Jon and his companions seeks out answers of his coming to this world from an unlikely source, though they shall meet someone they did not expect who shall prove a valuable ally. Kindly leave a review.
She slept off and on for the rest of the day; Jon fed her when she was strong enough, but they did not speak again. As night fell, Fritz proved to be as good as his word, and a carriage arrived in front of the house. Within was Ingfried's maid, who immediately began fussing over her mistress and helping her into the carriage. She made no comment about all that had happened since they had arrived in Marienburg. Jon supposed that working for wizards meant that she was made of sterner stuff than the average servant. The driver merely nodded in acknowledgement and said no more. Once Ingfried was inside the carriage, they set off, with him bringing up the rear. Jon hoped that anyone who saw them would simply see either a noblewoman or wealthy member of the merchant class and her bodyguard. Ghost rode inside the carriage to lessen the risk of being stopped, though Jon doubted it was to his liking. Whether that was the case or more trickery from Fritz, the guards at the gate made no comment as they passed by.
They rode throughout the night with the light of Mannslieb to guide them. They passed into the great forest, and he at once felt discomfiting. If they were attacked again, he was alone, armed with an inferior blade, and he was unsure if Ingfried would be able to employ her magic if the need should arise. However, the roads were empty save for the occasional fox or hart. As dawn broke, they paused for a short rest. The maid produced a simple meal of dried meat and bread, and they ate in silence and then got a few hours of sleep, continuing on as soon as they awoke. This continued for some time; in truth, the days seemed to blur together until at last they left the forest, and Jon found that they had returned to Carroburg.
The driver took them to an inn and obtained lodgings though before he left gave Jon a large bag of coins, taking the carriage with him. After they were settled, Jon went down to the dock and, after some haggling, acquired passage to Altdorf. As he now had a horse, the only barge that would take them was a cattle barge, and they would have to sleep on the deck with the crew. It would not be overly comfortable, but Jon guessed that Ingfried was eager to return home as quickly as possible. The night passed quietly, and the barge sailed in the predawn hours. There were some raised eyebrows at the sight of Ghost, but after assurances that he would cause no trouble, he was allowed on; after it was explained to Jon, in great detail, what would happen to Ghost if he proved to be otherwise.
The barge was slow, the cattle were loud, and the smell was horrific, but Ingfried did not complain. Then, as night fell, a chilliness came upon the river. They were wrapped in their blankets leaning against the cabin, and while he was used to far colder nights, it seemed that Ingfried was not. She moved over to snuggle up to Jon, leaning on his shoulder. A wave of emotion; a mixture of fear, shame and longing. For a moment, he considered moving away but chose not to. He told himself it was because she was cold and all she had endured at the hands of those fuckers, but he knew that that was not entirely true.
Once they arrived back in Altdorf, obtaining a carriage to take them to the edge of the Colleges was not difficult. When they arrived, Jon helped Ingfried from the carriage and offered her his arm to support her. She declined and walked boldly forward. However, just before she entered, she paused and turned back to Jon.
"I would appreciate it if you would not speak of what I said and forget it yourself if possible. It was a moment of weakness; I am better now. Thank you for your words; I needed them." with that, they entered the College.
Once inside, a servant led them to Julevno's study. The wizard had clearly been expecting them and did not seem overly surprised to see that Ingfried had been injured. He requested food and drink brought and then turned to face Jon and Ingfried.
"Tell me what happened in Marienburg." Jon saw a look of surprise cross across Ingfried's face, though it was gone so quickly that he was not sure it had actually happened. She quickly and concisely told Julevno what had occurred once they arrived in the city.
Her master's face grew grave at the mention of the Seeker, and Jon added his voice when appropriate after they had finished their account; the wizard said nothing for a few moments, deep in thought.
"This is troubling. It may be time to call for a conclave of all the Colleges." His voice trailed off. After a moment, he seemed to remember that they were still there and spoke this time to Jon.
"You must be tired young man, once we have eaten you should get some rest. We will talk more later." It was an apparent dismissal, but in truth, Jon was somewhat tired, and the thought of an actual bed sounded pleasant. There would be plenty of time for talk later.
After they had eaten, a servant took him to the room he had stayed in before while Ingfried remained behind to talk with Julevno. A bath had been drawn for him, and the servants provided him with a new set of clothes. By the time he was done with his bath, the sun had set, and he had begun to feel sleepy and laid on the bed, yet as he began to doze, there was a banging upon his door; he wondered who it could be He stood up in frustration and yanked the door open, half expecting some maid come to inform him that his presence had been ordered, but it was no maid rather, it was. Ingfried, still dressed in her traveller's garments.
"May I come in?" She asked meekly; she seemed fearful as if something was greatly weighing on her mind.
"Yes, please come in," Jon said, standing aside to allow her to enter his room. She entered and sat down in one of the chairs. She seemed to gather her thoughts for a moment and then began to speak.
"My master and I have been going over what Magister Adelman and I were discussing before…the attack in addition to what my master's own research into the matter uncovered; though he has, of course, had other duties to attend to and could not focus all of his attention on it."
"Would you like to hear what we discovered?"
"Yes, please go on," Jon said, his pulse quickening at the prospect of at last finding out what had happened to him.
"Magister Adelman theorised that these lands are not the only ones to bear life. This is backed by the legends of the Old Ones, a mythical race that allegedly created all life. He believed those old stories and supposed they also devised means of travelling between these lands. Indeed, some suggest that the Ruinous Powers first came to the world when those means were somehow damaged. She paused for a moment. "Magister Adelman believes that someone, or something, either activated these…paths, I suppose you could call them or attempted to recreate the effect."
"What could do that?" Jon asked.
Ingfried shrugged and looked decidedly uneasy. "I do not know, nothing human, that is for certain. My master was not even certain that it was done intentionally or if it was an unintended consequence."
Jon merely sat there, trying to comprehend what had happened to him; it left him decidedly confused.
He would have preferred had what had happened been more clearly explained, but he supposed that that may have been hoping for too much, and it was good to know something. However, he did not know if he should be relieved or not at the thought that his presence here was apparently merely an accident. It angered him to think that he had been torn from his brothers and his duties seemingly by someone's carelessness; on the other hand, had he been brought here purposely, that would mean that someone or something manipulated him for their own ends.
He was troubled by the idea that there was a being capable of drawing a man from one place to another; even worse was the thought that it had been done by accident, like a giant blundering drunkenly through a garden of flowers, crushing them without intending to.
Ingfried seemed calmer as if the academic problem had quashed the fear; it was much the same with Sam whenever he learned something new, yet her eyes betrayed the terror she felt.
She did not speak at first, but it was clear that she had wanted an excuse to talk about it. "Do you remember what happened when we met my master?"
Jon was slightly bewildered. "He asked what happened." He said, unsure what else to say, but it was clear it was the response she hoped for.
"Exactly!" She exclaimed; her earlier hesitation vanished as swiftly as it came. "He did not know, my master, the lord of the college of diviners, people who can predict their own deaths, did not know what had happened."
Being new to this world, Jon did not quite see how big a deal, but it was clear that it was of the greatest importance to Ingfried and likely to her fellow wizards.
"How is this possible?" He asked. The question seemed to make her even more upset.
"I do not know, and neither do any of the others I have spoken to on the matter."
"Have you noticed any difficulties?" Jon asked.
Ingfried shook her head. "I have not used my skills much of late," she hesitated and held up her bandaged hands to emphasise her point; "Regardless, it is not all magic. Whatever is suppressing our abilities seems mainly to be affecting the practice of divination, and since I have no skill for the art, I have not noticed anything." She paused and waved her hand in a circle as if trying to find the right words to express herself.
"The specificness of this…shadow, I suppose one can call it, is its most troubling aspect. None believe it can be natural, which means that someone is trying to blind the seers of the Empire. Our enemies are blinding us; there are few capable of such magics." She paused, and a look of dread passed across her face.
"Perhaps only one, but I dare not name it." The last part was said with such vehemence he didn't think to question her. But, in truth, he found that he did not want to know; at once, it seemed the room had grown dark, and a chill took them, so he thought it best to change the subject.
"You said that your master has also been looking into the matter. Did he uncover anything?" She smiled, seemingly pleased to be discussing something else as well.
"Indeed he has. He consulted the library and found something which might be relevant," said Ingfried pensively. "Or rather, he found a reference to a reference." he waited anxiously for her to go on, hoping for some insight. "In an old treatise on magic written by Hierophant Gerolf Stuhr of the Light Order. In his writings, he went into more detail about how the Old Ones travelled between lands, or at least he speculated on how he thought they travelled. In any event, in his work, he referenced a book, The Old Ones and their ways, by High Elven Lore Master Ontinthin the Insightful. My master believes that more information could be found in the book."
Hope flared in Jon; however, remembering his initial dismay frowned. "Do you have this book?"
"My master is looking into it. The book is ancient, and the libraries of the colleges are vast," she paused, looking at him with a knowing and half-mocking expression that made him feel very uncomfortable; "Well, perhaps not the Bright College." She rose and made to leave.
"I will let you rest. My master is very busy, but he said he would like to speak with you in the morning." She paused and looked as if she wanted to say something else. "I wanted to thank you again for everything." She said in a soft voice. She made as if she would move toward him, but she stopped herself and turned and left without another word.
The following day, though Jon rose early, he barely had time to dress before a servant knocked at his door to escort him to meet with Julevno. The man looked tired and slightly worried, though he was clearly trying to conceal it. Remembering what Ingfried had told him about their magic being suppressed, Jon fancied that he knew what was causing Julevno's concern, though he said nothing. Regardless of whether this was the cause of his unease or not, the man offered no greeting, preferring to get to business.
"As Ingfried has already spoken to you on the matter, so I will get right to the point. Unfortunately, we do not have the book." Jon was about to grumble, but the man raised his hand, clearly not done.
"However, a copy was known to be in the library of Baron Helmut Von Elsner of Stirland, who was known to collect various rare books and artefacts. Unfortunately, Von Elsner died, and it's believed that his line ended and all his holdings destroyed during the Vampire Wars; however, recent events have cast doubt upon that assumption."
"A friend of mine, one Volker Weidenfeld, a priest of Verena, may have found a lead recently; he uncovered documents which suggested that before his castle was overrun by the vampires, the Baron hid much of his treasure, including many of his books.
