The cloaked human desperately tried to urge his horse faster, in an attempt to put distance between us. Lady was beginning to tire and I needed to capture the escaping rider before she quit all together. Reluctantly I reached out my hand while trying to focus my mind.
A swarm of bats descended out of the night sky to attack the rider on the road. His horse reared back and tossed him from the saddle, before sprinting off into the dark. As I drew close I leaped from my horse and barrelled into him.
Bats fluttered around us as he tried to desperately throw me off.
I grabbed his throat and screamed, “Where is Richten!?”
“No, no, no. Please no!”
I curled my free hand into a fist and raised it threatening.
“Speak or die!”
“I can’t! I won’t!”
Angrily I smashed my fist into his face. Blood splattered from his freshly broken nose. To stop myself from outright killing him for his blood I bit my lip and winced briefly in pain as my fangs drew blood.
“I grow impatient and hungry,” my voice now suddenly changed to become eerily cold and indifferent.
“No, he promised me life eternal. I must serve him!”
“You have failed him,” I hissed. This time I unfettered my self-control and leaned in over his neck to feast and drink. There was a gasp of surprise as he tried to weakly to beat me off. Gradually his pathetic attempts to repel me stopped before he shuddered in his final death throes.
As I stood, I pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the blood free of my face before turning to retrieve Lady. It was getting uncomfortably easier to give in to the blood lust of late. The desire to kill and drink was becoming addictive, and it didn’t help that I was willing to unleash my anger on Richten’s pathetic followers. Thus far my attempts to locate him specifically were being frustrated by his seeming disappearance from the valley. This was coupled with the difficulty in finding the people he had kidnapped that added to my anger over the past week since the attack on the village.
With ease, I pulled myself atop Lady’s saddle and started the trek back to return to the castle. Settling into a slow trot I considered the progress I made over the last week. I had honored the Priest’s wishes by avoiding the village whenever possible and instead came to rely on Kashmir and the few allies I had among his camp to support myself. If I needed to make contact with someone from the village, Kashmir had willingly provided a rider to deliver a discrete message. Often to the Burgermeister or someone with a lead on Richten.
Inevitably word had spread that I was still roaming the valley and some of the rumors credited the attack of the undead to me. I didn’t bother with trying to combat those rumors as I was more concerned with putting my energy into hunting Richten. Occasionally I would stumble across one of his followers and did my best to interrogate them for information, though often I would find myself chasing an errant trail.
The undead have begun to roam freely throughout the valley, preying on isolated and lonely travelers. It was a reminder of the days when the Dark Lord had ruled the land.
Entering the courtyard of the Dark Lord’s ancient castle, I dismounted and handed off the reins of my horse to one of the gypsie folk that offered a helping hand. Kashmir and his followers had chosen to settle in the vicinity of the castle after hostilities had increased between them and the villagers. A temporary agreement until we could locate and rescue those that Richten had kidnapped.
I turned to see Kashmir approaching with open arms.
“How goes the latest search?”
“Fruitless,” I confessed as I embraced Kashmir briefly in greeting, “I want to try and search the boglands tomorrow.”
“We will pray for better luck than,” he said with a nod, “Tonight, I have good news, Maricica, my wife says that roads out of the valley have been cleared out enough to safely leave.”
“Will you be departing soon then, or..?”
Kashmir shrugged his broad shoulders, “Much of the camp is looking forward to leaving the valley. However, for my closest kin and others, we feel we owe it those taken in by Richten to stay. Either to welcome them home to a warm fire or to avenge their deaths.”
“Let’s hope it ends up being the former that comes true.”
I awoke to the sound of someone entering the crypt. Weary of the intruder, I slipped quietly out of my tomb and moved silently through the shadows till I caught sight of the light of their torch held aloft in the dark.
“Who goes there?”
Startled the intruder turned. As soon as he recognized me he immediately bowed to one knee before me while averting his gaze.
“Lady of the Night, forgive me for the intrusion,” he paused for a moment as he peeked a glance up at me before continuing, “I wanted to inform you that I have found someone who may know more about how to find Richten.”
It was rare for someone other than Kashmir to openly speak with me unless they had to. In particular, this was the first time someone had come seeking me within the catacombs. Something that both surprised me and raised a slight worry of concern for how easy it was for anyone to infiltrate to the heart of my sanctuary. If there was an alternative way of leaving the catacombs I might consider sealing them off again. Perhaps I should try finding one.
