapier. I hissed at him "Do not call me that! It is bad enough that Des Gaulles forces me to assume that name. I am Valiente Rafael Luis Zepata del Tor-"
"res de Castille de blah de blah de blah. Ye've got more names than I've got possible dads, an' that's sayin' somethin. Now hush up, will ya?"
I stewed in silence for about half a minute. "Besides, if Dmitri hadn't given the bull tactical advice, he wouldn't have gotten the better of me like that."
Smile playing at the edge of his voice, he gently demurred. "I do not know what you mean, friend. I was advising you to go for its legs. It is mere coincidence that it lowered its head at the last second. That looked painful, though. Are you sure you're ok?"
I jabbed my finger into his ribs. "Don't you give me that. I'm on to you. I've heard the stories about Ussurans, how you can talk to animals."
"We all can talk to animals. Even you. It does not mean they listen."
"But they DO! They LISTEN when you talk!"
"PIPE DOWN, lads! We can settle this later. The drug I slipped into their well earlier seems to be working. Only six guards on duty, and they all look pretty woozy, but they're not down. Dmitri?"
If Dmitri's eyes could have rolled all the way around, they would have. "I'll go get the bird and the monkey." And then, with more swiftness and silence than I would have believed possible of such a large man, he slid into the night, muttering to himself.
A minute passed in utter silence.
"...Bird and monkey?"
"Aye, it worked last night. They created a distraction so I could slip in, figure out the layout of the place."
"...Bird and monkey?"
"You mean the bird and monkey he keeps in his wagon?"
"Well, I think the monkey followed him up here, but...Yep."
"You're not going to explain further, are you?"
"Nope. Ruins the surprise."
One more minute.
"You know, Daniel, I'm not quite sure why I'm doing this."
"Cuz you're my friend, and you can't resist helping a friend."
Yet another unbearable minute.
"So, uh, are we waiting for something, or..."
A shadow with a wingspan only a foot shorter than Daniel passed over head, blotting out the moon for a second. Was...that a monkey being carried by an enormous raven? A moment later, I heard a monkey screeching, followed by shouting in Eisen and metal clanking on metal as the guards began to run after it.
"Yeah. That. Come on, we've not got long." The slight Inishman picked up the length of rope on the ground beside him and began spinning it, and a few seconds later the claw was firmly attached to the top of the wall. "You first."
"Because, if it can hold your weight, than it can definitely hold mine and we've got nothin' to worry about."
"It wouldn't kill you to ease off the steak. Just sayin." I sighed in disgust, but indulged him and began climbing, taking care not to snag my cloak on the barbs on top. Soon, we were both over the wall and in the courtyard. In the distance, I could see the six brutish guards falling over themselves as they tried to catch the elusive beast. I did not speak Eisen, so I asked Daniel what they were shouting about.
"Oh, somethin' about 'it's that flyin kobold again' and 'we're all doomed' and 'kill it quick before it leads the rest here'...usual Eisen nonsense, nothin' important. Come on, quick."
Like most of this forsaken country, the ground between the wall and the front door was completely barren, marked only by the footprints of the guardsmen. Nonetheless, we crossed without incident thanks to the ruckus caused by the "flying kobold". Once inside, I followed Daniel's lead through twisting corridors and winding passages, coming at last to a set of stairs flanked on either side by oaken double doors.
Pausing for a second, I rubbed my chin and reflected on the route we'd just taken. "Strange. This isn't like any Eisen building I've ever been in, all twists and curves. Most Eisen architecture is marked by utility and directness."
"Yah, well, Faulker isn't like any other Eisen. Now come on, the library should be just up these stairs."
"Wait. Library? You're risking my life for a damned book?"
"Grimoire, actually, but you don't know how right you are."
"Look, Daniel, this book can't be that important. We'll go to a library in Freiburg, they'll surely have a copy."
