:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Marilinev Palace, Part Two ::

The Marilinev Palace - Part Two

Bewildered, Eunice Prendergast stared at the chart she had compiled as the patrol progressed through the network of tunnels. A fair-haired maiden of twenty years, she had been tutored by Lord Alexius Korrigan in the art of cartography, and had been tasked with accompanying the Guard on their expedition into the catacombs.

"This makes no sense," she informed Gregory Stubbs. "The way we came in doesn't appear to be on this map. I could have sworn I marked it..."

"So which way do we choose?" the patrol sergeant asked.

"I don't know sir, they look identical to me."

Stubbs wrung his head in his hands. "Couldn't you have taken more care? We were counting on you to be accurate."

"Sir," Eunice answered stiffly, sensing accusatory gazes upon her, "I mapped to the best of my ability. And I plotted the passage we followed to get into the chamber, it simply isn't here any more."

The sergeant could only scoff as he gestured at a section of wall. "You're saying one of the tunnels sealed itself?"

"Sergeant Stubbs," Lana interjected before Eunice could respond, "I inspected the map while we were in this chamber and I believe Eunice is correct - the exit passage is no longer there."

"How can this be?"

Lana shrugged. "Perhaps it is the chaotic aura which surrounds us, as if some malevolent force wishes us to become lost in the dark."

"Well we shan't be obliging it," the sergeant said curtly. "Which way do you recommend we take, Eunice?"

"The exit should be south of our current location," Eunice replied. "The closest option is to head south-west."

"Then let us go that way." The passage was narrower than the tunnels the men had followed until now. Setting off down it, the ground seemed less than firm. Small sections began to crumble and give way under the men's feet.

"Everybody stop!" Stubbs ordered, in the nick of time. "Back away slowly!" As he spoke, a twenty foot section of the tunnel ahead gave way. First the ground collapsed then the ceiling followed, filling the passage with dust and dirt. Panic set in as the men scrambled backwards as quickly as they could. To a man they were left coughing and hacking as dust and dirt filled their lungs.

"Great," Lana said, half-choked. "This leaves one other tunnel." She inclined her head toward the single passage which had not yet been followed. It led east, but there was no alternative than to significantly backtrack.

"This is of your making," one of the guards muttered. The other men turned to give him strange looks. Stubbs, more than any other, was taken aback and stepped in front of the man who was glaring at him openly.

"Explain yourself."

"You caused this," the man said accusingly. "This was your plan all along, to get us lost in the dark..."

"Do you realise what you're saying?"

"You're not denying it, are you!"

"How dare you!" Stubbs roared. "You doubt my integrity and my concern for the wellbeing of this group?"

"Snap out of it," Lana shouted, "and calm down, both of you." The guard who had spoken had opened his mouth to answer Stubbs but fell silent. "Don't you see? The aura of this place wants us to fall out with one another. We're close to getting out... let's not make this worse than it needs to be."

As if he had been drunk, something within the guard caused him to sober and he mumbled an apology. Hearing this, Stubbs clapped him lightly on the shoulder and said nothing more.

The patrol headed on, and to their relief the passage curved toward the south after not long. After fifty feet the passage narrowed so sharply that the men were required to walk in single file. After another twenty feet, the passage broadened into familiar territory - the cave which had contained the giant rat nest.

"What a relief," Eunice breathed, updating her map. "We aren't far from the exit."

Eighty feet further on, the end of the tunnel was lit by rays of the afternoon sun shining through the trapdoor which had been left open. The men's spirits lifted as they climbed the steps back into the royal courtyard, though their relief was tinged with regret - they had failed the task which had been assigned to them.

"For all we know," said Stubbs as he offered Lana his arm to ascend the steps, "we barely scratched the surface of these tunnels."

"Sergeant, above ground your skills are second to none," Lana replied. "Do not be so critical of yourselves. The undead presence was not foreseen, and we agree that the Churches are better placed than the King's Guard to take care of whatever threat lies below."

"There is no time to waste," replied the sergeant. "We must inform the Church of Karameikos immediately that its intervention is required, then I will report to Lord Korrigan."

