10 Vatermont 1007AC
As far as the eye could see was woodland. She recalled the maps she had inspected, showing nothing of interest in the outlying area nor for leagues in any direction other than back toward Luln. While the carpet continued south at a height of several hundred feet Lana scanned the landscape, realising nothing would break the canvas of green.
"It's just... dense, featureless woodland."
"Dense, featureless woodland is what you get in these parts."
"I'm aware of that. I thought there might be something, a hill say, perhaps with ruins atop it. Instead there's only... dense, featureless woodland."
Sascia nodded. "A scattering of homesteads, though they're well concealed by the surrounding woods. You'd want to avoid them in any event."
Lana's mood reflected the weather: grey and gloomy, which she accepted was appropriate for the destination she had in mind. "This is pointless. It'll be dark soon and we won't find anything if we keep heading south. Even if we find a place, how could we hope to direct him there?" Between the two of them, there was no need to clarify who Lana meant by 'him'. "We need a landmark which everybody knows how to find, even if they choose not to."
Sascia's expression was grave. "There are reasons people do not go where you mean."
Lana nodded. "I understand but where else is there? Everyone knows the Keep, and no humans or elves live near it." The sun was barely perceptible in the overcast sky but would set in a couple of hours' time. "If we turn around now, an hour of daylight will remain when we get there."
Sascia sighed and shrugged to signal acquiescence. Lana bid the carpet turn in mid-air and they headed back in the direction of the Westron Road.
To the best of Lana's understanding, Koriszegy Keep had fallen into ruin two centuries earlier. The intervening years had not only been unkind, it was as if the centuries had eroded the keep with relentless fury, leaving it more desolate than might have been the case. If the Koriszegy family had been brought down by a curse, it had targeted blood and stone alike. Lana had passed within a mile of the keep on a previous adventure, and now found herself in the shadow of that very place which was said to be the most haunted ruin in all Karameikos - eighteen miles east of Luln on the fringes of the Radlebb Woods.
Three of the keep's four corner turrets were still standing. The north-west one had collapsed. Most of the western wall was gone, leaving a gaping hole leading into the keep's interior. As the carpet approached Lana considered that the sight of the keep filled her more with a sense of sadness than it did the cold dread she might have expected from its reputation.
"This is as close as I am comfortable drawing to," Sascia said.
"I have an array of useful spells," Lana replied in an attempt to draw nearer. "It is not as if we are unprepared for whatever lurks within those walls."
Ill-at-ease, Sascia shook her head. "Brigands, orcs, bugbears, ogres, werewolves, dragons even. Those are all fine. This -" she gestured, "- this is not fine."
The sadness exuding from the keep meant Lana had no urge to smile. "I do not propose to stay for long. We will make use of the remaining light and no more."
"Do you know how many people have set foot inside that Keep and never returned?"
Lana nodded. "We are not them. Let us be brave. My mother told dark stories about this place. I have been curious for so long... now that we are here I am loathe to withdraw. Unless you're entirely opposed I would like to explore the interior."
Sascia might have continued voicing her discontent; perhaps she realised the daylight was fading fast. Instead she put a hand on her sword hilt. "As you wish. But we should not remain here past nightfall."
The carpet advanced toward the gap in the western wall, drawing to within fifty feet. All that remained of the perimeter wall was the odd stone poking through dead grass. A large black crow sitting atop one such stone cawed loudly at the intruders.
Lana peered through the hole into the keep's cavernous interior. There was not much of a roof left to speak of so the pale winter daylight allowed her to see that the interior walls had been reduced to rubble, making for one great open space and a hundred shadowy nooks and crannies.
The only major structure still intact was the chimney breast, standing thirty-foot tall amid the desolation.
Directly in Lana's line of vision, on a rock in the middle of the collapsed section of wall, was a single skull.
To Lana it seemed the skull occupied a position of deliberate prominence. She urged the carpet closer, then closer still while peering into the gloom ahead. She wondered whether the shadows might conceal stairs or a pit leading down, however none was apparent. She thought she made out the shattered remains of a gatehouse on the far side, but little else.
The carpet stopped shy of the wall and hovered cautiously. Lana realised that the skull was not a human skull but had belonged to an animal - possibly a goat. She was almost close enough to reach out and touch it when the symbolism occured to her. At that same instant Sascia spoke words in Traladaran and made gestures which Lana recognised as signs to ward away evil.
Behind them the crow cawed three times and flapped off.
Lana turned to Sascia. "One sweep of the interior then we'll go, and we'll stay on the carpet at a safe height."
Sascia kept from scoffing. "Our height will hardly lessen the evil of this place."