"Weidenfeld believes he has learned where this hiding place is located and is mounting an expedition to search for it, as the hoard contains several artefacts which have historical value. While I normally do not put much stock in such things, I have never known my friend to engage in such activities unless he is wholly convinced, and it is the only lead I know of.
"I sent a message to him this morning, and I just received a reply saying that he would be honoured to have you along. I believe that he would dearly like to speak with you. Are you interested?" Jon thought for a moment, but not for very long.
He was willing to risk anything to find a way home, and he knew that if he passed up the opportunity, it would haunt him, and despite the hospitality of his host, these wizards made him uneasy. But, travelling, facing misfortune, and fighting that he understood and nodded in agreement.
"Excellent," Julevno said happily, which suggested that he already knew what Jon would say.
"There is one more matter.
"Ingfried told me that you acquired some armour, and I believe it would be to your benefit to have someone help you don and remove it." He then rang a bell, and then a servant appeared.
"Bring the boy in." The man bowed and departed. He returned a few moments later with a boy of about twelve or so.
He was lithe and lean, with large blue eyes and a mop of shaggy black hair. He wore clothing similar to that worn by the servants in the College, though they fit him poorly, hanging loosely on his body, and his cheeks were marred by pox scars. His expression was a mixture of sullen resentfulness and fear that he was doing his best to hide. It reminded Jon of men who had come to the Wall by their own choice. He remained silent as the servant brought him further into the room. They stopped about five feet from Jon and Julevno, who resumed speaking.
"This is Gunther, one of the city's many urchins who make their living through petty theft. He was recently taken into custody by the City Watch. Normally they would send him to cool his heels in lockup until some magistrate or other sentences him to a punishment which I am sure he would find most unpleasant. However, I believe he has a part to play in the coming days. So, I spoke to some friends I have in the Hall of Justice, and young Gunther was offered a choice: have his sentence commuted in exchange for serving you or take his chances with the magistrate, something he did not seem inclined to do."
Jon looked at Gunther speculatively. He did need a squire or someone similar to assist him. While the situation was not ideal, it was no different from the way many of his brothers in the Watch had come to the Wall. Thus, he graciously accepted the offer of Gunther's assistance.
Shortly thereafter, he went to call upon Weidenfeld, who was staying at a temple of his Goddess. He had wanted to take Gunther with him, but Julevno had advised against it, knowing the boy would likely use the chance to slip away and resume his thieving. Ingfried also remained behind, her fingers being treated by one of the Colleges physicians, so another servant was called to escort him. Jon had been expecting something like the septs dedicated to the Seven; instead, the temple, which stood three stories tall, was more akin to a library; stacks of books rose from the floor straight to the roof, high windows allowing in ample light for the readers who sat at long tables and benches immersed in various books and scrolls. He was not sure where he would find Wiendenfeld, but the matter was quickly resolved when the man himself came over to Jon.
He was a short man and appeared to be about the same age as Julevno, with thinning white hair and a short beard of the same colour. Despite his age, he was trim and seemed to be in good shape. He did not move with the grace of a swordsman but rather like a man who had lived an active life, which included a great deal of walking. Jon gave a slight bow, which the man returned. He raised his head and gave Jon a friendly smile.
"My good fellow, it is a pleasure to meet you! Julevno explained your situation in his letter, a most fascinating occurrence. Indeed, I would not believe it except that I know that Julevno has no sense of humour with regards to such things. I would be greatly pleased if you could tell me all about your home if the opportunity should present itself."
"I would be honoured," Jon replied, taken off-guard by the man's almost bold gregariousness.
"Splendid, splendid," Wiendenfeld replied. "Now, let us go over the details."
For the next several hours, they went over the details of the journey and arranged for him to have a wagon for his supplies and Gunther, Julevno having already promised that a horse would be made available. Once the arrangements had been made and the place and time for their departure set, Jon bid them farewell and returned to the College. Once there, he made his way to Ingfried's quarters. She had invited him there to eat and practice Reikspiel so that he would not have to rely on the Elven talisman; however, things took a slightly different course. As they ate, Jon told her what had been discussed that day and the expedition he had joined and scheduled to depart three days hence. Though the spectre of Geheimnistag still hung over them, it had been determined that they could not wait for it to pass. As they went over the day's events, Jon remembered the hushed conversations of the men.
"Ingfried, what is a vampire?" The effect on the young wizard was instantaneous and startling. She went rigid, and a look of fear crossed her face, and she tried to make the sign of the Wolf, but she could not with her broken fingers; after a moment, she drew a deep breath and spoke.
"They are some of the vilest creatures to exist, obscenities of the use of magic; men and women who feared death and so used magic to become undead beings cursed by gods and men alike which can only sustain themselves by drinking the blood of the living. Thrice in the history of the Empire, they have raised vast armies of undead slaves and attempted to conquer the Empire and, from there, I assume, the rest of the world, and it has only been by the grace of the gods and the courage of men that they were beaten back." At her words, Jon felt a chill, reminded all too vividly Old Nan's stories of the dead who walked, though these sounded even worse.
"Where do they come from?"
"There are a number of theories where they come from, I do not know which is true. However, it is enough to know that they exist." She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was low and fearful. "The book you seek was taken by a vampire; beware, while the monster may have died in the wars, there is a chance that the vampire who took it still lives, and like dragons, the older a vampire becomes, the stronger they grow. They are terrible, Jon Snow, terrible."
Her words chilled him, and that night his dreams were troubled by visions of him being chased through the Haunted Forest by shadows with gleaming red eyes.
The days before the expedition was to set off went by quickly. Jon had made his own preparations relatively swiftly, so he could focus on other matters. Much of this time was spent teaching Gunther his new duties; the boy had not handled armour before, and so Jon had to explain how each piece was put on the warrior, how to attach them and how to care for them. Despite never having received a formal education, Gunther was clever and a quick learner; seeing this, Jon had offered to teach him basic swordsmanship, but he had declined. While Gunther had never held a sword before, the boy soon demonstrated that he knew quite a bit about knife fighting, showing him several tricks. Jon found he enjoyed these lessons; they reminded him of when he had trained others at Castle Black before the duties of governance had begun to take so much of his time.
The evenings were spent with Ingfried, both for language lessons and learning more about vampires, from the various bloodlines that roamed the world and their weaknesses. Though the more he learned of these strange creatures, the more fearful he became, his dreams filled with visions of blood-glutted creatures and savage beasts. At last, the time came to depart, Jon wished that Ingfried could accompany him, but her fingers had still not yet healed. His gear and supplies were loaded into the wagon alongside Gunther and the driver while he rode beside them. As they rode towards the temple, Jon saw Gunther eyeing the people they passed, a covetous look in his eyes.
"Do not even think about it," Jon warned him sternly. The boy's expression became one of wounded innocence.
"My lord, I am a reformed individual aiding a noble lord on his quest." Jon did not bother to explain that though his father had been a noble, he as a bastard, was not one himself.
"Besides, it is downright impious to not lift a purse or two." Jon merely arched an eyebrow at that. Gunther elaborated.
"To a devout follower of Ranald, such as myself, it is a holy duty to relieve those who have too much of their wealth, thus taking them down a peg or two."
"So, you are doing it for their own good," Jon said, suppressing the urge to smirk.
Gunther nodded, smiling broadly. "But of course, my lord. An excess of pride draws the wrath of the gods, while suffering earns their benevolence. Frankly, it is rather upsetting that they do not appreciate our efforts on their behalf." Jon could not help himself; he laughed. When they arrived at the temple, Wiendenfeld was already present, and it appeared that his own preparations were complete and were more extensive than Jon had realised.
In addition to his own wagon, Jon saw nine more, as well as a carriage that Jon guessed, was for Wiendenfeld's use. There looked to be around forty people accompanying the expedition. Two or three looked to be scholars like Wiendenfeld, but the rest were hard-looking men with the look of sellswords about them. It appeared that Jon was the last to arrive, and as soon as Wiendenfeld had greeted him, they set off making their way through the winding streets; due to the early hour, not many people were about yet, and so they were able to make their way without too much difficulty and out of the gates.
Much of the journey was without incident. As all were either mounted or riding on the wagons, they were able to make good time, and Wiendenfeld was pressing them as hard as he reasonably could. He often invited Jon to join him in his carriage and talk to the older man about his home. Wiendenfeld wanted to know everything: the lands, the peoples, religions, traditions and more. While they were talking, one of the other scholars took notes. After one such conversation, Wiendenfeld leaned back in his seat, a pleased smile on his face.
"Thank you, my boy. These notes will actually go a long way in supporting my arguments."
"What arguments are those?" Jon asked.
"I have long argued that the Old Ones that the Elves speak of created this world or at least influenced its development. If we look at what you have said, it would appear that they did so for your lands as well."
"How so?" Jon asked, confused.
"Look how many similarities our homes share. Knights, the feudal system, many of the same animals and all the rest. It is inconceivable that two such lands, which have, as far as we know, no contact until you came here, should develop in such similar ways, or even that they should both have human life on them." Jon said nothing, not sure what to make of this.
When not talking with Wiendenfeld, Jon began to get to know several other men members of the expedition, and he soon became acquainted with three men in particular. The first was Landolf Hopf, who hailed from the city of Middenheim. Hopf was a great bear of a man, standing well over six feet with muscles an ox might be envious of; he was bald but with a great plaited beard that went down to his chest. Like Jon, he wore plate armour, though he forwent a helmet and carried a massive double headed warhammer. Hopf always spoke in a tone just below shouting and seemed to always have a bottle in his hand. He claimed to have fought in every army in the Empire and against every foe one could face. The only time he seemed calmer was when he was looking at Ghost, adopting a reverential look that Jon had seen before.
In contrast to Hopf was Wigand Von Haberkorn. He was of medium height, slight of build, with curly brown hair and eyes. He came from the city of Nuln in the south and was the second son of a minor noble. It seemed that it was a tradition to send the second son to the clergy, something that Haberkorn had been very much against. Thus, on his sixteenth birthday, before his father could force him into seminary, he had packed some possessions and ridden from his family's estate. He had travelled south to a land known as Tilea, a land apparently divided into numerous city-states constantly fighting against each other and had made his living as a sellsword and had only recently returned to the Empire. He wore a short sword, but his primary weapon was one of the black powder weapons that Jon had seen before; however, Haberkorn's was longer and had multiple barrels arranged in a circle.
