Koriszegy Keep - Reflections and Prologue
Well they're young, aren't they? Not so much in body any more, but it ain't given 'em more wisdom. That business with the ghost, it don't show as much with me but they're both hiding it in their ways. It don't keep 'em from rushing in as keen as you like. "The 'something' of youth," she called it when I tried talking to her about it. 'Impe-' Hmm. 'Impy-tchoo…' Well I knew what she meant anyhow. Rash, that's what they are. I watched 'em fade to grey then nothing, 'course Karnus tells me it'll be alright, he'll take care of it. I worry all the same, mind, make me way to Glaston, do me best but keep thinkin' there's not much I can do besides keep me hammer ready. Weeks crawl by and they get home lookin' weary and near starved to death. What is it they want to do? Go rushin' off again. They’ve hatched a plan, haven't they? Where is it they want to go? The haunted vampire castle o' course. Planned it while they were away, like a reward for finding their way home. Couldn't 'a just downed a few tankards an' gone back to normal life. Maybe they think I never notice the looks they give each other… couldn't be clearer they're in this together and there's no turnin' 'em back. Either I stand with 'em or apart. How'd I forgive myself if I let 'em go off without me, knowin' they fell when I could'a kept 'em safe?
Why couldn't they have set their sights on a dragon? Even a flamin' great big one - you know where you stand with one o' them. Course it helps if you've a ring to keep from gettin' flamed and all - heh - and most times there'll be a whole lotta gold into the bargain. Can't say I know vampires same as I do dragons though they likely go down when they're hit hard enough. Might be there'll be gold for the takin' at this Keep. All them folk what fell… may their souls find peace an' all but like everyone knows, you can't take it with you…
I've me hammer at least. Best favour I ever called in. Good, strong magic in it, it's proved itself time and time again. Like against the polliter… hang about… poultry… well, that ghost what aged us. Piotr says there were more like it in that place they went to. I forget what Lana called it - Plane o' Mists rings a bell 'tho she gave it some fancier name. Sounded right bleak and nasty. Full o' ghosts an' all. I’m just glad it's well away from 'ere. I'll do me best to keep their spirits high. Keep their minds off the dark stuff. No good ever came o' worry. I'll be there when they need me. 'Cause, that's what friends do, isn't it? They step in when others get outta their depth. They keep ready in case they make the wrong decisions.
* * *
Immortals above, Watchful Guardians and Lords of Light - hear your servant’s prayer. Vanya grant strength to my arm and guide my sword through what is to come. Years ago I prayed you would grant me courage in the face of danger. Now again do I pray - grant me vigour, let my breath come as fully as it did before the poltergeist. I carry more years and I feel their burden. Let me endure 'til my foe is smote and lain at my feet. Make me steadfast though I am afraid, help me see though all around me is darkness.
Chardastes who ends hurt and suffering, you who are of Traladara of old as am I, you who let my hands mend flesh in your name - let me cleanse this festering wound. Through this land blighted by the tyrannies of hatred and men's lust for power runs the merest trickle, scarcely enough to be visible. It is the power to bring change for the better. It is hope. In the face of this evil we will prevail for together we are strong. In the grey mists of the other place I reflected on what we do now, after Lana revealed the way. Jowett tells me that I must be the light which shines lest others should lose their way. I worry that Lana has strayed from the path. A shadow has fallen upon her... how long ago I do not know but the stains cling to her. As the Holy Father told me - when a person stands at a crossroads, we must shine light so that they may see where their path may lead. She would bring change; I will protect her through what is to come. She may err but I shall not cast her aside. That is what friends do, is it not? They guide one another through hardship and doubt. They look past flaws and make allowances.
I offer thanks for my life, thanks for having known my parents. You lifted them from their wretched existence and granted peace after long suffering. Though my memories fade with the years, by your will I hope to see them again. They are in the care of the Three, I know, they who have forsaken the Keep. The stories I heard in my infancy echo in my mind, before I could tell the Churches apart I knew that place to be unholy and forbidden. I do not know why the Three turned their back, what outrage was theirs but our Order will finish what must be done. The bones of my brethren lie in that place. By your blessing I will avenge them, they who were lost to the dark. I do not think of the years to come. I do not wonder where my path will lead, for you have determined all that will be. I stand ready to be judged. I was my parents' only son, their line may end with me. I am without a companion, without an heir, but if I am to fall, let my legacy be that this land is redeemed in part - that the shadows should be fewer than before. May the light of your grace shine upon me and upon those whom I leave behind. If I do not return then by my acts in that place I shall pay tribute to you and through the riches of your grace let me live in you eternally. So may it be.