Lana willed the carpet to advance and it did. As it cautiously passed over the ruined wall the goat skull rose into the air and turned to face the intruders, infernal light glowing in its empty sockets. As the females stared apprehensively it began to emit a low rasping sound which might or might not have been some perversion of laughter.
Sascia murmured a prayer to Halav, Petra and Zirchev.
"That won't help you. They have no power here," said the skull in a voice deeper and more inhuman than a dragon's.
"If so then the legends are true," Lana murmured to Sascia before commencing her own charm to ward off evil. She heard a sound before she finished her spell, but forced herself to remain focused. It was coming from inside the chimney breast - like something trying to get out.
With her spell complete she felt a little less vulnerable, however the feeling lasted seconds as a great flock of bats erupted from the chimney and filled the air around her. Sascia gasped. Lana was surprised the warrior maiden would be startled by common bats however a moment later she saw that it was not the bats that concerned her but the fact the carpet had begun to smoulder.
Aghast, Lana swatted the flames in the hope they were illusory and might disappear. They were not and did not, hurting as she and Sascia smothered them. "Cease," Lana said loudly, "I bid you! We wish to parlay with the Lord of this keep and bear no hostile intent."
Sascia swatted at the bats whilst Lana made her plea; it was greeted only with mocking laughter.
"You force our hand, my Lord." Angrily, Lana drew her wand and aimed it above Sascia's head. "We do not wish to fight but we will defend ourselves if you continue this provocation."
The laughing continued unabated so she released an icy blast into the midst of the bats, killing a dozen or so and scattering the rest. She saw that the ceiling and exterior wall had rebuilt themselves and there were no visible exits - her heart sank when she realised there were not even windows.
The keep's interior was illuminated not by the pale winter sun but by a flickering reddish light with no obvious source. It cast shadows on the walls - shadows of things that were not otherwise visible - people writhing in torment as misshapen demonic THINGS performed unspeakable acts upon them.
Fighting to remain lucid, Lana kept firm hold of her wand and cleared her throat. "Reveal yourself!"
Laughter answered her, loud and all around. "Reveal myself? I am IN YOU! I am in all mortal hearts."
She glanced at Sascia. Her eyes had rolled up in their sockets and she seemed to be undergoing some massive internal struggle.
In that moment she had a brief mental image of leaning over Sascia, who was bound on an altar, and driving her dagger into her chest. She shook her head and dismissed the vision. Sascia also appeared to be coming to her senses. She was gasping for breath and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth but she appeared to be herself.
Looking around Lana saw that the keep too had returned to its former appearance. There were the shattered remains of bats on the floor and minor burn marks on the carpet but no writhing shadows, no mysteriously reassembled walls and no goat skull. It was still light outside; it appeared little time had passed.
There was a skittering below and her attention was drawn to the southern end of the keep where skeletal figures were emerging from the towers. Dozens. To Lana's consternation many bore bows.
"Can you take them out?" asked Sascia as the horde grew steadily in number.
"Absolutely," Lana replied grimly. She didn't voice her worry that she had limited such magic available. Groups were emerging from both the south-east and south-west turrets; the former had the higher proportion of archers but the latter was larger as a whole. The thought occurred that she might envelop the larger group in a swathe of vegetation; then she realised the floor was nowhere near as overgrown as her spell would have required. Aside from a few stunted trees, all plantlife in the vicinity of the keep was withered and dead.
She cast a spell and her blizzard froze and shattered all the skeletons in the south-east corner, leaving splinters of bone and an assortment of old weapons in its wake.
Four arrows flew from the bows of the other group. She winced as one tore through her robes and grazed her ribs. Another lodged in Sascia's left shoulder. She grunted in pain and narrowly avoided falling from the carpet.
Lana conjured a single phantasmal likeness of herself while muttering for Sascia to get behind her while she closed on the carpet. "If you wish to keep your retainers," she shouted, "might I suggest you call them off now."
The only reply was the seemingly mocking echo of her own voice, bouncing off the cold stone walls.
An instant later her phantasmal image was dispatched by the next arrow. She and Sascia received further injuries before Lana grasped her wand and directed the carpet to close on their foe.
"What are you ..." began Sascia as the carpet bore toward the advancing undead, directly into the oncoming missile fire, both passengers sustaining additional wounds, but breaking off to dodge an arrow that just missed them. Satisfied that she could catch all the archers, Lana levelled her wand and took them out. A dozen skeletal guards remained, armed with an assortment of melee weapons.
With the immediate threat averted, Lana led the carpet along a cursory check of the keep's interior. The remaining skeletons followed the carpet inanely, unable to take any meaningful action. The turrets from which the skeletons had emerged both proved empty, as did the north-east tower. All three towers led only up, not down. The gatehouse had collapsed in such a fashion that it seemed totally inaccessible. All else that remained was the great chimney breast and a well in its shadow.