"No, this book is the last of its kind. And hopefully, it...Wait. You hear that?" I didn't. "Crap, guards are comin' round! Quick, hide!" He rattled the handle on one set of doors, and when it turned out to be locked, he swore under his breath in a language I'd never heard before. Now I could hear voices from above us, and they didn't sound like they were coming down to greet us with fruit-filled baskets. I dashed to the other set of doors and tried the knob. Yes! It opened. I waved Daniel over and shut and barred the door behind us.
The voices grew louder, accompanied by heavy footfalls and the jangling of swords. There was a great deal of shouting right outside the door, and for one horrible moment I thought they'd found us; but soon, their voices faded and we were left in peace. I realized I was holding my breath, and sighed in relief.
"I assume they were shouting about the kobold?" Daniel merely nodded.
Danger passed, I took a second to look around the room I found myself in. It was a woman's room...technically. In one corner, there was a lumpy bed scarcely big enough for one, and in the other, a small desk adorned with what appeared to be a toolkit and a worn, slumped candle, burning gloomily. 'Martha' was inscribed on the box in broad, crude letters, as those written by a child. Against the far wall, there was a wardrobe filled with dresses that, while the right shape and color, were too hole-ridden to be proper potato sacks. Above the bed was a small, barred window, plain and heavy curtains tied on either side.
"This room, it lacks...color, it lacks life. Look at those, Daniel. How could she wear those?"
"This ain't Castille, Rafael. Wearing bright colors just makes it easier for the monsters to see you."
"I suppose, but still...This is a joyless room. It's more a cell than anything." I wandered over to the desk; something about the toolkit caught my eye. "A joyless room in a joyless land. Hey, check this out." I picked up a tiny screwdriver.
"...It's a tiny screwdriver."
"Right, but what I mean is, it's too small to have any use for most people. I believe this woman has a panzerhand, and she does her own maintenance."
"A panzerhand. It, uh, it's sort of like an iron glove. Like a gauntlet, but they're supposed to be almost as articulate as a real hand, and a hell of a lot more durable. Taking care of one is almost as complex as caring for a clock. Whoever she is, she's smart." I lightly rummaged through the box, and at the very bottom, I found a very small iron key. "Odd; that's not part of a standard kit. Won't fit a door..."
"You can drool over her tools later. Come on, let's get up those stairs before the guards return."
We were on the landing before I realized I'd taken the key with me. Crap. Well, can't really put it back now. I slid it into my breast pocket and promptly forget about it.
Atop the stairs, there was only one hallway, straightforward for once, leading to yet another set of double doors about 50 yards. Small barred windows lined the length of the otherwise bare western wall, interspersed with ensconced torches lighting our path.
I don't know what it was, but something about that door filled me with dread, the likes of which I'd never felt before. No...Not the door. Whatever was behind it.
But I'd promised my friend. If nothing else, I must go through those doors for him. By my side, I could see Daniel steeling himself similarly. There was something in those blue eyes of his, as though he was on a holy mission.
Perhaps we were.
Daniel nodded at me, and without a word we began to creep down the hall. Treading lightly on the hardwood floor, step after step, hardly daring to breathe. Every step I took was more difficult than the last, but still, we pressed on.
Halfway down the passage, the floor suddenly raised up an inch and I didn't catch it in time. I kicked the floor, and though I managed to keep from falling the noise seemed louder than a gunshot in the stillness. We froze, Daniel glaring at me with accusation in his eyes. We held for a minute, counting the seconds with heartbeats, but no sound came from the library doors. The only noise I could hear was yet more shouting in Eisen from outside, confused and angry.
We continued on, relieved that my misstep had gone unheeded, and too soon we were at the door. We both cautiously pressed our ears against it, listening for signs of life. For thirty seconds, all was silent...And then, a click.
Daniel planted his hands in my stomach and shoved me away from the door, actually lifting me off my feet. Just before I slammed into the wall behind me, I only had two thoughts. First, What the hell?? And second, why was that midget so thrice-damned strong?
As I hit the wall and my lungs bid farewell to the air within them, there was a deafening roar followed by a splintering crack and a fist-sized hole appeared in the space over Daniel's head, the space that had just been vacated by my chest. I threw up my arm, trying to keep the oak shards out of my eyes.