* * *
A sane person would tell themselves this is folly. It is summer. The days are long and bright, the breeze balmy. I hear birds singing in the trees. I know places where they don't sing at all. I could stay here, pretend there are not forces in the world growing stronger while I hide and wait for that fateful day. It can only be now. Time is no longer a commodity I enjoy in endless supply. Others seek to remove my supply of it entirely. How long ago were we seated in that cart, giddy and unsure but hopeful withal? From afar we glimpsed those crumbling spires, Karnus and I exchanging glances, hinting that we might return once we were grown in power. We used to joke to cover our failings, laugh about the ones who got away, tell ourselves that we would do right in the end. Come good eventually. Failures and missed opportunities. Enemies who evaded us. When it happens so many times, we are diminished because of it. I will not go through life gathering regrets, burdening myself with shame and doubt. I cling to the possibility of change. I believe in the person I want to become, the idea that I might not always be this way.
Am I thoughtless, careless, I who have known such tremendous thrills? I who summoned howling fury in the night, who clung to Hytiliaph's back, immersed in shimmering gold, dazzling and dreamlike, scarcely able to breathe. I cannot say that I was not exhilarated despite my uncertainty. Do I seek greater distraction still, regardless of cost? I knew what I was doing when I shared my story with Piotr, there in the mists. I sowed the seed and watched the decision form in those dark eyes. It was inevitable that he would accompany me. As for Drewen, do I pretend that I do not play upon his protective instincts? They are good people. They deserve better. Their lives should be safe and secure, happy and contented. I would take their hands and lead them toward disaster. I ask myself: what person does this make me, when I willingly place them in harm's path? How will I grieve and be contrite when it was I who wrought their fall, how will my words of regret not be lies, utterly false and insincere?
I could align my thoughts with Piotr's, reassure myself that we aspire toward a just and noble goal. For the betterment of our kingdom. For the salvation of the souls within that benighted ruin. The truth? When I pierce the fog of worry there is only this - IT IS WHAT I CHOOSE TO DO. If I fail, my village might be spared. Others might lift the guttering torch and find the enemy weaker, easier to overcome. If I succeed, I will be less indebted to this land and will have proved myself capable. Like my enemy told me - and he has the right of it - those whom we kill make us stronger. In the dark, in the flames, I will find my proof. Failures will fall away and count for naught. As if they have never been. I submit to the test; my longing to succeed sustains me. Otherwise there can only be oblivion. In this I must succeed or there is no place for me in this world.
* * *
"One last time."
The look he gave her hinted that his patience and gentle manner had limits.
"I have already -"
Something in her eyes verged on desperate. "One last time."
"What do you imagine might have changed?" All the same he cast his gaze around the messhall before replying calmly. "These are all earnest, honest men and women. We have nothing to fear from them."
"Thank goodness we cleared that up," said Drewen, "again."
"Their hospitality could not have been warmer," said Piotr reproachfully, "yet still you find cause to doubt."
Lana's thoughts were around a dozen miles away, so she reckoned. "The wild unrest that lives in woe..." She intoned the words sombrely.
Drewen screwed up his face.
"You're welcome, by the way."
"… would dote and pore on yonder cloud."
"It's a poem. Part of one at any rate."
"Don't sound very cheerful. Don't even rhyme."
Lana drummed her fingernails against the tabletop, maintaining a steady rhythm. Piotr watched as if she were causing him discontent yet he voiced no complaint.
"That rises upward always higher," she went on, "And onward drags a labouring breast, / And topples round the dreary west, / A looming bastion fringed with fire."
The look the paladin gave her was a dark one.
Drewen remained unimpressed. "Sounds proper gloomy if you ask me. Is there a tune to go with it?"