Accompanying Haberkorn was a man whom he had befriended while in Tilea named Lorenzo Sardus. Sardus was tall, though not as tall as Hopf; he was slender and graceful, moving in such a way that Jon thought him akin to a viper. His was curly and black, and his eyes were black as onyx. It soon became apparent that his favourite activity was boasting of his skill with pistol and blade. Indeed, according to him, he had been the most sought-after bodyguard and assassin by all of the great princes of his homeland. On his belt hung a sword which seemed to Jon to be too thin to be an effective weapon, and three pistols hung from straps running across his chest.
As they travelled further east, the road became run down, and villages and towns grew farther and farther apart. Some weeks after leaving Altdorf, as they neared the place where Baron Von Elsner allegedly had hidden his treasure, Jon saw that even the land seemed to worsen. As it was autumn, he was not surprised to see the leaves dying and falling; what he did not expect was to see trees dying as well. It was almost as if some blight had poisoned the land. It was not all the trees, but enough that it was noticeable. Just as they were preparing to stop for the night, the silence was broken by the sounds of battle; remounting their horses, they crept over the rim of the hill they were greeted by a cruel sight.
A wagon had been driven off the road and lay on its side; about it were a dozen or so men arrayed in a circle, weapons in hand. Glimpsing them in the gathering darkness, Jon first took them to be soldiers guarding the wagon; a closer look revealed that this was not the case. They were not soldiers and were clad like smallfolk and townspeople. They held not spears but pitchforks and other farming implements if they were a bewildering sight, their foes were horrifying and grotesque. There were many more of them, obscured by the twilight; it was hard to make out many details, but what he could filled his heart with terror.
They moved in a shambling manner; many were unarmed, and those that were had no uniformity amongst them. Worst of all was the fact that they were rotting. Some were missing limbs; some even had their innards falling out. Undead, like the wights of the Others. Around him, he saw that some of the sellswords were clearly unnerved by the sight. It affected Jon as well, but he had faced the undead before and knew they could be bested. Jon drew his sword and rode a little ahead of the rest. As he did so, he felt the role of Lord Commander coming back to him, as when he had been left to defend the Wall.
"Come," he called, raising his voice to be heard; "Are we going to be unmanned by some sticking piles of rotting meat?" Some of the men laughed uneasily, but it was clear that their nerves had settled; pressing his advantage, he spurred his horse forward, and as he did so, he heard the sound of the others following behind him.
As they rode down the hill, some of the undead, zombies, Ingfried had called them, turned to face the oncoming riders. Jon was undeterred and urged his horse to go faster. The zombies did not falter, but that did not make them any more resistant to being run over by a horse. Jon's mount knocked three of them down, and he struck another with his sword. The blade buried itself in the undead creature's flesh, but it did not fall. It tried to grab him as he rode by, but Ghost lunged forward and wrestled it to the ground. Not having any foes near him, Jon looked about to see how the battle was going.
Many of the sellswords had dismounted in order to fight on foot, clearly only using horses to speed their travel. One of the exceptions was Haberkorn, who rode around the edge of the battle, firing his weapon repeatedly whenever he saw an opening. Hopf and Sardus had both dismounted and were fighting on foot alongside many of the others. Sardus moved with remarkable grace; zombies lunged at him, yet the man seemed to always be out of their reach. Unfortunately, his counterattacks were less than effective while his pistols sheered limbs and blew great holes in their rotting flesh, his blade was too delicate to inflict any lasting wound. Hopf, on the hand, was having a much easier time of it. He made no effort to evade attacks, merely trusting in his armour to protect him, twirling his hammer in great sweeping arcs, bellowing curses and prayers to Ulric; each blow sliced off limbs and crushed bones soon, a dozen fetid corpses lay about the White Wolf yet there were still dozens more to send to Morr.
Taking in the battle as a whole, Jon saw that while the sellswords were winning, they were taking losses they did not have to. They were fighting as individuals with little to no coordination. The men guarding the wagon were of no help, refusing to leave it and attacking only those zombies which approached them. Jon rode about calling the men together in an effort to form a battleline. While his actions were only partially successful, they still had the effect that he desired. Those who could formed a line and began pushing the zombies back, allowing others to join them or attack on the flanks and rear. They were aided in their efforts by the fact that the zombies proved to be even more lacking in wits than the wights that Jon had faced; at last, the final ones were slain, and silence fell upon them. As Jon dismounted and had some of the men gather up the wounded, as well as the two men who had died, he heard the sound of footsteps approaching him. He turned and was greeted by the sight of a woman.
She looked to be near twenty, clad in a white dress with sleeves of reddish lace; a white wimple covered her tresses were black as satin, and her eyes were a light grey. Around her neck was a necklace carved to resemble a silver dove in a flight. As she approached, he saw that she was tall enough to look him straight in the eye. She stopped an arm's length from him and gave a slight bow.
"I thank you, good knight, for coming to my aid and the aid of those who travel with me." Her voice was low and had a refined quality to it. Jon returned her bow.
"I thank you for your kind words, though I am no knight. May I have your name, good lady?" He thought he remembered that was how men spoke to noble women in the stories Sansa had always loved; he himself had never paid much attention to them, but it might help now.
The woman gave him a friendly smile. "I thank you for your kind words, though I am no more a lady than you are a knight, not anymore."
"Anymore?" Jon asked, slightly confused.
"Indeed, I was born Mircalla Von Klinger, daughter of Baron Landolf Von Klinger. He was very pious and thought it would be a splendid thing to have a child in the clergy, and respectful to his wishes, I pledged myself to the Lady in White. Thus, I am now simply Mircalla, a humble priestess of Shallya." Jon was not completely surprised at this; it was not unlike when men and women pledged themselves to the Seven, and he, like her, had given up his comforts for a life of hardship and service though their conversations were cut short by the wails of the wounded, so Mircalla excused herself and went to treat them.
As she did so, the men with her righted the wagons as the wagons of the expedition arrived. Wiendenfeld dismounted and looked about, clearly recognising the zombies for what they were. As he looked about, Jon came up to him and explained what had happened. The more Jon explained, the more concerned Wiendenfeld looked. Finally, when Jon finished, Wiendenfeld cast a look into the woods beyond.
"You saw no one controlling them?" Jon shook his head.
"Strange." Wiendenfeld muttered.
"Strange and disturbing."
"How so?" Jon asked.
"These creatures are mindless; they cannot act on their own. If someone, or something, was not here to control them, then one can only assume that they were placed here, and a spell cast upon them to attack any who used this road. But if that were the case, why? What would someone hope to gain by doing so?" The questions seemed addressed more to himself than Jon, for which the latter was grateful as he had no answer.
As night had fallen and the men were tired from the day's travel and the battle, it was decided to set up camp. Some of the men, those who had stayed with the wagons and so had missed the battle, were assigned to dig a pit and throw the bodies of both sides into it. After they had filled it in, Wiendenfeld went to it, said prayers for the dead and then put a blessing on the grave.
"I am no priest of Morr, but hopefully, the blessing will keep them in the ground long enough for us to be gone." Jon was not happy with that, and neither were any of the others, but they were too weary to go on, and so Jon, whom many seemed to have accepted as the de facto leader of the sellswords, set a guard, making sure to have someone just to watch the grave in case the dead attempted to claw their way out. Jon was checking the guards when he heard someone approaching; turning, he found himself looking into the eyes of Mircalla.
"My lady, you are well?"
"I am," she replied, her voice slightly sad as she looked down at her blood covered hands; "Though I fear that I cannot say the same for all those under my care. Unfortunately, two of your men died. I am sorry." Jon nodded, he had not really known them, but as their unofficial leader, he felt somewhat responsible for them and did not wish to appear callus, hoping to change the subject.
"Forgive me, my lady, but I must ask what you are doing in these lands?" said Jon warily.
"There are several villages scattered about that are too poor to have a physician or support a permanent temple, and so my sisters and I take turns travelling from village to village helping those in need. As for the men, some were travelling to the other villages to trade, and some were brave fellows who offered me protection. I thank the Goddess for them," she grasped the medallion at her neck; "I shudder to think what would have happened had I been alone when those things attacked, or you had no…." She stopped speaking. Before Jon realised what she was doing, she embraced him, trembling slightly.
Jon was both surprised and embarrassed by this sudden development. Despite this, he could not help but note that she was rather cold, colder than her attire would permit; she must still be frightened from the battle. He reddened as she tugged at her clothing enough for Jon to see that she wore nothing beneath her dress. Before she could remove it, Jon put a hand on her shoulder.
"I am sorry, I cannot." She paused in her efforts and looked him in the eye. As she did so, Jon felt a wave of longing flow over him as he stared into her eyes. He found that he desired her but knew it wouldn't be right, so Jon swiftly recited the oath of the Watch. It helped to calm him, and he hastily looked away. It seemed Mircalla knew she had overstepped and hurriedly put her dress back on.
"I am so sorry," she said bashfully; "I do not know what came over me. It's just what happened today and the way you came to the rescue, just like the knights in the stories that I loved when I was a girl. I am sorry." She said again, before fleeing from his tent, seemingly on the verge of tears. Jon did not pursue her. He did not know what to say and was certain that anything he said would only make things worse.
"Excuse me, My Lord," a voice sounded behind him. Jon turned and found Gunther standing behind him, looking like a cat who had gotten into the cream.
"I trust I am not interrupting." Gunther chortled, and Jon glowered at him angrily though the boys' grin grew wider.
"All I'm saying, Sir, is that Ranald looks with disfavour if one lets a good thing go by."
"Enough," Jon growled, hoping it would get his point across. Gunther seemed to understand as he indeed changed the topic.
"Father Wiendenfeld wants to speak to you." Jon nodded and headed to the priest's tent. The older man was sitting at a small table, staring intently at a map spread out on it. As Jon entered, the priest looked up and motioned for Jon to join him.
"I have been speaking with Aimar Klopp, a burgher from Trausaenburg who was travelling with Sister Mircalla. He gave me some rather disturbing news."
"What news?" Jon asked.
"Well, a legend actually, but such things are often based, at least in part, on truth.
"According to Herr Klopp, Baron Von Elsner was less than successful in his efforts to hide his treasures, and they were found and taken by one of the vampires during the first War of the Vampire Counts." Dismay and wrath sparked within Jon, though he did his best to conceal his feelings. But, in spite of his best efforts, the other man had clearly seen what he was feeling and hastened to continue.
