Henry patted down the pocket of the gate guard in a friendly manner. Feeling the shape of the crystal he had inserted there, the soldier saluted smartly and resumed his patrol, certainly not seeing a high-ranking Mage entering a restricted area.
The descent into the cellar led to a sloping set of stone stairs carved from volcanic rhyolite, the old bedrock of the city, and it led into the uncertain darkness.
“Sufina,” Henry called, and the Dryad materialised beside him.
“Liz is down here?” She asked.
Henry had always refrained from summoning Sufina while Elizabeth was present. Though they are both dear to Henry, the two of them shared an antagonistic relationship. Sufina loathed supplying Elizabeth with her vitality, performing her duty only to protect and please Henry. Elizabeth did not like the way the Dryad acted possessively over her husband.
“What do you think she’s doing here?”
“Looking for vintage wine… I hope… ” Henry replied. “Let’s go.”
The cellar was extensive, spreading from the Rácz Gate to the Hatvan Gate, spanning over four kilometres. Toward the cross-road section lay the most impressive part of its medieval architecture, a seven by seven bisect of pillars. As a result, the chess table shadows cast by the lights made the intersection impossible to navigate by sight.
Sufina tracked the surroundings carefully, possessing a natural talent for finding signs of human passage.
“Here, this way…”
They arrived at a flooded section. A knee-deep layer of water permeated the ancient stonework.
“Are you certain?”
Henry stepped over the stale water as though it were flat ground. He made it to the other side, then brought over Sufina with her Faery Lights. The signs of human passage were now visible; there were splotches of water here and there. Further in, he found a pair of abandoned sandals, too caked with dirt and mud to be useful. They belonged to his wife. He was close.
The duo proceeded down an unexcavated corridor for half a kilometre, finally arriving at a junction.
Sufina tasted the atmosphere for the scent of sweat and human odour. Elizabeth was fond of sweet and fruity perfumes.
“Aaaeeeeeaegh!” A cry resonated through the tunnels, a female voice, hysterical with pain and panic.
“That way…” Sufina stated worriedly. Henry was moving before she had even finished.
“Long Stride!” The Magister intoned, suddenly moving like a man shot from a ballista. Sufina followed, extending her legs to match Henry’s supernatural speed.
They arrived at a chamber well lit by low candles, hundreds of them forming a cathedral. It looked to be an old shrine: the ceiling was arched, the chamber's sides carved from the volcanic rock. His wife was there, but she was not alone. It was apparent by now that Elizabeth was not seeking out lost caskets of Hungarian Merlot.
“Lizzy… “ Henry sucked in his breath, swallowing nervously, his hands trembling as he spoke. “What… what are you doing?”
Elizabeth was arm-deep inside the poor lass, her elbow protruding from a cavity just below her chest. She had a maniacal look in her eye, the very same look that Henry had seen on her face in the heat of battle, her pupils were dilated, pushing apart the baby blue of her iris. Her expression was euphoric, as though she was in the midst of a pleasant midsummer dream. A pool of gore had collected underneath her, staining her white dress a deep carmine, the tulip edge had been tainted garnet, turning the chiffon into bloody gauze.
The woman, a stranger, looked at Henry with pleading eyes.
Elizabeth tilted her head, her pupils retracting as they focused on her husband. Coyly, she put on the expression of a naughty little girl caught taking extra candy from the jar. With agonising slowness, she withdrew her hand, sliding it from the gasping girl as if drawing a sword from a bloody sheath.
The dryad shot towards Elizabeth and caught the girl, injecting a jolt of positive energy. The girl gasped, her eyes glazed over with a moment of hope, then laid still. Sufina looked up angrily at Elizabeth before turning to Henry, shaking her head slightly.
“Elizabeth… answer me. What are you doing here? Why-why this?”
Elizabeth looked as though she wanted to think of an excuse - but ultimately couldn’t summon the mental effort to do so.
“I was hungry,” she confessed quietly, her voice wet with desire in the darkness. “The desserts weren’t enough, Henry. You should have brought extra servings.”
“You’re not yourself,” Henry carefully moved toward her. “Who's... the girl?”