"It's a lament. If there were one it'd be a dirge." She tried to imagine what baleful, oppressive, disjointed melody might mirror her present mood. "It's about a day of reckoning drawing near, bringing an end to sorrow - one way or another."
With every shred of determination she possessed, she kept from meeting Piotr's gaze.
"That's what it needs, then," Drewen declared. "A tune to lift it, keep it from sounding depressing."
She almost laughed aloud. She held herself back, knowing that to do otherwise would be derisory, would reveal her to be unkind when she did not mean to be. All the way along the Eastron Road the dwarf had maintained a stream of chatter in an attempt to bring levity and distraction to his companions' moods. It wasn't as if he hadn't his own share of worries. Even if he had been to the Keep before, Lana figured, he'd have risen above the sense of foreboding. For her own part, she suspected that she had taken her previous visit to the Keep too greatly to heart. It left her on edge, moreso than was fair to her companions. The more she thought about their reasons for being together and the closer they drew to their destination she could not help but feel as though they were doing her a favour. Revenant-like, the thought hounded her that bringing along companions made it more about her.
She forced herself to relax. The attempt felt unnatural.
"My mother used to say," she mused distantly, "that Evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. Remember Stalkbrow, Drewen?" The dwarf nodded reluctantly, as if unsure of what he might be committing himself to. "She reckoned it merely requires prompting, pointing in a certain direction and it will bring about its own undoing. Devour and destroy itself." She sighed. "She carried that belief to her grave."
Piotr bristled, clearly meaning to differ. "The purpose of Good," he declaimed, "is to seek out and counter Evil. Opposing forces meet and one must give way. It is such deliberate intervention which causes Evil to weaken." As if in summation of his argument he finished by saying: "The Keep has stood for centuries. Its evil will not simply fade or destroy itself. To believe otherwise is folly."
He stared at Lana displaying an intensity which, despite coming from one of her closest friends, caused her to sense that there was distance between them.
"Here's what I know." Drewen's tone was gruff, signalling that he had no wish to get drawn into a debate about the interplay of universal forces. "There's been a load o' trouble caused from that place, we're goin' there and we'll end it. An' that'll be that."
Lana stared into her drink, wishing she could look upon their endeavour as simply as the dwarf did.
Piotr regarded them both sternly. "We still have not informed the men of our purpose. They have afforded us their hospitality and they deserve to know why we are here." He inclined his head toward the soldiers seated in clusters along the other tables in the hall.
Several men were looking into the trio's direction. One or two looked as though they might have picked up on the air of unease which had descended. Lana deliberately avoided meeting their gazes.
Without doubt Radlebb Keep was unaccustomed to and - it seemed fair to say, in Lana's view - poorly equipped for receiving guests. Whilst the welcome by Hell's Gaolers could not have been more warm or genuine, none of the soldiers had been bold enough to ask the reason for their guests' unheralded visit. Nor had the guests offered any explanation. Ever the soldier himself, Piotr had unsheathed his sword and spent an hour in the Keep's courtyard training with several of the men; they traded blows and anecdotes alike, memories of the Battle of Darokin still fresh in the minds of many who were present. The fighter's unassuming manner rendered him agreeable to the men he spoke with. He went as far as to heal the mangled hand of a man who should have paid closer attention while maintaining a trebuchet several days earlier. The siege weapon was one of several pieces left by General Justin Alverian, who had recently liberated the Keep from mercenary employees of the Black Eagle Baron after they quit his employ to turn rogue and claim the Keep for their own. It had been a shortlived occupation.
Lana had inspected the kitchens and - not for the first time in one of Karameikos' military enclaves - decided to assist with the preparation of the night's dinner, finding the available supply of herbs, seasonings and fresh ingredients as lacking as in other strongholds she had visited.
After encouragement from Drewen, the captain had broken out additional rations of ale. The dwarf proceeded to regale the troops with tales of past adventures, his embellishments causing the corners of Lana's mouth to twitch when she heard them. She had not expected herself to smile given the grim nature of her group's enterprise. Despite herself, the levity broke through. Like a sunbeam through dark cloud, she mused, though the gloom would renew itself in an instant. Her shoulders slouched as she listened to the dwarf's tales, reliving each memory while nursing a cup of wine.