"Very well," said Lana. "Let us make haste!" She unslung the pack which she carried on one shoulder and unfastened its buckles. To Stubbs' curiosity there appeared to be a sack stowed within the pack. This Lana opened, reached inside and - to the sergeant's surprise - brought forth a six-foot long length of carpet. The guards watched, astounded, as the carpet unfurled itself at her command then rose off the ground and hovered at her ankles.

She gestured, smiling broadly. "Would you care to join me?"

"This is an amazing device," Stubbs commented as the pair soared over the outer walls of the King's Stronghold. Lana headed the carpet in the direction of the Church of Karameikos, on the far side of the city. Gulls could be seen circling over the placid waters of Mirror Bay, a short distance off. The sergeant dared peek over the side of the carpet, at the Bricktop District below.

"Thank you. I fabricated it myself, it was the first magical item I ever made." Her brow creased lightly. "Now that I come to think about it, it is the only item I have ever made..."

"Am I liable to fall off?" Stubbs asked nervously.

"Heavens no," Lana replied. "Unless you do something unwise. You could stand up and still be fine."

"I'll take your word for it, milady," was the guard's quiet response as he remained seated.

After just a few minutes Lana set the carpet down at the base of steps which led up to the Church of Karameikos. It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to set, casting slanting rays of gold across statues of various Immortals venerated by the Church; these were positioned in prominent locations near the entrance as Lana and the sergeant entered the Church grounds.

"Sergeant Stubbs of the King's Guard, and the Lady Budanter of Glaston," said the sergeant to a passing adept. "We are here to see Patriarch Jowett."

Half-expecting to be informed that their request could not be granted, the pair were pleasantly surprised when the young priest nodded and invited them to follow him to a waiting area at the rear of the building. Lana and Stubbs seated themselves on a wooden bench while the adept went to make enquiries. A half hour passed before an aide approached, a woman with long dark hair and an unassuming manner.

"I am Magdel," the woman introduced herself, "personal assistant to Lord Jowett. Might I enquire as to the nature of your request for an audience?"

"Yes of course," Lana answered. "Our task is an unhappy one. Catacombs have been discovered beneath the King's Stronghold; the King's Guard and I were instructed to investigate the tunnels and clear out anything we found there. We detected considerable numbers of the undead, in addition to signs of cult activity - shrines dedicated to the worship of demons and such."

"I see." Magdel absorbed this. "This is indeed worrying and quite right that his Lordship should hear what you have learned. Please follow me."

Magdel led the pair through a sidedoor and along a corridor with a fine tiled floor. This in turn led into an audience room where Oliver Jowett was sitting quietly, seemingly lost in thought, though his eyes opened and he rose, smiling, when his guests arrived.

"Lady Glaston," he dipped his head lightly, "and Sergeant Stubbs, a pleasure always. What can I assist you with?"

The pair informed the Patriarch of their findings.

"A dark altar, you say? True, there have been reports over the years of forbidden faiths convening within Specularum, though few of their headquarters have ever been uncovered. Was there any sign of whether recent use has been made of this altar you found?"

"No, your Lordship," Lana replied. "Nor were we able to determine the identity of whichever demon the altar was intended to venerate. If that is indeed the right term..."

Jowett frowned. "What of the undead you encountered."

"There were a great many, your Lordship. Skeletons for the most part, but a worrying number of them. We also fought ghouls and wights, one of our number suffered a lifedraining attack."

"Have them brought to me," Jowett instructed. "I will do what I can, if anything, to reverse the injury."

"Most kind, your Lordship," Stubbs replied. "We did all we could within the tunnels but the foes we encountered were more powerful than the King's Guard can contend with."

Jowett nodded. "That is understandable. You were right to come to me." He turned to Magdel, who remained standing silently within the doorway. "Run to the barracks, would you Magdel. Inform Master Grevenov that we will require his assistance. Inform a half dozen others to make preparations too, please." As Magdel departed the Patriarch returned his attention to his guests. "You will have the support of the Order of the Griffon in confronting whatever evil inhabits those tunnels. But for now, you are both weary... can I offer you light refreshment?" He gestured to a platter of assorted cheeses, breads and grapes on the table. Lana couldn't say for sure whether the plate had been there a moment earlier.