Elizabeth didn’t answer him. Instead, she lifted her dress and wiped her arm with the hem. It did nothing, for the blood was well congealed, set deep into the creases of her elbow, her fingers, the space between her nails.
“Do you hate me now? Henry?”
“How can I?” Henry said earnestly. “You need help.”
“Do I?” Elizabeth lifted her arms above her head elegantly, spinning on her back foot and moving towards Henry like a red-rimmed flower. There was something dangerously sensual about her.
“We’ll get you help…” Henry caught Elizabeth as she spun into his arms.
“Only if you kiss me,” she said, her lips parting.
Henry held his wife and felt his heart bleed all over. His mind was blank. For once in his life, he had no idea what to do. He had thought her getting better, healing, moving away from war. She was happy at the vineyard, wasn’t she? Didn’t they have a slice of paradise there? Wasn’t that enough?
He leaned in to kiss her. What could he do? He would have to get her help. Perhaps an asylum? No. Mayhap his old contacts at the Lyceum in Greece could help her. They had the world’s best healers there, surely somebody would know.
Sufina’s cry jolted him from the lulling kiss. Henry felt a sharp pain entering his chest, easily bypassing his ribs and cutting into his lungs. Instantly, his body grew cold, all warmth stifled by the hand that now grasped his heart. He coughed - arterial blood sprayed from his lips, speckling Elizabeth’s white face with crimson blossoms.
Sufina transformed into her battle form. Her smooth wooden skin turned cruel with barbs and thorns, her face growing grotesque with a feral madness. Tendrils of ironwood formed into deadly arrows.
Elizabeth spun, still holding Henry, a rag-doll shield propped against Sufina’s retaliation. Immediately, the tendrils turned to soft vines, wrapping around Henry’s arms and legs, pulling him away from Elizabeth.
There was a sound of flesh tearing.
Sufina poured her life-force into its Master, though the Magister's world had already grown dark.
“Master…” Gwen felt her heart jolt when Henry stopped his story to take yet another sip of Sufina’s mead.
“I am not Undead if that’s what you’re thinking,” Henry spoke with a tone of understated mirth. “I survived thanks to Sufina.”
Gwen shifted her attention to Sufina, her bark-like skin alternatively dark olive with light pine highlights, her face an exquisite art sculpture.
“Are you tired, Henry?” Sufina enquired worriedly.
“It’s fine… it’s fine. There’s a little more of the tale to go.”
The Magister continued.
“When I came to, I had no idea what to do. Was Elizabeth glamoured? Was she taken over by some treacherous spirit? How could my wife, the woman I loved, turn into such a monster? As I made my way through that cellar, I found more … evidence of her work. She had been taking people down here: mostly young Mages, sometimes NoMs. Mostly women, a few young men…”
“I had to find Elizabeth quickly. God knows what she was up to, what she could be doing in that state of mind. I called in help. There were only three other people in the world who knew the truth in its entirety, who cared enough about Elizabeth to want to help me save her…”
Henry surveyed the gathering around him.
Mark shot him a half-smile from behind the still shimmering Death’s Orb.
Agnes took on an expression of melancholy.
Surya crossed his arms and stared into the middle distance.
Gwen and Debora held one another's hands, their chests rising and falling arrhythmically.
“It took a few days to gather them. Thankfully, Elizabeth hadn’t gotten far. I pursued her each time she tried to rest, wearing her out, hoping she would come to her senses. The old party and I tracked Elizabeth across half of Hungary to Gyula, near the Romanian Border. Her killings went unabated the entire time, and she was beginning to earn a name for herself: 'The Bloody Countess'. Here was the old country; the peasantry was still superstitious. We were lucky that they had thought her a Nosferatu, a vampyre; for the alternative would have made things much more complicated.”
“We followed her bloody crumbs… She was becoming insatiable. There was only one death in the first town we reached, by the tenth, it was by scores of five or six, sometimes grotesquely arranged in some horrid ritual. We trudged on, Mark using a combination of Divination and Scry to try to locate where she could be, where she headed.”
