Reading was never one of my strongest virtues. I was more of a take action type of person, which led to my continued frustration as I spent an increasing amount of time trying to read through the books kept by the Dark Lord. Most of the works were written in languages I didn’t understand, others though written in what looked like the language of common, spoke in depth on complicated matters of the arcane, the outer planes, and other things that left my head spinning.
With frustration, I slammed the book shut on the reading table in front of me and stood. I was getting nothing out of this. I had spent several pointless hours trying to understand more about my curse through reading to little or no avail. After a few moments of pacing in front of the cold empty fireplace, I decided some fresh air might do me some good. I stormed from the master study, down the adjoining corridor and out onto the ramparts of the castle.
Once more the moon had risen above the clear night sky to illuminate the valley. I took that moment to stretch my arms and back after feeling stiff from hunching over the dusty old tomes of incomprehensible lore. Then for a while, I just stood there looking up at the night sky and admired the nightly heavens. The stars seemed to stretch endlessly on into eternity in the vast tapestry of darkness that encircled the world. What I wouldn’t give to fly up and away for just a brief respite.
My attention was drawn back to the earth when a carriage pulled through the gates of the castle. I crouched back, hand going to my sword. I only relaxed my grip on the cold hard steel when I recognized the carriage as one from Kashmir’s camp of gypsies. It had been a few nights since I last visited, and that was to inform them of the vengeance I had administered to the highwaymen. I hadn’t been expecting a visit. Curious, I left the ramparts and descend through the castle.
I arrived at the entry hall in time to open the heavy doors for my unexpected guest. The young gypsie man looked scared and frightened but his eyes held frantic determination of a possessed man.
“Lady of the Night?”
“Excuse me?” I replied with a hint of a question in my voice. The man glanced past me into the castle then back at me and seemed for the moment at a loss for words.
“Did Kashmir send you?”
“No,” he finally said with a shake of his head, “I was not expecting you here.”
“Then who were you expecting?”
The man turned and spat on the ground, “Richten, the vile man who claims himself the heir to the Dark Lord for having shared his wretched curse.”
I narrowed my eyes, “and you were hoping to find him here.”
“Yes, he stole away my beloved. Claiming her as his own.”
“I see,” I wondered to myself privately if this Richten was the same person I had encountered at the time I killed the highwaymen, “if he does indeed share the same curse as the Dark Lord then you are most fortunate that he does not claim this castle as his own. If he wanted he could have killed you near effortlessly.”
“I have to try before..” he choked briefly on a surge of possible emotion or frustration, “please I can't lose her.”
“No,” I said firmly. Defeat. The man looked defeated when I locked eyes with him, “No mere mortal has a chance of winning against him. It took a group possessed of exceptional skill to have defeated the Dark Lord originally, and even then no one is clear on how they accomplished this feat. Unless you have some insight the rest of us do not have then you are merely throwing your life away.”
“Then is she truly lost?”
When I did not answer the man slumped limply against the great heavy door. I considered briefly offering something of comfort but nothing came to mind. Instead, I glanced past him towards the darkness that lay beyond the castle. The Dark Lord had many powers and abilities available to him at the time my companions and I had faced him down. At the time I had started to believe it would be impossible to survive the conflict we had against the Dark Lord, much less had the hope of defeating him. Yet there is evidence he had been vanquished.
I looked back at the man who had sought out the Dark Lord’s castle with the vain hope of rescuing his supposed love and considered the prospect of his fight against his adversary. Someone claiming to be the heir of the Dark Lord had a good chance of being either foolish or confident in his abilities or both. I suspected however that this Richten was still growing in his power. He had neither the armies nor the mastery of the arcane arts that the Dark Lord had possessed. If there was a time to defeat him it would be now.
However, I still had yet to find something amidst the books of the Dark Lord that would reveal something I could use to take advantage of his weaknesses. Something that wouldn’t put me at risk as well. Some books spoke of obscure weapons of sunlight, others of holy icons said to drive away or even vanquish the undead. All very useful if I had been alive.
Perhaps I was looking at this the wrong way.
“Let me saddle my horse. Perhaps we can find a lead on where this Richten had taken this girl and we can mount a rescue.”
