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

The Marilinev Palace - Part Three

Swiftly and silently Valen Karameikos backtracked along the tunnel, located a recess within the wall and pressed his body into the space. He forced himself to remain totally still. The blond-haired member of the King's Guard was peering down the passage in his direction, as though her gaze might penetrate the deep dark.

"Is something the matter, Eunice?" one of the others was asking her.

"I thought I saw movement in the dark," he heard her murmur. "Probably a rat."

"We're heading on. Let's get going."

Eunice, he realised. That was her name. He'd observed her on duty several times, in and around the family stronghold, but couldn't remember her name. Stubbs he knew well of course. And Lady Lana who had accompanied him back from Alfheim that time. She was nice. Not overly controlling or disapproving. He had time for her.

Emerging from his hiding place he received a shock.

"You should watch your footing," whispered a female voice.

The Prince practically jumped out of his skin. Thirty feet away the lights of the patrol grew more distant.

"Who's there?" he demanded. "Lana?"

"These passages are old," the unseen voice continued. "And unstable. They could give way at any time. You would find yourself consumed by the dark, trapped and alone."

"As it happens," Valen told the voice in a matter-of-fact way, "I'm perfectly at home in the dark. And I'm rather light on my feet. I'm not alone either, I've been tagging along with the guards for some time. I'm seeing how long I can go before they notice me. So far I'm doing a good job."

"I noticed you," said the voice.

"Yes you did," Valen replied, feeling mildly uneasy. The lights of the patrol had disappeared.

"What will you do now?" the voice asked. "Now that you are alone in the dark?"

"I should go after the others, I suppose." His anxiety increased slightly.

"How will you find them? You cannot see."

"I have a light source," Valen revealed, rummaging in his pockets. "A magical one. Master Teldon gave it to me on my eighteenth birthday. I haven’t used it, seeing how it would have attracted the guards' attention. Now they're gone I suppose it won't do any harm. Just until I catch up with them, of course."

"Of course."

Unseen, at least by his own eyes, Valen reached inside his tunic and withdrew a small metal tube. He removed a stopper from one end which caused a bright beam to emerge. It bathed his face in cold white light. "See?"

"Impressive."

"Thank you." He angled the tube so that its beam swept along the floor of the tunnel, then turned it to illuminate the owner of the voice. The beam lit the face of a beautiful woman, her features sharp and angular. She appeared young, and her skin looked smooth and bone-white. Valen imagined the whiteness of her complexion to be a trick of the stark light.

The brightness caused the pupils of the woman's eyes to contract sharply, and seemed to cause her pain. "Would you mind turning that away from me?"

"Sorry," Valen apologised. "It's bright, I know. Especially after one's eyes have been used to the dark for so long."

"My thoughts exactly."

Valen turned the torch so that it illuminated a section of wall, giving off enough background light so that both individuals could see one another without being blinded.

"I have a suggestion," the woman said.

"Oh?"

"You could go after your companions," she said softly, looking Valen squarely in the eyes. There was something entrancing about her gaze, he found himself thinking. Moments later, although he did not realise it, his shoulders slumped and his head lolled forward yet he could not take his eyes from those of the woman. "But rather than that… why don't you come with me."

The tube which housed the Ever-Glowing Beam fell from Valen's hand and rolled along the ground for some distance before it finally stopped.

"That…" the Prince slurred as if he were drunk, "sounds like a really good idea."

The shrine was the largest of the four which the party had uncovered so far, easily fifty feet broad by fifty feet deep. The altar at its centre occupied a raised dais. Stone pillars appeared to support the ceiling, each carved in the figure of a musclebound humanoid with cloven hooves and the head of a goat. Lana, Piotr and Calvin recoiled upon seeing this. The trio exchanged shocked glances.

"By all that is holy," Piotr muttered. He and Calvin began making traditional gestures to ward away evil.

"Not since my childhood have I recalled what I believe those images signify," Lana said quietly.

"All my years spent examining the records of the Church," said Piotr, "yet this is perhaps the earliest religious symbol I ever came to be aware of. My parents were not churchgoers, yet even they warned me from a young age about..." he cast his eyes around his foul surroundings, "The Goat."