"Thank you," she replied as she lifted a small plate and began helping herself to a few morsels. "Did I hear you correctly, your Lordship, you are summoning Master Grevenov?"

"Indeed. He has returned to us, just over a week ago."

"I am glad to hear it," Lana said. "He and I fought the Master's forces together in Darokin."

"The Immortals saw fit to return you both," Jowett nodded, "and they have placed Piotr at the beginning of a great spiritual journey. He has spent the last few days in quiet contemplation but, as I expect may become apparent in your upcoming trial together, the Immortals have accepted him as an upholder of Good and as a defender of our Church. This foray into the catacombs will be his first venture in his new capacity."

"But he was accepted into the Order many years ago, was he not?" asked Stubbs, confused.

"He was indeed," the Patriarch smiled kindly. "I will leave it for Piotr to explain to you in his own way and in his own time."

Minutes passed before a dark-haired and well-built man appeared in the doorway of the meeting room, dressed in plain breeches and a tunic. "Lady Lana."

Lana rose from her chair and embraced Piotr Grevenov. "Piotr. It is good that you have safely returned," she said earnestly, before taking on a chiding tone, "seeing how you were quick to decline my offer of transport home."

Piotr lowered his head apologetically. "Your offer was a generous one," he replied. "Yet I required the solitude of the open road to reflect on what occurred at Darokin. For so many innocent lives to have hung in the balance, and to have played a part in repelling the Forces of Evil..." He looked to Jowett who nodded supportively. "It opened my eyes. It is though I never saw clearly before. Now that I have reflected on what happened, and on my entire life leading to this point..." He smiled. "My purpose in this world has never seemed more clear."

"I am glad that you have reached this epiphany," Lana replied warmly. "You certainly seem..." she struggled to find the right word. A serenity seemed to radiate from Piotr; though she could not put her finger on it she felt secure in his presence. "... calm."

"Lady Budanter brings a request on behalf of the King's Guard," Jowett informed Piotr. "Catacombs have been uncovered below the royal stronghold. The place is rife with undead, furthermore a shrine has been uncovered which suggests inhabitation by a cult. Whatever evil remains in those catacombs must be cast out, and I wish you to verify that no dark faiths continue to make use of any altars which remain."

Lana noted how Piotr hung upon the Patriarch's every word. He had not for a moment thought to interrupt him, and his expression was one of utmost reverence. He spoke when there was no doubt that Jowett had finished speaking. "To think that such darkness lurks within the heart of our greatest city..." His expression soured. "In Chardastes' name I will cut out this canker and ensure it causes no further ill."

Jowett nodded. "Lady Lana, Piotr is well placed to accompany you back into the tunnels. Of those within our Church who are capable of wielding a blade he is the best versed in the recognition and interpretation of the iconography of faiths. Including those which depart drastically from our own teachings."

"I have undertaken a similar assignment in the past," Piotr informed Lana. "Cultist activity was detected in the far north of the Grand Duchy, in the area surrounding Castellan Keep in the Altan Tepes. It came to light that humanoid tribes in the region were worshipping various demons. The caves were believed to have been cleared out by agents of the Church of Traladara... yet these cults have a habit of making a resurgence from time to time."

"The altar we located below the King's Palace looked to be very old," said Lana, "and it was marked with images of humanoids. I wasn't sure what to make of them. Perhaps you will be able to discern their meaning, Piotr."

"I will gladly try," the paladin replied. He turned to the Patriarch. "What of clerical support?"

Jowett considered this. "Mistress Santardos has returned from Darokin, has she not?"

Piotr shook his head. "I believe she awaits transport in Athenos."

"A pity. In that case, invite Master Rowntree to set aside his other duties."

Piotr nodded. "I will speak with him at once."

"Very good. Lady Lana you may lodge within the Church tonight, if you wish. No doubt you require rest before returning to the tunnels. I assume that is your wish... to accompany the Order in its investigation?"

"Indeed, your Lordship. Had I not cast several spells already I would re-enter the tunnels forthwith."

"Stubbs?" The Patriarch's gaze passed to the sergeant. "Will you also return to the catacombs?"

The man nodded. "I will, if Lord Korrigan permits."

