For several days and nights, I rested deep within the catacombs of the castle leaving the day to day affairs of my rule to my defacto council while I recovered. Captured prisoners and criminals were brought before me to help sustain my thirst while I healed. At Timothy’s encouragement, I tried to drink only a little bit of blood from each of my victims over the course of a few nights instead of killing them outright.
“There are not enough criminals in the valley to sustain you if you kill them all. Eventually, you will need to learn how to restrain yourself or broaden your diet.”
“I already tried animal blood. It doesn’t work,” I countered.
Timothy huffed like I said something stupid and I fought the need to roll my eyes. We were meeting late into the night in the master study. My study, if I was going to acknowledge the idea of rulership.
“I mean your diet of limiting yourself to criminals. At this rate, we may need to trump up false charges to keep up with your needs. Especially during these times when you are recovering.”
My remaining hand clenched into a fist as I leveled a cold glare at Timothy, “I refuse to hurt, harm, or kill the innocent.”
“My mistake,” He put on smirk of satisfaction, “I assumed you were smart enough to realize the extent of your limits.”
“I’m questioning once more why I allow you to stay here.”
“Because I actually understand the complexity of your curse, and am one of the few who can read and interpret the arcane writings left behind by the Dark Lord.”
I let out a small growl of annoyance as I sat down.
“I have taken some efforts to document what I can on the curse,” said Timothy as he pulled out a collection of parchments and laid them on the table, “and I correlated them with some of the findings other past heroes have made.”
“Near as I can tell the Dark Lord’s curse is unique. However, that may not be the case for long.”
“Meaning, what exactly?”
Timothy gestured at me, “Isn’t it obvious?”
“No,” I said testily. Timothy sighed exasperation.
“You and Richten are evidence that the curse can be perpetuated,” Timothy started pacing as he launched into his lecture, “There have been others that the Dark Lord has passed his curse onto. None, near as we can tell, have survived with the present company being the sole exception.”
“Are you trying to say I can pass on this curse?” I asked.
“If the Dark Lord could, why not you?”
“Even if I knew how I don’t want to,” I stood up from the chair, “I want to know is if this curse can be removed.”
“I don’t know if there is a way to remove it. To be sure we would have to find out how the Dark Lord became cursed in the first place. Did he receive the curse from someone else much like how he had passed it on to you? Or did he create the curse using some dark ritual? We won't know unless we were to ask him.”
I approached the window and glanced up at the night sky.
“Personally I would rather he not return.”
After a moment of studying the moon as it sailed lazily over the night sky, I turned back to face Timothy.
“Your confident that Richten’s followers can revive him or even the Dark Lord?”
He pulled out a worn parchment from his satchel, “There is a ritual. It requires blood, the purer the better and-.”
There was a knock at the door.
A swordsman entered and quickly bowed.
“My Lady, an entourage of warriors have arrived claiming to be an Order of Knights sanctioned by the Church of the-.”
I raised a hand to interrupt, “Have they announced their intentions?”
“No, but they don’t seem hostile.”
“For now,” muttered Timothy.
“They are only requesting an audience with your Ladyship.”
Turning back to the open window I tried to think of a response. It was too much of a coincidence for them not be related to the Holy Knights I had attacked and killed on the road with the exception of the one that got away. That was a fight that I had easily come close to losing and I doubted I could take on a small army of them within my castle. However, if they are requesting sanctuary then they were at least honor-bound to their own rules as guests under the roof of a noble, a temporary truce at least.
“Grant them sanctuary within the courtyard,” I decided, “but do not permit them entry into the castle without my authority. If they push the issue summon Eileen to give an excuse. Arouse Brutus from his chambers and inform him to make preparations should this turn hostile. Make sure he understands that we will not make the first move.”
“As you command my Lady.”
He bowed and departed quickly. As his footsteps retreated down the hall I turned to Timothy.
“Secure everything and anything of the Dark Lord’s.”
“You don’t seriously plan to host them for long?” he asked as he gathered his books and parchments before tossing me a look of annoyance, “I honestly don’t see how we could let them stay without conflict inevitably breaking out.”
“I know,” I muttered, “I would rather they just move on if we can just give them a reason to leave.”
“Doubtful if they are here to kill you.”
Timothy left me to consider his words of warning. I stood there a long while at the window as ominous clouds drifted over the ocean of stars to obscure the light of the sailing moon. It was inevitable that someone opposed to my existence would come to kill me. When I first awoke to this dark curse I would have welcomed them to it. While certainly my life is no longer has some of the joys I had when I was alive, this undeath was still a semblance of existing. A pale imitation of life, but close enough for me to count.
Not only that, I still had much I wanted to do. I needed to root out the last of Richten’s followers to prevent them from resurrecting the Dark Lord, I wanted to know what happened to my friends and I have a duty to the people of the valley now. None of which I could accomplish in true death.
With a feeling of unease, I glanced down at my mangled missing hand. An acolyte of the village Priest had been summoned the same night I had returned to the castle. He had tried to invoke the power of the goddess to heal it. The attempt failed spectacularly as the supposed blessing burned and withered the remaining bit of my arm like a narcotic spell. It seemed only time and blood would heal me now.
Even so, I was surprised by how fast and how much I was healing. I had lost my forearm in the conflict, and tonight my arm appeared to be restored to the wrist. Perhaps by the end of the week, my hand would be restored as well.
Time and blood.
If that's all I needed to return to perfect health I wonder idally if that's all the Dark Lord needed to be revived from death.
