Mythaxis

Grave Misfortune


Stephen Heuser


"Fortune knocks but once, but misfortune has much more patience."
Laurence J. Peter

The servant's shrieks had woken the house far earlier than usual. Amidst the smell of baked rolls, and the cooked meat of breakfast, a clangor arose in the richly decorated halls of the Lavelle household. Rami, the owner of several ripe parcels of land outside of Grislain, had stormed from his bedroom, saber in hand, and robe flapping in his haste. Unkempt, graying curls floated around a sharp, stern face, sending servants scrambling from his path. The night’s fog still clung to his thoughts, making him more of a grumbling bear than anything else. Hopefully, whatever fool had dared wake him so rudely would be dealt with before he arrived to the scene.

What greeted him, however, was not some intruder, but several of his men and women attempting to calm Arian. The young boy, he saw, was covered in fresh blood, and weeping helplessly as he was led away. A silver tray lay among the spilled tea and shattered cups, forgotten by the others, who spoke in hushed tones and cast fearful glances at the closed door.

"Sir, please." Khonwen, a hawk-nosed man with dark, slicked-back hair who had been with Rami since he was a boy, gently took him by the arm. "I apologize for the disturbance. If you would like to wait in your study, I will arrive with breakfast and an explanation, shortly."

"What happened?" Rami handed the sword to him, but made no effort to leave. Khonwen pulled, slightly more insistent, on his master's arm.

"Sir, I promise - "

"Where's Delilah?" he said. In his haste, and with the remnants of sleep still caked over his thoughts, he hadn't realized they stood outside his daughter's room. Khonwen seemed at a loss, and refused to look him in the eyes. "Delilah?"

"Sir, please!"

Rami shoved him aside, dread worming its way into his heart. He vaguely felt someone try to hold him back, to no avail.

The floor was slick under his house slippers, and he banged his knee against an overturned chair. Righting himself, he padded towards his daughter's bed, the blankets piled thickly upon her. A faint hope that she'd, perhaps, simply absconded in the night, and had yet to return, was dashed at the smell. Shaking, he finally looked at the floor in the early morning light - blood coated the floor, lending the scent of metal and gore to the air. So very, very much blood, he realized, seeing it pool thickly by the bed. A firm hand grabbed him, pulling him away.

"Sir, this way. You... Please don't look."

Khonwen had begun leading him away from the bed. Unshed tears glistened in his dark eyes, and his lip trembled through his desperately composed façade. Rami nodded slowly, allowing himself to be led away.

"She's not feeling well, yes?" he asked, in a timid, scared voice that didn't quite seem like his.

"Of course, sir." Khonwen gestured at a few of the staff, and he whispered something harsh and clipped to them. Pale-faced and shaking, they scurried away. "Breakfast will be done shortly," he assured Rami. "I will make sure... that Delilah is sent down when she wakes."

Rami nodded slowly. Yes, she was only ill, that was it. That was it...

"This doesn't look like Karlis."

Rosalie shut her eyes briefly, trying to fight off the impending headache. The caravan they had joined on the way to Grislain had been full of humorless folk who didn't believe in creature comforts. Among them were, given the state of their backsides and ringed eyes, properly-built wagons. The road had been unforgiving, with each bump and jostle feeling like it would shake the damned things to pieces. Even worse was the fact that the passengers tended to be normal folk, meaning that Rosalie's legs usually ended up dangling out the back. By the time they reached the city gates, the trio shared a silent vow to never again suffer such circumstances.

"Oh, another perilous adventure! You know I *never* tire of things trying to eat me." Sarah clasped her hands in false joy, her face dimpling as she spun in wonder at the opulent waiting area of House Villago.

"There's been a change of plans." Rosalie stretched, working the last cramps from arms and shoulders muscled enough to give the boldest enemy pause. The scraping and clanking from the heavy plates of her armor echoed around her, and she let her great-maul rest by her feet. The faceplate of her helmet rattled when she yawned, its horns giving her the appearance of a sleepy rhino.

Brown and black leather armor creaked, and crimson hair flashed in its tight bun, making the fierce smile that beamed from her pale, smooth face seem almost festive. Her button nose crinkled, making her look for all the world like a princess from some far-off land. The twin short-swords that nearly toppled a vase when she spun did much to dispel the image, sheathed on either side.

The third, and final, member of their band, Merry, lounged under her black cloak on a plush, cream-and-gold couch, sniffing at a vase of sapphire flowers. The Villago emblem of an orange eagle, with wings of thorns had been etched into the side of the vase. As she did, the soft hum of a violin could be heard from her, low and mourning. Bone-white hair spilled out from under her hood, framing a curious, youthful face, with large, amber eyes that seemed to always be staring at something no one else could see. Thick, expressive eyebrows bounced atop olive skin as she studied the room. When she sat up, a plain white shirt, and begrimed pants were revealed, with only a leather-and-chain doublet for protection.

A marble table with a bowl of fresh pears sat among a floating pool of fish that swam awkwardly through the air. Rosalie absently batted one away when it tried to dart through her hair, crinkling her nose at the creatures' humid, moldy smell.

"We're not going for a rest, just yet."

Rosalie rubbed her eyes at Sarah's darkening expression. She should have known better. Everyone had been exhausted after their last adventure, and gods knew she would have preferred to lounge some place where you didn't have to trade watch every night. Still, when she'd seen the paper flapping against the newsboard...

Rosalie snatched a pear just before it would have smacked into her face. Sarah bit sloppily into her own, and sucked the juices from the fruit with obnoxious gusto.

"Are you going to tell us anything about this mystery assignment, or are we going to have to guess?"