"As all Traladaran children were warned," Calvin said quietly, "and not without reason. Look at the altar." It had been sculpted from a single expanse of dark-veined marble to resemble a goat's head, its eyes narrowed in malice, its horns supporting a massive stone basin. "And those effigies..."

Along the sides of the room stood statues, all in the form of goat-headed creatures. One had the torso and hinds of a wolfman, another of an ogre, the next a gnoll and the last might have been a hobgoblin. They bore identical heads.

"These are the most intricate carvings we have found," Lana commented, "and the most varied." She gestured toward the walls of the room though evidently the subject matter did not warrant praise of any kind. The images were of many kinds - depicting scenes of slaughter, betrayal, sadism, the raising of the dead, lycanthropy and cannibalism. The theme running through them was one of mass destruction.

She turned to Piotr. "What of the undead liege, is it near?"

Piotr closed his eyes however Edmund had already been concentrating for several moments. He answered Lana's question as if to preclude Piotr from doing so. "No, milady. The creature has retreated beyond the range of my ability to detect it. When I last felt its presence, it was heading in that direction." He gestured toward an expanse of wall on the southern side of the room. It looked to be much like all the others.

Lana approached the wall and ran her fingers over several of the carvings before drawing a length of wood from her belt. She held the wand aloft and waved it lightly. At once the wand's tip gravitated toward the carving of a goat's head. Lana placed a fingertip upon the eye of the beast and applied pressure. Silently, a section of the wall slid back and rolled partly aside, revealing a passage beyond.

"Good work," said Piotr.

"Don't speak too soon!" said Calvin, sounding anxious. The goat-headed statues which flanked the section of wall containing the secret opening had lurched into life, stepping off their pedestals and turning to face the intruders. They advanced toward the group, dipping their heads as they began to charge.

Piotr set his shield, bracing himself against the coming impact and found when the construct collided that his strength matched the statue's own. As both recoiled from the impact, Piotr roared and swung his sword at the construct's neck. Whilst a blade was not an ideal weapon with which to combat such a foe, Piotr's weapon was enchanted and managed to cleave away a section of stone.

Calvin was fumbling with his holy symbol; Lana guessed that under normal circumstances the priest would be in no doubt that a construct was outwith his turning ability. It was perhaps the representation of The Goat which caused to question himself and the unholy nature of his attacker. As the second of the four constructs charged at Calvin, Lana stepped between the two and outstretched a hand. The air around the statue grew sticky and formed strands which halted its movement, robbing the momentum which its charge had built up. The construct was imbued with magical strength and broke free from the Web within moments, however the effect had bought enough time for Calvin to imbue his mace with holy might, then position the weapon above the creature's bowed head and land a hefty blow with careful precision.

Elsewhere within the chamber weapons clashed noisily against stone, as the patrol took on all four constructs. Edmund was heard ordering Varus and Alexei to give him room enough to swing his two-handed blade. When his blade connected with the statue moments later, it did so with heavy force and hewed one the construct's legs clean through. Combat raged until all four constructs were reduced to rubble. Florian was left clutching a bad injury to his swordarm; his opponent had taken hold and practically wrenched it from its socket. Varus meanwhile had been left reeling from a headbutt.

"Damn," said Piotr, after he pushed open the concealed doorway to afford easier entry for the remainder of the patrol. The corridor beyond was utterly dark, yet emerging out of the darkness and into the light was a trio of ghostly figures, now horribly familiar. Red eyes burned within the cowls of their insubstantial garments, which billowed in an unseen wind.

"Three of them," Calvin breathed almost in disbelief.

"We're not taking any chances this time," Lana muttered, pulling up the sleeves of her blouse. "Get out of the way!" she yelled at the men who were standing between her and the advancing undead. "Edmund, move!" Needing no further telling, the men threw themselves aside or flattened themselves on the floor upon hearing the urgency of Lana's request. A split second later, lightning tore along the passage followed by a score of glowing missiles. The shards of energy exploded on impact with the spectres, then when the brilliance faded they were gone.

"Look!" called Varus. From down the tunnel, a tendril of what looked like smoke was snaking its way toward the party. Lana raised her hands defensively, ready to cast another spell, but found herself prevented from doing so. By Piotr.

"Wait," he instructed calmly, his eyes closed. "There is no evil or harmful intent here."