As it turns out, kicking the floor is in fact not louder than a gunshot.
Knocked off its hinges by the force of the ball, the door swung loosely into the hall. I drew my rapier and neatly sidestepped the door as it collapsed, unfastening my cloak and wrapping it about my right arm. Daniel however stood still, staring into the library, transfixed by what he saw. I couldn't blame him.
Staring down the barrel of a still-smoking musket stood a woman about my height in a shapeless brown dress. The way she carried herself suggested she was in her 30's, but the lines on her face told me she'd aged much more than she lived. Light blonde hair pulled back into a no-nonsense bun and eyes the color of her dress, the only things that really stood out were the broadsword at her hip and the metal glove on her left hand. Well, that and the fact that she was pointing a now-decorative musket at us. At her side stood a man who was a full ebon-topped head and shoulders taller than her, holding a pistol in one hand and an enormous longsword that was as long as Daniel. Swathed in black robes, he was as pale as the moon, and he looked as though he hadn't had a meal since before the War of the Cross. If eyes were the window to one's soul, he did not have one. As he leveled the gauntlet-clad hand holding the pistol at Daniel's head, I saw a glint of metal as his robes shifted. Was this fool wearing plate? For what purpose? Armor's been obsolete since before I was born.
On a table behind them rested a tome on a stand, bound in leather and covered in strange symbols that seemed to rearrange themselves as I watched. I found myself both fascinated and disgusted by it, and I could almost hear a faint whispering emanating from it. Ten yards behind that was a hearth providing reading light, and stretching out to the east were rows upon rows of bookshelves, with another entrance at the far end. The western wall had only a larger than average (though still barred) window obscured partially by curtains.
And then the Baron spoke. Just the thought of his voice still sends shivers up my spine today...Flat, emotionless, rasping, as though he were already dead, he paused often as if words were alien to him. It was mockery of all that was good and right.
"You...are trespassers. Leave...and...tell none...of what you've seen ton...ight. And you...shall live."
Daniel answered, charm-filled voice giving lie to the fear he must have felt at that moment. "I've got a counter-proposition for ya, Faulker. You give us that book and let us walk out of here, and YOU shall live."
At that moment, there was a rustling of feathers behind me, followed by a huge black bird swooping into the room. It alighted on a bust above the window. It preened itself for a second, smoothing out its wings, then turned its green eyes at the Baron and cawed. "Nevermore." The monkey was nowhere to be seen.
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Cute."
"Aye, he's on my side."
"This...the so called fly...ing kobold."
Daniel merely smirked.
Without even turning his gaze, faster than I could blink, the pistol left Daniel's head and fired. The raven shrieked, blood splattered on the wall, and there was a wet thud as it hit the floor. I gasped, and Daniel cried out "NO! You're gonna pay for that, you son of a -"
"I...know what it...is. I know...it is not as it app...ears. And it...is not dead."
Sure enough, the bird began to rustle. Somehow it regained its feet, and it fluttered back to its perch, shedding blood and feathers as it went.
That is one tough bird.
"Oh, I intend to." With that, Daniel reached into his vest and pulled out his own pistol. "But WITH the book, thanks." He aimed, and fired. There was a noise almost like the ringing of a bell as Baron Faulker jerked backwards from the force of the impact, but you wouldn't know it to look at him; his expression, like his voice, was completely dead. The acrid stench of gunpowder filled my nose as Dmitri's raven screeched and took flight, and I fully expected the Baron to keel over at any second.
But he didn't. He simply shrugged, and his robes puddled around his feet, revealing an almost patchwork assortment of armor with a luster unknown to any other metal; Greaves on one side of his body, a shoulder-length gauntlet on the other, and an unmarked breastplate in between. Of course! Dracheneisen; unique to the Eisen lands, four times as strong as steel and only a fifth of the weight, it was so rare that only Eisen nobles could afford it.
Eisen nobles. Like, say, Baron Faulker.