Tension hung over the castle like a foreboding cloak throughout the rest of the night. There was an unsettling feeling of unease that settled over me as I retreated to the catacombs to rest as the sun started to rise over the valley. With practiced ease aided by my undead strength, I slid the stone lid over my tomb and drifted into sleep.
When I arose the next night I glanced down at the skeletal beginnings of my reforming hand. Experimentally I tried moving the fingers only be rewarded with disappointment at the lack of response. Realizing I needed to face the inevitability of the night I pushed the stone lid off and arose.
No one dared enter the catacombs in the early part of the night under my orders. If I awoke with a thirst I didn’t want to casually kill someone unintentionally. Instead, one of our captive prisoners was waiting bound by the stairs. He stirred slightly from his sleep as I rolled him over to his back knelt closer to his neck to drink the promisingly delicious blood. There was a gasp of surprise as my fangs pierced his neck.
A moment later I reluctantly withdrew from my feeding, leaving the prisoner alive as I retreated deeper into the catacombs. I made my way to a secret passage that had been discovered by Eileen’s excavation and renovations efforts. It was hidden near the far end of the catacombs inside a false tomb that lead to a hidden room that near as we could tell acted as nexus for a handful of other hidden stairways and passages.
I took one of the stairways that lead upwards into the castle proper. At the top of the stairs I pulled down on the dusty lever and the wall slid open to reveal the master study. After I entered a bookshelf slid back to hide the passageway.
Timothy and Eileen both looked up from as I entered.
“Any trouble?” I asked anxiously. They glanced at each other, Eileen looked a bit grim, while Timothy shrugged.
“Our guests are disinclined to leave as of yet,” responded Timothy, “Apparently they feel insulted that you haven’t welcomed them with open arms and personally saw to their every whim and need.”
“But thus far no bloodshed?”
“Not yet anyway.”
“They still wish an audience,” interjected Eileen, “from what some of the servants have reported there are some harsh feelings over their fallen comrades and the idea that you have, and I quote, ‘a blood-sucking leach,’ for a pet is an affront to the goddess in their eyes.”
“Good thing your not a leach then,” snide Timothy, “properly I would say you're a blood-sucking undead abomination.”
“Excuse me?” I said testily.
“I mean entirely from their point of view,” said Timothy verbally taking a back step, “Can't take a joke?”
“Perhaps your joke is in poor taste,” pointed out Eileen while looking at Timothy sternly before turning and directing her gaze pointedly at me, “and you. Learn to master your emotions better. If you continue to wear your anger and frustration openly you're going to alienate what few allies we could hope to gain. While I doubt we will win any friends over tonight, I expect you to be on your best behavior.”
I felt startled at being reprimanded like I was a little girl being lectured by a tutor. Under her stern gaze, however, I didn’t feel justified in defending myself. Satisfied she walked over to the door that divided the study from the master bedroom.
“I will have someone notify our guests that you will be granting their request for an audience shortly. Until then I have some clothes selected for you.”
“I’m sorry what?”
Eileen opened the door to the bedroom and indicated I was to follow her. Inside a couple of other maids stood by Timothy made to join us and I gave him a stern look when that failed I hissed somewhat vehemently. The two girls became startled and took a few frightened steps back. Eileen looked over her shoulder at the composition as Timothy hastily bade a retreat.
“For a man of intelligence he seems to be lacking in common sense, and you,” Eileen took hold of a folded fan and whacked my head, “tonight you are the Lady of the Castle, and I expect you to act like it.”
“You remind me of my tutor,” I muttered.
“Speak up, don’t mumble,” Eileen said crossly before smiling, “and for your information, yes I was a tutor for more than a few noble houses. They helped fund my interests in recovering history and preserving it.”
Inwardly I groaned, I never did have a good relationship with any of my family’s tutors. I had an interest in swords and adventuring instead of books and etiquette.
“Now let's get to work,” started Eileen. Glancing at the selected styles of clothes I reluctantly started undressing.
I entered the throne room. The atmosphere of the grand hall was drastically different from what it had been in times past. While the broken window still stood shattered, the dark curtains had been patched and closed to cover it. Torches and chandlers were lit to give the room its lighting breathing life into the once dead and decayed grand hall. The once empty and barren marble stand now held a modest wood throne. Everything looked like it had been cleaned thoroughly, during the day.
Standing close to the throne was Brutus and a few other select swordsmen. Brutus, I noted, had not escaped Eileen’s clutches at being made to dress prim and proper for the evening. Not quite in full regal or a night at masquerade but enough to put him in a handsome light. He nervously touched the hilt of his sword as his gaze shifted briefly to watch me enter before returning to study our guest.
Nervously I kept my attention focused on the chair before me where I was going to sit. Both my gloved hand's clench or at least my good hand was able to be clenched while the other hung limply. I didn’t want to look at my unwanted guests in the eyes until I was ready. Eileen took her place next to me and nodded to Brutus. After returning the nod, Brutus cleared his throat to the room.
“Her Ladyship, Gwenyth of the Valley and mistress of the Dark Keep.”
Mistress of the Dark Keep? What happened to Lady of the Night? Was it too much for holier than thou guests could handle?
I began to cross the room still keeping my eye sternly on the chair ahead of me, trusting in Brutus and the guards to give fair warning if we were attacked. Surprisingly the walk seemed to take an eternity.
Finally, all too soon I found myself taking a seat and turning to look at the shocked expression of the leader of the host of Knights that had entreated upon my hospitality. My own eyes lit up in surprise as I realize who it was that stood before me. My long time friend, ally and companion, Allen.