"However, all may not be lost. According to Klopp, the vampire who found it did not take it far. It seems that the vampire was using a town called Hopsenburg, about four days' travel from here, as its dwelling, or rather the vampire was using the castle which stood near the town. It was abandoned after the defeat of the arch-vampire Vlad Von Carstein at the Battle of Altdorf. Klopp does not believe that the vampire ever returned to the town; it may even have been one of the vampires who died during the battle or in the subsequent power struggle amongst the surviving Von Carsteins. In any event, there is a chance that what we seek is still there and is the only lead we have. Therefore, I believe we should make for the town and see what is to be seen."
Jon, not knowing what else to do, agreed.
The journey did indeed take four days, each more miserable than the last. The sky was constantly overcast, and it frequently rained, though it was never strong enough to reduce the road to mud as Jon feared it might. Still, it was enough to make everything damp and cold. At night heavy fog would roll in, making it near impossible to see anything. The bare trees loomed over them like skeletons, and at night, they took on the form of monstrous creatures rearing up to devour the whole party. Men on sentry duty swore that the trees were moving during the night or that there were things within the trees watching them. Though Jon dismissed the former, he could not shake the feeling that the latter might very well be true. He too felt eyes on them as they moved, and once or twice he could have sworn that he also saw something moving in the trees, though it was always gone when he looked again. The night rang with the howling of wolves, and while he had heard the sound many times, Jon could not deny that there was something almost…malevolent about the sound it gripped their hearts with fear. Even the darkness itself seemed to be attacking them. At night the men built fires as big as they could, and the sentries all carried torches. However, it seemed to get both darker and colder; almost as if the darkness was alive and attempting to smother their lights and make the darkness complete. Jon did not know why, but he was sure that if the lights ever did go out, none of them would live to see dawn. By the second day, Jon was far from the only one who wore his armour whenever he was awake; even though they had not yet been attacked again, morale was low, and Jon was sure that more than one of the men would have deserted if not for the fact that they would have been alone. Surprisingly, one of the few bright spots was Sister Mircalla.
During the second day, she joined him as he checked on the sentries. She was much calmer and made no mention of that first meeting. Indeed, she seemed determined to act like nothing had happened at all, a state of affairs Jon was more than willing to go along with. At first, he worried that the others might see his actions as improper; but, as Hopf and Sardus pointed out with wide grins, Sisters of Shallya did not take vows of celibacy; Jon declined to mention that while she may not have, he had. Nevertheless, he did enjoy her company, and it helped to suppress some of the fear that hung over the camp, a fear that returned in full strength when they reached Hopsenburg.
They arrived well after sunset; there had been talk of stopping on the road for the night, but it was argued that as they were so close to the town, they should press on and reach the shelter the town's wall would offer. This argument carried the day, and they pressed on through the night. Gradually the forest gave way to fields of harvested crops, now coated with frost. The fog hung heavy on the ground, and as they drew closer, a feeling of despair and fear overcame them, it seemed that their hopes for shelter within Hopsenburg had been in vain. While the town was indeed surrounded by wooden walls, gaps could be seen where breaches had been torn in it. Glancing through the gaps, they could see abandoned streets and decaying buildings. Darkened windows of houses which were little more than hovels, stared down at them like the eye sockets of skulls. The men began muttering fearfully amongst themselves.
"This was a fool's errand."
"This place is cursed."
"We should leave this place at once."
"It is not abandoned." This last remark came from Sardus. When the others looked at him inquiringly, he merely pointed to a point down one of the streets.
From what had one likely been a signpost for whatever wares had been sold within, the sign was gone and, in its place, hung a corpse. Jon could not tell if it had been a man or a woman, for the body had been badly burned. He found himself hoping that the person had been dead when it had all happened. Apparently untroubled by the sight, Sardus walked up to stand near it, though he was careful not to stand directly under it.
"The body is still fresh, relatively speaking. This did not happen long ago. Whoever did this is likely still nearby." This did nothing to raise morale, and several men looked as if they were about to run. Before they could, however, Jon stepped up. He could see that the men were close to fleeing; if he did not act quickly, they would fall apart, and that might doom them all.
"You, you and you," he called out, pointing to what appeared to have once been an inn and appeared to be mostly intact; "Search that building! It is as strong a place as any. We will hold up in there until dawn." The men immediately moved to obey while Jon issued more orders to the remaining men.
Some he appointed to bring up the wagons and place the horses in the remains of the stables, while others he assigned to patrol the area around the inn to determine that there were no threats nearby. He appointed himself to one of the latter groups. Once he was confident that his orders were being carried out by those remaining at the inn, they set off into the town. Ghost padded along slightly ahead of them, though he remained within sight and did not wander off as he had done when they had journeyed beyond the Wall, something for which Jon was grateful for.
They searched streets and buildings, finding nothing living save for some feral-looking half-starved dogs which approached them in a fierce fashion until the men drove them off with stones and curses, a fact which Jon found unnerving; for a while, they saw no one; they found ample evidence that people were about. There were fresh tracks and signs that the buildings had been ransacked and things taken. Even more disturbing were clear bloodstains, some old and some more recent, which showed that there had been fighting, though between who they could not guess. The fog was thick and near knee-high. In the gloom, buildings became only half visible and would suddenly loom in front of them. The only sounds were the men walking and breathing and dead leaves blown by the wind. Worst of all was Morrslieb. The green moon was almost full and seemed almost unnaturally bright, and Jon had to keep fighting the urge to look up at it. The moon's light provided some illumination but cast all in a green light that gave everything a sense of unreality and, for reasons that Jon could not explain, the feeling of horror.
Suddenly Ghost halted; he stood stock still, his ears pricking as he listened to something the men could not hear. Before Jon could ask what, he was hearing, the direwolf took off. He ran down the street and turned down another; Jon followed, and after a moment, the other men followed. Jon turned the corner and saw what had attracted Ghost's attention. At last, there were signs of human habitation. From several of the houses, glowing lights could be seen, indicating people within. However, Ghost and the others were drawn to the one person who was outside. A small girl, she could have been no more than eight at the most, was outside one of the doors and beating on it with her fists as she sobbed hysterically.
"MAMA! PAPA! PLEASE!" Despite her crying and pleas, the door remained firmly shut. She must have heard them coming, for she turned, eyes wide.
She saw Ghost and gave a shriek of terror. Ghost halted three or four feet from her and regarded her. Though he made no aggressive moves towards the child, she pressed herself against the door of the house, and her screams had become nothing but incoherent babbling. As Jon and the others drew close, Jon tried to think of something to say that would comfort her as he called Ghost to him. As the direwolf approached him, Jon looked more closely at the girl and saw several unusual things about her. It was hard to tell in the unnatural light, but it appeared that her hair was not fair as Jon had first thought, but white like Ghosts. Her eyes too were red like his as well. She was clad in a simple dirty shift that barely reached her knees, and she was as dirty as her clothing.
"Mutant!" hissed one man, and some of the others also muttered unhappily. The child continued to cry, and Ghost walked up to her. She was too frightened to move and could only whimper as he approached her and began licking her face. Ignoring the mutterings of the others, Jon moved to join Ghost. Ghost licking the child had calmed her somewhat, though she still looked up at Jon apprehensively.
"Hello," Jon said, kneeling down and removing his helmet so the girl could see his face; "Who are you?" The girl sniffled for a moment and then stuttered.
"Isabella, though everyone just calls me Bella, my lord."
"What are you doing out here, Bella?" Jon asked. Though he asked as kindly as he could, Isabella began to cry again.
"They threw me out!" She bawled. Jon stared at her, nonplussed.
"Why would they do that?" He asked, trying to keep the anger out of his tone so as not to frighten her.
"Mama said that there is not enough food for the winter, and as the only girl, I am not worth as much as my brothers. So, they threw me out for the monsters." There was pain and sadness in her voice but also acceptance, as if such an act was perfectly normal. Anger flared within Jon, and for a moment, he stared at the door to the home. He was tempted to beat down her family's door when something she had said occurred to him, and he turned back to her.
"What monsters?" Before she could respond, Ghost looked past the men, his lips curling in a silent snarl as howls pealed behind them. Jon rose, swiftly putting on his helmet as the men turned to face where the sounds had come from.
From side streets and alleyways, a mob poured forth. Jon was not sure how many of them there were, but it was clear that they outnumbered them several times over. They were human; at least, Jon thought that they were human. The majority of them were noticeably deformed; many were stooped, walking in a hunched manner and had unusually long arms with sinewy muscles. Many wore little or no clothing, and the green light of the moon gave them a sickly complexion. At the sight of them, Isabella shrieked, some of the men cursed, and prayers were muttered.
"Ghouls!" Someone cried. And as if uttering their name was a cry to action, the ghouls howled and rushed forward.
"Don't let them touch you!" Hopf called out as they drew close. But unfortunately, there was no time to form a defensive formation, so all he could do was call for them to form a circle. As he did so, he motioned for Isabella to stay back while he pushed to the front of the group, reaching it just as the first of the ghouls lunged at them.
One leapt directly at Jon, clearly intending to crash into him and bear him to the ground. Before it could hit him, Jon braced himself and raised his shield. The impact of the ghoul hitting it drove him back a step, and while Jon heard the air being knocked from the ghoul's lungs, it still managed to claw at him. Its long black nails scraped along his arm but failed to pierce his armour. Before it could fall to the ground, Jon thrust his sword up and into its belly; it shuddered and fell to the ground dead. Before he could do anything, a second ghoul leapt onto his back; it was surprisingly heavy, and Jon was forced down on one knee. As Jon dropped his sword and struggled to throw the creature off, it bit at his neck, but as with the first, it could not pierce the gorget, and he could swear that he heard teeth breaking as it bit at him. Suddenly it gave a cry, and Jon felt its weight removed. Turning, he saw Ghost, the ghoul's neck in his jaws, shaking it as if it were a giant rat until its spine broke with a loud crack, and the direwolf threw it to the ground. Jon recovered his sword and was moving to help the others when a savage cry was heard; a long, loud shriek chilled his blood, but the influence on the ghouls was even greater.
Those still living immediately broke from the battle and ran down the street. To his horror, Jon saw that the ghouls were headed back the way they had come; this meant that the ghouls were heading directly towards the inn where the others were. Jon roared at the others to gather the wounded and follow him. Then, without thinking, he grabbed Isabella and began running. He knew that bringing her to what was likely to be a second battle was likely not the wisest of courses, but he could not leave her alone in case there were more of these creatures, or the others came back.