“Have you informed Kashmir? Why bother me with this information.”
The man visibly flinched and I could hear his heartbeat pick up in earnest.
“Forgive me if I may have overstepped my bounds. Many of us seek to aid you Lady of the Night. You have given your word to rescue or avenge those that have been taken from us. In return, we have taken our vows to aid you and even wish to swear fealty to you and the land.”
I was more than slightly taken aback as I realized that he and others of his group saw me as an actual noble. I had considered their use of the title ‘Lady of the Night’ as a moniker, not an actuality. To consider me as someone to serve and rule over them struck me as more than simply misguided, especially considering my dark nature, and not even touching upon my lack of experience for leadership.
“I am flattered by your offer of servitude,” I said after I took a moment to consider my choice of words. I wanted to avoid hurting his pride or offending him, “however I have yet to consider accepting any pledges of fealty. Though your words do give me something to consider.”
Such as whether I wanted a band of gypsy folk riding about in my name claiming to serve me. I wasn’t sure if that would make me more of a target or not. Not to mention if I even had the authority to accept such vows or make use of them.
“Regardless of whether you would formally accept such vows, we plan to aid you as much as we can,” the man pressed on, “and with your permission, we would bring the informant to you at all haste.”
“Who is this informant?”
“He claims to be a mage in the service of Richten.”
The dark green forest had claimed the near entirety of the crumbling ruins of the forgotten monastery. The wooden chapel had long since collapsed several years ago, which left only the low stone wall and tower as the remaining structures. A thick mist swirled about the area that added to the dark atmosphere.
Lady stomped her feet and snorted, even as I kept a careful eye on the overgrown trail that led up to the abandoned ruins. The gypsie rider who had set up the meeting was nervously turning in his saddle and kept glancing every which way.
I wanted to investigate on my own. It seemed very much like a trap, either set up by the Richten or this unknown mage we were supposed to be meeting. Alone I felt I had a better chance of scouting the area and staying unnoticed if things were not as they seemed. There was also the possibility of betrayal by these ‘loyal’ servants that have lured me out of the castle alone.
Casually I directed a glance towards the rider next to me. Perhaps I was being a bit paranoid over the possibility of being backstabbed. Kashmir himself acknowledged the riders as being loyal if a bit underhanded and often less than honest in their work. Not the sort I would choose to accept oaths of fealty from if given the choice. However, if the night proved fruitful, then perhaps I could make use of them if they were earnest in their choice of serving me.
The rider next to me seemed particularly earnest. He went by the name of Brutus and claimed that he had an ear for secrets and rumors. I put the thought aside when I noticed a cloaked figure coming up the road. I couldn’t make out any details through the thick mist.
“Looks like someone is coming,” I remarked to my companion.
“About time. I was starting to worry there was going to be trouble.”
“You’re not the only one.”
A few moments of silence passed until the approaching figure entered the ruined courtyard of the old monastery. I could see him glancing around trying to peer through the dark before he spoke out into the misty night.
“Is anyone there?”
There was a hint of apprehension in his voice or was it outright fear? With a nudge, I egged Lady forward and closer to our possible contact to find Richten. The sound of approaching horses drew his attention to us as we came closer. I elected to remain seated in my saddle both as a way to intimidate him and to allow an easy escape if things didn’t go well.
He seemed a bit surprised and removed his hood. It took a brief moment before I realized the mage looked familiar.
“Do I know you?”
“Possibly,” the mage acknowledge as he glanced nervously about, “if you are the woman who claims the Dark Lord’s castle then we might have met.”
“In the catacombs,” I recalled, “Your name is Timothy.”
“And now you serve Richten.”
Timothy flinched and cast a nervous glance behind his back.
“Not willingly,” he assured me, “I have to warn you. Richten seeks to take the castle by force from you. He sees it as an affront to his rise as the heir to the Dark Lord that he can’t enter.”
This took me by surprise, “He can’t enter?”
“Not without an invitation.”
I paused as I considered this new piece of information. There were legends of powerful undead creatures requiring an invitation to enter a dwelling. My companions and I had dismissed such stories as not being applicable to the Dark Lord do to his immense power and influence. If there was truth to it then there was a defense the people of the village, the gypsie and even myself would have against Richten. Another thought struck me as well.
“Why am I not affected?”