After such initial and deliberate social interaction, the trio had been allowed time to themselves.
"Speaking of letting people know, we could visit Luln if either of you fancied." Lana advanced the proposal though she had no particular wish for either of her companions to find it appealing. "Call in with Sascia, Drewen, for old time's sake?"
Drewen dismissed the suggestion with a shake of his head. "Bleak place, Luln... full of fear. Maybe once we put the dead back in the ground we can go give 'em some good news."
Likewise Piotr appeared reluctant to lose focus on the task in hand and shook his head.
"Very well." A frisson passed along Lana's spine; the allotted hour had edged closer. "We proceed directly to the Keep. And," she chewed her lip, "while we have this chance, I want to thank you both for coming with me."
"S'alright," the dwarf began, "we -"
"I've always had a curious nature," Lana continued, conscious that she was being self-indulgent, "and I've always held that Fortune favours the bold. We might have turned a blind eye, but…" The lump in her throat fought her effort to swallow it. "What I mean to say is that we are doing the right thing, at least I believe we are, and I appreciate you standing by me. I had thought to return to the Keep alone -"
Drewen’s bushy eyebrows rose. Piotr too looked disconcerted.
"- instead I have apportioned the risk between us."
"There's strength in numbers," Drewen proffered.
"Yes but any of us might not return. If it is I who should fall -"
"Let's not have talk like that."
Piotr picked at the plate of food before him, seemingly reluctant to join in the conversation.
"When there is much in Life over which we have no control," Lana continued to muse, "when so much is uncertain we reach toward that which we can cause to be different." She shrugged. "Or we die trying. That's how I see it."
"This conversation has turned too morbid for my liking," Drewen said grumpily.
"You probably both believe I take your friendship for granted. If I were in your positions, I would."
Piotr looked appalled; but then his threshold for offence had always been lower than Lana's. "We are doing the right thing," the paladin spoke quietly. "It is no more complicated than that."
"Well," Lana answered him, hearing a quiver in her own voice and not feeling proud because of it. She had endured plenty of harrowing experiences - long before the Ether. Why now, she wondered, was she unable to master her fear? "In case the worst should come to the worst, I want you both to know -"
"That's enough." Drewen cut her off with a tone she had seldom heard him employ. It might have been granite; all trace of the dwarf's levity was gone. "Might be you're worried but we're in this together and nobody's going to be dying, understand? We're going to this place to look out for one another. That's all there is to say and it goes for both of you. Am I making myself clear?"
With eyes limned with tears Lana nodded, albeit reluctantly.
"Alright then." Gruffly the dwarf reached for his tankard and took a long, steady draught. It seemed for all the world like he needed it.
Silence hung in the air. While Lana blinked away tears she noticed a number of soldiers staring in her companions' direction. Several of their expressions displayed concern.
"If you'll excuse me." Somewhat primly, Piotr rose from the table. Several men nearby did likewise or leapt sharply to attention. "I have preparations to make. I would seek a few moments by myself."
"Sergeant Barivenku has made his room available," Lana said, stating what they all knew - that the officer had generously vacated his quarters so that Lana might have privacy while resting. Her male companions had been directed toward unoccupied bunks in the barracks. "I've left my belongings strewn across the bed but I can't imagine he would mind you using it."
Piotr's gaze and thoughts were elsewhere. "I will not require long."
She felt distance between them in that moment, a void which threatened to grow if not bridged. It would not do, in the face of the peril they meant to confront together.
"Might I walk with you?" Lana ventured the suggestion with a meekness hinting at reconciliation.
The paladin hesitated before responding, but nodded and offered his arm. While Drewen set about replenishing the contents of his tankard, wizardess and paladin departed the messhall. They followed a short corridor to a flight of steps leading to the level above. As they ascended they passed an arrow-slit window letting in the dying light; less than an hour remained until darkness would fall.
"Anybody who observed us back there would think I wanted to drive you away."
"Perhaps. For your continued wellbeing."
He squeezed her shoulder. "You will need to try harder."
His resolve was set, she realised, possibly moreso than her own.