"Someone's been cutting people up at night," Merry interjected, her eyes peeking over the top of a fat pillow. "Makes a pretty mess, too, from what the town guards were muttering about."

"It was on the way," Rosalie said, adjusting her helm.

"We passed a badger den a couple days back, 'on the way', but you didn't see us stopping to see if they needed help...settling in for the winter!" she sputtered.

"Don't be silly. They won't need to do that for several months yet."

Rosalie turned away so the others wouldn't see her smirk. She allowed herself a brief moment of victory when Sarah huffed, and Merry's song plunked happily. Thankfully, that seemed to be all the complaint Sarah had in her, and she fell silent as footsteps echoed from the hallway.

Dressed in a pure white shirt, and charcoal jacket, the man who entered looked every bit as wealthy and upper-class as the house had suggested. Raven-black hair was slicked back and tied into a short ponytail; deep brown eyes studied them from a sharp, handsome face, free of wrinkles, despite his age.

"Thank you for coming so swiftly. I am Estil Villago, and wish I could welcome you under less dire circumstances." His voice was soft, but rich, someone who could shake the room with their rage, if they needed to. He didn't so much as bat an eye at Rosalie's height or armor, grasping her hand firmly even as he tilted his head back to meet her eyes. She had to fight to keep them from watering at the man's overpowering cologne. "I was doubtful that anyone would respond at all, given our area's...reputation."

"The folk we traveled with were certainly cautious," Rosalie said, and ignored Sarah's stifled laugh. "Cautious" would be giving the nightly warding of the campsite, and the twitchy bowmen standing with strings half-drawn at all times, a generous gift. Merry skulking in the corner singing to herself, only her mouth peering out from the hood, did nothing for their nerves. "But we couldn't bring ourselves to pass by. Given what you're offering," she added. His thin mustache twitched at the gauche comment, but nodded. Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the arrival of a servant carrying a silver tray laden with tea, and assorted nutted breads and jams. At least, he had the bearing of a servant, though the swarthy newcomer dressed more like he had spent the night at a bawdy house. An emerald vest had been hastily buttoned over a wrinkled, silver shirt. From the undone collar to the loosely-laced shoes, he seemed to have been sleeping in his uniform. Black curls peppered with gray hung about his face in a mess, and several days of beard grew unchecked. His eyes stared ahead blankly as he began setting out the plates with shaking hands. So low as to be almost unnoticed, he sang-mumbled something somber and reverent.

"Khonwen, please," Villago said, taking the tea from his hands, irritation washing over his face. "You already put my boys to bed. You don't have to keep doing this."

"A sliver of normalcy in dark days helps more than you might think, sir," Khonwen smiled, but let Villago pour the tea. His hands free, he rubbed at a golden token that was wrapped around his wrist by a cord - a gilded shark's tooth, a small compass, and a pair of keys. "These are?" he asked hopefully.

"Ah, yes, forgive me." He motioned for the hunters to partake, and clapped the servant on the back. "This is Khonwen, a long-time friend, and retainer to Rami Lavelle. Rami's daughter was, ah... the reason why we asked for help."

"Your priests are your servants?" Merry asked, staring at the gilded shark's tooth charm around Khonwen's wrist. He smiled weakly, pushing it back up his sleeve.

"Less a priest these days than I used to be," he said. "But I found - "

"Seems a rather hasty proposition," Sarah interrupted around a slice of bread, glancing over the paper from Rosalie's bag. "This was only posted a day or two before she saw it," she said, nodding at Rosalie. "Shouldn't locals get a fair shot at this first?"

"I'm afraid most who could help fled for safer lands some time ago" Khonwen said. His teeth clicked, and he took a breath to calm himself. "Some of us," he said, ignoring the shadow that fell over Villago's face, "felt that perhaps specialists wouldn't be unwelcome, given the nature of the... the murder," he managed. "She was eaten." His face had gone pale, and clasped his hands behind his back. "Mostly. Some was... there were remains," he finished, lip trembling.

"And she hasn't been the first," Villago added. "There've been a string of killings over the past several months, across the city. Sometimes people will disappear from their beds, others simply don't find their way home at night. Much of the time they aren't found until days later."

"So, now that enough of you have died, you finally get off your pillows, and send word for help?"

"Sarah!" Rosalie hissed.

The sellsword licked her fingers clean, and shrugged. "Maybe if they'd moved quicker they wouldn't have to empty their coffers."

"I apologize for my associate," Rosalie assured their employers, quietly beckoning Merry behind her back. A moment later, her song hummed with idle violins. The magic did its job well though, banishing Villago's clenched jaw, and lessening Khonwen's guilt-stricken face.

"Do you have any idea what it is?" Merry asked, the music continuing even as she spoke.

"The surrounding roads are exceptionally dangerous," Khonwen said, collecting their empty plates. He seemed to find solace in filling his rôle, his voice gaining strength as he composed himself. "Hundreds of people go missing every year. Probably far more, in reality, since we only hear about the ones who meant to come to Grislain. In all likelihood, something has now decided it would be easier to reside in the city, than to prey on wary travelers."

"No one has seen it," Villago said. "At least, no one reliable. I truly wish we could tell you more but..." He spread his hands helplessly. "Will you help us?"

Rosalie glanced at her comrades – Merry had stuffed another slice of bread into her mouth, and Sarah only flicked an eyebrow at her, neutral, but annoyed all the same.

"For double," Rosalie said. She allowed herself a tiny bit of joy when Sarah coughed behind her. "Assuming," she added, cutting off Villago's protest, "that we finish it within three days. Consider it... extra motivation."