All present looked on anxiously as the tendril continued its advance. It was whitish-grey in hue, tinged with silver around its edges. As it came within ten feet it swelled in volume. An image of a woman coalesced before Eunice. Though wispy and translucent, she was dressed in the clothing of a peasant, in typical Traladaran attire – a long skirt and voluminous blouse topped by a shawl, her waist and brow bound with sashes. She outstretched her arms as if begging for aid. Her voice carried as if from afar. She beseeched Eunice in an echoing, faraway tone.

"I do not understand you," the guardswoman said apologetically, though from the snippets she made out the woman was speaking Traladaran. The woman's image faded a moment later, as if a breeze had blown through her.

"She spoke of her son," Alexei said sadly. "He is lost to her, somewhere in the dark."

A second line of smoke wound its way toward the party, from out of the darkness. Another wispy outline formed, that of a brawny man who had been stripped of most of his clothing. His hands were balled into fists which he kept raised. He bellowed the same words over and over, speaking in echoing, distant Traladaran.

"You will not take me," Piotr translated, sounding sorrowful.

Other figures formed, their outlines less distinct; they attempted to restrain the burly man who resisted them for a long while, tossing his assailants aside one after another. Finally he was overpowered and found himself pinned on the ground. His image then faded from view.

"Our presence here has disturbed something," said Stubbs. "We have woken the ghosts of the past and they close in around us."

Other outlines formed, including a young man in farming clothing, his wrists bound in heavy manacles. He did not speak, though he appeared to give those present the wistful look of one who had abandoned all hope, then faded from view.

"I do not believe so," Lana answered. "These are not fully-formed beings. They are memories, echoes of the past which continue to be seen and heard… but have no other substance. A curious phenomenon indeed."

"I agree," said Piotr whose eyes had closed for a moment. "These images are not evil. Nor will they harm us." As he spoke his brow creased and his expression darkened. "Yet there are other things ahead which blight what is good and proper."

"What manner of things?" Eunice asked.

"The creature which commanded the spectres, for one," Edmund replied, cutting Piotr off from replying. It was as if Edmund was competing to prove his usefulness to the party. "Along with others of its kind. But there is something darker still, to which the creatures are drawn. A heart of darkness, in one place…"

The men took little comfort from this, clearly unsettled by the phantasms which they saw forming then disappearing just as quickly, but were just as disturbed by what the paladins had reported.

"Let us proceed," Lana murmured. "And face whatever awaits us."

As the men stepped forward, more silvery-grey tendrils snaked toward them. Images would form and hold themselves together for seconds before dissipating. All present found themselves distracted by chittering sounds which increased the deeper they progressed into the tunnel. Also, as they progressed onward, the breadth and height of the tunnel increased significantly.

"Bats," Stubbs commented, swiping a couple of the creatures as they flew uncomfortably close to his head.

"Keep calm everybody," Lana advised. "We need to keep our wits about us."

"Easier said than done, milady!" replied Varus who was beset by several of the flapping creatures. He attempted to bat them with his shield yet more kept coming.

Moments later all present came under attack from what seemed to be an enormous swarm of bats. Exasperated, Lana outstretched a hand and summoned a magical blizzard directly overhead. The pitch of the chittering increased momentarily, then lessened as two dozen frozen bats fell to the ground, many of them shattering upon impact. The men were left with chattering teeth from the sudden cold, yet the bats which had been flapping around them seemed less intent on causing disruption, and flew away. The chittering within the cave continued, albeit more quietly than before.

The passage widened into a large cave which extended beyond the light of the men's lanterns and Lana's dagger. As the smoky tendrils continued to snake toward the party, their point of origin became apparent. They were emanating from a pit in the centre of the cave. Edmund's gaze became fixed upon the pit and he approached as if mesmerised, though for all the wrong reasons. Lana too found her curiosity brimming; the pit was unlike anything she had viewed before. Firstly it appeared to have been hewn from a massive expanse of solid black material, which she presumed to be obsidian or something similar. Secondly the ground surrounding the pit had been etched with runes and emblems and, most significantly, eight long markings had been drawn pointing away from the centre of the pit, creating a star formation. Lana deduced that each point was probably directed toward one of the altars in the outer shrines.

The chittering rose as the patrol advanced into the cavern, coming from all sides though its source remained hidden in the darkness which was all around.