A grim hope seemed to ignite within the man and he nodded.
“Thank you, my Lady. I go by the name of Ashton if it pleases you.”
It was surprising to see Kashmir waiting at the edge of the camp. The relief was evident on his face when he saw the wagon pulled up along the trail, though it seemed tainted with other conflicting emotions. He gave me a weak smile that did not quite reach the distant look he had in his eyes. As I was dismounting before he turned to speak with Ashton.
“What news do you bring?”
Ashton gave me a careful glance before speaking, “the Dark Lord’s forsaken castle lays unclaimed by Richten. Instead, I found the Lady of the Night has been dwelling there.”
Since when have people been referring to me as the Lady of Night? I glanced at Kashmir from the corner of my eye, he seemed to be pondering over Ashten’s words.
“I am glad that your foolishness has not led you to an early death, but I have the impression that you're not planning on giving up.”
“I can’t Kashmir. I can’t leave her but Lady Gwenyth has offered her aid so there is a chance.”
“Then perhaps there is hope,” said Kashmir before turning to me, “You have already done much for our people and yet you seem to get dragged back into sorting out our problems.”
“The problem is a mutual one for the whole valley,” I replied, “if this Richten isn’t merely boasting about his claims over the Dark Lord’s domain then we should stop him before his rise to power.”
“Well said,” replied Kashmir, “it most unfortunate our people are not warriors, though we can be brave when the need calls.”
“I’m not asking you to put your people’s lives on the line for my fight.”
“I am relieved to hear you value the lives of my people, but you yourself just said this Richten is a concern for the whole valley,” he glanced back mournfully at the camp, “I have a personal stake in this as well, and will do all of what I can to help.”
For a moment Kashmir looked like he was going to say more, but his voice seemed caught on some emotion that had welled up suddenly in his throat. He grimaced briefly, while I waited for the moment to pass.
I nodded, “can you tell me what happened? Ashton told me some of what occurred on the way here.”
Kashmir looked down grimly, “It is best I show you.”
I followed after Kashmir as he led the way to the main center of the camp. Ashton maneuvered the wagon off to the side and stepped down to unhitch the horses. I was curious as to why he hadn’t done that in the first place. Was he in too much of a hurry to race off to rescue his lover? Or perhaps he was too overcome with anger and pain to think rationally?
Near to the center of the camp, I halted at the sudden smell of blood and death. Kashmir noticed my hesitation and turned back.
“It would be wise if I go no further,” I said as I pulled back sharply on the reigns to force Lady to retreat a few paces. Kashmir nodded though he appeared either concerned or confused.
“If you had been willing to see, I would have shown you how most of our people were taken or killed outright.”
“All this from one man?”
“Hardly,” Kashmir shook his head, “this Richten was not alone. He came requesting we hand over our virgin women,” Kashmir spat upon the ground next to him, “Naturally we refused and like the devil himself, he laughed. We found out too late he had the forces of the undead at his call. They fell upon us from all sides bringing chaos.”
I could vividly imagine the carnage. During the time we had fought the Dark Lord, my companions and I had face more than a few skirmishes against the undead, and I found them to be relentless and tireless. It was always a battle of attrition that never seemed to favor the living.
“Do you know what he wanted with your women?”
“No, I don’t,” Kashmir said darkly. I noticed he was clenching his fists tightly.
“Did he take-?”
“He took Dorina. He took my daughter,” he reached out and took my hand almost pleadingly, “I am no fighter, Lady Gwenyth. Otherwise, I would be out there searching for her, but perhaps I am truly a coward, for telling myself that I am best able to help by being here to comfort the others. I am asking you to find her and save her if you can. If you cannot, then kill that bastard so he may rot eternally in the domain of the nine hells.”
As I peered into Kashmir’s eyes, I felt the intensity of his need for help. Unable to pull back or look away, I nodded, “It is my intention to destroy him at all costs, this I swear.”
Kashmir nodded his acknowledgment of my oath.
“What more can you tell me? Did this Richten have a burn scar or branded emblem on his chest?” I asked turning the subject towards uncovering more about my advisory. I especially needed to confirm if this Richten was the same man I encountered recently that claimed to share the same curse I had received from the Dark Lord.