Villago's jaw tightened, and a vein bulged in his forehead. He glanced at Khonwen, who had been waiting slightly behind, and to the side. The servant's face was blank, but his shoulders drooped, expecting the hunters to be summarily evicted. With a deep breath, Villago turned back to Rosalie, and took her hand with his own.

"Excellent," she said, resisting the urge to wipe her hand after the clammy grasp. "Do you know where we should start?"

As the monster frothed and scrabbled against her song-ward, Merry wondered why things like these always stank. It shrank back as the magic flared to brilliant light, The Ballad of Sir Luwain sending tendrils of fire blooming after it. It skittered on too-human hands and feet, its bones piercing the flesh like yellowed, broken talons. Cautiously, it attempted to circle her, the fanged maw attached to an obnoxiously long, bloody spinal cord, swaying as it did. Fortunately, with her back against the sewer wall, there was nowhere to circle to. Angered by the lack of opportunity, it lunged at her, only to rebound from the fiery barrier with a screech. Merry only sighed, wishing that, for once, their prey would make its lair some place like a flower garden, or by a bakery, rather than the endless sewers, crypts, and the like. She tapped her feet gently against the wet ground, adding a simple charm for sleep into her barrier, should the monster attack again.

Not that she had to worry. Rosalie, silent as ever, charged from the side with her shield held high. The impact made a wet splat, and her foe flew a good distance before rolling to a stop. She roared, thundering after it, and bringing her great-maul around in a savage arc. The beast sprang away, barely avoiding a blow that shook the ground.

"Merry!" she yelled as claws screeched across her shield. Her answer was the sound of trumpets, and a ghostly knight on horseback charging between Rosalie and the slavering beast. The next blow struck true as it recoiled, eliciting a hideous moan as the monster tumbled across the ground. It twitched weakly, snapping and spitting as it began to slink down the tunnel. Rosalie followed, determined to finish this then and there, but wary all the same. The air shimmered around her, and with the sound of rusted chains dragging along the floor, the image of a giant's club wreathed with skulls and nails formed around her maul. The points gouged furrows in the ceiling, and deep, ominous drumbeats echoed with the pull of the chains as she moved. With a burst of speed, she closed the gap between her and her prey, sending the great-maul whistling through the air.

She barely managed to change its course, ripping a troll-sized gash in the sewer wall. The flash of a blade in the darkness just reached her eyes as she spun, the monster letting out a wet gurgle as twin swords hewed through its neck. They fell again and again, hacking the body to pieces while it spasmed.

"Ha! Ugly bastard!" Sarah crowed triumphantly, putting a foot on its back to heave one of her swords free. "And you said you didn't want to split up." She whistled cheerily, kicking the corpse once more for good measure.

"Yes," Rosalie said, shaking the rubble off her maul. "Where would we be without you bursting unannounced from the dark in the middle of a fight?"

"Still swinging at air, I'd bet." She patted Rosalie's cheek, smirking at the wall. "If you're going to insist on using that thing, we really need to work on your aim. Sing me out, will you?" she tossed at Merry, with a rogueish wink. A playful drumbeat amidst the low strums of a guitar followed the sellsword as she strutted away. Merry gave Rosalie an apologetic shrug, following quickly – but not so quickly that Rosalie didn't see the smile blooming on her face. Sighing, she grabbed the monster's head for identification. At the very least, this little side-step was finished.

Rosalie heaved herself up from the sewers, bag in hand with their proof. She glanced about as her companions made their way to the surface, but no one paid any attention to the strange women. In fact, many averted their eyes, and gave them a wide berth - it wouldn't do to draw the ire of an armored warrior with a bag that wept strange blood. Sarah grunted as Merry helped her out of the sewer.

"What're you waiting for?" she asked Rosalie, wrinkling her nose as she realized how filthy her armor was.

"Courtesy dictates you wait for others," she responded, resting her weapon on a shoulder. "Not run off to the nearest tavern to begin a celebration."

"Not that you could in your armor," she snorted. "Step lively. Sooner we're on the road the better."

Rosalie's eye twitched as Sarah strutted off. Merry was quick on her heels, tugging Rosalie along with a bright smile that couldn't help but be contagious. It soon faded, however, when only a few streets away they found a mass of people crowding around a storefront. A faded sign above the window revealed it to be a tanner's shop - Elan's Immaculate Creations in Leather looped across the wood in gold letters. Underneath, several guardsmen stood with dour expressions, keeping the throngs of humanity at bay, if not actually moving along. Merry pulled Sarah to an irritated stop near the back; her eyes met Rosalie's, darting to the store meaningfully.

"...Adol yet?" someone murmured in the crowd.

"No, the boy’s still home. The guard dispatched a runner to let him know about..."

"Ah...Hopefully it'll reach him in time." The speaker shook their balding head forlornly. "No one should have to stumble in on this."

Rosalie kept listening, but the crowd was frustratingly vague as to what, exactly, had happened. After a little while of trying to sort out details from the generic sorrow of passers-by, she became aware of Sarah standing impatiently at her shoulder.

"Imagine my surprise when I turned around to find the two of you half a city back," she muttered. "Please don't drag me into another freelance."

"Merry needs us to create a distraction." Rosalie's lips curled into a smile when Sarah's teeth clicked. Searching quickly, she just barely caught a flash of white before it disappeared into the alleys that, presumably, led behind the tanner.

"Right," Sarah said, stretching her neck. "Who started it last time?"

Merry slid along the shadows, peering around a corner. She ducked back at the sight of guards still at the back door, but she didn't have to wait long. The sound of a fight breaking out in the crowd echoed off the walls, drawing the serious-faced men away from the doors and windows. Several grumbled as they loped away, hands already on their sword hilts, but their relief at being away from the tanner was palpable. Of course, they still had the foresight to lock the door before they left, she realized with a sigh.