Flanked by the two paladins Lana neared the edge of the pit. The trio noticed what they thought its most curious feature; twenty feet below ground level was a swirling, silvery-grey fog. Lana gazed upon this curiously for just an instant. Then, an ear-splitting shriek sounded as several dark forms detached from the bottom of the pit and soared upward. One of the forms could be heard whispering to the others.

"Keep them away from the Well!"

Lana and Piotr backed away as not one but five human shapes descended before them, all dressed in ragged clothing. These were no hazy phantasms; the creatures were fully formed and all possessed burning gazes, fangs and skin which had a distinctly deathly pallor. One was female, the others all male.

"Immortals preserve us," Lana heard Calvin breathe, standing behind her. His tone could be heard shaking. "Five of them."

"You invade our home," hissed one of the vampires, the tallest male, as Lana and Piotr continued to back away slowly. "Leave at once."

"You are outnumbered, foul beings," Edmund spoke defiantly. "Your presence within these tunnels cannot be tolerated. Prepare to defend yourselves."

"It is you who will wish you were better defended," answered the lead vampire. "Yet before you rush keenly to your doom, consider whether you are prepared to risk not only your own lives, but that of an innocent."

Lana and Piotr exchanged confused looks, not knowing what the vampire meant. Behind him, one of the other vampires closed its eyes. In an unseen, darkened area of the cave, part of the chittering was heard to grow louder. Then came a yelp. A yelp which was decidedly human.

"What was that?" Calvin asked.

"Stubbs," called a voice. "Lana?"

Hideous recognition dawned as in the back of Lana’s mind she identified the owner of the voice. Beside her, Stubbs stiffened as he too realised the increased danger of the situation they were in. Lana's heart sank as she weakly spoke the name aloud…

"Valen…?"

"Hi…" came the weakly cheerful response. "I'd be ever so grateful if you could get me out of here. I think these rats might devour me otherwise."

"Damn it," Stubbs swore. "I should have posted a watch on that blasted trapdoor."

"What in heaven's name are you doing down here, Valen?" Lana called. "And where are you?"

"I was curious! And I'm over here!"

Lana was exasperated. "Valen it's dark, that doesn't help!"

"I can see your light…"

"Have you been harmed?" Lana demanded, her voice full with concern. She could not help but wonder what Queen Olivia would say if her son were to be injured, or worse, while in Lana's company. Justifiably or not, the Queen seemed to have developed a sour opinion of Lana after her failure to make a love match between Adriana and Desmond Kelvin… it wouldn't do to provide her with further cause for disapproval.

"No," Valen called, "I think I'm okay."

"As the child himself confirms," the lead vampire said loudly, "he has suffered no harm. But that will not remain so if you continue to aggress us. Leave now," he glowered, "or face the consequences."

"You threaten an innocent child with violence," Piotr began.

"I'm not a child," came a weak response from the darkness, "I've completed my Shearing and everything…"

"… which underlines your vile nature." Piotr continued as if he had not heard Valen. "We will not stand idly by while –"

"Piotr wait," Lana interceded. "Let's not be hasty." Then in a lower tone, "we need to talk about this. For Valen's sake."

The paladin looked at Lana as though she were missing what was patently obvious. "The undead are an abomination, without exception. The Patriarch charged us with obliterating them, you were there when he instructed us."

"I must agree with Master Grevenov," Edmund stated flatly.

"… yet I accept," Piotr continued, "that if the child is to survive we must proceed carefully."

The vampires stared at the two paladins as if they sensed that they were no mere fighters. They seemed to detect danger within them, perhaps moreso than within Calvin.

"I know how strongly you despise the undead," Lana said, "but please don't let your personal feelings come into this."

Piotr was incensed by this. "My feelings are irrelevant, the undead are not to be tolerated, let alone bartered with!"

"Please," Lana begged, "let me handle this. Valen's life hangs in the balance."

Piotr was deeply unhappy at this. "I will stay my hand for a moment. If you insist on staining your own spirit… be swift about it." He gave Lana a look of complete disappointment.

"Say what you will to them," Edmund said, though he too sounded thoroughly unhappy at what occurring.

"At least speak with us," Lana called to the vampires. "Tell us more of you, and of this place?"