While Jon did not think that they had gone that far, it seemed to take them forever to return to the inn. At last, they drew near and were welcomed to the sound of battle, including the crack of Haberkorn's and Sardus's black powder weapons. They rounded a final corner, and the inn came into view at last. They all ground to a halt and stared at the unfolding battle. The inn was surrounded by ghouls, and they were not alone. There were zombies, many of them, and they were aiding the ghouls as they attempted to break into the inn. The defenders had fortified the doors and were thrusting with spears and other weapons through the windows at any which came close, while from the second story, Haberkorn, Sardus and the others who were armed with pistols fired down into their massed foes.
From where they were, Jon and the others were directly across from the inn, though many ghouls and zombies blocked their path. Jon moved Isabella to his shield arm and pointed with his sword.
TO THE DOOR!" He cried and charged forward, Ghost dashing ahead and the others following behind.
His cry drew the attention of the ghouls, a number of which turned to face them. Before they could respond, however, Jon and his company were upon them. Isabella screamed and tried to bury herself in Jon's arm as he thrust and hacked at anything that moved. Ghost bit and clawed, all the while deftly avoiding the claws of the ghouls. Jon was clawed and bit several times, but his armour was too thick to be pierced by their rotted jaws. Some of the others were not so fortunate, and their screams echoed throughout the night as they were pulled down and greedily devoured by the ravenous ghouls and undead.
At last, they reached the door of the inn, which opened just enough to let them in and for Sardus to fire his pistol into the face of one of the ghouls. As soon as the last man was through, the door was slammed shut and bared with tables and whatever else was on hand. By the light of lamps, Jon saw that all the doors had been similarly bared and were being guarded. It seemed to Jon that men were spread thin, but there was no choice as if any of the doors were to be breached, then the defenders would be quickly overwhelmed. He was disturbed to see how many were not present; he had hoped that more would have made it back and feared they had not been as fortunate as his own group.
Standing nearby, Wiendenfeld seemed to know what he was thinking.
"Most made it back, but many were wounded by the ghouls. They are upstairs with Sister Mircalla, though I do not hold out much hope for them." Jon was about to ask him if he had a plan when the shriek was heard again, only it was drawing nearer this time.
The ground itself began shaking, and outside there was the sound of something large and heavy swiftly approaching. One of the men at one of the windows turned to shout something when the front door and a good deal of the wall on either side exploded. Men screamed as they were thrown back in a shower of dust and debris, some pierced by wooden splinters. Jon was knocked to the ground with a crash by a flying piece of the wall. His helmet protected his head, though he struck the ground hard, and his ears were ringing. As he rose to his feet, that is when Jon saw it, a large shape forced its way through the hole it had just created. Jon stared at it, not sure what he was looking at. It was huge, far larger than the snow bears back home and resembled nothing so much than a monstrous bat. All the men stared at it for a moment, too stunned to speak. Then, at last, someone found their voice. "SIGMAR, PRESERVE US! A VARGHULF!" This proved to be unwise. The creature, the Varghulf, whipped its head towards the man and shot forward. Its jaws snapped shut, and the man was torn to bloody shreds.
This did shake the men from their stunned stupor, and they moved to attack the monster, even as more zombies and ghouls poured through the hole that the Varghulf had made. Hopf ran towards the beast, shouting prayers to Ulric as he knocked aside any zombie or ghoul that got in his way. The Varghulf lashed out at him with its foreleg; Hopf ducked, and the blow sailed over him to cut men and ghouls in half. Closing, Hopf swung his hammer with all of his considerable strength and even over the din of battle, Jon could hear ribs breaking. From the second story, Haberkorn fired his weapon, again and again, punching several holes in the creature's hide. Jon began to think that the beast was going down and turned to look at the rest of the battle; unfortunately, what he saw did nothing to raise his hopes.
The men were all fighting with the courage of cornered men fighting for their lives, cutting down a dozen foes for every one of them who fell. Even Gunther was doing surprisingly well, dodging blows, ducking under tables one moment, and then jumping from one to another. While his weapon was only a dagger, he deftly cut at any hands which came too close, nor was it his only weapon; from his pockets, he produced several small throwing knives, which he threw with frightening accuracy into throats and eyes. Sardus, having fired all of his pistols and not having time to reload, was amongst the foes, sword the hand. Before, his blade work had not proved effective against the zombies, but it was a different matter against the ghouls. Seemingly without effort, he dodged around their blows, working his blade in blistering arcs; one fell with a pierced heart, another suddenly had blood flowing from its throat, while yet another had its brain pierced. Yet the enemy could afford such losses and seemed without end.
The zombies and ghouls pouring in seemed endless; for everyone who fell, more took their place. Even the battle with the Varghulf was going poorly. It was tearing through the men like a blade through parchment, and its wounds seemed to heal as swiftly as it earned them. Already it had killed or injured more than a dozen men. Jon could see no way to salvage the situation. He was preparing to charge the beast when Wiendenfeld began walking towards it. In one hand, he held a sword and in the other, what appeared to be a broach in the shape of a silver owl. Jon expected the Varghulf to simply leap upon him and tear him apart, but it did not. Indeed, it backed away slightly, hissing in rage. As he drew near, Wiendenfeld spoke in a loud and commanding voice.
"Back! Abomination back in the name of the Goddess!" As he spoke, the broach seemed to glow with a pale light. Then, as the Varghulf backed away, Wiendenfeld turned to yell at Jon.
"It is weak to flame! Bring fire and oil!" Jon and several other men began looking for oil. They found some and a moderate supply of alcohol; Gunther took several bottles of this and ran past Wiendenfeld, ducked under a swipe from the Varghulf and threw the bottles against its side, causing them to shatter and splatter its flank with their contents. Several other men made their way to the second floor and poured or threw down oil and alcohol down on it. At last, several men threw torches and lamps.
Several bounced off, but two ignited the combustible liquids that had been poured on. It screamed as patches of flame sprang to life on it. The Varghulf continued to screech and thrash about as it tried to smother the flames burning it, crushing several men, zombies, and ghouls in its efforts. While it did so, some of the oil and alcohol which had landed on the floor also ignited, burning those nearby and threatening to spread to the rest of the inn. Despite this, it looked like the battle was at last in their favour. A cry drew Jon's attention away from the Varghulf. The scream had come from Wiendenfeld. His attention had been concentrated on the Varghulf, so a group of ghouls had come up behind him. They tackled him and bore him to the ground, causing him to drop his symbol. The symbol had also been holding back a number of the zombies, which now surged forward. Hopf charged towards Wiendenfeld. Unfortunately, in his effort to save the priest, he failed to see that the Varghulf's thrashing had brought it close to him. Despite its pain, the creature saw Hopf and lunged at him. He swung his hammer at the monster, but the angle was poor, and the blow did little. The Varghulf snatched him up, chewed and swallowed. Even as it devoured Hopf, its injuries knitted together, though some burns remained visible. Nor was he the only one to fall.
Sardus and the men with him were surrounded and overwhelmed by ghouls and zombies and cut down, though they took many with them. Haberkorn, who had joined the fray, like Wiendenfeld, was pulled down but not killed. Indeed, he, Wiendenfeld and several others had been overwhelmed but not killed, and the zombies and ghouls were dragging them away. Jon wanted to aid them, but he could not.
He had been cut off from the others and was being attacked on all asides, and while his armour protected him from many of the teeth and claws of the ghouls and the clumsy blows of the zombies, but there were too many of them, and he weary from the struggle. Ghost was gone, and Jon had no idea where he was. Pain flashed through him as a blow took him in the back of the knee, where the armour was weaker. He went down on one knee, and the creatures swarmed over him; no matter how much he tried, he could not get back to his feet. Then, just as he thought his death had come, the Varghulf screamed again. Ghost had climbed the stairs and had leapt from the second floor to land on the Varghulf's back and bit down at the base of its skull. The creature screamed and thrashed about in its efforts to dislodge the direwolf, but Ghost would not let go.
Even as it did so, another group joined the battle with oaths to Morr and Lady Shaylla; a group of men, those who had accompanied Sister Mircalla and some of the sellswords whom she had been treating, appeared and charged into the gathering ghouls and zombies. They were without any organisation or formations, but they had taken their opponents entirely by surprise, and they fought with the fury of zealots. Several of them slammed into the ghouls and zombies around Jon, driving them away and allowing him to get to his feet. As he did so, he beheld the strangest sight of all Mircalla or rather the thing that had been calling itself Mircalla.
She had jumped from the second floor, and as she came down, Jon could see her clearly. Her wimple was gone, allowing long curly black hair to flow behind her as she descended, and her dress had been torn, allowing her legs freedom of movement. More terrifying were her eyes; they now glowed a hellish red. In her right hand was a cruel blade that glimmered with profane runes. Her left-hand sprouted claws long as daggers. Her teeth were also long and sharp, easy to see because her jaws had opened unnaturally wide.
She landed amongst a cluster of ghouls, and soon blood and body parts began flying everywhere; she moved amongst them like a predator amongst prey. Her sword lashed out, and two ghouls fell headless. A kick collapsed the chest of a zombie while her claws disembowelled a third ghoul. While the zombies pressed on towards her, the ghouls began crying out in fear and tried to get away from her. She pointed at the Varghulf and shrieked at the top of her lungs.
"KILL THE MONSTER!" Her cry caused Jon to return his attention to the Varghulf ghost was still on its back, attempting to bite through the beast's spine. While he had not succeeded entirely, it was clear that he had wounded it. The monster had sunk down, and while it was still thrashing about, it did not look as strong as it had once been.
"Take its head!" Mircalla cried. Her followers surged forward, Jon amongst them.
Despite its injuries, it was clear that the Varghulf was not dead yet. It lunged forward, claws slashing. Four men died instantly, while a fifth was crushed by its weight, and a sixth died in its jaws. Jon took advantage of its distraction and lunged forwards. Its movements had finally dislodged Ghost, but its head and neck were at shoulder height, and the damage Ghost had done was clear to see flesh had been torn away deep enough to expose the spine. As the creature devoured the man in its jaws, the flesh again began to knit itself together. Jon did not give it the chance.