Lana snatched up a random bone - a kneecap - from the archers' remains, imbued it with light and tossed it into the hearth. Flying to the top of the chimney breast she gazed inside and could see all the way down, illuminating nothing besides bat guano. She retrieved the glowing bone and approached the well. There was no bucket however she noted an abundance of scratch marks in the stone, as if something - or many things - with claws had been scrambling up or down the inside of the well.
The thought occurred that she might drop her glowing kneecap down the well, however she was wary of night falling and did not wish to be left without a light source. The well was too narrow to permit the carpet to descend with or without its passengers. She used her ring of telekinesis to lower the glowing kneecap into the well as far as the ring's magic would permit.
As the light descended it revealed more and more gouges in the stone. She squinted at what lay in the shadowed depths beyond.
"I see water," she said to Sascia, "sixty or seventy feet below, and there might be an opening just above the water level. I'm going to take a closer look, if you don't mind staying with the carpet? I'm afraid my magic won't allow us both to descend. If I don't return soon..." her expression darkened slightly, "you should take the carpet and get out of here."
Half-expecting Sascia to dissuade her, she was surprised when the warrior maiden replied, "be careful. Call if you need me," she glanced down the well, "though how I'll get to you..."
Lana nodded appreciatively. "I will be careful. Thank you."
Glancing over her shoulder at the remaining skeletons, Sascia said, 'I'm not leaving you here but how do I use the carpet if I need to?"
"It is an extension of your will. Imagine yourself travelling in the direction you wish to go and it will happen."
Without further ado she imbued herself with flight and descended into the well. Keeping her arms folded - since she had a strong feeling of not wanting to touch the sides of the well - she gently descended to the opening. It was wide enough for her to fit through and her light showed a cavern beyond, to the south.
Gingerly she squeezed past the damp, slimy stone. Holding up her sleeve to protect herself against the foul air in the cavern she looked around. Hunched shapes moved in the shadows at the edge of her light. Some moved forward, revealing the bestial faces and grasping claws of ghouls.
Relying on her protective charm to keep the creatures at bay, she stood her ground. The ghouls refused to come any closer than twenty feet. They squinted at her and their long tongues lolled over their sharp yellow teeth. Then they retreated back into the shadows.
Lana took a few cautious steps forward. The cave was vaguely rectangular and appeared to have been shaped by (possibly) human hands in the past. There were remnants of broken furniture and faded decoration scattered about. The crack in the wall through which she had entered was near one corner of the chamber. In front of her it was about thirty feet to the far side of the cave and an exit through which some of the ghouls had shambled. She could not determine the cave's width as to her right its extent was lost in darkness.
Staying alert, she advanced toward the centre of the cave keeping slightly to her right, and called out to whoever might be listening. "My apologies for the intrusion in your abode. I simply wish to speak with you."
The chamber appeared to be about forty feet at its widest point. At the far end was an ornate chair that seemed to be in better condition (barely) than the other furnishings. For a moment she thought she saw a shadowy form seated in the chair - a glimpse of something grotesquely bloated, a curved horn, red eyes, a cloven hoof - then it was gone. Had it really been there or just a trick of the light? A rat scuttled across the floor in front of her and she was aware of ghoulish eyes watching from the concealing shadows.
"I mean no disrespect," Lana continued, "I wish your assent to a proposal. That is all."
She neared the chair with trepidation. Drawing to within ten feet she saw the wood was blackened in places - as if it had been placed too close to a fire. A device was carved into it. She made out what might have been a boar's head - the Koriszegy clan mark? She stared at the chair as if lost in reverie, casting her mind back to her youth and trying to recall the scare stories and other bits of folklore she had heard. Her hand strayed to one of the armrests... then withdrew without touching it.
There had been no response to her words. Just ominous oppressive silence.
With nothing else happening, she advanced toward the opening in the far wall - mindful that there were ghouls beyond. Stepping cautiously through the opening she entered another cave. This one was vaguely circular and showed few signs of having been shaped by intelligent design. Its rough walls had a hundred shadowy crevices in which nasty things might lurk. There was a still dark pool in the middle of the cave and a lot of ghouls. Some of the undead were closing in from the left and right, their evil eyes filled with hunger for her flesh.
Before they got too close, Lana floated back out through the opening, raised her hands and sealed the entrance with thick webbing. It shuddered as the ghouls on the other side tore at it, but there seemed to be no immediate danger of them breaking through.