The vampires appeared uneasy at this proposal yet their leader spoke. "Very well. Introductions are perhaps in order." Piotr growled on hearing this but said nothing. "I am Lucas, the leader of this coven. My fellows are Mattias, Kaspar, Sergyev and Marianna."

"I am Lana," Lana answered. "Allow me to introduce Piotr, Edmund, Varus, Alexei, Florian, Calvin, Stubbs, and Eunice." Her voice trailed off momentarily. "None of us knew about the existence of these tunnels until recently. Do you… make any use of the altars?"

Lucas shook his head. "No. We have no association with the any of the entities to which the shrines are dedicated. Nor have the shrines been used in a long time."

Lana inclined her head toward the obsidian pit. "What about that thing? What is its purpose?"

The vampire exchanged cautious looks with his fellows. "We have come to term it 'the Well'. It is a container of sorts. We have located certain records from when this place was a centre for the worship of demons and other beings. Those who were present when we came here would remember the old ceremonies to fill the Well. We do not."

"But no such ceremonies have taken place in recent times?"

"Not during our time," Lucas confirmed. "And we have called this place home for many years. Yet the Well retains a certain amount of energy… and it sustains us."

"What exactly is this energy?" Lana asked, though she was not sure she wanted to hear the answer.

"Lifeforce," the vampire replied, "stripped from each of the victims who… took part in the ceremonies."

The paladins glowered and fumed on hearing this but said nothing.

"So that means… the other undead which dwell here?" Lana prompted.

"… are those who were sacrificed upon the altars, long ago. They remain in a form which we can control, should we wish to." He fixed the paladins with a dark glare. "For example they can be instructed to expel those who invade our home."

"We have faced your minions," Piotr said loudly, "and emerged unscathed."

"Many remain," came the vampire's cool response. He intensified his gaze upon Piotr. Noticing this, Lana recognised the look of burning intensity from her encounter in Rugalov Village the previous winter.

"Hey!" she barked. "Cut that out. Unless you wish me to envelop your eyes in unending light."

In response Lucas gave a hiss. "You would provoke us into combat…"

"Only if you leave no other option," Lana replied.

"You seem to be under the illusion that you will win," the vampire crooned in response. Two of the other male vampires appeared to be lost in thought; the volume of bats flitting about the cave roof suddenly increased, likewise the volume of chittering coming from dark recesses and the many passages leading away from the cave increased. From wherever he was in the darkness, Valen gave another yelp.

"We do not only command the skeletons of this place. If combat is what you seek then we will entertain you."

"It need not come to that," Lana muttered, sensing that the conversation was going in circles. "Tell us more about how you came to be here."

"We moved in years ago," said the vampire who had been introduced as Kaspar. "The Well sustains us. The nature of its energy is such that we have no need to exit the tunnels unless we wish to. No doubt you have found exits from this place. It would be an easy matter for us to return to hunting in the Park, to prey upon victims from your Duke's subjects. Yet we choose not to." The vampire smiled, clearly impressed by its own words.

"What of the exits from this place?" Lana asked. "How many are there and where do they lead to?"

"We believe only two remain," Lucas responded. "That through which we imagine you entered is one. There is also a lower tunnel which leads to the district you call Bricktop. There was formerly a third exit leading to the Park beyond the old city walls, it is through that passage that we entered long ago. The way is now impassable by most, since the passage collapsed many years ago."

"What of a man dressed in black?" Lana demanded. "He passed through these tunnels only weeks ago, and did so unscathed."

"We know nothing of him," the female vampire said at once, too hastily.

"You lie," Piotr said loudly, speaking what the entire patrol was thinking.

The lead vampire turned and hissed at the female, fully baring his fangs as if the female had spoken out of turn. "Silence, Marianna!" He returned his attention to the intruders. "We permitted the human to pass through. We will say nothing more on the subject."

"That is not acceptable," Lana responded. "That man attempted to take the life of our Duke." The vampires' eyes appeared to gleam as she spoke. "We must have information about his origins, and his motivation. If you have any information at all you must impart it to us."

"I consider there to be no such obligation upon us," Lucas replied. "What's in it for us?"

Enraged, Piotr hefted his sword. "Do not presume to impose terms, creature! We will not barter with your kind."