Reversing his grip, he brought his sword down like a dagger. His aim was true, and the blade sank down between two vertebrae. As the steel bit deeply, the Varghulf stiffened. As it tried to heal itself, vile black blood splattered over him. Jon worked the blade back and forth, attempting to sever the spine. Then, with a cry that was part pain and part rage, so loud that it threatened to deafen him, the Varghulf gave one final shake of its body. Its head struck Jon and threw him across the room to crash into the bar. Despite this and the pain flaring through Jon, the blow had hurt the Varghulf more than it hurt him. The rapid motion had caused the blade to go even deeper and had clearly hit something important as the creature's head fell to the ground, partially severed. Jon did not know if it was dead or not, but Mircalla's followers swiftly fell upon it, swords and axes rising and falling. At last, with a great cheer from the men, the head fell away from the body.
As soon as it was clear that the Varghulf was dead, Mircalla turned towards Jon and began to walk towards him. As she did so, her eyes returned to their normal colour, her claws shrank, and her jaws and teeth returned to their original shape, though it seemed that her canines were still longer than would be considered natural. She handed her sword to one of her men and crouched beside Jon. From across the room, Ghost, sporting several injuries, tried to move towards them. Mircalla turned to regard him. For a moment, the direwolf crouched on his belly like a chastised dog, but then he struggled to rise back to his feet. Mircalla turned back to Jon and, with a few swift motions, removed his helmet and let it tumble to the ground. She then rose to her feet, lifting Jon as if he weighed no more than a hare. As she brought his face close to hers, Jon tried to struggle, but he was weak, and she simply ignored his efforts. Blood was trickling down the side of his head from a gash that he had not realised he had; she brought him close, and a tongue which seemed too long to be human snaked out to lick the blood. She closed her eyes and made a sound of pleasure, like a man enjoying a bottle of fine wine. Jon watched in horror as she raised him so that his neck was level with her fangs, which grew before his eyes. He redoubled his efforts but was still too weak to make a difference. Across the room, Ghost struggled to reach his master, but there was nothing he could do. Finally, as the fangs touched his skin, Jon passed out from his injuries.
Slowly, painfully, Jon returned to consciousness. His armour was gone, and he was lying in a large bed, his chest bare save for bandages across his chest. He lay there for a moment, and then all that had happened returned to him. He frantically felt his throat with his hand, relief rushing over him when he found the skin unbroken. He looked about the room, and from the light of a lamp burning overhead, he found that he was not alone. Ghost lay on the bed next to him, and on the floor, Gunther sat leaning against the bed; the boy did not seem to be aware that he had awakened and was staring into the gloomy part of the room, where the light could not reach. Jon could see no sign of his sword or armour, so he sat up and addressed Gunther.
"Gunther, what is going on? Where is my armour?" Gunther started at the sound of Jon's voice and turned to him, frantically motioning for Jon to be quiet.
"It's here." He hissed, his voice horse, his face pale with fear and his eyes wide as they continued to scan the room.
"What is here?" Jon asked, instinctively lowering his voice as well.
"He means me." A voice answered from the darkness. Then, the sound of someone rising from a chair was heard, and Mircalla stepped into the light. She had changed her attire; in place of her white Shallyan dress, she wore an old-looking but immaculate red dress edged with golden lace. Her hair fell in ringlets to the middle of her back. Gunther whimpered as the vampire, for she could be nothing else, came to stand over Jon. She stared at him for a moment and then looked at his bandaged chest, a slight smile playing across her lips.
"All well, I trust? It has been some time since I have had to make use of my skills at binding up wounds." Her voice was different; it was more aristocratic, and its pitch was different, making her sound more foreign.
"Yes," Jon said. For a moment, he was silent and then decided that, given the circumstances, it would not hurt to be polite. At his words, she laughed, one that chilled his blood.
"It is good to see that you did not have your manners knocked out when you hit your head." As she spoke, Jon's stomach growled. At the sound, Mircalla laughed again, but there was no malice in it.
"You are hungry; forgive me. You must think me a poor host." She turned and called into the shadows.
"Girl! Bring the food!"
"Yes, Mistress." A cheerful voice answered, and a moment later, Isabella appeared with a tray of food in her hands. She now wore a white dress and had washed her face. As she drew near, Jon saw that she had two small wounds on her neck, two puncture wounds. The food was simple soup and bread, but Jon found he was quite hungry. As he ate, Mircalla pulled the chair up and sat down. She then turned to Isabella.
"Take the boy upstairs; I would speak to his master."
"Yes, Mistress," Isabella replied. She tried to get Gunther to go with her, but the boy clearly did not want to go. He cast a pleading look at Jon.
"You will not harm him?" Jon asked. Mircalla looked hurt.
"Of course not; I am not a monster." Jon was doubtful, but he signalled for Gunther to go with Isabella. He did not look happy, but he went.
"Get him some food as well," Mircalla ordered.
"Yes, Mistress," Isabella responded as she led Gunther up some stairs. Mircalla smiled after them in a fond manner.
"A good child, but the name will not do. It was the height of presumption for peasants to name their child after the countess. So, I shall have to decide on a new name for her." This rant was said mostly to herself. She then turned her attention fully to Jon.
"I suppose that some explanation is in order. We have time while we wait for the sun to set. So, if you have questions, I will answer them."
"Where are we?" Jon asked.
"We are in the cellar of the inn, safe from the sun until it sets." Beyond the walls and roof, Jon could hear cheering. Finally, Mircalla seemed to understand what he was doing and offered an explanation.
"My people are burning the remains of the monsters and their creatures. At least, as much as the sun left for them."
"Why did you not help earlier? Lives could have been saved." It might not be wise to anger the vampire, but Jon could not help himself. His words, however, did not seem to bother her, but she did answer.
"I could not harm him. He was my sire."
"He was your father?!" Jon asked, aghast.
"In a manner of speaking. It was he who gave me the Blood Kiss and made me a vampire. That creates a bond which is hard to break. The one who is sired cannot usually harm their sire and must obey them, to an extent at least." Jon considered this and then spoke again.
"I take it that you are, in fact, not a sister of Shallya." At his words, Mircalla threw back her head and laughed, a laugh of pure mirth.
"Oh, by the gods, no!" She paused and became more serious.
"We have time, so I might as well tell you the whole story." She paused and then began to speak again.
"To start with, it is not Mircalla Von Klinger; it is Carmilla Von Carstein. Well, it is now. Originally it was Carmilla Von Drakenhof, cousins to the Von Draks, who ruled here in Sylvania before the coming of Vlad Von Carstein."
"We are in Sylvania?!" Jon asked, surprised and shocked to find that they were in the province that he had heard spoken of with such dread, although, after all that he had seen, perhaps it was not so surprising.
"Of course, we are," Carmilla replied.
"This is actually the town where I was born, and its true name is Naubon. The name was changed after Sylvania was given to Stirland." She paused again and looked as if her mind was sliding into the past.
"I was born in the year 1976 of the Imperial Calendar, and I was telling the truth when I said my father was a pious man. He did indeed wish to have me enter the clergy, but he was motivated by more than just piety." Here her voice became hard and bitter.
"I was a wayward child and preferred practising swords with my brothers to dancing and needlework. This made it difficult for him to arrange a marriage for me, which would have strengthened our family's position. He was also eager to shake off the image that came from being from Sylvanian, which was looked down on even then.
"So, I was given to Holy Convent of the Order of Merciful Sisters of Sigmar in the city of Mordheim; to spend my life fasting, praying and treating people's sickness and injuries." Her tone became one of anger and disgust. Despite himself, Jon found himself thinking of Arya being forced to become a septa; the results would have been the same, with his sister becoming as bitter and angry as Carmilla.
Carmilla seemed to have recovered herself and continued speaking.
"All that changed in 1999 when the comet destroyed the city. Fools in the rest of the Empire will say that Sigmar judged them false and smited the city; it was not. It was Warpstone, a magical substance, though dangerous for mortals to handle. High Matriarch Bertha Bestraufrung deemed it our duty to gather as much of the Warpstone, which had been scattered across the city, and so we took up arms and began to scour the city, fighting all who would halt us in our sacred task." She hesitated and smiled again.
"For the first time, I was happy. The weapon drills came easily to me and gave me great pleasure. I also found savage joy when the time came for fighting. I fought men and monsters and bested them all. All that ended the night. Aleksandr Kaufmann, who had come to the remains of the city to hunt for Warpstone on the orders of his master, Vlad Von Carstein.
"My sisters and I fought against his undead minions and the mutated humans who followed him. We lost, though we killed many of them. I was the only survivor and was taken captive by Kaufmann. At first, he was going to merely drain me of blood and turn me into a zombie or throw me to his ghouls, but he did not. I think he was impressed by my skill at arms and the fact that even bound in his camp, I showed no fear, or perhaps he simply enjoyed the irony of creating a vampire from amongst their most ardent foes, and so, he made me his servant.
"Shortly after my turning, we gathered the Warpstone that we required and returned to our lord at Castle Drakenhof. There, I swore allegiance to him and took the name Von Carstein with his permission as a sign of my devotion." Here her voice became both proud and melancholic at the same time.
"You should have seen us then, at the height of our power. It seemed ridiculous to believe that any of the divided and weak realms of men could stand against us. Vlad was going to give us the world to order as we would. Then it all went wrong."
"We followed Vlad, and he failed and died.
"We followed Konrad, and he failed and died.
"Finally, we followed Mannfred, and he failed and died.
"It began to affect Kaufmann. He became despondent and gave in more and more to his bestial heart, turning his back on what he saw as a failed dream to indulge in the pleasure of feeding until he devolved into the Varghulf you saw today.
"The bond still held, though I doubt that he was still capable of using it knowingly; still, he could compel me to do certain things, including remaining relatively close to him. I recently felt his call again from the town I had been living in. I was on my way here when I met your party and saw an opportunity to finally rid myself of my sire at last."
"I am confused," Jon interjected. "How were you able to avoid detection?"
"It was not particularly hard." She replied with a smirk, "After all, I have had a long time to perfect the art of hiding among mortals." She paused and threw the emblem she had worn around her neck onto the bed.
"Pewter, not silver. You will also notice that it is shaped slightly differently than a true symbol of Shallya, and thus it does not affect me. While we travelled, I summoned the clouds to cover us, allowing me to move during the hours of daylight."
"But how did Father Wiendenfeld not sense you?"