She approached the chair and its dais again and inspected both more closely... despite a thorough look at the ornate chair and the area around it she found nothing indicating any secret openings, large or small. She turned to survey the cavern walls, wondering whether any of the shadowy nooks might conceal an opening. She would need to carry out a complete tour to be certain...
A voice echoed from the well. Sascia? She wasn't sure.
Cautiously Lana flew back to the opening, ascended to ground level and emerged from the well in time to see a skeletal guard have its skull knocked off by a thrown rock. Looking around she saw that the number of remaining skeletons had diminished greatly. Sascia was slowly circling the keep, hurling rocks at the few that were still intact. She appeared to be in complete control of the situation.
Lana flew in close and nodded to acknowledge the extra heaps of bone. "I see you haven't been idle. There seems to be little down the well beyond a couple of caves, a few dozen ghouls and a chair carved with the likeness of a boar."
Sascia's expression was grave. "Nightfall is nearly upon us. Shall we return to Luln?"
Lana's mouth opened to agree, however the feeling nagged her that she hadn't examined the cavern walls closely enough.
"The sun has nearly set," Lana said gently, "but surely a few minutes more won't hurt?"
Sascia's expression turned from one of potential relief to disheartenment. Before she could voice a complaint Lana had flown back down the well.
She surveyed the cavern wall, and decided to begin her search with a close inspection of the north-west corner at the far end of the wall through which she had entered from the well. After inspecting fifteen feet of shadows, cracks and crevices she found a two-foot wide crevice which was deeper than the others. Within a few feet it had narrowed to become a fissure in the rock just wide enough to put her arm through. She leaned close and attempted to peer into the darkness beyond, wedging her glowing kneecap in the upper part of the crevice then sent her Beady Eye floating through. In her mind's eye she saw a small chamber beyond. She made out a collection of faded and tarnished objects - tapestries, candelabras and ornaments - and a coffin out of which dark smoke was pouring.
Hastily withdrawing the Beady Eye and her light source, Lana backed away from the fissure. Her fingers strayed to the wand at her belt, ensuring it was still there. The thick black smoke began to issue forth from the fissure and headed directly for her.
She held her ground, raised the wand slightly and silently prayed to any Immortals who might be listening that her spell of protection hadn't worn off.
The black smoke encircled and enveloped her like a great serpent but she felt no ill effects. It drifted lazily towards the ornate chair where it coalesced into a humanoid - but visibly not human - form. The figure seated in the chair wore a black robe with purple trim and arcane symbology. His skin was very pale, his cheeks were sunken and his shoulder length hair was completely white. His hands looked more like the filthy claws of the ghouls than human hands and his eyes glowed blood red. He stared at Lana in silence before slowly turning his head towards the webbed passage to the ghoul lair and then slowly back to stare directly ahead of him.
The sight of robes in particular rendered Lana intrigued. She hadn't expected the liege of the keep to be a caster of spells. She approached the front of his chair, closed to within a dozen feet and cleared her throat while inclining her head.
"Lord Koriszegy. I am the Lady Lana Budanter of... the Dymrak Forest."
The alleyway in Rugalov Village... the memory of Petra Van Colos returned with violent clarity. She looked away sharply, unwilling to make contact with the creature's burning red gaze. She kept a watchful eye on the webbed entrance to the ghoul cave, willing it to hold for as long as possible.
An unsettling silence greeted her words. Then in a cracked, rasping voice the undead creature spoke. Its words were Traladaran and what Lana thought was an old dialect at that so she understood nothing other than the word 'Dymrak'. It sounded more like 'Dymchraaach'.
Whilst speaking, Koriszegy - if that was indeed who this being was - reached out towards his guest with one claw-like hand and made a gentle caressing gesture.
Lana shook her head to convey her lack of understanding. "I fear we do not share a common tongue and if that is the case," she switched from the Goblin tongue to that of the Elves, "... there may be little to be achieved by continuing our discourse."
The creature responded in Elvish.
"So much life in you. A feast yes. But death too. What is the sound of red or the taste of silence? A long time since one so strong. A feast. A feast. In the forest there are rabbits. The heir is gone but how would he know. How would he know?"
The poetic, lyrical nature of his words took Lana aback. "I offer you no sustenance my Lord, but succor possibly." She repeated her earlier introduction, which she imagined had fallen on deaf ears: "I am the Lady Lana Budanter, Wizardess of the Dymrak." Then after a pause: "The heir - is he... of your line? Where has he gone? I cannot say that I am here at his bidding, though it may be that I know him."
"In the night there is a fire. Everything burns. The air. The earth. The water."
His words seemed far from anchored in the present.
"The Fire in the Night... you mean the cataclysm which destroyed this Keep."