"Agreed," Edmund cried, "we shame ourselves merely by standing here."

Marianna seemed to have had enough of the paladins' animosity as her expression crumpled. "Sirs," she said in a broken tone, "do you believe any of us chose to assume these forms? This is the path our lives have been forced to follow, not by our own will. Do you not believe we are repulsed by what we have become? Even after years it still disgusts me..." One of the male vampires took her hand in his own, as if anxious to comfort her.

"We have found a means of sustaining ourselves without preying on the living," her companion continued. "It has been years since any of us were forced to kill. Shouldn't that count for something? Shouldn't this permit us to continue our existence here? We pose no threat to your Duke, nor anyone else for that matter."

"Please, Piotr," Lana implored, before turning back to the vampires. "Allow me to explain the position we are in. We have been ordered to clear these tunnels of any inhabitants. The Church expects us to combat any undead we find down here."

"And you will appreciate our position," Lucas replied, "which is that these tunnels are our home, and have been for many years. We have caused no trouble and we cause no harm by dwelling here. We wish only to be left alone."

"Our task remains, however," Lana said. "We will be required to return to the surface and report that undead remain here. The matter will undoubtedly pass beyond our control. The Churches will send further troops, if not the Patriarchs themselves, to engage you. Yet if we can report that you co-operated with us, for example in providing information about the assassin who came here," she spoke her words carefully, "perhaps things might stay as they are. As a gesture of goodwill I would ask you to tell us what you know about the man who sought to slay our King. I would know how he found his way through these forgotten passages. You must tell me what you know. In return, I can assure you that our role here will remain peaceful."

"You threaten us with violence if we do not give you what you wish," the vampire stated flatly. "This is blackmail."

"It is not," Lana replied. "I propose that there need be no violence here, but there must be some benefit for both sides. For us to allow you to continue dwelling here, when we were instructed to empty this place of all who pose a threat to the people of this land... it is a great deal to ask of us."

"And you ask too much of me Lana," Piotr spoke in a pained tone at her side. "Creatures such as these cannot be reasoned with."

"Not so," said Marianna, the female vampire, defiantly. "Perhaps you have encountered others of our kind who have blighted your perspective. We five remain perfectly open to reason."

The lead vampire interjected at this point. "What Marianna says is true. We stand apart from those we are forced to call our kin, who give in to their bestial urges." He gave the paladins a look which was intended to convey a warning. "Do not think us toothless beasts however." He waved a hand and for a moment the chittering above and around grew earsplitting.

"Tell us about the assassin." Lana repeated her request.

The vampires exchanged long glances, causing Lana to wonder whether they were capable of communicating among themselves without spoken words. After a while Lucas spoke. "Very well. You will have the information you seek, though there is little to tell. We creatures do not sleep, yet one of us experienced a waking dream of sorts. In that dream a woman's voice instructed us. She revealed that a man would come to us, and that he should pass unhindered through our home. At least until he accomplished a task which was assigned to him." The vampire's thin lips formed a smile. "The Lady was required to make good on a debt owed to another. She made clear the consequences of failing to adhere to her instructions."

"What would the consequences have been?" Lana quizzed.

"Whatever she saw fit," the vampire shrugged. "Every possibility imaginable lies open to her. She knows our existence here to be a simple one. It would be a simple matter for her to take it from us. Or to force us to play a more active role in her vision for the world, if it should come to be."

"So you let her agent pass through?"

"Yes. We made sure those we control took no action against him. He passed through our tunnels, though we do not believe he returned."

"He was slain," Piotr said loudly. "As befitted his crimes and his association with creatures such as yourselves."

"Sir Knight," spoke Marianna. "You are unjust."

"There can be no doubting your true nature," Edmund said. Behind him many of the men were increasingly uneasy, ready for imminent melee should it occur. Eunice appeared most petrified. "Your very existence is a blight on our land and cannot be permitted."

"We mean no harm to anybody. We need not leave this chamber, nor do we wish to!"

Piotr scoffed. "You wish us to consider it acceptable that you leech off the dark energy in that pit? Which was brought by slaughter and murder?"

"The past is in the past," Lucas replied. "The energy lies dormant whether it is used or not. The murders were not by our hand."

"Yet you dwell here like the parasites you are! By doing so you make yourselves complicit in the original sins."