"That, too was easy. I had Klopp tell him of this place and direct you all here. Hence, between that and my caring for the wounded, I was never actually in his presence. Your wolf sensed me, I think, but my kind has dominion over wolves, and I was able to keep him from alerting you. Though, as you can see, he is not easily dominated." She continued talking, apparently missing, or choosing to ignore, the rage on Jon's face.
"As a final precaution, I bled those of your people who were injured, and from one of them, I learned of your nature and the fact that you are not of this land. I also like how you took command and how the others looked to you for leadership. I knew that you would be a powerful ally."
"Is that why you tried to seduce me that night?" Jon asked, still prickling at the memory of her teeth on his neck.
"Indeed, I wanted you, both because you would be a powerful ally and a unique conquest, but then you resisted me. That is not a common thing. Few mortals are able to do so." She looked like she would say more but did not. For a moment, they stared at each other in silence before Jon spoke again.
"So, what happens now?"
"I thought that matters would be resolved with the death of my sire, but it appears that that is not the case."
"What do you mean?"
"While he could control the ghouls, he lost the ability to summon zombies. No, those had to have been raised and controlled by someone else. From speaking to some of the town's people, a group of strangers have taken up residence in Castle Drakenhof, my ancestral home. It is likely that another vampire or necromancer has moved in and dominated my sire in an effort to ensure that none came near them."
"You trust the people of this town?" Jon asked, remembering how Isabella had been abandoned to die by her own family.
"Of course, they are my people. They recognise me both as a Von Carstein, the true rulers of Sylvania and as their own hereditary liege-lady. They would not dare to lie to me." She said this confidently. What she said next was said less confidently.
"Unfortunately, I do not have the numbers to take them myself. Many of my followers are dead, and my skills are more in feats of arms rather than necromancy. I need your help in defeating the intruders and reclaiming my home."
"Why should I help you?" Jon demanded. She smiled in a not-so-friendly manner.
"You could choose from several reasons. First, you are beneath my roof and have partaken of my food. By your own laws of hospitality, you are compelled to help me. You could do so because I could kill you and your servant in an instant if I should choose to do so. Or, and this is just an afterthought, the fact that several of your companions, including Father Wiendenfeld, were taken captive, and I have been told that they were taken into the castle and only with my aid can you hope to rescue them." Jon silently cursed; how could he have forgotten them? He tried to put it down to his injuries and all he had heard since he had woken up, though guilt still gnawed at him. Seeing that he had no choice, he nodded his assent. She smiled happily.
"Excellent! Now, we both need some rest. We have both had a trying time of late, and we may very well have another one soon." With that, she rose from the chair and vanished into the shadows. Jon, not having anything else to do, finished his food and lay back on the bed.
"What in the Seven Hells have I gotten myself into?" He wondered as he fell into a deep sleep.
As soon as the sun set, they set off. Jon had slept for much of the day and felt much improved when he awoke, though he was still somewhat stiff and sore as Gunther helped him into his armour. He had told Gunther that he could remain behind at the inn until he returned. To his surprise, the boy asked to come with him. Jon was tempted to praise the boy, he had known the boy had skill, but he had not realised that he had courage as well; then, Gunther, who seemed to know what he was thinking, continued.
"It has nothing to do with courage; my Lord is simply the only one here I can trust not to stab me in the back or the front, for that matter." Jon could not argue with the logic of that.
Once they left the inn, they found Jon's horse already saddled for him, and there was also a horse for Gunther. Carmilla was waiting for them, mounted on one of the horses from the expedition. Once again, she had changed her attire; this time, she was clad in crimson plate and mail, her sword hung from a jewelled belt, and a round shield hung from her saddle. With her were three of the sellswords that had come with Jon, though from the looks of devotion that they were giving Carmilla, it was clear that they were no longer Jon's men. Also present were a number of people whom he assumed were residents of the town. They were for the most part poorly dressed and looked more than a little malnourished. As the party rode by, accompanied by Ghost, who refused to remain behind, the people all bowed and made signs of obeisance to Carmilla. They rode through the town and through the forest till they reached the hill upon which Castle Drakenhof sat; as they rode, Jon voiced something that had been bothering him.
"They seem quite…devoted," Jon observed.
"Why should they not? It is l told you, they are mine, both by right and blood." Carmilla said boldly.
"Make it sound as if they were cattle. Appropriate, I suppose." He thought he might have gone too far when Carmilla turned towards him with an angry hiss while behind them; Gunther looked uneasily at the men who were muttering and casting unpleasant looks at Jon.
"They are cattle to me. Just as they are cattle to all lords. Your father was a lord, and I can assure you, while he may not have said it, he regarded them as a resource as well.
"He taxed them to pay for his lifestyle. He took the crops they grew for his table. He took men from their homes and families when he needed soldiers to fight his wars." She paused, quelling her anger. "Do you know why they welcome rule by my kind? Because we are better than any, who have come before or after. The lords of Stirland do not care, and the mortals who ruled before were madmen. We demand less of them than others, and we give more."
She pulled her horse to a halt and waved her hand, indicating the town below. "We demand their blood, it is true, but we take less than human lords, and as you saw from the girl, we can feed without killing. Indeed, many humans find the experience quite pleasurable. She will have a better life under me than she would otherwise have, starting with the fact that she will have a life. She will have an easy life, with easy work and being asked to undergo something that will give her pleasure. The same is true for the others.
"You have not spoken to them, Jon. Do you know why they forced the girl and others like her out to die? Do you think it was out of malice? If so, you know nothing, Jon Snow. They do so because the ghouls have been preying on them and preventing them from growing enough food for the winter; it was either some die or all do. Was it the lords of men who saved them? No, it was me, the one they call monster." After that, she lapsed into silence, and Jon did as well as he contemplated the vampire's words.
He did not want to agree with her in her assessment of human nobles, especially his father, but he could not dismiss her words as being entirely untrue. From a certain point of view, what she had said was true regarding the relationship between nobles and smallfolk. Indeed, the Wildlings would say that she was speaking the truth. He could not find a compelling argument to counter her words, so it was almost a relief when the ghouls attacked.
The malformed creatures swarmed from the trees both in front and to the sides; they appeared to be alone, with no zombies in sight. As before, though they had had the wit to attack from the sides as well as the front, the monsters did not appear to have any plan other than overwhelm the riders through sheer weight of numbers. Unfortunately, it seemed that they had the numbers to do just that. As Jon reached for his sword, Carmilla put her hand on his, preventing him from drawing it. He turned to him, and she smiled at him. She spurred her horse out a step or two and then turned back to address him.
"Hold a moment. I wish to test something." She then turned to regard the ghouls. She did not say anything; she merely looked at them. Though it was a simple act, the effect was instantaneous and remarkable.
The ghouls ground to a halt and seemed to regard Carmilla as if they were seeing her for the first time. They ceased their growling, and to Jon's surprise, the creatures began to grovel and make obsequious sounds. The whole scene reminded Jon of a pack of dogs before their master. After a moment, apparently satisfied with the results, Carmilla turned back to Jon and the others. She smiled triumphantly and began to ride forward again. As she did so, the ghouls hastened to clear the road and allow her to pass.
"Come," she said over her shoulder to the others as she rode on; "It is quite safe." After a moment, Jon and the others rode on. The ghouls looked at them hungrily but made no move to attack them. As soon as they were passed, the ghouls began following behind in a jumbled mass. This again reminded Jon of dogs; in this case, a pack of hounds following a lord on a hunting trip. He urged his horse alongside Carmilla.
"What did you do?"
"Ghouls are weak creatures and easily dominated by my kind. It also proves something else."
"What is that?"
"It proves that whoever they served before is likely a necromancer and not another vampire, as it would not be easy to master them." She said no more, leaving Jon to determine whether this was good or bad.
Eventually, the forest gave way to the top of the hill, where Castle Drakenhof sat. It was a strongly built place and loomed like a giant over a dwarf when it was compared to the half-ruined town below. Jon was not surprised to see that the gates were closed, and he could see figures walking atop the walls. What was surprising were the arrows which shot towards them. Fortunately, the archers were poor shots, and none found their mark. Jon caught a glimpse of one, a man with a decided hump on his back.
"Who are they?!" Jon yelled to Carmilla as he raised his shield to block another arrow.
"Mutants. They often enter the service of those who treat them with anything resembling acceptance."
"How are we going to get in?" Jon asked. They had no ladders or battering rams and did not have enough men even if they had them. To his surprise, Carmilla smiled.
"Leave that to me." Ignoring the arrows, she hung her shield on her saddle and spread her arms. She closed her eyes and began to change.
Her arms lengthened, and her armour seemed to merge with her body, which seemed to grow. The horses all made sounds of fear, and hers would have run had not one of the men grabbed the reins. Where she had been a moment ago was now a human-sized bat. It flapped its wings and flew up and towards the battlements. Archers screamed as she bit and clawed at them. She even grabbed several in her claws and lifted them off the wall, only to fly into the sky and drop them to the ground below. She then disappeared behind the wall. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with screams of rusted hinges, the gates opened to reveal Carmilla pushing them open. Behind her, the zombies from before were charging across the courtyard towards them. At Carmilla's command, the ghouls charged towards them, and the two groups crashed into each other.
"This way!" She commanded and led them around the edge of the fighting towards the main hall, entering it through the door the zombies had come through. It was a massive affair, with long tables and steps rising to a dais in the back of the room, the ruins of high chairs lying upon it. Carmilla looked about, sadness on her face. Then a look of determination came to her face.
"It seems that I shall much work to do fixing it up. First, though, I need to explain to this jumped-up corpse-fondler what happens to those who steal from me." Jon was all for killing the architect of all the horrors he had experienced and seen since he arrived, but he had greater concerns on his mind at the moment.
"Where would he have Father Wiendenfeld and the others?" Jon asked; Carmilla turned and started heading towards a door at the back of the room.
"This way." She reached the door and tried to open it, but it was locked. She stared at it for a moment and looked prepared to rip the door open when a cough sounded behind her. To Jon's surprise, it was Gunther.
"Pardon me, My Lady, if I may." Then, looking fearful at being so close to her, he came to the door and produced several pieces of metal, which he placed in the lock. After a few moments, there was a click, and he opened the door. Without a word of thanks, Carmilla passed him and entered the corridor beyond.
"This leads to the library." She said as they ran down the hallway; Jon found it slightly unnerving that she was not out of breath, not that she wasn't winded; it was as if she did not have to breathe at all, which he supposed she did not. Though they had neither the time nor proper light to examine it, the corridor gave the air of faded grandeur. There were decaying portraits, worn busts and other signs of a wealthy family before fate had removed them, save for one.