The lock was beautiful and free from tarnish, set into a door that fairly hummed with enchantment. The owners had clearly spared no expense - the hexagonal keyhole needed a custom ring, and anyone who attempted to pick it would be in for a painful surprise.

The mechanism clicked softly as Merry's song floated through it. She strode through fearlessly - Her comrades were accustomed to drawing attention when it suited them. The smell of death was thick in the air; blood soaked through the cloaks that had been lain across a pair of bodies. The night's violence, however, was clearly painted in the dark red smears on the floor, and sprays across the work tables. Handprints could be seen where someone had tried to crawl away - and been dragged back.

A muted cry to "Cease this madness!" focused her. There was only so much time for her investigation. Holding her breath, she lifted the first cloak.

"What...What..."

Rosalie and Sarah had escaped the guards easily enough, who didn't truly wish to chase an armored warrior and her insane companion. The women stopped brawling soon as they heard Merry's drumbeats in their ears. They followed the sound through winding alleyways, until finally reaching Merry. The golden, musical soldier of Warrior's Lament stood by, carefully depositing a body on the ground, before vanishing.

It looked like a gentleman dressed for a night at a theater - if they had starved themselves on the rack first. Too-long arms tipped with yellow, curved nails painted with blood stretched past its knees; almost emaciated, its face seemed to leer at the world, its eyes sunken and bloodshot. Merry grinned madly, pressing the sides of its face, forcing the jaw to flop open to the chest. Rows of tiny, needle-sharp teeth gleamed in the light.

"No wonder the guards were so nervous," Rosalie said, batting Merry's hands away from the horror's face.

"This too." Merry held up a broken crossbow bolt. "One managed to get a lucky shot off before they got gobbled."

"Stinks of grave dirt," Sarah broke in, nudging the monster with a sword. "Big city like this, makes sense they'd have restless dead." She grinned suddenly. "D'ya want to bring the guards in on this? How many you think will find themselves too ‘sick’ to join us?"

Her smile faded when Rosalie only stared at the body. Almost unnoticed, she rubbed a twinging, old scar through the breastplate, and turned away. The others jumped after her as she stalked out of the alley, rigid with anger.

"We're leaving, soon as we're paid for the... thing in the sewers," Rosalie said, nearly four streets later.

"What, really?" Sarah shouted, trying to keep up. She smiled nervously, but gave up as she tried to follow the reasoning. "Why?"

"We were hired for one creature," she snapped, "The appearance of another smacks of either foolish assumptions, or uncomfortable secrets. It's not worth risking our lives fig - What's Khonwen doing over here?"

Rosalie followed Merry's curious gaze to a makeshift table down the road. There, the servant sat with a young man, who was stirring something in a bowl listlessly. Clean-shaven with his hair tied in a topknot, he had a soft, friendly face that looked like any other day it’d break into a smile for the smallest reason. Khonwen was leaning forward, saying something that brought a tiny bit of life to the man's face. It didn't last long though, and he returned to swirling his food about, and staring into the bowl. Khonwen's face was pained, and he absently stroked the gilded shark's tooth token about his wrist, murmuring something with his head bowed. A few moments later, he placed a small figurine by the man’s hands, and left him to his food. Khonwen rubbed his face wearily; he saw the hunters down the street when he was done, looking as though he had aged half a lifetime since they last saw him. His feet shuffled in the dirt, and he seemed as though he would rather be anywhere but in front of them. Despite that, he nodded in greeting, retrieving a small envelope from a pocket.

"I've heard of your success," he said, presenting it to Rosalie. "Congratulations, and our thanks, are in order. Word travels quickly when three strangers emerge from the sewers with a monster's head," he added, offering a tight smile. "I hope none of you were injured in the struggle."

"No, we were fortunate," Rosalie assured him, taking the envelope from him – a promissory note with Villago's house crest stamped heavily into the wax. She tucked the musty-smelling paper away carefully in a hidden pocket inside her armor. "Especially given that we went hunting uninformed there were multiple creatures hounding your city, and we had competition as well. Hopefully whoever killed the one at the tanner’s was as fortunate as us."

Khonwen's tensing, however slight, told her far more than his face, which remained collected as ever. "There had been concerns that you would be...opportunistic - "

"How's that better than 'greedy'?" Sarah muttered.

" - Had you known of the full extent of our problem," he finished, gently caressing the shark's tooth hanging from his wrist.. "For all of their strengths, my master, and those like him, do tend to be self-absorbed." Khonwen nodded his head at Sarah slightly. "To them, this is something for the guard – until it isn't."

"Well, you can tell them that it once again falls on the guards' shoulders," Rosalie said stiffly. "Assuming no-one wishes to keep us on, we'll be leaving soon as we can."

"Understood," Khonwen said, bowing his head. "It was good of you to take as much time from your travels as you did. If I may, though," he said, a thoughtful look on his face. "Take the east gate when you leave. It adds to your journey, but it's by far the busiest route. Given recent events, safety in numbers is never to be brushed aside."

"Thank you," Rosalie said, taking his hand. "Hopefully this all finds an end soon."

"I'm sure it will," he said, nodding to her companions as well. "One way or the other."

The sun had vanished several miles back, and the plethora of other travelers Khonwen alluded to had yet to be seen. Oh, the eastern gate had been plenty busy, taking most of the day simply to leave the city. However, once they left sight of Grislain, people became outnumbered by the mice that darted between the bushes, and the plump, flightless birds that chased them with a strange, warbling call. Most of their fellow travelers had broken from the main road the first chance they had, hurrying away with fearful glances back at the strange trio who continued steadfastly onward.