"We mustn't fall out, you and I." It was the effect of fear, she realised. If you let it in, it destroyed more than might be apparent. It could trigger a transformation, make a person the author of their own misfortune. Wreak a change and have them destroy their own happiness. Push away their friends.
Piotr said nothing in response. As the pair reached the upper floor Lana felt her shoulders tighten. She had been increasingly aware of her posture of late and sought to address her hunch. She exhaled audibly, eliciting a concerned look from her friend.
"You are frightened and succumb to unease."
"I thought I was managing to conceal it. At least... before today I did." She voiced the statement yet felt like kicking herself, as if she were betraying herself on some level. "Clearly I was mistaken." Masquerading in front of strangers was one thing, she decided; it was an entirely different matter to hide her feelings from friends.
He looked at her as if disappointed. "You forget - those who are close to you see what others may not. What, sometimes, you might not." He was one of a handful of souls who were capable of seeing through her disguise; he could, and he did. "You are welcome to meditate with me if it will bring you calm."
Somewhere faraway a gong crashed and her temples began to throb on one side. "The offer is kind but my past attempts at meditation have not gone well."
She thought of Karnus harnessing the same discipline to distance himself from reliance on higher power. To define his own inner spirituality. For him it represented a move into timeless space, an ascension to bliss and enlightenment, a demonstration that the Immortals weren't necessary and weren't relevant to his existence. It helped him maintain his clear, rational, independent outlook on the world. Whereas for Piotr the act was one of communion, of devotion, it brought the paladin closer to those whom he venerated. His was a voluntary submission to servitude. It marked a peculiar contrast between her two friends. For her? It could only be an act which ushered in all the unbridled riot of Chaos.
"No," she concluded with a sigh, "I fear mine will remain the unquiet mind."
They reached the sergeant's quarters.
"Those who are close to you see what others may not. Perhaps you forget that." Piotr's stoicism persisted as always; for as long as she had known him he had been brave and resolute but since their time in Darokin a sense of calm flowed from him like a river. As he held her gaze she let herself absorb some of that calm, knowing she would retain it as for as long as she might hold water in her hands. "You come close to letting your worries consume you."
"Is it that obvious?"
"The Immortals see fit to grant me sight beyond sight. I do not require it to see that you have cloaked yourself in worry."
Whatever the correct response was, it evaded her attempts to grasp it; her mouth opened and closed silently.
“You saw me safely through the Ether, Lana Budanter. I believed in you then as I believe in you now.”
Hadn't that been a complete gamble, too? She recalled the three of them, clinging to her carpet, the cyclone seeking to rip them apart and fling them hundreds of miles in opposite directions.
"Bravery played its part, then, but so did luck. We mustn't kid ourselves otherwise."
"What you call luck," Piotr countered with calm conviction, "I see as the will of the Immortals made manifest. Believe and see your faith repaid."
Was that naïveté, she wondered. He was reacting in the way he knew best - to reassure her, guide her, support her. It was his way, his nature, to reach out to those in need, to make them feel better, safer. The notion compounded the guilt she was already feeling.
She thought of others in his Order whom she had met, other paladins who did not permit themselves be fettered by such impractical notions as humility. Those others would have entered the Keep to court fame and glory. Not so Piotr Grevenov. His was a quiet, unassuming modesty. His sole concern was that Right should be done and should prevail for the benefit of others. She had accepted that her own purpose was more selfish by far. Still, Piotr considered their purposes aligned and she supposed they were in some respects.
She sighed. "Would that I could be, as you are. That I might possess your courage and not know fear."
He looked at her as if ready to give away a secret. "Courage is not the lack of fear," he told her, "but the willingness to face it. After I make my preparations I will stand ready. As you will, too. This is no different to other perils we have faced."
Wasn't it? She often wondered how the paladin maintained his state of being. In some respects she found his outlook overly simplistic, even naive; in other respects she found his tenacity unfathomable and thought she might never attain the same level of determination. Whereas her thoughts were scattered, bogged by doubt, he was unfailingly anchored in the moment. Once Piotr settled on a course of action, his course was set. How much of it was innate in him, she wondered; how much else was a reward for unwavering devotion to the Immortals?