Still emotionless, the Baron assumed a two-handed grip on his sword. "Destroy."
In a voice more tired than I would have thought possible for her age, Martha answered "Yes, my love." She dropped the musket and drew her broadsword in her unprotected hand.
"Ok, Raf, you take her, and I'll handle Baron von Scaryguy."
"You sure about that?"
"No." Quick as a mongoose, Daniel chucked his pistol at Faulker and started running at him, drawing his knives. Unflinching even as it struck him on the temple, Faulker swung his sword in a wide arc that Daniel nimbly dodged. He tried to get in close, but was interrupted by another slash; that weapon was deceptively fast.
Meanwhile, Martha began to walk towards me, broadsword at the ready. I shifted my stance, cloak forward. "Come now, Senora. Surely we can talk thi-WHOA!" I neatly sidestepped an overhand chop and flicked my cloak at her face, circling to the right. "Careful! You could have hurt someone!" She turned to face me and thrusted. I sidestepped again and wrapped my cloak around her sword hand, slashing at her face. She brought her panzerhand up to deflect, scraping the edge of my blade and sending up sparks. She pulled free, and we began to dance. I never stopped moving, always circling to her right, disguising my outline behind my cloak and whipping it about her limbs, but she never grew tired, and any opening I could create was immediately filled by her metal hand.
From behind me, I heard the Inishman yell "The fire! Put it in the fire!" I had a brief moment to wonder what he was talking about before...
Have you ever heard a rabbit scream? It's perhaps the most heart-wrenching sound a man can hear in his lifetime, a high pitched grating shriek, the last sound a living creature makes when it knows it shall surely die.
This was worse. This was the sound of a rabbit dying, a pigs last squeal, a child screaming in agony, a mothers anguished wail, and a hundred, a thousand voices more, as though the world itself was dieing. I could hear my father crying in his sickbed, my sister's gurgling last gasps as she was held under, Yvette's shrills at the stake. Martha and I both clapped our hands to our ears and fell to our knees, bellowing along in a futile attempt to drown out the voices. Though I wanted more than anything to close my eyes, I forced myself to look at the source of the cacophony.
The grimoire we'd come to retrieve was in the hearth, flames dancing around it, and yet like my sister it did not burn. The symbols on its cover were furiously boiling and shifting, glowing the same color as the fire. Above us, the raven spun in erratic circles, obviously having difficulty staying aloft. Daniel and Faulker, however, seemed not to be affected.
Struggling to be heard above the din, I yelled "Daniel! Shut that thing up!!!! Get it out of the fire!"
"I'd love to, but I'm sorta tied down at the moment." he called back, dodging another swipe.
With tremendous effort, I forced myself to my feet and took my hands away from my ears. "Go! I've got your back." The rogue's eyes darted from me to the book to Faulker, and I could tell he was having trouble trusting me...but he nodded, and without another word he darted past the Baron. The gaunt man turned to follow him, but I wrapped my cloak about his head and pulled him backwards. "Oh no you don't you bastard! You're with me!"
Uncomplaining, he simply raised his sword and pressed the attack. Wild and unpredictable, I was barely able to keep ahead of him as he changed stances and grips fluidly, mixing wide devastating slashes with quick, spear-like thrusts. One such thrust I was too slow in dodging, and it scraped along my ribs opening a shallow but painful gash on my chest. In the heat of battle, I was only dimly aware that the unholy noise had stopped, replaced with a sound that reminded me of bacon sizzling on a grill.
Martha regained her senses, and immediately came to the aid of her husband. Now unable to do anything but defend, I was quickly backed against a wall. I parried a strike from her broadsword, but she pinned my sword down as Faulker lifted his arms above his head to deliver a blow I could not avoid.
Suddenly, a knife sprouted in his armpit. He froze, then wandered back a few steps, confusion finally on his face, something black and...chunky spewing from the wound. I took the opportunity to pull my sword free, entangling Martha's metal hand. Poised to deliver the finishing blow, I hesitated just a second...She was, after all, still a woman. Just a second. But it was enough.
