Ignoring Hod, whose 12 stacks of gold coin were drawing the close attention of the others, Edric finished sorting the scrolls. There was quite a pile! Two scrolls were notes on summoning something named the Agent from a desert somewhere, and binding it to do Lorantus’ bidding. One was a healing scroll in the hand of a healer named Valasius. Two were powerful healing scrolls written by Lorantus himself, kept presumably so that he could bestow favor upon one or other of his followers. Most of the others were variations on proscribed summonings, but there were a couple more that could be pressed into service. Edric turned to Keth and Celo and asked:
“How’s Yemmi doing now?”
“I think that the worst of his suffering is over. But without help, he will take many months to recover, my friend,” responded Keth, his warm basso voice sounding concerned.
Edric pressed his hand on Yemmi’s chest and chanted from two scrolls in succession. Yemmi sat up, looking surprised. He scratched at where the poison had entered his arm, looked a little old-fashioned at Edric, and grinned.
“So, did I save yer all, then?”
Edric surveyed the other bits and pieces Hod had piled up near the chest. He was buoyed to find that amongst eight or so spell components, there were two good-size bags of silver filings – twenty pounds in all. A half-formed idea made its way into his head. But that had to wait: his party had to be put back into some sort of fighting order.
He used the healing scrolls to bring Gollarn back from the jaws of death and to restore Bardic to a more assured state of health. Valasius’ scroll had not worked: he had presumably fallen in one or other attacks. Ironically, so long as Lorantus continued to resist, his own scrolls could be used against him. Edric grinned, stroked his beard and looked around at his company as it struggled to its feet and awaited his decision.
A decision to move – again
“The chanting has not ceased. We must find this Lorantus as soon as we can, and stop him from bringing whatever it is he’s trying to summon. We have a certain amount of time as far as his notes tell me, but we can’t afford to waste time searching randomly. So we follow our ears. Let’s head south and see where he came from. Yemmi, lead the way.”
Yemmi led off, after briefly toying with throwing himself to the floor again and feining near-death. He dis-mounted one of the rushlights from the wall and set off south, Morath and Celo following at a short distance. Ignoring the rooms that still had Stygian Fire across their threshholds, Yemmi reached a closed door at the end of the southward tunnel. After listening at it, he flung it open and slipped leftward out of the line of fire.
Following up, the heavily-armored and encumbered Hod and Forgrim lagging at the rear, the others made their way into what was clearly a large chapel. Yemmi lit first one great flamberge then another, either side of an altarpiece. At first glance the chapel appeared Mitran. But the large tapestries decorating it were “off” in some way. Deeds of Mitran heroes and sages appeared somehow effete. Mitra’s face seemed to leer decadently rather than look serenely blank.
Edric examined the altar, and his heart sank. It had been contaminated with blood. He thought for a time as the rogues searched. It wasn’t a difficult search: fleeing footprints, marked by traces of blood, drew a direct line between the door they had entered, and the wall opposite. Yemmi had merely to twitch the tapestry aside and say “that’d be the secret door then.”
“Keth! Forgrim! Take hold of this altar – remove it out into the passage. Then I’ll re-consecrate this chapel,” Edric decided. To the concerned looks and muttering – particularly from Celo – he rejoined:
“It’s a matter of judgement and it’s my call. I believe this will improve our chances in the final push.”
Mitra’s power extended
With the silver powder spread carefully around the chapel perimeter, Edric pronounced a few simple but heartfelt words asking Mitra’s help. And help was received! He felt his full holy authority flood back into him! Looking over at Keth, he saw that the big Kothite had fallen to his knees in thanksgiving.
Healing was soon flowing from the two Friars into the most needy of their companions. Edric took the time to enchant the weapons of Bardic and Kayan, using Lorantus’ scrolls. He also sketched out a plan to use a Silence scroll to mask the noise of their approach, should they need to take defenders by surprise.
Meanwhile a passage beyond the secret door was scouted. It led down, but forked at a landing. The noise of chanting, still audible, was no help. Bardic was able to judge that the most recent users had turned left.