"Very well. Take time to rest," the Patriarch soothed, "all of you. You will depart once the Order of the Griffon can round up a sufficient number of volunteers. Magdel," he inclined his head toward his ever-dutiful assistant. "Do your best to hasten their preparations."

Word spread quickly throughout the stronghold that the King's Guard had been unable to overcome whatever terrors lurked in the newly discovered tunnels. The precaution had been taken to close the trapdoor which had been left propped open, rather than expose the courtyard to any horrors which might emerge from below. Once closed, Lana's magic had secured the trapdoor in place. So it was that she stood a second time completing the short enchantment to weaken the aura surrounding the trapdoor; having done this, the trapdoor opened upward of its own accord.

Lana turned to the members of the Order of the Griffon who were assembled behind her. She was accompanied by a half dozen men, representing the elite fighting arm of the Church of Karameikos rather than members of the King’s Guard. Many had faced the undead before and would be less likely to balk at the terrors which waited in the dark. Jowett had appointed Piotr commander of the troupe, to the clear dissatisfaction of a older and more experienced member of the Order named Edmund Vorloi. Gregory Stubbs stood close by, appearing visibly conscious that he was probably the least experienced of the swordsmen present. Eunice Prendergast had also come along, equipped with fresh sheets of mapping parchment, and lastly came a slightly nervous young priest by the name of Calvin Rowntree. Thus the party comprised nine individuals.

Lana led the way down the steps, followed by Piotr then Stubbs then the remainder of the troupe. Together they progressed through the first cave where the rats had been encountered, and into the cave beyond which had contained the nest of giant rats. Here a large creature was feasting on the remains - a many-legged creature with prehensile appendages protruding from what passed for its head. The creature was almost a dozen feet long.

"Alexei, Stubbs," Piotr instructed calmly, "with me." Without further ado the trio drew their swords and closed to combat the creature. It reared as they approached and flailed its tentacles of which there were no fewer than ten. All three men ducked and dove to avoid the creature's touch as they stabbed and parried with their swords. One of the tentacles brushed the face of the man whom Piotr had called Alexei; instantly his limbs seized and his entire body froze, stock still.

Stubbs and Piotr pressed the attack, and after a short while Stubbs' sword pierced the beast's heart. The crawler writhed and collapsed in a pool of bloody ichor, then moved no more.

The men crowded round Alexei's frozen form, murmuring with concern.

"In Chardastes' name," Piotr said quietly. Lana who was standing by his side watched, brimming with curiosity as Piotr set a hand upon his comrade's shoulder. "Be free."

In the instant that followed Alexei's body slumped, then he straightened and bowed his head to Piotr. "Thank you, my friend."

Unnoticed by the others, Edmund Vorloi’s eyes widened and his mouth opened in silent indignation.

Lana was awestricken that Alexei had regained his movement, due to his comrade's intervention. "Piotr!" she gasped. "You have truly become... a holy knight!"

Piotr gave her a solemn look. "I am but a channel for the Immortals to manifest their will on this earth."

"I am speechless," Lana said, "but I couldn't be happier for you. Nor for Karameikos."

"Thank you. Let us continue on."

It was not long before the patrol reached the square chamber at the centre of which stood the blood-encrusted altar.

"Hideous, isn't it."

"That goes without saying." Piotr stood silently for a moment, begging his Patron's forgiveness for approaching something so clearly tainted and dedicated to evil. His lips could be seen to move quietly, then he stepped forward.

The altar was ancient, its outer surface covered in runes obscured by dried and cracked blood which clung in cracked rivulets down the stone sides. Piotr's armour groaned as he stooped by the blasted artefact to examine the markings. A scowl crossed his features.

"There are runic markings here," he muttered, "in addition to symbols which clearly match improper ideologies. Animosity, love of wanton destruction, disregard for the wellbeing of others, the disruption of order and the taking of delight in reducing one's foes to nothing." He rose, moving to the wall of the chamber. "Here too such values are echoed."

Lana joined Piotr in inspecting the wall where they both made out creatures which were clearly gnolls. Several groups of the humanoids were depicted engaging other creatures which looked to be normal men, only the artist had portrayed them as physically much smaller than the gnolls. The gnolls seemed to be urged on and strengthened by a single enormous gnoll at their rear, easily twice the size of his followers, bearing a whip in addition to a cruelly barbed blade. Homes and villages could be seen burning in the background. The chief gnoll goaded his followers forward while leering at their enemy. There was something about the depiction of the individual which suggested lunacy… the dangerous and unpredictable kind.