“Finally… we found her by the Gyulai vár, the abandoned castle…”
Mark staggered against the wall, one hand placed over his left eye. A trickle of blood appeared between his fingers.
“Mark!” Agnes touched his convulsing shoulders. The Diviner raised his free hand, indicating that he was alright.
“She knows we’re here. I’ve lost my Arcane Eye.”
“Sufina.” Henry motioned. “Tend to Mark. Where is she now?”
“North Tower,” Mark replied, allowing Sufina to mend his bleeding eye, restoring some vision to an otherwise swollen mess. The psychic feedback from the sudden dispel had shocked his optic senses, rupturing a few blood vessels, there was likely permanent damage. “She’s weak. I think we’ve harassed her enough. Made her use up too much vitality.”
“Let's not waste any time then,” Henry stated coldly. “Surya, do it.”
Surya produced several accessories the size of fingernails, each imbued with a diamond the size of a quail egg. Upon closer inspection, the crystalline forms were not mineral diamonds, but scintillating mana cores of some celestial creature cut and carved with brilliant facets. Surya felt the weight of the Creature Cores in his hand, their mass betraying their form. These were the Heart of Archons, each priceless on its own, carved and inscribed to shield against all types of negative energy. In the old days, Henry had them made to ward against Elizabeth’s careless AOEs. Surya affixed the accessories to their chests, then uttered the activation keywords. In the next instant, their bodies began shedding a dull glow.
“Think we’ll corner her this time?” Agnes asked carefully.
“There shouldn't be a single human soul around here for kilometres,” Mark replied for Henry. “Not after we told them the Vampire was holed up in the castle. She’s exhausted and has nothing to drain from, nows the time.”
Agnes again attempted to read their friend and leader's expression - but saw nothing but fatigue and misery.
“Let's buff up.”
“Sufina, get started.”
A mass of vines sprouted from the Dyrad, spreading out as crawling tendrils up the walls of the castle and toward the North Tower. They watched as she encased the exterior in less than a minute.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Henry?” Agnes asked, her own eyes heavy with the accumulated stress of an oppressive conscience.
Surya’s face was a mask of raw emotions with nothing to hide.
Mark’s wore his usual calm and collected poker face.
In contrast, Henry’s stoic apathy sent shivers down her spine. She knew just how much he had loved his 'Lillybird', how much he had sacrificed for her. His sterling career, his fortune, a decade of his life, the prime of a Mage’s prowess, all given to the woman he loved so that she could feel happy and without want.
But the events of the last few months had made that dream stillborn. The crew had seen so much carnage while in pursuit of the 'Bloody Countess'; there was no coming back from that.
Elizabeth was mad, that was without question, but Agnes couldn’t help but wonder how much of it was the magic taking over, and how much of it was herself.
Henry's wife had been a slim, shy girl with brilliant eyes and a face made for portraits. She wore white dresses and liked to show off her slender, white legs. Lizzy had been a sister, a friend, a comrade. If Agnes felt such heart-wrenching guilt for what was inevitably to come, then what malevolent storms must be churning within Henry’s heart?
Agnes’s internal rumination was cut off by the sudden intrusion of thoughts from others, silenced at once by the activation of the shared spell. She whipped around to see Mark watching at them with that poker face of his. The Divination staple was an essential battlefield boon, but also served as a potential source of annoyance as it unwittingly shared strong emotions. The moment their mind’s had connected, Agnes had distinctly felt Henry’s doubt, distress, and misery. Her face flushed, Mark should have also sensed it, but the man's man was as cold as ice.
“You should have warned me,” she said, displeased, turning away from him.
“Sorry, I am a little tense,” Mark replied.
Their thoughts now connected, the group moved out.
Henry took the stairs, Sufina’s barbed vines sealing every passage as they went. Surya and Agnes took the outside: Surya made his way up the tower with Spider Climb, marking the window; Agnes encircled the same tower from a safe distance. Mark remained below, safely managing the flow of thoughts and information, feeding them the location and action of Elizabeth with Clairvoyance.