With renewed certainty the desperadoes reformed their order and headed down, the stairs descending steeply east, terminating in a door. Yemmi cautiously opened the door and eased it closed.
“There’s a bunch’a axe-merchants standin’ around a machine a’ some sort,” he muttered to the others. “I’d say maybe ten a’ them?”
Edric used the Silence spell, casting its effect upon one of Hod’s arrows. Since the latter was heavily burdened, Celo made a clumsy shot with Hod’s longbow, dropping the Silence effect upon the machine – some sort of jerry-built catapult – and the area around it. Then all those that felt up to charging, charged the surprised Damsons!
The fight was brief. The Damsons were commanded by one of the plumed sergeants, who ordered one man to peel off and flee south. Yemmi pursued and caught him, but not without taking a heavy cut from a second fugitive.
“I’m beginning to value Yemmi slightly more highly than the weight of his purse,” Morath murmured approvingly. Bloodthirsty pursuit always met with the Morath seal of approval.
On the trail
Bardic, who had caught up with the pair and put the Damson down, looked around what was clearly a vast stables. Here and there, stable-hands and smiths scurried hither and thither in alarm, like roaches surprised under a barrel. On the right, broad wooden double-gates suggested more stables; on the left, two wide exits suggested a smithy or the like.
“Check quickly: which way is the chanting loudest from?”
The sound of chanting felt closer, almost right under their feet. An exit through the back of the farrier’s stall did indeed lead towards where Bardic judged the sound loudest. He frowned, and gestured to marks in the dirt of the stall floor.
“Youngsters have been dragged and pushed through here by older men – I can see where small bare feet have dragged! They are sacrificing children!”
Swiftly and with grim faces, the ten reformed. Anyone who knew Bardic knew that he would show no hesitation or mercy now! Yemmi led off down tunnel, ignoring a right turn that appeared to be used principally by horses, and finally to a slightly newer stair, descending, so far as they could judge, beneath the stables above. The chanting was loud now: the very air pulsed with it. Although the noise of their armored passage was loud, it would take a gifted listener to pick them out.
The last line of defense
Almost disappointingly, the last ditch defense mounted, in an assembly area before imposing black double doors, was merely a standard section of eight Damsons. Showing great fortitude and discipline, the defenders formed a double rank and stepped forward willingly to do battle.
Bardic cut one greatly, putting him down. But four defenders hewed into him, and he fell, bleeding profusely. His cousin Gollarn straddled his body and Kayan danced forward to guard Gollarn’s left flank. Cut several times, Gollarn held his ground while Keth helped Bardic back and Edric got him back into the fight once more.
So fiercely did the invaders lay on that no Damson was left to be healed: once down, they would be hammered by Keth or Edric’s staff or butchered by Yemmi, Celo or Morath. Soon, the rank thinned and the rogues got behind them, and then it was all over.
In the sudden silence, all realized that the chanting had stopped. Thin cries piped briefly from beyond the double doors, then were extinguished. Bardic’s blood ran cold, then boiled!
Circle of blood
Receiving Edric’s nod, Yemmi pushed the doors open and rolled in, followed by Celo, Morath, Bardic and Gollarn. Hod stepped so that he had a good line of sight past Edric, and drew ready to loose.
The shrine beyond the doors made no pretense of Mitran devotion. The wall opposite was a mosaic, its manifold chips of rock or crystal picking out a desert scene. A weird stone temple was visible in the distance of the desert. The walls left and right were decorated with flowing coiling serpent-themes. Eyes seemed to leer from the coils as though Set himself were gloating at the atrocity. Positioned so that they gazed back at the far wall, two massive black statues, each of a dog-faced four-armed beast, towered at the near corners.
Six Friars, and Lorantus a seventh, had formed a circle perhaps twenty feet across. Each had just finished slitting the throat of a luckless stable-lad or smith’s prentice. Barely acceptable in the bloody balance of demon-bargains though these were, Lorantus was confident that the Agent would see reason: why would she set aside all of his good work for the Powers behind her, and allow his Order to fall?
He began calling on her: then a clothyard shaft pierced his upraised hand!
