The rats watched as Vernburg’s streets were drenched in blood.
Marianne and Bertrand had tried to make a break out of the cursed hamlet, only for the villagers to intercept them in the graveyard. The noblewoman felt somehow relieved that they still wore human clothes, for that was the only vestige of humanity they had left.
The vagrants near the church had grown white tentacles, the skin was torn apart to reveal the same monstrosity that had impersonated Mona. A sailor had melted into a pile of red goo with human faces screaming beneath the slime. A fisherwoman’s neck had elongated alongside her arms, her neck growing fanged gills. The rats observed from the roofs, their maddening cacophony droning into Marianne’s ears.
And so she danced.
With her rapier in one hand and her pistol in the other, Marianne charged into the fray. The mutated fisherwoman lunged at her, determined to bite her head off. Marianne made the beast eat a fistful of bullets, before gutting her chin to groin with her rapier. The mutant stumbled, and a kick to the chest sent it falling backward. The monster collapsed on the tombstone the dark power behind the hamlet had made for Marianne, shattering it utterly before falling into the open grave.
“You won’t bury me,” Marianne said softly while swinging her blade. “But I will bury you if you don’t back down.”
The monsters showed no fear and charged.
Marianne counted half a dozen, but she could hear the screech of their kindred coming closer. This entire hamlet was a death trap that they had to break out of before getting overwhelmed.
Bertrand covered her flank, slashing one tentacled monster with his longsword while telekinetically slamming another against a gravestone. His movements were a blur but Marianne could still sense him fighting at her side. Their swords slashed everything around them in a deadly dance of steel long rehearsed.
Only old trusted friends who had fought side-by-side for years could achieve this level of natural coordination, where each anticipated the other’s action without stepping on each other's toes. Whether Marianne shot a target that Bertrand had telekinetically restrained, or the vampire slashed a monster attempting to throttle his mistress, they acted as one.
They had been through worse situations and would escape this one too.
His voice cut through the noise like a sword through butter.
Marianne flinched as if she had been struck, almost slipping on the bleeding remains of a tentacled horror.
A red ooze as large as an ox crawled into the graveyard, its surface slowly shifting into a dozen copies of a handsome young man’s face. The noblewoman froze at the sight of those accusing blue eyes, that aquiline nose twisted in an expression of bitter contempt.
"Marianne, why?" he asked, blood pouring out of his mouth like it did on that cursed day. "Why did you do this to me? Why?”
She felt… she felt cold, and numb, and lifeless. As if someone had opened a wound and drunk her blood until she was too tired to fight.
"It was an accident," Marianne muttered, her breath short from the surprise. "Jerôme, I swear—"
“You swear?” The voice echoed inside Marianne’s head, sharp and condemning. The swordswoman felt her confidence weaken with each word. "You think swearing will let me live again? That it will give me back the life you stole? I wanted you to kiss me with your lips, not your steel."
"I didn't mean it." It was to the first blood only. "I missed—"
"You missed my sword because you were playing the man, Marianne. What, you thought carrying that sword would make another grow between your legs?"
Marianne flinched as if she had been struck in the face. It took all of her willpower not to drop her rapier, and even then she simply couldn’t move anymore. An invisible force nudged her to surrender, to beg for forgiveness.
“Milady!” She heard Bertrand’s voice trying to shake her off out of this trance, but the vampire was too busy stabbing a tentacled horror trying to exploit Marianne’s paralysis.
"Would you like it, to bury me again?” Jerôme’s voice scolded Marianne as the slime slowly approached her. She took a step back to avoid being smothered by that… that thing. “You didn’t even weep at my funeral, you heartless murderer!”
“I didn’t… I couldn’t," Marianne said while trying to shake the slime's psychic influence. “You’re not him. Jerôme would never have said something so vicious. He's dead and he's... he's not coming back."
“Because of you.”
"How could I know you didn't carry a soulstone?" Marianne blurted out. She raised her pistol at the ooze, her fingers trembling. "Why didn't you?"
"Because I trusted you!"
Marianne pulled the trigger in fury.
The bullet pierced the ooze and blasted a hole in its surface. A telepathic screech echoed in Marianne’s mind, the spell that numbed her willpower broken. Or perhaps it was the anger she felt at this cruel monster that gave her the strength to resist.
“You will pay for this,” Marianne snarled as her heart swelled with anger. That creature had dared to put salt on that wound, to besmirch his memory with its filthy words!
Whatever the case, the slime abandoned all attempts at emotional manipulation in favor of attempting to devour Marianne where she stood. The noblewoman stepped to the right while shooting the creature, but the wounds her bullets inflicted closed immediately. Her pistol soon jammed, forcing Marianne to holster it and fight with her rapier. Using magic to strengthen her legs, the noblewoman ran circles around the creature and stabbed it in a dozen parts.