"Ranivorous," Piotr said aloud. "This is his shrine."

"Sir," said one of the men, who was stooped on the far side of the altar. "You need to inspect this."

Lana and Piotr went to join the man who had spoken. He was a young man with dirty blond hair, by the name of Varus Tremerion. In the floor beside the altar, partly hidden by the muck and dirt of ages, a number of stones had been inlaid. The guard used a piece of cloth to wipe the surface of one, revealing a red-hued crystal in the shape of a tear.

"What gems are those?" Varus asked. "Rubies, would you say?" Lana was disturbed by his tone. While he was clearly appalled by their ghastly surroundings as they all were, there was nevertheless a hint of hopefulness in his voice that their investigation of the chamber might lead to monetary gain.

"I don't believe so," Lana murmured, holding her glowing dagger hilt over the stones so that she might examine them more closely. While they were all shaped the same, the sizes and colours of each stone varied considerably. Various shades were present, ranging from crimson to almost black but all with the same ruddy hint. "Crystals I would say. Their coloration is curious, but the formation is far more bizarre." She allowed her hand to hover over one of the larger stones whose colour had the vibrancy of freshly spilled blood. Pins and needles gathered in her fingertips, before spreading to her palm and wrist. The sensation seemed to strengthen from moment to moment… as if synchronising itself with the beating of her heart. She pulled her hand away which caused the sensation to fade gradually.

"It's as though these stones have been set in the floor…" she bit her lip as she eyed the hideous altar around which the path of the stones commenced, "as some form of conduit?" She sounded as though she doubted her own theory.

"A conduit?" Stubbs repeated. "For what?"

"I don't know. It's the first thought that entered my mind."

"You're suggesting they're magical?"

Lana shrugged. "Whether their enchantment is magical or clerical, or a by-product of some ritual performed many times, I cannot determine. The stones possess a powerful aura, though beyond that I cannot say much with any certainty." She turned to Eunice. "Might I inspect your map?"

"Of course, milady." The chart was handed over. Upon Lana's further request Eunice passed her one of her sharpened pieces of charcoal. Noting the direction in which the inlaid stones pointed, Lana located the altar-room within the catacombs and etched a small arrow within the chamber.

"That'll do for now," she muttered. "Let's be on our way."

"So we're leaving the stones?" asked Varus who had located them, his disappointment audible.

Lana turned upon the man abruptly. "Yes. We are. To interfere with them would be perilous and could spell disaster. I sense some sort of flow within them, though no energy has passed through them for decades. Or at least I would like to think it has been as long as that. Whatever the length of time – we would be inviting disaster to even touch one. They have been in place for so long… to disturb them after so long could cause the entire complex to collapse around us."

"You heard the Lady," Edmund said assertively, as if Lana's own warning hadn't been sufficient.

"Sir," Varus responded boldly, "I merely thought that if the gems were to be sold the proceeds could be paid into the coffers of the Church, and -"

"That is enough," Edmund said in a tone which was firm enough to end the discussion. Suitably admonished, Varus appeared disappointed but left the gems well alone.

Several routes led from what Eunice labelled the 'Ranivorous Shrine' on her map. Choosing the broadest path the party progressed only twenty feet before entering a naturally formed cave with no exits but a massive pit at its centre. Around the pit stood around two dozen skeletons which, in horrible unity, turned toward the party and jerked forward as the intruders entered. None of the undead appeared to be armed but even so the number of them was frightening to behold.

"By the will of the Immortals," cried Calvin Rowntree, pushing his way forward whilst brandishing the symbol of the Church of Karameikos, "be gone!" At his command the four nearest skeletons exploded, showering bone in all directions before keeling aside and dropping into the pit. As this occurred, to the men's horror they noticed more skeletons clawing their way out of the pit – easily the same number again, if not more, than those already standing on the surface.