“Honestly, I am not sure. Why, have you met this man?”
“That’s what I was hoping you would confirm for me.”
“I see. Unfortunately, I did not see any such scar, though I was not in the mind or ability to notice such things.”
“I understand,” I said taking a moment to consider my next plan of action, “I think perhaps I will try for the village. See what I might uncover there and hopefully secure a lead.”
“Then I pray the Goddess will be with you.”
“Thank you, Kashmir,” though I doubt the Goddess would bestow any such blessing upon me. I saw Ashton approach by horseback. I acknowledged him with a nod and we took off.
Much of the village was quiet at such a late hour. Even the tavern was almost empty and the barkeeper was preparing to close up for the night. He was surprised to see us as we entered. I didn’t see Sylvia, and for a moment I was worried before I rationalized she probably had the night off.
“It's late and we’re closing.”
“We are searching for a group of missing people,” I stated.
The barman folded his arms, “Anyone still here after closing is either got a room or I’m kicking them out. You can go look elsewhere.”
With a brief flash of anger, I thought about punching him. Unfortunately, it would cause more problems than it would solve, and so I bit back the rage. Instead, I folded my arms.
“I’m not here to make trouble, I just want to find these people and rescue them before they end up dead or worse. If I can make the bastard who kidnapped them pay then I will.”
There was a brief moment of silence before one of the bar patrons stood. I recognized him as a regular judging on how often I had seen him on the occasions I have visited before. He was a portly man with a kind disposition and often better dressed than his peer if only by a small bit.
“Perhaps if you would tell us what happened?”
“They are gypsie folk! They probably stole or swindled the wrong man if you ask me,” said the barman, I stopped Ashton from reckless charging forward, even as the barman continued “I always thought she was suspicious ever since she started coming around here. Who’s to say she didn’t fabricate the whole thing.”
“Let's hear you say that while your children are ripped from your hands and your woman killed in front of you!” retorted Ashton his hand going to his sword.
“Don’t you dare lay a hand on my family!”
“Myron! Listen to them! They are not threatening you or family!” shouted the portly man as he moved between us.
“Not yet anyway,” I heard Ashton mutter under his breath. I gave him a stern look till he removed his hand from the hilt of his sword.
“These people have brought no harm. They are only desperately looking for help.”
The barman gave us one more weary look before turning to the bar counter to clean. When it seemed that no more serious objections were made and no one was going to fight, the portly man approached.
“I’m sorry for the trouble,” he said, “Come let's take this conversation someplace more private.”
“I can agree to that,” I said with a glare towards the tavern owner.
The three of us departed out into the dark streets of the village. The portly man paused briefly as he glanced up and down the street, then made the sign of the goddess. I winced slightly at the buffeting radiance that emanated from his simple gesture.
“You’ll have to forgive Myron. People around here are still not used to life without the threat of the Dark Lord hovering over their backs. Many of us are still cautious.”
“I can understand being fearful and cautious,” but I felt the tavern owner, this Myron was ridiculously abrasive. The portly man eyed me but choose to say nothing on the subject instead he offered his hand.
“I’m Burgermeister Collins, Theodore Collins. I was thankfully the last Burgermeister to take charge of the village before the fall of the Dark Lord and I more than anyone else can tell you that it has been an interesting time since the fall of the Dark Lord. Even I have trouble believing he truly gone. For example, I still keep the taxes, as a just in case.”
“Just in case what?” asked Ashton.
Meister Collins paused to look at Ashton and then nervously glanced up and down the streets, “In case he comes back. My father cautioned me with stories of previous burgermeisters who thought they could withhold taxes or were mislead to believe the Dark Lord wouldn’t collect. Though I sincerely hope he is truly defeated, I don’t want to repeat the mistake of others before me if I could help it.”
Ashton nodded, “I have heard tales of his brand of justice.”
“Thank you for understanding. Not many of the younger generation do. Now, you made allusions to an awful atrocity?”
“Yes, my people were attacked by the undead lead by a man who calls himself the heir to the Dark Lord.”