"Give me that!" She grabbed the cloak with her iron glove and yanked me off balance, ripping it out of my hands. She threw it into the fire, and while I was still reeling off balance the last thing I saw was her iron fist filling my vision.
There was a sickening crunch as my nose shattered YET AGAIN, and any reservations I had about killing a woman promptly vanished. Unfortunately, I could no longer see her to do so. I stumbled away, hand flailing out for something to hold on to, and I grabbed onto the curtains on the window. I ripped them down and wiped the blood out of my eyes in time to see the raven flying back into this room the way we'd come in, book in its talons, six VERY angry guardsmen with pikes coming up behind it.
"Rafael! You and D...The bird have to go out the other door! I'll hold these dingleberries off."
I spat out a tooth and looked up at Daniel. "Don't be an idiot! You can't-"
"But I will! No matter what, that book MUST leave the building! GO!!" Still unsure, I nodded anyway and sprinted across the room, wrapping the curtain partially around my hand, Martha and the bird at my heels. Lucky for me, the far doors opened outward, as I discovered at the cost of a bruised shoulder. I swung behind the door as it opened, and when the bird and the woman came through I slammed it shut, threading my scabbard through the handles. Not the best bar, but hopefully it would buy us a minute if someone tried to follow us. I wished Daniel luck, then turned to face my adversary...
Who was already halfway down the corridor, completely ignoring me and chasing the bird. I followed them down, watching helplessly as she managed to clip the raven with the flat of her broadsword and throw it into the wall with such force I heard its frail bones crack. It fell to the floor, book clattering on the wood. I was halfway there when she raised her sword; half again when it turned its bright green eyes on me and croaked out in a fading voice "Sergei...Yu...Yulia..."
The names of Dmitri's brother and his wife.
It was then I realized; The birds size, its eyes, Faulkers comment on its true nature...This was not Dmitri's bird.
This was Dmitri.
I wouldn't be able to make it to her in time, the way I was running. Her sword was already coming down. So, I did the only sensible thing; I dove, lashing out with the end of the curtain. It barely reached, but enough of it wrapped around her wrist that I was able to pull her aside at the last second so that her sword slammed into the floor beside Dmitri. At the same time, a shrieking capuchin jumped off a windowsill and darted between her legs and began dragging the book that was almost as big as it was down the hall, though it wasn't going very quickly. Martha moved to give chase; I grabbed at her ankle.
She turned around and kicked at me. I rolled out of the way and stood up. We exchanged some strikes, but she seemed to be as fresh as when we started, whereas I...wasn't. I grew sloppy and with a thunderous blow she knocked my rapier out of my hand. I defended myself as best I could with the curtain, but soon she slipped past my guard again and I was being held against the wall, her metal fingers crushing the life out of my throat. My vision began to tunnel until all I could see was her lined tired face, and I knew...this was the end. I'd failed, and we were all going to die here. I clutched my hand to my chest, seeking solace in the Cross of the Prophets in my final seconds.
What the...That's not my cross.
I reached into my pocket and pulled it out, blindly forcing it into what I hoped was the locking mechanism at the base of her hand and turning it with what little strength I had left.
Immediately I was able to breathe again. I fell down, gasping and coughing and prying the fingers off my throat while in the distance I heard a woman shrieking in torment. I flung the panzer hand away, and half walked half crawled towards where my rapier lay. I armed myself, and turned to face her.
She was the woman screaming, crying wordlessly at the stump where her hand had been.
Well, I didn't do that.
She suddenly charged at me roaring like an animal wounded, no longer paying heed to anything else. Her rage made her clumsy, and I easily avoided her attack, and the next one, and the next. She was tireless as ever, but where before she was calculated and efficient she was now crude and reckless. I'd seen this look before, on every bull goaded into a frenzy by my sword. Somewhere within myself I found the strength to fight on, and I led her back, neatly sidestepping each wild attack until I found myself against a banister; I'd led her to the landing. Finally breathless, she rushed me again, shouting curses in Eisen; I swirled my makeshift cloak around her head and pulled her forward, using her momentum to throw her over the railing.