"Nice work with the turning," Lana said, attempting to conceal her mild disappointment at what she had witnessed. She could not help but recall the priest Alvion whom she had met months before in Aasla and had seen obliterate dozens of skeletons and more powerful undead at a time.

"Thank you," Calvin said earnestly, before presenting his holy symbol a second time and repeating his benediction. Another handful of skeletons fell apart. He was then forced to raise his mace and defend himself as the skeletons descended upon the patrol. Despite not bearing weapons the undead pressed forward in a determined attempt to strangle or gouge out the eyes of those who invaded their domicile.

The armoured men sustained relatively few injuries in the fight which followed, though it lasted a good ten minutes. Finally the last of the skeletons was overcome and the men looked around at the staggering volume of broken bone surrounding them. Easily a hundred skeletons had emerged from the pit, which when light shone upon it was found to contain yet more bones – both human and animal. There seemed to be little else of interest to be found.

"Let's retreat," said Stubbs, "and try another path."

The second-broadest path leading away from the shrine was located; it led in an arcing route for around fifty feet before broadening into another square-ish chamber, at the centre of which stood another altar.

"Shrine number two," said Eunice faintly.

"Piotr?" Lana invited the paladin to assess the symbology present. His lip curled in immediate disgust, as his gaze fell upon the leering face of a humanoid carved on the stone altar. His hand strayed to his sword pommel; for a moment, Lana thought the man might heft his blade and attempt to split the altar asunder, such was his outrage at whatever iconography he had identified. The walls of the shrine were carved with images of human folk being harried and tortured by brutish humanoids, while their homes and settlements burned in the background and fire rained from the sky.

"Leptar," Piotr growled; it seemed he spoke to answer Lana's questioning. Hearing the name, Eunice scribbled a note on her map.

"Who…?" Lana's voice trailed off.

"The Groaning Demon," Piotr said curtly. "Sworn enemy of Chardastes."

That made sense, Lana thought. Where Piotr's patron promoted healing and peace, Leptar sought to bring about the opposite – to ensure torture, pain and misery were widespread. Having grown up with a Traladaran mother, she recalled hearing Leptar's name spoken though only ever in a ‘bogeyman’ sense, without elaboration. Here, her attention was drawn by a central carving on one wall, depicting a mighty humanoid with horns and pointed ears, the skulls of enemies hanging around his neck and on his belt, and his expression was one of baleful superiority.

"I will not tarry here," Piotr declared in a manner-of-fact tone.

Lana's eyes passed to the altar where at its base, covered by the muck of ages, several tear-shaped outlines could be made out, all pointing away from the altar. More gemstones, she realised. They were all aligned along the same path. Borrowing Eunice's map, she etched another symbol, then turned back to Piotr.

"Let's go then."

The available exits from this room mirrored those which had been present in the previous shrine; the broadest path was followed, only to find this led to another cave filled with more walking skeletons. There was no pit, instead the floor of the cave was piled high with bones – the remains of humans and animals alike. The skeletons picked their way over the debris, before clashing again with the patrol and being laid to rest after a long period of sustained combat. As before, the men only sustained minor injuries but were left exhausted.

Returning to the shrine, the patrol selected another way onward. Same as before, the passageway arced along its full length before, after fifty feet, entering a third shrine. Here the walls were depicted in a similar fashion to the previous shrine – scenes of torture and oppression abounded. All of these inhuman acts appeared to be perpetrated by ogres, their size grossly overstated by comparison to those they were aggressing. A central image was unmissable - an enormous cauldron, containing bubbling ichor which threatened to overflow and cover everything nearby. The cauldron motif also appeared on the altar, atop which was a massive basin.

"Jammudarru," Piotr informed Eunice, who scribbled an annotation on her map.

The corners of the room were piled high with bone, but there were no signs of movement to suggest skeleton activity. There was only one visible exit from the room.

More gems," Lana murmured, approaching the base of the altar. Though it caused her fingers and wrist to grow numb, she used a corner of her skirt to wipe the surface of the most prominent crystal, uncovering its blood-red sheen. A moment later she looked around to get her bearings, before asking to borrow Eunice's map and adding another mark.

"You know," she mused, "I could be mistaken but I think I see a pattern emerging. See here," she used her finger to trace on the map the route which had led to this shrine, "I believe we've come along part of a circle, along which shrines are located at regular intervals."