"I hope you're right."
He gave a rare smile, warmth shining in his dark eyes. "I will mention you in my prayers... as I already intended to. May the Immortals shine their grace upon us both."
She felt close to him in that moment, an urge to tell him how much he meant to her. A shout sounded in the back of her head that by bringing him along she was hastening him toward his doom. And that he would go willingly. She withdrew from expressing the sentiment and dipped her head feeling shamed and hypocritical instead.
"... I had a sister," he was saying in a voice so quiet that it was scarcely more than a breath, "who was lost. The years pass and take more and more of my memories of her. You stand in her stead."
Lana lifted her head. There was warmth in the man's dark eyes. She placed the palm of her hand on his cheek and forced a smile to acknowledge his sentiment. All the same her chest tightened as she withdrew, wordlessly, from the room and as she closed the door behind her she thought she might retch.
On the way back to the messroom she regretted having voiced her innermost thoughts. Success might stand on a knife's edge, in which case she had no wish to taint her companions with her doubts. Her thoughts strayed to Silver Eye, bound in servitude to the Master in the wastes of Hule. Forced to carry out unspeakable acts, even greater cruelty than before... Next she thought of Ruarrghah - his form altered, roaming the deep dark of the Dymrak with all its attendant perils. She wondered what fate awaited him.
As she entered the messhall her reverie evaporated when she found herself confronted by a sea of expectant faces. Several displayed expressions of alarm or disapproval. Drewen sat among them with a look approximating guilt.
"I told them."
Any weight that had lifted from her shoulders resumed its place.
"Milady," began a dozen concerned voices at once.
Inwardly, she rolled her eyes. Outwardly, she flashed them all a smile. She had become increasingly aware of her smile of late. When addressing the smallfolk of her village it helped keep her feelings - her true, innermost feelings, the ones that plagued her and kept her awake at night - pacified and under wraps. Made her credible. There was much to be said for feigning authenticity.
All the same, the right words to say deserted her as she surveyed those faces in the crowd. Mute and open-mouthed, she stood there. Passive and ineffectual. The men’s protestations broke over her like an ocean.
"Look," Drewen stepped in to save her, addressing the crowd loudly in a tone which brooked no dissent, "folks have been fearin' that old pile of rubble since b'fore any of you were born. Since long b'fore Karameikos was Karameikos. In all that time nobody's been willing to deal with it - not even the Order of the Griffon…"
Lana imagined how Piotr might have quietly corrected Drewen; he had told her how in the early days of the Order of the Griffon a handful of its members sought glory for their Church. Young, enthusiastic and eager to show the superstitious Traladarans the superior power of their Faith, they had undertaken the same journey to the Keep. Only one member was ever seen again and that was as a vampire which Olliver Jowett himself had had to destroy. Immediately afterwards it was declared that only patriarchs, full knights and paladins would be permitted to enter the Keep. Over the years the Order had sent groups to hunt undead in the vicinity and had discussed within itself the possibility of a full assault on the ruin but other matters had always been judged more pressing in the end.
"… but now we've got a PALADIN of the Order who's willing to face up to what needs to be done and Lady Lana Budanter who knows that there's more than one thing around these parts that has been needing taken care of for a long while if you understand me. She's going to take the fights where they need to be taken and right now we're taking it to Korisziggery Keep."
Lana felt a swell of pride and nearly choked while listening to Drewen's words. She nodded her agreement and tried not to cry. It was nice that somebody believed in her.
Letting his mangling of the name 'Koriszegy' slide, the troops responded positively to the dwarf’s speech. They confirmed that the haunted ruin lay a full day's march through the forest - directly to the north.
After not long Piotr returned to their midst.
"Well then," Lana said after composing herself, "if the Keep is a day's march away that'll be just a couple of hours by carpet. Piotr why don't you stable your horse here, and Drewen we'll need to fly a bit higher if we're to go over the forest. Or," her tone, carefully selected, suggested that there was a right and a wrong response to what was coming next, "we could skirt round the forest but that'd take longer. What do you say?"
Both her companions grumbled but relented, agreeing to take the most direct route and fly over the forest.
"Then it's decided," Lana said, "and we'll depart before dawn."
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