"Not so," the vampire replied, "None of us have committed any sins in long years. Our fates were forced upon us, just as those who perished here had their fates imposed upon them."

"Piotr please," Lana begged. "What happened in the past was abhorrent but these creatures need some form of sustenance. If they reside here and do not enter the outside world there is no danger."

"I disagree," Piotr said flatly. "Their presence cannot be tolerated."

"But they will be present in tunnels which none of the King's subjects have any need to enter. We were all concerned that there might be cultists down here… can you think of any more powerful guardians of this place than vampires, to deter any new inhabitants."

Piotr appeared to consider this. "Even if we were to permit them to continue their existence here…" The words pained him as he spoke. "…how could we hold them to any oath that they would not leave? Creatures such as these are without honour and their word counts for nothing."

"Agreed," Edmund stated coldly.

"An oath would not be required," said Lana. "The arrangement would be one of practical considerations, with incentives for them to do what is necessary and penalties upon default. We would leave the vampires in peace and pledge no hostile action against them. The entrance to the Duke's stronghold could be sealed. In return for their privacy, the vampires would undertake not to leave this place or permit others to enter. In the event these terms were not maintained..." her gaze passed to the vampires, who had been listening keenly, "the most powerful clerics in our land would intervene. At once and without mercy."

"Your terms are acceptable," Lucas stated. None of the other vampires sought to disagree.

"Not to me they're not," Piotr said through gritted teeth. "I will take my chances in combat, and pray that the Immortals smile upon our victory."

"Piotr please!" Lana said, laying a hand on his arm. She spoke in low tones. "We could engage these creatures, certainly. You saw what happened to Alexei when the spectre touched him. These creatures are more dangerous by far. We have swords and magic, plus Calvin's turning ability, we have a chance to emerge victorious but at what cost? I will not take that chance when a peaceful resolution presents itself. You know it makes sense to avoid needless battle."

Piotr pushed Lana's hand off his forearm though he remained silent while he remembered events from his past. "You have no concept of the enormity of what you ask, Lana." He fixed her with an angry, resentful look. "Or the pain you cause me."

"It is the only way," she said quietly. "There is the option to resolve this peacefully. Otherwise… at the very least Valen's life will be forfeit."

Piotr took a long while to consider all of this. To Lana's surprise Edmund remained silent while he did so. It was as though Edmund was reluctant to be the one making a call or sanctioning whatever outcome was about to arise.

The vampires were also speaking among themselves. Marianna more than any of the others seemed uneasy. It seemed she was trying to detect whether the humans were attempting a ruse. The prospect of being left alone seemed almost too good to be true.

"This entire place should be resanctified," Piotr muttered.

"If the vampires prevent others from moving in," Lana said, "no use will be made of those hideous altars. There will be no more ceremonies, no more cults."

"But all the altars and effigies..."

"... are relics of the past! And that is where they belong. What benefit did those dark ceremonies bring, decades ago? Nothing, Piotr!" An almost joyful look overtook Lana's expression. "Look at what our homeland is becoming and how it fares now. Remember how you and I stood at Darokin City and pushed back dark forces. Karameikos has a bright future ahead. This place is nothing more than an outdated mausoleum. The ceremonies are gone and forgotten, confined to the past. Let us leave them that way." She glanced at the vampires. "With custodians to ensure no cultist activity continues."

"Very well," Piotr said after much deliberation. "I will go along with your plan. Yet I need not like it, or confirm my approval. I will also make my opposition clear when I report to Patriarch Jowett."

"I can ask nothing better of you," Lana said softly.

Piotr continued to appear pained but when he next looked at Lana there was a glimmer of acceptance in his eyes. Some part of him agreed with what she had said. "I will not parlay with these creatures any more," he said weakly. "Ensure that we have an understanding with them."

Lana turned back to the vampires. "You accept, then, what is required of you?"

Lucas nodded. "None shall be permitted to enter these tunnels. Nor shall we leave."

"We have ways of checking whether your commitment is being honoured." Lana reached into her bag and withdrew a crystal sphere, which she held up for the vampires to see. "This and other means. From time to time we will observe what occurs within these tunnels. If it appears that our terms are not being upheld then matters will pass beyond our control; the Patriarchs of the Karameikan Churches will be swift in descending upon you."