Wherever her rapier struck, the slime evaporated, its telepathic screams echoing in Marianne’s mind like the beating of drums. Bloody bubbles erupted on the creature’s outer layer, as if it boiled from within. Marianne’s soulbound steel hit the monster at the very heart of its essence, destabilizing it.
Within seconds, the slime evaporated. Only a trail of dried blood remained behind.
And yet it didn’t assuage Marianne’s anger, nor her guilt.
The noblewoman immediately moved to assist Bertrand, but the vampire had the situation well in hand. Tentacled corpses littered the ground, and the vampire seemed to have fun adding more to the pile.
Marianne would have rejoiced, if she hadn’t noticed something wrong with this picture.
The rats have stopped chittering, she thought as her eyes wandered to the roofs. The mocking rodents had vanished from the roofs, even though they could have tried to overwhelm Marianne and her retainer.
This didn’t bode well.
A pulse of magic coming from the town’s center confirmed her worries. It was the same force that had obscured the hamlet from her magical sight, a sinister power that chilled her to the bone. It was raw like a festering wound, and yet so mighty that it made Marianne lose her breath. She hadn’t felt anything like this since seeing Lord Och at work.
“I sense tremors, Milady,” Bertrand warned her. No sooner did he say that that the ground began to shake beneath their feet, as if some slumbering beast woke up from below them.
“We have to go,” Marianne said, putting all her strength in her legs. “Follow me.”
Using her enhanced strength, the noblewoman leaped into the air and landed on the ruined church’s roof. Bertrand simply climbed the walls to follow her, his nails turning into claws.
From this observation point, Marianne had a better view of the village’s well… and it seemed to get closer.
On a second look, the noblewoman realized her mistake. From her vantage point, she witnessed the plaza around the well shrinking like a puddle of water down a drain. Houses crumbled under the phenomenon’s weight, their ruins swallowed by the well.
The hamlet is dying, Marianne realized. The pit devoured the village, folding space itself like paper. Whatever force created this place was now taking it back.
And if the rats’ flight was any indication, it would kill anyone inside the city’s limits too.
“Run!” she ordered Bertrand, as she took another leap towards another house. The duo jumped from roof to roof as the hamlet shrank. The graveyard vanished alongside the church as the ground collapsed beneath them, mud, stone, and corpses all consumed.
Putting all her magic into strengthening her body, Marianne took a glance at the streets below. The locals had reverted into Qlippoth monsters, but they didn’t flee from the phenomenon. Instead, they all looked in the well’s direction, letting themselves be dragged towards it like animals awaiting death in a quicksand pit.
No. It wasn’t acceptance that motivated them. Some knelt, others raised their tentacles to the cavern’s ceiling high above their heads. Marianne had only seen a scene like this while attending the Church of the Light’s sermon.
It was an expression of blissful worship.
Marianne almost slipped from a roof as one of the house’s walls collapsed, but Bertrand caught her by the wrist before she could fall. The two managed to reach the hamlet’s entrance, even though the hamlet had shrunk by a fourth of its size.
No sooner did they land outside its confines that a fearsome howl boomed from within the village. It was a thunderous burst, stronger than any explosion Marianne had ever heard. The scream didn’t belong to this world, and yet…
And yet it sounded so eerily human.
Marianne caught her breath, as she and Bertrand watched the hamlet collapse into nothingness. The houses’ ruins swirled like a whirlpool of stone and wood, gathering into a single point. The howl lessened in strength, and when it finally ended, nothing remained of Vernburg. Marianne and Bertrand found themselves facing a muddy beach and a lightless ocean.
The veil of power that had obscure the place had vanished, and the well too.
It was as if the place had never existed.
“Milady,” Bertrand said, his hands firmly holding his sword. “Behind us.”
“Val…” A chittering whisper reached Marianne’s ears. “Val… de… Marne…”
Marianne turned around to look at her carriage.
A black, squirming mass of rats covered it like a dense layer of fur. The swarm had cracked the windows and ate the leather from the seats, alongside whatever they could sink their teeth into.
The giant riding beetle had been the first meal of the banquet, its carapace split open from its back as rats devoured it from within. One of the rodents peeked through a crack in the insectoid husk’s face like a window, while others severed one of the mount’s leg to eat its flesh and marrow.
Marianne struggled to suppress her nausea at the disgusting sight…
And then the swarm began to speak.
“Valde… mar…” the rats croaked as one, their screams somehow sounding like coherent words. The more it spoke, the better the swarm became at articulating words. “Valdemar… Valdemarne… is it alive? Where?”
“Does it matter?” Marianne replied while defiantly raising her blade. Bertrand bit his thumb, shedding calcified blood. “You will never get him.”
“You will speak,” the rats spoke as one with perfect clarity, their eyes shining with ghastly red light. “Or the good Shelley will crawl under your skin to strip the flesh from your bones! Shelley will eat your eyes and work his way to the brain!”