They came to another door, which was also locked and suffered the same fate as the first. The room beyond was massive, three stories high, with bookshelves covering all the walls, many of them filled with rotting books and scrolls. She ignored these and led them up to a door on the third floor, which opened onto a flight of stairs which led upwards; without hesitation, Carmilla led them up them.
"This leads to one of the towers," Carmilla explained.
"It is the tallest one and is used as both a watchtower and to watch the stars. If the necromancer is going to perform any type of ritual, it will be performed there." So they bolted up the stairs and burst through the door at the top and found themselves at the top of the tower. The sky was cloudless, and in the green light of Morrslieb, Jon finally saw the man they had come to fight.
The man was bald with large, watery eyes. It was hard to tell how tall he was as he was stooped and leaned heavily on a staff topped with a human skull. The skin was stretched tightly across his face; it was almost as if he was decaying while he was still alive. Around him were four other men who were likewise clad in black robes, though theirs were not nearly as grandiose. They were standing on the edge of a large circle with numerous lines and symbols drawn within; black candles were placed around the edges of the circle, and inside the circle were the prisoners that had been taken from the town. They were lying motionless, seemingly unaware of their arrival. The necromancer and his apprentices, at least that was what Jon assumed they were, did not respond to their appearance either. Instead, they were focused on the circle and chanting words that Jon did not understand, but their sound made his skin crawl. As they continued their chant, the symbols began to glow.
Jon and the others started towards them, but Gunther was the fastest of them all one of his throwing knives flew out to take one of the men in the side of the neck. The man's hand immediately flew to the knife, and he stopped his chanting and gave a gurgled cry. The cry was enough to attract the attention of the other chanters, and they, too, stopped chanting. As they did so, the symbols began to flicker and go out, and energy crackled dangerously before dissipating, causing the necromancer to curse in annoyance.
"Keep chanting, curse your souls!" The three remaining apprentices resumed chanting, and the symbols began to glow again.
The necromancer did not join them; instead, he faced Jon and the others and began to chant. As he did so, a blast of black energy shot towards them. Jon, Carmilla, Gunther and one of the sellsword leapt out of the way. Unfortunately, the other two were not swift enough. The energy struck them, and they began to wither and decay. They barely had time to scream before they fell to the ground, little more than dust. The necromancer chuckled maliciously and turned his attention back to the others. Carmilla moved in a blur; weaving from side to side, she moved towards him. She was almost upon him when he drew something from his robes and thrust it at her. Though at some distance, Jon could see that it was the medallion that Father Wiendenfeld had been carrying. Carmilla saw it, too; she hissed and brought her shield to block her view of the symbol. Though she was clearly stronger than the necromancer, she made no effort to attack him, and Jon was not even certain that she could.
While this had been happening, Jon and the remaining sellsword had closed the distance and began their assault. The necromancer did not even look at them, merely spat out more sinister words. Their blades struck the man, only to bounce harmlessly off him. Before they could recover the necromancer spate more words and then, he moved. Despite his decrepit appearance, he moved with a swiftness almost equal to Carmilla's. He was on the sellsword too fast to react. The necromancer reached out and grabbed the man's face. The sellsword shrieked in agony as his face decayed to dust like the others. Even as his body was falling to the ground, the man was heading towards Jon, his hand outstretched, yet Ghost had come to his aid once more.
The direwolf slammed into the necromancer, his greater weight knocking the man away from Jon. Worse for the man was that it caused him to drop the amulet, which had been holding towards Carmilla the whole time. With it gone, she was instantly in motion again and was on the man before he could do anything to defend himself. Her blade rose, runes blazing and cut down, severing both the man's hands at the wrists. As he fell, screaming in agony, she dropped her shield and seized him by the front of his robe. She then turned to Jon.
"Kill the others!" She ordered, her voice little more than a hiss.
Jon turned to the apprentices, who had not stopped their chanting throughout the battle, the symbols burning ever brighter. Tendrils of…something was reaching out and were starting to wrap themselves around the captives. They also seemed to be trying to escape from the circle, and the chanting men appeared to be attempting to keep them contained even as they summoned more of them. They were so intent on their spell that they did not respond as Jon approached them. He felt guilt over killing men who did not even appear capable of fighting back. He forced himself to remember the prisoners and the horror these men had doubtlessly helped unleash and steeled his resolve. On the other hand, Gunther had no such problems slashing another throat, smattering him in blood.
Jon thrust his sword into one of the other men while Ghost dealt with the third. As soon as the chanting stopped, the symbols went out, and the tendrils surged up and to the side. Jon threw himself back as several hit him. Pain flared within him, but he did not appear hurt, though his armour showed signs of damage. Gunther, who was not wearing armour, was not so fortunate and fell back, nursing several singes and burns on his arms and hands. The prisoners, still asleep or unconscious, writhed as they, too were burned. Fortunately, the tendrils did not last long and soon vanished.
"NO!" The necromancer cried; his wounds seemingly forgotten for the moment.
"Yes," Carmilla hissed vindictively; "You failed and now, you die."
"WAIT!" The man screamed.
"I can help you!" Carmilla looked at him coldly.
"I am sure you could, but you invaded my home and killed my people that I cannot forgive." With that, she sank her fangs in and drank, long and deep.
Sometime later, Jon sat in a room in the castle. With the death of the necromancer and his apprentices, the undead had fallen like puppets with their strings cut. Carmilla had allowed the ghouls to eat their fill of these of the necromancers, then dismissed them to the nearby where they dwelt, taking the bodies of their own fallen with them to feed on later. She had personally seen to the party's injuries, though almost miraculously, none had been severe. She declared that the prisoners had all been given a drug that had made them sleep and would keep them within it for at least another day. Since the sun had risen, nothing more could be done save rest.
Jon's solitude was interrupted by Carmilla as she entered. As she had indicated that she wanted to speak to him had kept the window shuttered to keep out the sunlight, though some came in through cracks, and she was careful to stay well away from them. She had clearly sent word to the town as a wagon had come carrying Isabella, her eyes wide at the sight of the castle up close and Carmilla's belongings as she wore the dress she had worn before.
Without asking for permission, she sat at a small table and motioned for Jon to join her as Isabella poured them wine and then departed. Jon had not known that she could drink wine but made no comment as he was not ready to ask his question. At last, he found that he could put it off no longer and just asked.
"What happens now?"
"Now? I must see to bettering of my castle and the town and solidifying my power here. The ghouls will trouble the people no longer, and I shall ensure that no other danger threatens them. I called them my cattle and I shall protect them as such. In the future, I may have to remove some of the more…eccentric of my kind and absorb their lands as well." From her tone, it was clear that she was rather hoping that such action would be necessary.
"As for you and the others; once they have awakened, you are free to depart. I do not think that the good Father would take the news of what I am well, so I shall remain out of sight until you have gone. It would be most regrettable and unfortunate if I had to kill you all now after all that has happened. There are also all the problems that the disappearance of such a prominent scholar would cause. We are not too far from the border with Stirland, and they might very well send an army if they knew of me." At her words, Jon tensed, though outwardly he remained calm, taking comfort from the weight of Father Wiendenfeld's medallion in his pocket.
"You are not ready for a war with them." Jon agreed, his mind returning to the stories of the Wars of the Vampire Counts.
"I do not want war with the Empire at all," Carmilla stated, simply but firmly. she smiled and then continued. "As I could not travel far from my sire, I had a great deal of time, centuries, in fact, to think of our efforts and what went wrong.
"I believe our triumph would ultimately be for the best for all concerned. We are made to rule and can do a far better job of it than human lords. The people, too, would be better under us in the long term. Nevertheless, matters could have been handled better. There are excesses that must be curbed, and the blood tax must not be excessive. Once these are done, the rest of the vampire lords of Sylvania and I can concentrate on preparing for what is to come."
"And what is to come?" Jon asked. Carmilla put down her cup and began walking about the room, appearing agitated. At last, she spoke, though she was facing away from him.
"The powers in the North are rising and will soon sweep down like a flood, and I do not know if there is strength in the lands of men to hold it back. Sylvania will not be spared this, and we must be ready." She paused, and a speculative look came into her eyes.
"There is also an opportunity for us as well." Seeing the look on Jon's face, she continued.
"I am not proposing invading, for we will not have to. Our armies are near endless and may very well be the only ones capable of throwing back what is to come. When people see that their lords cannot defend them, their lands are in ruin, and the only choice is between the lords of hell and the lords of the night, I think they will find us not so monstrous. We will win simply by surviving when all others do not." She stopped speaking and returned to the table and drank more wine. She then looked into Jon's eyes directly.
"We are the future, and there is a place for you amongst us." She laughed as Jon choked on his wine.
"I am not jesting. You have many of the qualities which the Von Carsteins value. You are brave, skilled, a natural leader and have ambition."
"I am not ambitious." Jon protested. Carmilla gave him a smile he did not like.
"Aren't you? Did you not join the Night's Watch to escape your brother and rise from your status as a mere bastard?" Jon wanted to say that it was not true, but it was, at least in part.
"You are a warrior," she continued; "As my servant, you could live for eternity, growing mightier until even the sons of Abhorash could not match you, rather than withering and decaying as other men will. You could have power, glory, and dominion at my side. You would make a fine lord, champion and, perhaps, even consort."
Jon found he was barely tempted. "A generous offer, but I must decline." She smiled sadly. "I thought that you would say that. So at least let me give you your pick of my sire's treasure."
"That is real?" Asked Jon, both pleased and surprised. In truth, he had entirely forgotten about their original goal after all that had happened.
"Indeed, he was quite the collector before he went mad. It is down in the dungeons. I will have someone guide you there." With that, she rose and headed towards the door. But, before she left, Jon remembered something that had been bothering him.
"Wait." He called to her. She paused at the door and turned to face him.
"After the battle with your sire, you almost fed on me, but you did not. Why?" She gave him a sad look.
"Because it would ruin you. You would love and be utterly devoted to me, serving me without question, but it would take all I admire from you. You are a wolf, and to feed on you would change you to a neutered lap dog. I feared that I would lose any interest in you other than as an asset. I might even come to despise you. So, in a way, I am glad that you refused my offer. Goodbye for now, my love; I promise we shall meet again, and when we do, I shall be yours eternally." with that, she was gone.