"This road is strange," Sarah griped, rubbing her shoulders against a sudden wind.

"The songs are sad and low," Merry said, which Sarah took as an agreement.

"And here I was, enjoying the road being quiet," Rosalie said, not bothering to turn around. In truth, she was just as much on edge as the others. On either side the grass and trees grew tall enough to hide danger of any size or number; the omnipresent rustling as the wind blew them this way and that didn't help either. The worst thing though, was during the few moments of quiet – quiet when she could hear the lack of crickets, the absence of hooting owls, or anything else the land should have. The thick clouds rolling across the sky, ominously keeping pace with them, didn't ease her; this far into the forest, they had to make do with the occasional beam of moonlight. The rest of the time, it was slow-going without so much as a torch, lest they wanted to attract the wrong sort of attention.

"Oi."

Rosalie turned to see Sarah offering her a small, clear bead. The sellsword was clearly already rolling one in her mouth, and from the fresh spring in Merry's step, she was enjoying one as well.

"Don't know about you, but I'd rather not make camp anytime soon," Sarah said.

Rosalie hesitated. The bead would keep her awake and alert for a solid day, but afterward she would sleep like the dead. The sound of something moving through the brush – the first that she'd heard the entire night – made her decision for her, and she popped it quickly into her mouth.

"We'll camp when we reach some place with four walls and a roof," Rosalie joked half-heartedly. Sarah smiled grimly, seeing her friend shrug her massive shield onto her arm. Following suit, she pulled out a blade, letting it rest on her shoulder. She beckoned Merry close, feeling better with her in reach. A sudden gust carrying the cloying scent of rot didn't calm her nerves, and she nearly put her sword through Rosalie's back.

They had come to a crossroads – or what was left of one. Signs pointing further down the road for D'Laq, for Greenmeadows, for Aeon's Rest, were all plain to see, if a tad weather-beaten. A broken sign – the one that would have pointed down the overgrown trail leading towards the smell of death – was telling in its absence. Rosalie stared into the forest, every part of her itching to take them away - and found herself drawing her great-maul, and striding along the forgotten path.

"...Why?" Sarah hissed.

"The feeling Khonwen wasn't just being helpful when he suggested this route," she answered softly. "And I hate leaving things half-done."

Thick, black clouds concealed the moon, leaving only trifling glimpses of light to the three hunters. It was made worse by the path – the cobblestones under their feet, and tall, winding iron gates worked into artful designs gave the impression of wealth and care, but that had been long ago. Now, the décor was little more than debris, the stones having been shattered, with opportunistic weeds springing from the cracks, and the gates scattered into the forest. Nevertheless, this mausoleum of some forgotten family was imposing. Rosalie thought the atmosphere might have more to do with the almost palpable sense of dread issuing from the skeletal roof and sundered walls. The moon graced them with a stray beam, revealing twin pillars standing tall to hold up the memory of a ceiling, the faces of long-dead family worked into the stone.

Rosalie stopped at the foot of the stairs, dropping to one knee, breathing slowly in the unnatural silence. Her shield scraped the stones slightly as she adjusted her helm, and peered into the night. The stairs were wide enough to let an army of mourners pass into the hall easily, but had been reduced to rubble. A broken line of sight inside gave her pause - anyone with half a thought could set an ambush...

She sighed, and rubbed her head at the sound of Sarah coughing and hacking behind her.

"Bit of dust." She smiled as she spat up the last of it, though her nervousness showed when she touched the buckles of her armor, made sure her hair was still in its bun, that her short-swords were hanging by her side. Still, she rolled her eyes as she dropped into a crouch. "Is there a plan?"

"Same as it always is." Rosalie reached behind her to where Merry had slunk. The songweaver pressed a vial into her hand, filled with thick, black paste. The magic stung her eyes when she rubbed it under them, but faded as the darkness fell away like the sun was shining down. Sarah grimaced as she accepted the vial, rubbing it under her eyes as well.

"I hate this," she grumbled. "Why doesn't Merry have to wear it?"

The woman's only response was to stick out her tongue, before closing her eyes, and turning towards the stairs. She hid a smile by tucking a few strands of hair back under her hood, but was otherwise still.

"The front is still the best path for us," Roaslie said, ignoring the complaint. "Keep close. Keep alert. Neither of you go off from the group, Sarah, no matter what you see. Understood?"

"Lift one ring, and you never hear the end of it..."

Rosalie hefted her great-maul in one hand, the other bringing her shield to bear. "What was that?"

"I bloody well heard you," Sarah snapped, drawing her blades, and falling back a few steps to make room for Merry, who had begun to hum quietly. She flourished her swords in a nervous habit, warming herself up for the fight that was no doubt in store.

Sarah slid quietly across the broken floor, grateful to at least be inside. Here, at least, the mausoleum was – oh, who in the Nine was she kidding? If anything the wind moaning through the cracks in the walls and the now complete absence of moonlight made it even less welcoming. Every so often, rodents or night birds would skitter or flutter through the nooks and crannies, keeping her on edge. She cursed when her foot found a loose stone, and just barely kept her balance. How the inside was worse than the outside, she couldn't fathom. Sarah made the "all fine" signal to Rosalie, who had shifted towards her, the colossal maul rising for a fight.

Any signs? Sarah signalled awkwardly, still clenching her swords. The others shrugged, and turned back to their own search. A sympathetic grin passed over her face when Merry sucked in a breath, and clamped her sleeve over her mouth. Where the outdoors had smelled musty as they grew closer, it was at least fresh air. Here, though, the stench of the long-dead was so strong that it threatened to overwhelm.