"Long time. A long time. Lost rabbit in the well."
Lana's thoughts moved from elemental dominance to the well shaft down which she had descended. She had not inspected the waters at the bottom. "Did a person drown? Have you been to the well to check? Maybe something is still there. My magic could drain the well, if you require."
The creature did not reply. Instead, he stood and walked slowly and calmly towards Lana's Web. Besides sidling closer to the exit, Lana did nothing but wait and watch.
Koriszegy extended his hand and casually brushed away the webbing, almost as easily as one would brush aside that of a normal spider. He turned, inspecting his hand with seeming curiosity and shook loose the remaining strands whilst the ghouls poured into the chamber and took up positions behind him.
Staring at Lana with those blood red eyes he said, "Rabbit with the vilest tongue. Sounds so painful like fire in the mind. If the tongue is taken how will rabbit taste?"
Lana did her utmost to appear unperturbed at the appearance of the ghoulish retinue. There was no doubt the balance had shifted. "Do not mistake a dragon for a rabbit, my Lord. I promise you - this rabbit's fire burns worse than its tongue. You do not wish to taste it."
She held her head high, looking at the vampire as closely as she dared without giving it an opening to beguile her. "Hear my words, Koriszegy. In the forest near your Keep I mean to confront a foe - a powerful being. If my plan succeeds, my enemies may turn upon one another in a frenzy. I come to you out of courtesy, for I will make my stand near to this place which is your domain. I seek your assent to my plan, nothing more. Do I have it?"
"Fierce rabbit. A rabbit in armour perhaps. But still a rabbit. Clever rabbits never seek wolves. Hush! Can you hear it? Night has come. Time for the feast. The sorrows come and they bring hunger and pain. They dance so well. Will the new guest dance? Will she sing?"
While Koriszegy spoke Lana noted that the shadows on the wall seemed to be twisting in a fashion that seemed full of malevolence. It occurred to her that the sun might have set. She had no wish to remain in the keep after dark, when the effects of whatever curse pervaded the place might be amplified.
Laughter being antidote to fear, she tried to laugh though it came out sounding hollow when she noticed the moving shadows. "Yours would be a bitter feast, I fear, and I must decline. Farewell Koriszegy. Perhaps we shall meet again."
She turned with a sweep of her robes and exited as quickly as she could without appearing to be fleeing. The ghouls pursued her but by the time they reached the bottom of the well Lana was already half way to the top. She emerged into the open. Night had fallen and the air seemed especially cold. Sascia had finished off the last of the skeletal guards but as Lana flew towards her they began to reassemble themselves. She reached the carpet and glanced at the well, from which the scrabbling sounds of ghoulish claws on stone could be heard. Black smoke was pouring forth and as Koriszegy took physical form in front of the old chimney breast a fire burst into life in the hearth. The flames burned with an infernal light and within them Lana caught glimpses of screaming tormented faces.
Sascia murmured a prayer to Petra.
'Flee!' urged a voice in Lana's head. 'Flee while you can!'
She hesitated, rendered curious by the events of the past becoming manifest before her eyes... Then, as the screams continued she backed away but found herself unable to tear her gaze from what she was witnessing.
The light from the flames cast a long shadow in front of Koriszegy but it was not the shadow of a human - even an undead human. It was monstrous, bloated and bestial with great curving horns. Sascia had had enough. As some of the reformed skeletons were picking up dropped bows and arrows she grabbed Lana firmly by the wrist and gave an insistent tug. "Come ON! Lady Budanter are you bewitched?"
"He was a wizard," Lana murmured drowsily. "His pact - he must have known..."
Sascia had lost all willingness to indulge Lana's curiosity. "WE MUST GO!"
"What?" She shook her head and blinked. "Of course. Let us depart swiftly."
As the pair departed the keep a great flock of bats was gathering. They came streaming out of the woods, presumably summoned by Koriszegy. The carpet had no choice but to fly through the cloud of flapping screeching vermin. There were hundreds of them and Lana found it impossible to see and very difficult to breathe but the pair made it through and made good their escape. The bats did not pursue. Looking back ethereal flames could be seen lighting up the keep and stretching far into the night sky. Wreathed in the flames was the silhouette of the bloated demonic figure - a hundred foot high or more. Lana saw baleful red lights appear where the thing's eyes would be and then the image disappeared altogether like smoke on the breeze. A chill crept into her bones.
"What I have concluded," she told Sascia weakly, "is that we shan't confront Silver Eye here. Or if we do it'll not be at night. And," she smiled despite the frightening display behind them, "I would like it if you called me Lana."
Return to the Vault Homepage or the Site Overview