The beetle burst open like an egg, and a verminous army swarmed Marianne and her companion.
The noblewoman managed to leap back to escape the tidal wave of fur, but a few rats managed to jump on her clothes. They sank their teeth into her flesh, but they broke against the bone armor she had manifested over her skin. Marianne skewered them with her rapier, but one rat managed to climb onto her exposed face.
Realizing the danger, Marianne started manifesting a layer of bone over her cheeks and neck, but couldn’t protect her eyes nor mouth without blinding herself or suffocating. The rodent managed to bite her lips and ripped out the flesh, before trying to force its way past her clenched teeth and down her throat.
Marianne suppressed a wince of pain as she grabbed the rat with her free hand. She tried to pull it away from her, but stumbled as the swarm climbed on her legs by the hundreds. It didn’t matter how many she impaled with her blade, more came.
Marianne thought she would die here, eaten alive by rats, when a red light flash blinded her. The rats let out a maddening screech of pain and they fell off from Marianne, allowing her to shake them off. The one trying to eat her lips, she simply impaled with her sword.
Bertrand’s bloody hand shone with a crimson light, his body fluids evaporating the moment they poured out of his wounded thumb. The swarm couldn’t stand the sight of it and immediately dispersed, leaving the half-devoured beetle and carriage behind.
Marianne noticed that their eyes had lost their unnatural glow and returned to normal. All signs of intelligence had vanished from their gaze, replaced with animalistic cowardice. They were no longer the fearless thralls of an outside force, but scared scavengers facing larger animals.
The vermin fled into the countryside, leaving their dead behind. Marianne took the opportunity to take a good long breath, before removing the six rats impaled on her rapier. Their corpses fell to the ground as the light in Bertrand’s fist vanished.
“That was an exorcism spell, wasn’t it?” Marianne asked her retainer, her lips bleeding. She used her psychic sight to analyze the damage, and to her horror, immediately confirmed that the rats carried multiple diseases. She called upon the Blood to expel the plagues and close the wounds. “I think I saw you cast it once or twice.”
“I used it to banish unwanted ghosts from the mansion of Milady’s mother,” Bertrand explained. “I assumed the sorcerer needed all his concentration to control a swarm this size, and any disruption would cause his power to falter.”
“So that was an animancer?” Marianne asked as she examined the rats. Animancers were sorcerers specialized in manipulating animals, or even plants in some cases.
The warlock behind the swarm had to be a powerful one, to direct such a large amount of rats at once. Even the Institute’s animancy specialist could only control a small flock of birds before suffering from heavy headaches.
“I assume so,” the vampire replied as he glanced at the empty spot where Vernburg stood a few minutes ago. “Though I have no explanation for this… this place.”
“I think the two phenomenons are mostly unrelated,” Marianne replied, as her wounds closed. She dissipated her bone armor, as maintaining it taxed her magical reserves. “The rats were as frightened of being trapped inside as we were.”
And the thing she had sensed inside the well… its power rivaled that of Lord Och, but she didn’t feel any finesse in it. Only raw, naked strength. And the howl at the end…
“The cause wasn’t a ritual or some other artifact,” Marianne said. “It was a living being. Maybe even a Stranger. The animancer was probably trying to make use of it, though I don’t understand how.”
The village’s disappearance explained why the Knights never noticed it. Perhaps it existed in a pocket dimension of some kind, or it could move from one spot to another. Marianne couldn’t be sure, as she lacked the necessary knowledge, but Lord Och would certainly identify this hamlet’s true nature.
She had to warn the authorities, but the rats had sacked the carriage beyond repair. The wheels were broken, the seats torn apart, the food spoiled or devoured. All documents that Marianne kept in her hidden compartments had vanished, probably stolen… including her notes on the Verney investigation.
Whoever caused this, they would learn that Lord Och had caught Valdemar soon enough. Marianne couldn’t shake the feeling that she might have endangered the last Verney, and it shamed her.
“You said we were three days away from the nearest guard station?” she asked Bertrand as he picked up a dead rat on the ground.
“Three days ride,” the vampire replied while sinking his teeth into the rodent’s corpse. Bertrand must have exhausted some of his blood casting his exorcism spell, and needed to replenish it. Rats weren’t as good a sustenance as humans or artificial blood, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
So it might take them a week to reach it on foot. Using the Blood to increase their pace would diminish their strength, and they didn’t have any food left. They might be able to reach a coastal village, but moving in the open would make them vulnerable to an attack by the rat swarm. Marianne didn’t think for a second that the magician behind everything would let them escape the region alive.
They had seen too much.
“The best defense is a good offense,” Marianne mused, as she looked up at the Verney castle. Unlike the cursed hamlet, its ruins remained atop a cliff.
The Knights had clearly missed someone during their purge.
And Marianne would finish the job for them.