Eunice nodded. "That seems to be right. And if you were to continue the arc we've been following…" She drew a circle, causing Lana to nod.

"But look here," Lana interjected, "I've been marking the direction that the altar gems have been pointing in. They all point inward, toward the centre of the circle. I'll wager there's something crucially important there."

"What like?" Eunice asked in a whisper, though she did not know why she spoke in low tones.

"That remains to be seen," Lana said darkly. Her eye moved along the imaginary circle on Eunice's map. "If the shrines are spaced equally apart, as they have been so far, then it looks as though there'll be eight in total, set out in a star formation."

"Eight shrines to eight foul demons," Piotr muttered. "In what is no doubt the formation of a star. The whole place is intended as a representation of Chaos."

"Indeed. But we should try to find a way to the centre of the circle."

Piotr nodded resolutely. "Whatever evil lies at the heart of this place must be uncovered. I vote we investigate your theory. But there is only one exit from this chamber." He gestured toward the single tunnel leading onward, into the dark.

"Then let us follow it."

The tunnel led around fifty feet yet as the patrol neared what they had deduced to be the next shrine, the light from the men's lanterns illuminated a single figure, shrouded in dark robes. Its feet could not be seen however it appeared to be hovering slightly off ground. Within the cowls of its robe two flecks of burning red denoted the being's eyes. The remainder of its form appeared insubstantial.

"Let me through," said Calvin urgently, pushing himself through to the fore of the group. "Foul creature of darkness, by the will of the Immortals of Light, stay back!" As with the skeletons before, he forcefully presented the symbol of the Church of Karameikos… but to no avail. If anything, the light in the creature's eyes appeared to grow more intense as it advanced.

"Take care!" Lana instructed. "If that creature is what I think it is, we're facing one of the more powerful undead." She began casting a spell and five blazing arrows appeared by her shoulder. From her position at the centre of the party she strained to get a clear view of the creature, then loosed her missiles. The arrows shot true and fast to blast the spectre, yet it continued its advance.

The passageway was around five feet wide, enabling at most two men to engage the creature in hand-to-hand combat. Piotr and Alexei stood side by side. Piotr readied himself to lunge then as the creature closed the distance he thrust his sword clean into its chest. The steel slid through what felt like nothingness, and sent a cold shiver along his swordarm, however his blow appeared to have wounded the creature. By his side, Alexei's sword passed through the creature also but to no visible effect.

"Alexei," Piotr gasped, "your blade must be enchanted to wound this being!"

His companion gave a wordless murmur as he realised the folly of the position he was in. In turn, as if sensing a weak opponent, the creature outstretched its hands which to Piotr and Alexei appeared withered and dead. Alexei fought to block the creature's advance but it passed clean through his shield. It took hold of his face with both its hands. Instantly Alexei's knees gave way beneath him, as every happy memory of his life dissolved leaving cold emptiness. Seeing this, Piotr gave a cry of rage and brought his sword down in a mighty blow through the creature's insubstantial being. Something to do with the enchantment of the weapon caught within the spectre and it tore apart, dissipating into nothingness before the party's eyes. A bone-chilling shriek echoed along the passage.

Alexei's sword and shield fell from his hands as he collapsed, trembling and staring off into space. Piotr looked to Calvin but he shook his head.

"There's nothing can be done," he said sadly. "At least nothing any of us here can do."

Something seemed to register in the back of Piotr's mind. He turned toward the corridor beyond where the spectre had been vanquished, and closed his eyes. When they re-opened a few moments later, he fixed Lana with a concerned look.

"The spectre did not attack us by chance," he murmured. "It did so under the command of its liege."

A lump formed in Lana's throat. "How can you tell?"

"Through visions which Chardastes permits me to see," Piotr answered quietly. "A second sight, you could call it. Just now, along the tunnel, beyond our light but not far. Some foul, cowardly creature is fleeing. I saw it turn, I felt the rustle of its ragged garments. It is distancing itself from us but it knows we are here."

"A more powerful creature than a spectre," Lana echoed. "That can only be…"

Piotr read her thoughts, as they both spoke aloud the most likely possibility. "Vampire."

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