She was suspended for an instant, weightless...And then she plummeted, cursing me until she smashed against the floor below. I peered over, half afraid that she'd already be on her feet, but no; although she was still breathing, she was unconscious and her knee was bent the wrong way. She couldn't get up if she tried. I drew the sign of the cross in the air above her, then walked back down the hall, taking note of a window whose bars had rusted away and not been replaced.
I sniffed, surprised I could smell anything with my nose the way it was. Was that...Burning fur?
Sure enough, when I reached the monkey (who was barely 10 feet from where he started, poor fella) his hands were raw and blistered. I shooed him off, and bent to pick up the book.
"SON OF A....GYYAAHH!!"
Ok, so that would explain the fur and the sizzling sound I heard earlier. Daniel was right; this was an evil book. I wrapped it in the curtain and picked it up; there we go.
I knelt over the bird; He squawked miserably, but Dmitri was still alive, thank Theus, and could even fly on his own.
The doors rattled, then shook as though hit an axe, reverberating down the hall.
They shook again, the impact even louder than a gunshot, but the doors were built to withstand rams, and no matter how strong Faulker was, he couldn't break them down this soon.
That's when the doors dissolved.
They didn't break, or splinter, or shatter, or even explode. They simply...disintegrated as I watched, noiselessly warping and aging into sawdust. The metal handles clattered to the floor, my scabbard still holding them together. There in the portal stood Baron Faulker with his hand outstretched, the whites of his eyes gone pitch black.
****. **** **** **** **** ****.
I scooped up Dmitri and his monkey. The last thing I saw before I turned was Faulker extending a single finger in my direction.
I made it about three steps before the pain hit, pitching me forward onto the floor. Spasms wracked my body and I convulsed as I felt my limbs desiccating; but I took my feet again and I continued on, holding on to the wall for balance. I nearly fell again when my hand dipped into a window well...
Hold on a second. Hadn't one of the windows lost its fortifications?
Yes, it had. It was too small for me to fit through - and too far of a drop anyway - but right now, I wasn't worried about myself. I smashed the glass in with my elbow and bid Dmitri, the monkey, and the book farewell. I turned to face the Baron...
Who was already gazing out a window, arm extended beyond the bars. I looked out mine, and saw Dmitri plummeting to the earth, body withering and feathers turning grey as I watched. The monkey screeched helplessly as they fell...
Into a pair of waiting, gloved arms. A middle-aged Montaigne man stood in the courtyard, long hair the color of clouds with silk gloves that ran all the way to his shoulders. Though it was after midnight, he was impeccably dressed, as always. My sister's husband, Francois des Gaulles. I'd never been so happy to see the old fop.
Come to think of it, I'd never been happy to see him at all.
He looked up at me and called out in Montaigne. "Ten minutes, Renaldo. I suggest you hurry." Then, with a sound like meat tearing, his arm sank into the air up to his elbow. The Baron began to scream with rage, and as I watched the very stone walls of his keep began to corrode away, but des Gaulles paid him no mind, apparently beyond the range of Faulker's evil sorcery. The Montaigne pulled his arm down, opening a wound in the flesh of reality. He placed his gloved hand over the monkey's eyes, who placed its own over Dmitri's, and then they were gone.
Howling with impotent fury, the Baron unleashed his blight, and everything within a 20 foot radius of him was consumed in his madness. At this point, I had two options; stay and cross swords with a man possessed, who could rip the very essence of my life away with a glance; or get the hell out of there.
I turned, and I ran like I'd never run before. I somehow found my way out of the manor and I careened down the mountainside counting the seconds. I made it back to camp in exactly 8 minutes and 23 seconds, and the wagons were already on the move, mine included. I climbed on board, hobbled in the general direction of my bed, and collapsed halfway unable to continue. I had to trust in des Gaulles and my driver to lead us to safety.
This was not to be the last I saw of Baron Faulker, but that is a story for another day.