Against her better judgment, she sheathed one of her swords, and gently began moving aside various bits of debris. Here and there she found mostly-burned candles, bowls for the burning of remembrances - so tarnished they were brown - and the occasional scrap of clothing torn from a corpse.

Wait, what?

Heaving on a piece of shattered coffin lid, she felt her bile rise at the grisly revelation. The body of a man (what remained of it, at least) was splayed underneath. Most of his clothes had been torn away, and what remained were brittle with old blood. Sarah chucked a pebble at Merry and Rosalie, beckoning them closer. Merry made a ward against evil when she saw the body; Rosalie simply opted to heft her shield a little higher, and scan the darkness.

"Ugh!"

Rosalie glanced at Sarah, annoyed, to see she had continued exploring. Another corpse had been jammed into a space where a coffin might have rested in the wall, a bracelet dangling from its shattered wrist. Dread crept up on her when Sarah moved to the next empty space, though thankfully she only nodded, rather than pulling whatever was in there into the light. They crept sideways as best they could, growing more unnerved with each discovery. Sarah finally stopped after a dozen, silently estimating as she fully realized the size of the mausoleum.

"Some had a lot more than one in there. I think it's safe to say this is lair sweet lair," Sarah whispered. "Now what? We wait for them to come back from dinner?"

Sarah was about to answer when Merry tensed, the sound of drums booming from her as she wove.

Above them, the noise of unseen things skittering through the shadows reached their ears. Rosalie brought her shield up just as something gaunt with four claws too many dropped from its hiding place. Her grunt was lost in its rasping snarl as it tried to reach around and rend her face. Sarah was quicker though, lunging forward and slicing the head from its shoulders. Unnervingly enough, the body still thrashed on the floor until Rosalie's maul finished it with a quaking blow.

"Ugh." Sarah flicked bits off her blade. "Think that's - " She froze when the great-maul sang a finger from her head. A monster with ribs opened like a gaping maw squealed as it was smashed back into whatever bit of earth it had crawled from. The quip died on her lips as she spun, hacking something to pieces as it slid from the rubble. More cries of the undead echoed around them amidst the sound of claws and decaying feet against the ground. She didn't realize how chilling it was until she nearly ran Merry through when she took her usual place between her and Rosalie.

Calm returned as the song began, wrapping Merry in a dim, silver light. As the haunting melody rose, thorny, ephemeral underbrush pushed through the dirt, knotting around itself and whatever else it could find, until it was high as their chests. Even their weapons weren't immune, wrapped in thorns long as a man's hand. She smiled manically at the sight; it was amazing what oversized spikes sprouting from your weapons could do for confidence.

"Arms up," Rosalie hissed, as a foe who was more mouth and belly than anything else slouched through the thorns. The terrible wounds it received for its efforts didn't slow it much. "This is going to be interesting."

Merry drank greedily from the waterskin, in-between bites of jerky, shaking as she did. Singing like that always took a lot out of her. At some point someone had wrapped a cloak around her shoulders, and she pulled it tighter, resting her head in the folds. Footsteps, almost silent despite the remains on the ground, made her look up. Rosalie towered over her, ichor and bone dust coating her armor.

"Just... Still tired," she managed weakly. "Anything else?" Rosalie shook her head, and she relaxed a bit more.

"Oi!"

They both jumped when Sarah came charging out of the next room, stumbling over the shattered bodies. Rosalie caught her when her foot slipped, saving her from a face-full of grave dirt.

"Nice catch," she said, patting Rosalie's arm. "C'mon. Stop sleeping, and help me search."

Her companions followed swiftly as they could, while keeping wary eyes on the shadows. They found Sarah tapping her foot impatiently at the door to a side chamber. The door had rotted away long ago, and what lay beyond looked like it might have been a chamber for a single coffin. It was still used for that purpose, in a manner of speaking – gnawed, bloody bones, torn clothes, and traveling supplies were scattered about the room. Other rooms nearby had similarly grisly contents. After four, Sarah finally ran out of flippancy, and leaned against a wall.

"Job's certainly finished now." She gave a sick smile to the others, trying not to guess at the number of victims. Rosalie and Merry gathered her under the arms, and slowly made their way to the entrance.

"Finished for us, anyway," Rosalie assured her. "We'll send a messenger back to let – hells, Merry!"

Sarah slipped to one side when Merry stopped, cocking her head this way and that. Without a word, she began scrabbling at a bit of the wall behind a moth-worn tapestry. Her companions didn't ask, only slipped back into their familiar stances as she explored. Finally, a click, and a rumble from the next room. Thankfully, nothing new made an appearance from the hidden staircase. Even the smell was the same, though it was enough to dash any hopes that it had simply been a smuggler's cache. The steps were, compared to the rest of the crypt, pristine. As they descended, it seemed like they were almost cared for.

It was not a pleasant thought, of what might actually be doing so. Merry began to hum strongly, greenish witchfire blossoming over her hands and up her arms. Several orbs floated off on their own, flooding the basement with light like tiny, plump moons. They all breathed sighs of relief when they found the bottom, and nothing lay in wait. Then Merry increased the light, and they almost wished she hadn’t.

Stacked in neat, dreadful towers as far as they could see, were boots, shirts, bags of every size and sort, belts, and grand hats, all old, but serviceable. Or not, they quickly found. A closer look revealed tears and holes in almost everything; what first seemed like mud and rust turned out to be dried blood. Trunks were placed further in, filled with enough jewelry to buy a modest kingdom, and nearby, heavy steel padlocks waited to be affixed. On the back of each, was a horribly familiar sigil of an orange eagle with thorned wings.