Henry entered the tower, making known his progress via means of mental commands. The other two were in position. Surya paused just outside the window of the tower, perched against the stonework of the old Ottoman fort. Agnes hovered on the other side, her body charged with motes of fire, ready to do her worst.
To Henry’s surprise, the ancient door, an iron-banded wooden relic, was unlocked. He pushed it open, his eyes adjusting to the silhouettes of light and shadow within.
There was a woman in a torn, white dress lying against a bleak and rusty facade. The smell of iron was heavy in the air. Henry had found his wife, the fabled Bloody Countess.
Elizabeth’s slim legs extended from beneath her soiled dress, bare but for dark stains of clotting blood that ran between her once white thighs. A trail of blood that led to Elizabeth, pooling underneath her like dark sangria.
Her face had always been frail and pale. But now it was ghostly, ethereal. Like a marionette with slack strings, she forced her head up. Underneath her dark locks were her eyes, the hue of baby blue untouched even by the state of her physical trauma.
“You came.” Elizabeth affected a warm smile on her cold lips. “I tried to save him you know. Or perhaps it was a she. I know you preferred girls.”
Henry's mind reeled, a wave of emotions washing over the Telepathic Bond. He staggered back against the door, physically repulsed by the realisation of what he had just witnessed, by Elizabeth's revelation. Within his mind, he heard cries of shock and dismay echo from his companions. In the next moment, Surya leapt from the crumbling brickwork of the tower’s window into the room. Agnes likewise entered by the south-facing opening.
“Oh God Lizzy…”
Despite their concern, Henry noted his friends kept their distance. The unbidden metaphor sent ice-cold tendrils of realisation throughout his body. His friends were right: they might feel for Elizabeth as her old companions, but their instincts as veterans of a hundred battles told them that she was a monster.
“How… how long?” he asked with trembling lips.
“A month? Two? One trimester? I am not sure anymore,” Elizabeth said weakly. “It made me feel so hungry. I just wanted to eat. I was just so hungry, all the time.”
She coughed. Sakura specs bloomed on her white dress.
“I could die for a Dobos torte right now…” she joked dryly.
No one laughed.
“I don’t suppose you could get Sufina to give me a hand?” Her breath was shallow now, weaker. Elizabeth looked toward Henry demurely, dropping her heart-shaped face before turning her eyes up and toward him.
Henry felt his chest tighten, almost allowing his lips to move before the thoughtless act became interjected by cries of ‘No!’ and ‘Careful now…’
Elizabeth was his wolfsbane.
He had no power before her.
He was glad he had his companions with him.
“No?” Elizabeth asked weakly.
Henry shook his head.
They stood in silence, watching the blood seep, watching her pale skin begin to turn grey.
Surya turned away.
Agnes wept quietly.
Henry stood, stoic as a statue.
“The vineyard… it was nice…”
“It was our piece of paradise…”
“I am sorry…”
Elizabeth’s head fell to one side, a parting smirk upon her lips.
There was a sudden shudder in the air.
A dark portal opened. A black hole. Lizzy's signature spell, the beginning of the end.
His companions dived for the windows. Surya's shoulder slammed into Henry, throwing him from the opening before taking flight into the air. Agnes let herself drop from the south facing opening, stopping only meters before the churning waters of the moat.
Mark watched from below. The top of the tower became instantly consumed by a dark mass, a sphere that drank in all light. It lasted only a second. When it was over, there was nothing left but exposed, ancient Ottoman stones that predated the Christian reclamation of the city.
“That.. is the long and short of it.” Henry breathed out as though a great burden had shed from his shoulders. “Which brings us to you, Mark.”
The group turned to look at Mark. It was time for him to provide the answers to his grand charade.
“Why did you endanger Gwen? Was it for your sister? Did you suspect that Elizabeth was involved in her death?” Henry demanded. "But you know all this; our minds had been linked."
Mark’s expression was unreadable.
“You think that’s the whole story?” Mark replied with a voice full of bitterness. “You think your Elizabeth went mad in Eger?”
The Diviner's face took on an expression of triumphant madness. He placed a hand on the Death’s Orb, watching Henry wince as he said his next words.
“Allow me then, to bring to birth; the monstrous light of truth!”