Meister Collins shivered in a way that I suspected had little to do with the cold. I let Ashton explain the details of the attack on the gypsie camp, I kept my eyes on the streets around us.
“This is dreadful!”
“We are asking you, do you have any possible lead on where we might find this Richten?”
“No I don’t, but…”
I pushed Ashton and the Burgermeister out of the way as a blast of fire rippled through the air. Ashton and I scrambled to our feet, swords drawn, while Meister Collins mutter fearfully. I could see our adversaries as they strode forward down the street.
“You intrigue me, my dark sister.”
“You-! You fiend!”
Ashton charged forward before I could stop him. The man who I had come to believe to be Richton gave a small almost imperceptible nod towards one of his followers that was cloaked in a deep hood. With a gleeful crackle, they raised their hands and released a tongue of flames. Ashton rolled to the side as the flames spilled past him.
“I will kill you for your insolence mortal!” shouted another of the cloaked figures while drawing a sword, “None shall hurt the true master of the domain!”
“Enough,” said Richten almost lazily, “if he tries to attack again, kill him.”
He turned his gaze towards me, “As I was saying, you intrigue me.”
“Is that so?” I replied.
“You could be reveling in our power and instead you squander it like a,” he paused as he considered the word he wanted, “like a mortal coward.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” I said as I considered our new situation. From a glance, this did not look good. I counted three other cloaked figures besides Richten himself. At least one of them was an actual practiced mage, and I wasn’t sure about the others. In a straight-up fight, I was sure to lose even with Ashton’s help. I shot a glance at the meister Collin as he backed up slowly, his eyes focused on Richten.
“Burgermeister, hurry and get help! Ashton and I will hold them off! Summon a priest!”
“No! You shall not run!”
Richten’s servant raised her hands, releasing a ball of fire as Meister Collins turned to run. I did the stupidest thing and jumped in front of the blast. The flames rolled over me as I screamed and howled in pain. Anger boiled up from my gut as I turned to face Richten and his followers.
“You would suffer for a mere mortal? Pathetic,” Richten spat, “Kill her, she does not deserve the Dark Lords gift!”
“With pleasure my Master!”
Two of three servants drew weapons while the mage raised their hands again to cast more fire. Before the spell could be released Ashton swung his sword and blood flew. The smell sent me over the edge and I stumbled forward in pain. I looked down to see my burned and charred skin was slowly starting to heal, but not fast enough. I gave another loud, frustrated howl, one that was answered by the baying of dogs.
One of Richten’s servants swung his sword. I couldn’t dodge, much less parry his attack. I stumbled and fell forward into him. The blade cut deep as I grappled him to the ground. In desperate need to satisfy the sudden surge of thirst, I bit and drank.
Someone pulled me off, causing me to stumble. The fresh surge of blood, however, was enough to heal and regenerate the worst of the burns. Richten in a cold furry drew his sword.
“You are unworthy to drink the blood of my servants! Unworthy of the dark gifts! And I will kill you for defiling the great power of my Master!”
He swung his sword and I parried the blow.
“I care not for these dark gifts, but I will not die like mere cattle waiting to be slaughtered!”
I countered and exchanged blows. From the corner of my eye, I could see Ashton engaged with one of the other servants, the mage lying either dead or dying a few paces away. Richten tried to press his attack while I was partially distracted taking advantage of an opening. His sword slashed and I grunted in pain. More fury boiled up within me and I returned the favor of his attack.
In the distance, the chorus of howling grew louder. At first, I didn’t pay any heed to it till suddenly a pack of wolves came charging up the street. Richten disengaged from our fight with genuine surprise as one of the wolves launched at him. I spun away and grabbed Ashton to pull back. Whatever the purpose the wolves served in their sudden appearance I knew it couldn’t be good. I was just glad that they were not summoned by Richton or his minions as we retreated.
“I will find you, dark sister of mine! I will find you and I will drive a stake through that cowardly heart of yours! If I can’t have that then tomorrow I will burn this village to ground, slaughter it people and gluten myself on their blood!”
I glanced back to see the retreating form of Richten surrounded by wolves as they gave chase.