Both Brutus and Timothy glanced at me.
“Obviously because you are the true ruler of the castle,” prompted Brutus.
I raised an eyebrow at the thought. It was true that I had awoken within the catacombs of the castle but I doubt that was enough to be considered the rightful ruler of the castle. Additionally, I considered other times I had entered other dwellings and households. Had I been invited previously to enter each of those? I don’t recall precisely if I had been invited to enter the tavern but I might have been. Definitely something I will need to consider another time as I needed to uncover where I could find Richten.
“Why does it matter?” asked Timothy in frustration, “It’s not like your one of the Dark Lord’s undead bastards.”
His eyes went wide as he suddenly considered me with renewed interest, “Unless… Yes, that would explain it!”
The moment I realized the implications of what he was implying my hand shot out and grabbed the front of his cloak.
“I am no daughter of the Dark Lord,” I hissed as I held him at eye level.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Brutus back his horse a few cautious steps back. I released Timothy and he fell sprawling to the ground. Lady stomped her feet, matching my irritation.
“There are more than a few recorded instances of the Dark Lord afflicting others with his curse,” I said after the space of several moments of quiet, “his numerous wives and playthings are such examples. Richten and I share that curse, that much I am willing to confess.”
I stared down at Timothy sprawled about beneath me, “but make no mistake. I am no successor to the Dark Lord’s evil reign and I will put an end to Richten’s preemptive attempts to replace him!”
“Our master would be pleased to hear you have no desire to claim the Dark Lord’s throne,” came a voice from the mist.
“But we can't have you going about trying to kill him either.”
A sudden cold frost encroached over the monastery ruins. I could see Brutus pulling out his sword as he turned his horse about to face the newcomers. The two wore matching dark cloaks that I have to associate with Richten’s followers.
“So it was a trap,” I acknowledged.
“No, it wasn’t my fault!”
“Stow it, coward,” shouted one of the followers, “If it wasn’t for your usefulness, our master would have killed for the stain you are.”
“But now,” commented the other, “You have outlived your usefulness.”
He raised a hand in the direction of Timothy and shouted a few words.
Neither Brutus nor I had time to act as a blast of ice shot its way towards Timothy. For his part, Timothy held up his hands in a desperate attempt to ward off the attack. For a moment I thought he was going to be hit but the wave of cold ice dispersed before reaching him.
“Arrogant fools,” I heard Timothy mutter.
“How did you!?”
“Did you think I would teach you a spell that I couldn’t counter? A lesson I learned the hard way from my former master. Now let me show you the true art!”
Timothy stood up and started muttering. Letting him do his own thing, I pulled out my sword and kicked Lady into a charge. One of the cloaked figures raised a hand and I leaped off Lady as a bolt of lightning struck her down. She screamed wildly in pain before toppling. Once I hit the ground I rushed the fool who tried to kill me. The other cloaked figure intercepted me with a block of his sword.
From the corner of my vision, I could see Brutus attempt to charge the spell casting figure. A shard of ice knocked him off and I lost track of him as I blocked a heavy swing from my opponent.
“Such a pretty thing,” the man taunted between attacks, “perhaps once my Master is done he will let me have a piece of you.”
“I would rather die!”
“That can be arranged. By the nine hells, I bet my Master will reward me handsomely if I take care of you for him.”
Ducking another heavy swing, I swung my knee towards his gut. He blocked with his arm and shoved me off balance. Quickly I rolled to my feet and stepped back out of range of his next swing.
“Struggling little girl? You should know my master gives us some of his strength, some of his own blood to the most devoted of his followers. I could do this all night!”
I readied another strike when the spell caster stumbled into my opponent from behind.
“You bastard watch what you're doing,” he shoved the other man off him only for a spell caster to grab him and bite.
I took a few cautious steps back as the two tumbled to the ground. It was then I noticed blood trailing from the mage. Bewildered I looked to my allies and saw Timothy watching with a smug expression.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“After your friend killed the bastard, I sent him to help you.”
Necromancy. I scanned the area till I spotted Brutus hunched over a stonewall clutching his side.
“Now for the finishing touch,” said Timothy. He pointed at the two wrestling and spoke a few words. From mist came the stumbling forms of undead. I cautiously held my sword at the ready, but the dead ignored me and charged after the struggling followers of Richten.
“Disappointing,” I muttered sheathing my sword, “I seemed to have lost my appetite.”