"Don't suppose we can blame this on the nest upstairs." Sarah slid one of the blades back in its sheath, trying to count a nearby pile of trousers. "Maybe House Villago is just a nice, wholesome smuggling house?"

"His family's been preying on travelers for years," Rosalie said, in cold realization. "Cleaning and selling whatever they had on them. He probably thought we'd take care of the more impulsive monsters, and everyone would go back to blissful ignorance."

"Yeah, I sort of figured that out," Sarah muttered. "Sorry, unfathomable evil makes me uncomfortable. Merry, is there anything else down here?"

She had been roaming the piles, oddly quiet. Usually even in the most dour of settings they could still count on at least a tune coming from the songweaver, but only hesitant footsteps reached their ears. Her face was haggard when she came into view, still counting under her breath.

"No."

Rosalie nodded, loping towards the staircase. Sarah gently pushed Merry's shoulders, nudging her to follow. She sighed, trying to put the stacks out of her mind, and rubbed her face. It was impossible they had been paid enough for this.

House Villago was just as quietly imposing as it had been the first time they had visited. The presence of a lush, sprawling garden in front was enough to set the three-story home apart from most other houses. Not that you could see any others – it seemed the citizens on the outskirts of the city preferred their privacy, and each building was far enough apart that even arrows would find the journey difficult.

Oddly enough, despite the obvious wealth, no guards could be seen anywhere. Not that it would take many would-be thieves disappearing for word to spread, Sarah thought grimly, sliding past a crystal archway that dripped with ivy. Still, not even Merry's sight detected anything; other nearby homes were less confident, it seemed, fairly glowing with protective magics, making House Villago stand out even more.

"I don't like this."

Rosalie gave Sarah a ghastly smile. "You never like anything I want to do. Isn't this exciting?"

"Excitement is overrated," Sarah muttered.

Rosalie's retort was drowned out by the sound of Merry pushing herself up into a now-unlocked window, and into the house. Her companions fairly tumbled in after her, swinging it shut behind them. Merry gave them a disapproving glance as she steadied an expensive-looking bust.

"You were taking too long." With that, she started off down the pitch-black hallway, pausing every so often to make sure an alarm hadn't been nestled away behind a painting, or underneath the garish purple-and-gold swirling patterns on the walls. It wasn't long before Rosalie and Sarah figured out why she had chosen this direction – the smell of cooking meat wafted towards them, making Sarah's belly rumbled happily. It was silenced quickly at the reminder of what animal that meat had probably come from. A song, not from Merry as they were accustomed, trailed from the kitchen, low, and cheerful. The cook's shadow on the wall seemed to dance along with it; Rosalie held her weapon ready, and was happy to see Sarah had her own out as well. Silent, she slunk into the room.

Estil Villago, to her surprise, stood in the kitchen in a loose robe, his hair dangling free about his shoulders. Stirring something in a pot over a small fire, he was oblivious to their entrance. Rosalie hefted the great-maul, intent on ending the fight before it began. She let out the softest grunt as she prepared to swing – and that was all the warning Villago needed.

Her strike obliterated the fire, sending coals and meat across the floor. The house's patriarch skittered away on all fours; when he faced them, the handsome face was gone. Something dead and hungry stared at them, tongue lolling out of an impossibly-wide mouth. Rows upon rows of teeth undulated deep in his throat, his limbs stretching to impossible lengths.

He was aggravatingly nimble, leaping away as the next blow left a crater in the floor. Escaping from the onslaught was made difficult by Sarah's blades, whirling about to keep him in the room. Villago screeched as a hand was lopped off when he tried to eviscerate the swordswoman. Sarah kept herself steady, allowing herself no celebration; her swords kept a steady pace of parry, feint, and thrust. She wasn't intent on the kill herself, but more on keeping him in one place. It was proving to be an annoying task, like trying to smash a single blade of grass in a windstorm.

Sulfur filled their noses, and they threw themselves away from Villago. He flailed backwards as the fire washed over him, screaming and tearing at what remained of his clothes and flesh. Merry stood behind him, bellowing forth flames from her mouth; the floor shuddered with the tempo, until she stood back, shaking from the exertion. Rosalie was more than happy to take advantage of Villago's distracted mind – tile flew everywhere when the maul fell, mixed with gore. Rosalie shook it best she could from her weapon, grimacing in disgust. She snorted when Sarah recoiled from the meat that had been cooking, cursing and flourishing her swords.

"I don't know what I expected," she admitted, helping Merry up.

"As long as you're expecting more of it." Rosalie shouldered the maul, and peered around the corner. "He mentioned having boys. Odds are he's got a wife as well."

"What priest would marry flesh-eating monsters?"

"Piedmont Grove," Merry whispered, strength returning to her limbs.

"Ugh." Sarah wrinkled her nose. "I'd forgotten about that one. Thank you for reminding me."

They were shushed by a gesture from Rosalie. They followed her through the kitchen, and into a servant's corridor. Though it was only a dozen paces at most, being so cramped did nothing for them. Caution stayed with them despite it, and Sarah peered through the keyhole before pushing into the room.

Shelves thrice as tall as Rosalie were filled with books neat as the day they had been bought. Around the room, lamps sat next to plush, comfortable chairs, or fine, oak tables that had game boards built into their surfaces. The air smelled of paper and pipe smoke, and in any other home, it would have been wonderfully luxurious. When Merry gave in to curiosity though, and pulled a book off the shelf, she found it blank.

"Guess they're not voracious readers," Sarah joked, earning her a look from Rosalie.