"We understand." The lead vampire gave a nod. "Now leave us."

"We will," Lana said, "but there is one final matter. Earlier, you mentioned records?"

None of the vampires had expected this question. "Yes, left by the former inhabitants. What of them?"

"We wish to inspect whatever records you possess. Please let us take away whatever you hold. It would be worthwhile for the Churches of our land to examine the documents, to learn from the events of the past."

Lucas mulled this over for a while. "Very well. We have had decades to examine the documents and have no further use for them. You may take whatever we have with you."

Saying this, he raised his arms and morphed into the form of an enormous bat. Before any of the patrol could react he swooped down into the pit.

"I'll wager that's where their coffins are hidden," Lana murmured to Piotr, "within that swirling fog." Piotr did not reply.

Moments later the bat rose out of the pit, clutching several items. It deposited a number of scrolls and a black-bound book at Lana's feet before reverting to human form. "The cultists maintained certain records," he explained, "here you have those scrolls which have survived the decades. Also, we were not the first vampires to occupy this place, it seems at least one other group learned of this place before we did, drawn by the energies of the Well as we were. One of them maintained a journal. It is yours to take."

He nodded at Lana. "You may reclaim the young one."

Lana raised her glowing dagger and advanced hesitantly into the cave in the direction Valen's voice had been heard coming from. After around thirty feet her light fell upon around a dozen giant rats, clustered in a crescent formation. The rats scattered as she approached, leaving the huddled form of a young man within the alcove which the rats had been guarding. He rose to his feet, beaming broadly.

"Hi, Lana."

Lana forced herself to breathe slowly and remain calm. "You're lucky I haven't another Lightning Bolt memorised…" She placed one arm around the Prince's shoulders and forcibly marched him back to the group.

When Lucas next spoke, he fixed the party members with a gaze which, while not magical, conveyed the same intensity as his earlier attempt to charm Piotr. "We have reached agreement. Now leave us."

The party turned and exited the cavern, memories of the dead manifesting in silver shimmers all around them. Behind them, the vampires assumed insubstantial forms and floated down into the darkness of the Well.

"Am I right in stating," Lana mused aloud as they returned toward the exit, "that in olden days the land of Traladara was a nation composed of disparate families and clans, without unification?"

Piotr nodded, recalling annals of history he had read in the Church of Karameikos' library. "Indeed. The Traladara of old consisted of little more than isolated homesteads and settlements. Certain families rose to prominence in the Marilinev area but it took the arrival of the Thyatians to exert control across the land as a whole."

Lana nodded. "What if somebody had tried to do that very thing before the Thyatians, exert control, but had failed?"

Piotr considered this. "Such a task… would have been a colossal undertaking. Without proper resources, they would have required to overcome a great many obstacles."

"I agree. As we pray to our own Immortals, there are those who dwell in darkness but are equally powerful. The family which resided in Koriszegy Keep is rumoured to have made a pact with dark powers, are they not? What if something similar occurred here. Perhaps such a pact was intended, but never came to fruition…" Lana turned over various possibilities in her mind as she spoke. "What if this whole complex was intended as a means to something greater – a hub to enable the entire land of Traladara to be dominated? Could that have been what those cultists were planning?"

"It's certainly a theory," muttered Edmund. "One which you can put to Patriarch Jowett while you attempt to convince him that you made the correct decision."

Lana turned upon the man. "I don't know whether I made the right decision, nor do you. It will be a matter for the Patriarch and others to decide. We will see how the future plays out and whether the creatures remain true to their undertaking."

"If they do not," Edmund stated, "I will volunteer to lead the party which vanquishes them once and for all. For the protection of Karameikos and its people."

Lana fell silent.

"Out of interest," Valen asked, "what's going to happen to that trapdoor in the courtyard?"

"It'll be sealed," Stubbs and Lana replied loudly and in unison.

"Oh." The young Prince made no attempt to conceal his disappointment. "So no further trips into the catacombs…?"

"None whatsoever," Stubbs said sternly.

"Those giant rats looked awfully underfed." Lana fought hard not to smile. "It's a miracle the vampires managed to keep them from devouring you."

Valen considered this. "Perhaps I'll find other ways of amusing myself."

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