“Got him!” Hod muttered, readying another shaft. Edric prepared to unleash a spell, then paused. He was fairly sure what Lorantus’ attack would be, and felt that he had a good chance of countering it. His eye was drawn back to the mural. There was a figure in it, after all. Very small, but the eye was drawn to it nonetheless.
Bardic hacked into the nearest Damson before he could even swap custrel dagger for axe. Kayan danced around the circle and cut another. The rogues vaulted past the immediate fight, avoiding the blood spilling out around the circle, to hunt for vantage around the flanks. Ignoring these niceties, Gollarn charged right across the circle and cleaved another. Within moments only the farthest pair of Friars, and Lorantus himself, were left standing.
The end of heresy
Watching Lorantus, Edric spotted the spell coming: sure enough, Lorantus was attempting to dispel something or someone. He issued the counter, and canceled it out! Hod sank another arrow into the evil Abbot. Edric glanced up over Lorantus’ shoulder. Was it his imagination? Or was the lone figure closer? It was heavily cloaked, he could make out. Something about the way the artist had installed it suggested a feminine presence beneath the cloaks.
Morath and Celo noted that the eyes of the two statues were now glowing violet. They called out this alarming news. Forgrim rolled in next to the left statue. It was time to get serious! He slung his heavy shield and battleaxe and drew his massive poll-axe from where it had hung at his back the whole time. Reversing it, he used the hammer-head end to begin dismantling the statue. Edric called one of his most powerful spells to bear on the other, Dismissing any demon from this realm. The violet eyes ceased to glow.
Lorantus seemed to be screaming something: he had now turned to face the rear wall. Another shaft took him high in the back. Hod was having a great run! he had advanced into the room to get a better shot, and didn’t look like missing. The figure was definitely closer, and visibly moving. A sinuous movement. Her face, which was all that was visible under her cloaks, was diamond-shaped, her eyes violet. They dipped mockingly at Lorantus. His screams continued: then the rogues closed in and he fell in a blur of steel and blood.
“Destroy the circle!”
“It’s already broken!”
“Destroy the back wall!”
“Let’s try it!”
Bardic lofted his great blade and swiped it down, shattering the crystal and tesserae mosaic. The figure could still be seen, closer still: it had avoided the blade. The cloaks boiled, as though with movement of many limbs.
Perhaps only Edric could hear the next words, for later the others swore they heard nothing but shattering stone.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, Edric. You’ve done very well! I’m looking forward to our meeting.”
Treasure galore: and partings
Yemmi found the secret door to the treasure chamber with no great difficulty. His patient care ensured that all traps were evaded and all four chests opened. The treasury of the Damsons was substantial. Aside from the four chests, a number of weapons and curios were racked on the walls, and rolled tapestries dating from the original monastery awaited restoration to the scrying room.
Although some of the treasure would need proper assaying and exchanging, there was more than enough to assure Edric that his double-share would be plenty to pay off all of the hirelings – including the exorbitant fees of Morath and Celo – and still have enough to re-found this fortress as a proper Mitran monastery, should he wish to.
Order was restored and the few fit members were detailed off to chase off any remaining Damsons and make contact with Kuruk again. Although some Damsons had taken horses and fled away west through the secret valley, there were still several really fine mounts in the private stable of the Seniors and several other nags, so a pack-train could be set up. Kuruk was found standing guard by the eastern entrance tunnel, unsure whether to ride back to Castle Crow or come searching. The party was now able to relax, count coins and silver bar, and make plans.
“I’m off back to our clan, cousin,” replied Gollarn. “I’m not sure what I’ll do with all of this money, but I can try buying a herd instead of stealing it.”
“Me for the south. Warm sun, good wine, soft women,” Bardic re-confirmed.
“The south sounds good to me,” Celo agreed. “Somewhere not Aquilonian of course.”
“True, you’re still wanted men,” Morath recollected. “I’m not sure where I’ll go yet, but somewhere with a good supply of life’s luxuries.”
“I find the way you seem to think Aquilonia’s authorities don’t have your name on a death-list rather strange, Morath,” Edric cautioned. “For me, I certainly have a mission to pursue sooner or later. So I’ll try to stay in touch with you all.”