"Oh..." Merry said quietly. She held up one of the largest books Sarah had ever seen – a collection of tales from the bard Donwell Solomado; her eyes were disappointed as she opened it to reveal that it, too, was blank.

"I'm sure we can find it from - down!"

Sarah shoved Merry to the ground as something flew towards them. Rosalie kept it from them, shattering the airborne table with an almost lazy backhand.

"This is why we don't talk!" she chastised them, grunting as a chair rebounded off her shield. She dug her heels in as the attacker charged her, slamming and grappling her shield. Massive claws yanked her off balance, trying to tear away her defenses. In response, she rammed her helmeted skull into where she expected its face to be. It roared, and she saw a gaping maw dive towards her, stopping only when she jammed the shield inside it. Rosalie swung her maul as quickly as she could, keeping oversized hands from finding purchase on her armor. Something landed on her back, using her as a springboard, and her assailant squealed, falling back.

Sarah's blades were lit with silver fire, flickering this way and that. Though her foe was easily twice her size, a grotesquerie of muscles and thick, clumsy limbs, the swordswoman drove it back fearlessly. She rolled over a table, leading its attention away from the others with feints and taunts.

Rosalie gathered herself, carefully resting her shield on the floor. She glanced back at Merry, whose fingers twitched and danced in the air.

"If you’d be so kind," she pleaded, gripping the maul with both hands. Rosalie sucked in a breath, and charged. Leaping, she felt the wings of Merry's song lift her to the ceiling, and drop her – and the maul, now glowing with power like a star – onto the monster's back.

It was quite possibly the most disgusting thing she'd ever done. She had expected some sort of resistance, possibly even that it might continue fighting afterwards. Smashing its bulbous head like an overripe pumpkin, its flesh boiling and melting away from the maul as she fell had not been in her mind. Rosalie grunted when she landed, what remained of the creature twitching feebly next to her. Sarah trotted to her to slap her on the back in celebration, and thought better of it when she saw how badly she had been covered.

"Are you finally going to buy some new armor?"

"Their 'children' are probably upstairs," Rosalie said, wiping futilely at her armor, and ignoring Sarah. They both jumped when the body sighed, deflating into a nauseating puddle of muck. "We'll catch our breath, and look for the others."

The sound of footsteps above trickled down to them. They started as an innocent pitter-patter, suited to children, or household pets; they disappeared suddenly, though Merry swore she could hear the faint sound of laughter through the ceiling.

"Ominous," Sarah muttered. "So...Plan?"

Rosalie looked to the stairs, and clicked her teeth.

"I wish you had this plan more often."

Rosalie smiled wearily at Sarah, who leaned against a tree, admiring the roaring blaze that was swiftly consuming the Villago estate. They had blocked off the stairwells and whatever cellar entrances they could find with plenty of kindling. With any luck, anything left inside would be forced out the upper windows. Merry slumped against a bench, tapping a steady beat as she stared at the burning house. Even if the rest of Villago's "family" escaped some other way, she would see them quickly enough.

Sarah was oddly giddy, tapping the pommels of her swords. "We could invite people, have them bring meat to roast. We already have music," she added, nodding at Merry. "It'd be grand!"

"We could advertise," Rosalie smirked. "'Nothing tastes sweeter than victory – We slay your monsters, and your hunger'."

"Brilliant." They chuckled softly, taking care not to bother Merry's focus. Sarah rubbed her eyes, looking to the sky, where dawn was still horrendously far off. "How much longer?"

"Long as we have to."

Sarah sighed, and resumed searching the roaring flames for movement. Not that she needed to – soon enough a window exploded outward, something falling heavily to the ground, wreathed in flames. Without pause, it charged at the hunters with a strange, stumbling gait. That it seemed to be two bodies fused into one kept it at a brisk, three-legged walk, but the faces held twin masks of hate, flowing horribly into one another. Whatever it was screamed at them with two voices, making their hair stand on end. Worse, as it grew closer, so did its mouth stretch, seemingly forever, until most of its head was a gasping hole; its hands tore at the air, eager to find them, and tear them apart.

It didn't make it.

A dozen paces away, it dropped as though hit from behind. Not even a spasm shook its body – one moment it was determined to devour the lot of them, the next, a rotting mass of flesh on the ground.

Several guards stood nearby, pulling their hoods back to stare at the conflagration. One held his crossbow with shaking hands, his eyes wide and frightened as the monster convulsed in front of him. Strangely, none of them ran for help with the inferno, instead eyeing the corpse warily. Rosalie approached them, resting the maul on her shoulders.

"You, hunter!" A guard with thick sideburns, and a ruddy nose strode up to her, hand almost resting on his sword. "What happened here?"

"Khonwen, on behalf of Houses Villago and Lavelle, hired us to exterminate a nest of monsters plaguing your city. Unfortunately, a few managed to enter the Villago household, and in the ensuing fight..." She shrugged, and stared at the house. A section of the roof finally gave way with a sharp crack, and roar of refreshed flames.

"We will have to confirm this," the guard said. "You will all come with me, until this is sorted out."

Rosalie said nothing. Instead, she backed away softly, the faint sound of flutes in her ears. The guard continued to speak to the air harshly, even after she'd returned to her companions.

"How long will the magic last?" she asked Merry. The woman looked up from a few baubles she's taken while setting the fire, and smiled mischievously.

"Should fade by daybreak."

Rosalie grinned, and turned to see Sarah already striding quickly back towards the road.

"*Now* can we take a rest?" she asked Rosalie wearily as she caught up.

"Yes," she said, smiling tiredly as she looked back at the burning house. "I'd say we're certainly due."

© Stephen Heuser 2017 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 19:11 Wed 22 Feb 2017
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